What is the role of wonder in a classroom? And how does a teacher activate this most
human of emotions? This paper investigates the role wonder—and the subjects most
closely associated with it, art and science—should play in our students’ school lives.
The work connects my lived experiences as a high school teacher and college
professor with the philosophy of John Dewey and contemporary literature on
pedagogical practices. My findings suggest that it is a moral imperative to
encourage wonder in our classrooms and to do so in an authentic way.
Key Words: science education; art education; inquiry; John Dewey; interdisciplinary
I wonder. . .
As a science teacher, this is the most powerful phrase I can hear
come out of my students’ mouths or register on my students’ faces.
I have seen this emotion inspire a high school junior to design a
study to determine which type of garbage bag would be less likely
to attract crows to his apartment complex’s waste disposal area. It
even emboldened him—a child who would be the first in his family
to attend college—to dig through the primary literature to contextualize his findings in a way that enabled him to
present his work at a local university’s research
symposium. I have also seen wonder propel a
first grader, charged with inventing a tool to
open a sunflower seed that she could have easily
eaten, outright puzzle for two pregnant minutes
and ignore the chaos around her before coming
up with a solution. She proceeded to grab two
popsicle sticks and two rubber bands, fashioning a sort of spring-loaded seed-cracker that
required a third popsicle stick as a wedge to
pry it open wide enough to fit a seed between the original sticks. Once
the seed was placed in the opening satisfactorily, she yanked out the
wedge stick, and the force generated popped the seed right open.
I wonder. . .
As a professor in charge of preparing pre-service teachers, I have seen
wonder compel adults seeking future employment to junk the “tried
and true” unit plans of their supervisors in order to have fourth
graders design new landscaping for the school. This experimental
method resulted in his students presenting their plan to the school
board, the mayor, and local businesses in hopes of achieving funding
for the project (which they received). I have also seen student teachers realize that the reason they have grown up thinking they weren’t
math people is because they were only ever taught how arithmetic
could help them solve problems on a page; they never were put in
a position to wonder how math could help them solve a problem
in real life. They are now seeking ways to ensure their students never
lose the purpose of math in the practice of arithmetic.
I wonder. . .
As a researcher in the emerging field of evolutionary education, I am
finding that the primary heuristic for learning across species is trial
and error, which in my estimation rests at the foundation of wonder.
In asocial animals, trial and error is the method by which an individual’s agency is exhibited and problems are
solved. For social animals, the orientation of
others can help direct one’s trials whether
through social facilitation or apprenticeship,
but there still exists the need to identify the
causal relationship between action and outcome (van Schaik & Burkhart, 2011). These
all require a rudimentary curiosity to transpire.
That curiosity is elevated in species that transmit cultural traditions vertically and obliquely
but also horizontally. Traditions required for
survival in stable environments in both human and non-human cultures are transmitted vertically (from parent to child) or obliquely
(from older to younger), while emerging practices that will aid
Wonder is the
for inspiring the
creation of art,
science, and religion.
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 80, No. 6, pp. 416–422, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2018 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2018.80.6.416.
FEATURE ARTICLE Making the Science Classroom a
Place for Wonder
• JASON NIEDERMEYER