What is Just?, Worthiness-Based Education

The Power of Wonder in the Classroom

I believe that the practice of wonder has the potential to change our life profoundly for the better and that the classroom is one of the best places to practice it.

Mrs. Nagel, my fourth grade teacher, was a master of cultivating wonder in the classroom.

Wonder and Education

At the beginning of the year, our class adopted a tree on our school playground. We visited this tree every other week all throughout the year, and Mrs. Nagel asked us to write about the way the tree changed through the seasons.

I looked forward to going out and writing about my tree each week (for it certainly became my beloved tree as the year progressed). What will my tree look like today? I wondered. This simple activity of observing and wondering about a tree connected me in a deep and meaningful way with the larger world around me.

The Power of Wonder

Wonder is powerful.

When we wonder, we pause, step out of our reflexive habits, and take time to observe the world around us or even inside of us. As we do this, wonder inevitably invites us to marvel at the beautiful things in the world as well as to ponder the world’s mysteries and mourn its tragedies.

It is through wonder that we recognize that there is a world that is much larger than us. This fosters humility and curiosity.

And it is through wonder that we realize the world has not always been the way it is now and that it could change in the future. This fosters openness, creativity, hope, and courage.

It is through wonder that we realize we are all connected through our ability to wonder about the world. This makes us seem less strange and distant from one another and fosters empathy and compassion.

Wonder invites us to see, know, and understand the world around us. It is through seeing, knowing, and understanding that we learn to love.

Perhaps that is the greatest gift of wonder: it invites us to love.

I became a teacher largely because of amazing teachers who have kindled wonder in me, who taught me to love life, and who changed my life because of it. And I specifically chose to teach secondary and college students because too often we neglect the importance of wonder in older students’ lives.

Wonder as We Grow Older

As students grow older, we begin focusing on grades, jobs, marketability, money, to the exclusion of cultivating wonder. None of these emphases is wrong in itself. After all, we are, in part, practical beings who live in a world in which things like colleges, jobs, and money matter. Ignoring this fact of our humanity is harmful and unwise.

Nevertheless, when we focus on the material aspect of students’ humanity to the exclusion of cultivating wonder, we rob students of important opportunities to love. And we rob them of opportunities to reach out to something larger than themselves. This makes it hard to realize that the world is reaching back to them, inviting them to see more and be more. Rilke writes, “For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”[1]

Wonder is one of the ways that we express the depths and riches of our spirit. It is one of those practices like deep conversations, dancing with abandon, or doing art. Or like attending to nature, getting lost in a project, becoming enraptured with music, or enjoying a delicious meal. They are practices in which we engage in with all of our senses, our emotions, our body, our mind.

These practices have a feminine quality about them that encourages a receptive, gentle, and nurturing attitude toward life. Sometimes, it is easy to lose these feminine practices in the classroom.

I teach philosophy at a local college. And philosophy (as a modern discipline) can be a hyper-masculine discipline in which abstract reasoning, aggressive argumentation, and competitive individualism can be emphasized to the exclusion of wonder, connection, and care. For this reason, it has not been a discipline hospitable to females[2] nor to many males who feel alienated by an overemphasis on these modes of thinking.

I cultivate wonder, in part, to correct this common imbalance in the discipline. It is not always easy to understand how to cultivate wonder in the classroom. Currently, I use contemplation, listening, and reflection to cultivate this space.

We usually begin each class with a moment of silence. I explain at the beginning of the semester that when we constantly plug in to social media or to other noise/distraction, our minds do not have a chance to rest, to calm down, and to be peaceful. But we are far wiser than we realize, I tell my students. When we create a space of peace, we take time to wonder at the contents of our own mind and emotions. And we provide the opportunity for wisdom to surface.[3]

We have also been discussing the way in philosophy give us the opportunity to beautify our inner life. It can help us cultivate dispositions like listening, careful thought, humility, and openness to other people’s opinions. So when we take a moment to be silent, we give ourselves the space to wonder about these philosophical dispositions and about how we might cultivate them in our own lives.

Recently, I used the metaphor of a garden to help students contemplate this. I asked them to wonder about what kind of philosophical plants they were growing in the garden of their spirit. Gardening is an apt metaphor for philosophy.[4] While modern philosophy can sometimes be practiced as an abstract, purely intellectual exercise, there is a long-standing historical tradition of philosophy as a spiritual practice. In this tradition, people think of philosophy as a method for cultivating a more healthful, flourishing, powerful inner life.[5]

Using metaphors like this can help students wonder well about the art of philosophy and how they are practicing it in their lives.

I also work to cultivate wonder in philosophical reading. Careful and detailed analysis, argumentation, and critical thought are essential to good philosophical practice. We certainly spend a great deal of time—the majority of time—in class working on these philosophical habits.

Nevertheless, I find that if I spend all of our class time in the land of abstraction, it cuts students off from their bodies.  And it makes it difficult for them to understand how philosophy connects to their lives in a meaningful and joyful way. I have been working on cultivating wonder in reading to help class become a place in which bodies and minds, the mundane and extraordinary, are welcome.

A few weeks ago we were reading Plato’s Euthyphro, a dialogue about a powerful Athenian priest who is both dogmatic and shallow in his views on holiness and piety. This leads him to act in stupid and cruel ways. When Socrates invites Euthyphro to explain the nature of holiness and piety, Euthyphro’s definitions, it turns out, cannot hold up under basic scrutiny.

I believe that one of Socrates’ primary goals in this dialogue is to invite Euthyphro to wonder about the nature of the gods, about holiness, and about his relation to it. Euthyphro is unable to accept Socrates’ invitation to wonder and eventually flees at the end of the dialogue.

When we finished discussing the key arguments of the dialogue, I asked my students, “What kind of priest do we have?” And I allowed them reflect on this question. I have worked over the years to feel comfortable with spaces of silence in class. It is often in these spaces that students have a chance to wonder.

Slowly, my students began to respond:

 He is arrogant.

 And he is judgmental.

 He is over-confident.

 And it seems like he has an agenda.

 It seems like he is misusing his power to grab his father’s money and status.

This prompted a discussion about how we see these same patterns reflected in our personal and political lives today, as well as the many problems they cause. It also prompted a discussion about why Socrates was so committed to dialogue.  He believed that dialogue counteracts arrogance, shallowness, power plays, and dogmatism.

The other day in class, we discussed Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave. I asked students to imagine that they were the captive who had escaped the cave. And I asked them to tell me what feelings and sensations they would experience in this situation.

After a moment of silence, they said:

That would kill my eyes.

I would want to go back in the cave because it is too frightening outside.

 And I wouldn’t know what to think.

 I would feel totally terrified and overstimulated.

 And I would be confused.

 I would want to go back and tell the other prisoners there is a world outside of the cave.

After inviting students to wonder about the story, we were much better able to have a discussion about the way in which all of us are living in the cave to some extent. And we oberved that the process of escaping the cave and moving towards greater knowledge is often slow, painful, and even terrifying. They asked, How do we get outside of the cave? Inviting students to wonder about their own process of learning is a way that we can give them courage to face the demand of coming to know authentically.

I am thinking a lot about how to continue to cultivate wonder in my class throughout the rest of the semester and beyond. Wonder is essential to any classroom. But I believe it is especially essential today.

We have seen a rise in sexism, racism, prejudice, bullying, and fear-mongering in our current political situation. All of these character traits have something in common: close-mindedness and a lack of empathy and compassion. When we fear-monger and bully we do not want to behold, wonder, and understand the world. Rather, we wish to dominate and control it in order to make it fall in line with our agenda. Control and domination have no room for wonder.

In such a political climate, we need wonder more than ever.

We need to be reminded:

The world does not have to be the way it is now.

There is something larger and greater reaching out to us and asking us to become more than we are right now.

And there is something that connects all of us.

It is possible to love.

Ultimately, wonder allows us to subvert our own worst selves joyfully and gives us the courage to behold the world with new eyes and to begin again.

As once the winged energy of delight

Carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,

Now beyond your own life build the great

Arch of unimagined bridges.[6]


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Teaching My Students to Be Maladjusted

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke. “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans. New York: Random House, 1982, pg. 61.

[2] This article from The New York Times notes, “As recently as 2010, philosophy had a lower percentage of women doctorates than math, chemistry and economics”, which are usually considered the disciplines with the lowest number of female doctorates.

[3] This is a common view of meditation and silence in the Quaker and other Christian traditions and also some Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

[4] If you would like to read more about the use of metaphor in the classroom as a technique for creating wonder, I recommend this book.

[5] This, I believe, is how philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard viewed philosophy. French philosopher Pierre Hadot has also written this book about philosophy as a spiritual practice.

[6] Rilke, “[As once the winged energy of delight], pg. 261

12 thoughts on “The Power of Wonder in the Classroom”

  1. Reblogged this on Love is Stronger and commented:

    I am about to begin a new semester, and whenever this time of year rolls around, I think about the purpose of teaching. The longer I teach (and I am starting my 25 year of teaching this year!), the more I believe that my job as a teacher is to kindle dispositions like love and wonder in the classroom. That is what this post, which is an old one, is about. I thought I would post it again.

  2. This is such a beautifully written post. It is interesting that you talk about the teaching and debating styles in the classroom, as I have been discussing this with my partner. He was educated in a style of toxic masculinity, as you describe. I was educated in a way that ridiculed anyone who was too smart. We are trying to find a way of debating in our family that doesn’t involve shouting people down and pulling apart an argument. Listening more than speaking. It is quite challenging!
    I too love your connection with nature and a garden. Wonder is such an underrated experience! This paragraph is sublime:
    “Wonder is one of the ways that we express the depths and riches of our spirit. It is one of those practices like deep conversations, dancing with abandon, doing art, attending to nature, getting lost in a project, becoming enraptured with music, or enjoying a delicious meal. They are practices in which we engage in with all of our senses, our emotions, our body, our mind.”
    And I really like the way you make a connection with the current political climate.
    Thank you Shelly. My empathic, nurturing philosophical guide.

    1. Ali, thank you much for your kind and thoughtful comment! Your description of you and your partner’s educational experience is very interesting to me. Tragically, I think many people are educated in environments like the ones you describe. I know that much of my education bore these unfortunate characteristics, too. One of my philosophical projects is to figure out how these pathologies have developed in our educational system and how we can re-educate ourselves both to educate today’s current students in a life-giving, wonder-filled way and also to re-educate our own selves out of the damage these educational pathologies cause in our lives.

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