By Brad Choyt for the Valley News (Published in print: Tuesday, May 24, 2016)
“Hey, Dad,” my 9-year-old daughter called out as she presented me with an issue of National Geographic. “Did you know that hibernating Arctic ground squirrels can lower their body temperature below freezing without injuring themselves? It also says they hibernate for seven whole months!”
Though I’ve spent my share of time in cold climates, I had no idea what an Arctic ground squirrel was, let alone of any species’ ability to thaw and come back to life from such low temperatures.
“That’s amazing,” I said. We looked at the pictures of the chilly ground squirrels together in wonder.
Learning from one’s young child or a student is always precious. But wondering together is a particular treasure. In those moments of wonder, we question and explore together, alive to the unfamiliar and at times astounding.
Without an expert guide to blaze a direct path to correct answers, we appreciate new information together, unwrapping and contextualizing its meaning. Open-ended questions give way to expansive hypotheses and theories: “Maybe Arctic ground squirrels have super efficient metabolisms that allow them to survive extreme temperatures and sleep for months on end.” States of wonder are also fertile ground for further inquiries: “What could we learn about the hibernation abilities of this species that could be helpful to humans?”
Topics of wonder can come in many shapes and sizes. Wonder could be engendered by something as small as a leafcutter ant that harvests and cultivates certain vegetation for the nutritional substrate it needs to survive. Or it may be as large as the origin of the solar system and how life began on earth. Our speculations may leave us with a sense of awe both for what we know and, more often than not, what we don’t. And this last point is key: wonder leads us down the uncharted rabbit holes of learning, inspires further questioning, and helps us stay open to possibilities that feed our imaginations.
In an Education Week article titled “The Age of Wonder,” veteran educator Peter Huidekoper Jr. reflects, “How critical that we as teachers tap that desire, that curiosity. To that end, we must remind ourselves how little we know and how much there is to know.” This humility is the foundation of wonder. It reminds us that the world and the universe are very big places that are, thankfully, full of mystery.
To foster wonder, Huidekoper recommends teachers relinquish their expert titles. Instead of demonstrating how much they know, educators should focus on how much there is still to investigate. “To learn, it is best to begin humble, open, unsure…. Sometimes, as we focus on convincing parents, students, principals (our evaluators), even colleagues, of how much we know, we lose touch with this quality we so hope to find in our students.”
There is another reason to foster wonder: learning done in conjunction with others increases its capacity. Early in my career, I co-taught a class with an English teacher who combined the study of visual art and poetry. The idea was to create paintings based on poems and poetry based on paintings. We studied a poem by William Carlos Williams titled, The Great Figure and discussed how it inspired Charles Demuth’s painting The Figure Five in Gold. During the collaborative teaching, I was exposed to many poems I had never read. I had to work hard to keep up with a particularly bright group of students, taking detailed notes and teaching a new range of imagery. In short, I was learning and wondering, then learning more, alongside my students.
While I refined my teaching of this course over the years and continued to enjoy it a great deal, none of the subsequent years were nearly as meaningful or rewarding.
Huidekoper offers an explanation. “Searching invites participation,” he writes. “When one becomes more knowledgeable and proficient, (teachers) may unintentionally limit a sense of wonder.” To optimize a sense of wonder, Huidekoper advises teachers to make the subject as engaging as possible. “…teacher-talk must be brief. The questions, the invitation to participate, those must be central.”
In other words, teachers must be conscious of how much more we learn in the company of students who are actively encouraged to wonder. To make this point, Huidekoper quotes the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” Once this illusion is shattered, it can give way to the rewards of collaboratively learning, opening the door to greater curiosity.
Scientists at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks are still trying to figure out how Arctic ground squirrels thaw and revive. One day, they will surely develop a sound theory. But in the meantime, we all have the chance to create our own hypotheses about that particular mystery and no doubt thousands of others that can inspire further questions. And then we can wonder.
Brad Choyt is head of school at Crossroads Academy in Lyme.