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Increasing Student Agency through the use of Awe

Do you remember the moment that you decided teaching was your career?

Some of us maybe still searching for that moment!

For me, it was in Year 6, as we did the time honoured “light” unit of work. My teacher was eccentric but in one moment helped to define the direction of my professional life. Wrapped in his white lab coat and armed with 4 D-cell batteries, alligator clips, a jar and one of my pacer leads, he made magic happen!

"Let there be light!"

In that moment he captivated all of us with awe. I cannot remember the exact details of what he was teaching but I remember the experience of seeing the light illuminate from the bottle.

There is a constant tension between what we need to teach and what we as professionals know our students need to know to apply this understanding. Frequently, these two don’t perfectly match and as a result, there is a tension. Teachers often try to find the links to draw correlations between the two but an essential and often overlooked element to this connection is awe.

AWE: Amazement + Wonder = Engagement

The more teachers I speak to the more I hear the desire to have student’s access deeper learning. This requires students to think, question, pursue, and create—to take agency and ownership of their learning. When they do, they acquire a rich understanding and the skills that they can apply to become more competent learners in and out of school.

This means we allow them the opportunity to show what they know and then take control of their learning, taking it to places we as teachers could not have even dreamed.

By allowing students to take control of their learning they begin to gain the space to wonder and confront the mysterious. They inquire, ponder and critically think with eyes wide open the beauty that surrounds them. When students stand in awe they experience the source of true Art and Science that generates wisdom and understanding.

When we experience awe it changes our mental models of thinking, filling us with sense of vastness and perspective.

As teachers, we have the privilege to help students understand and process the experience of mental growth at a deeper level. We can do this by finding ways to empower empathy, contextualizing on a personal level the encounter.

We must realize it is disruptive, we can choose to either embrace and encourage it or shut it down.

As with teaching 20th-century skills, we need to be deliberate and intentional. My intention is to create a hunger for learning so the tools I use must serve that purpose.

Tools such as:

  • Genius Hour/Passion Projects
  • Minecraft
  • Coding
  • Makerspaces
  • 3D Printing
  • Augmented Reality
  • Mystery Locations/Virtual Excursions
  • PBL
  • Blogging
  • Digital Portfolios
  • Social Media
  • BreakoutEDU
Too many of us get caught up in the glam before doing the diligence, chasing the next trend. I use these because they have demonstrated through research and evidence to enhance the engagement levels in my class. It is important to remember what works in one place may not work in another so a large 21st Century saddlebag for the learning journey is essential.

A sense of awe is important whether teaching English, Art, Humanities or STEM. However, there are no test that measures awe—or any curriculum, anywhere, that contains a section on wonder but history testifies that it is the greatest driving forces behind innovation and invention. As a result, we can only look at its product.

A Quick History Lesson
On a Stanwell Park beach, Lawrence Hargraves made aeronautic history when he strung together four box kites and hovered 5 meters above the ground in front of a group of skeptical spectators.

He had a sense of wonder, inquiring about the physical forces that allow birds to fly. Using this sense of awe the designed, prototyped and tested his theories and opened the door to other inventors and pioneers.

Building on the understanding of Hargrave and buoyant by the success of their 1902 glider, the Wright brothers recognized that much hard work lay ahead as they moved forward towards the creation of the propulsion system. They were not deterred by this but motivated.

There are countless examples of awe being the spark for curiosity from Thomas Edison with the light bulb, Ada Lovelace creating the written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s, Steve Jobs with all of his “I” things, or Taj Pabaria a 15-year-old student made famous by a 60 Minutes segment, who is considered to be just one of the next generation of entrepreneurs. Their engagement and success derived itself from a sense of amazement and wonder.

Traditionally, subjects are taught separately. The notion of STEM/STEAM education places value on the real world integration and backward mapping. This emphasis puts them at the forefront of education and the new economy.

  • It takes its theoretical roots from Dr. Seymour Papert, founding professor of MIT Media Lab & the research colleague of Jean Piaget.
  • It integrates the design thinking pathway where the student - empathises, defines, ideates, prototypes and tests.
  • It empowers imagination and new ways of thinking about how things work.
  • STEAM embraces new technologies and applies them in novel situations, growing the sense of amazement, wonder and engagement with the world around them.
Dr. Seymour Papert (2016) states “Education has little to do with teacher explanation & more to do with student engagement with the material.”

So through STEM/STEAM we have students engaged with material to create a sense of amazement and wonder. As a result, we find:

  • They are problem-solvers, able to frame problems as puzzles.
  • They are innovators, with the power to pursue independent and original investigation.
  • They are inventors, meeting the world’s needs by creatively designing and implementing solutions.
  • They are self-reliant, able to set agendas and work within specified timeframes.
  • They are logical thinkers, able to apply mathematical concepts and make advanced connections to the real world.
  • They are collaborators, able to flourish in-group settings.

My questions:

  • If this was a leveling gauge where do we sit with student inquiry?
  • What is holding us back from empowering students to go after the moonshots?
  • Could we use a little bit more awe and inquiry to increase student agency?
The funny thing, when we let go, students will surprise us. Now the unit I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege to teach to my Year 6’s this year. Guess which free inquiry experiment appeared?

That’s right the pacer pen light.

To close, William Damon (2008) put it this way, "This is how all young people should feel about life. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them."

Let’s work towards awakening a sense of passion, awe, and inquiry in all areas of the curriculum.

Damon W (2008). The Path to Purpose, Free Press, NY
Macinnis P (2016). Teaching children wonder and science
Mackenzie T (2016) Types of Student Inquiry via Anna Carswell
Pappert S (2016) Quote from Creating Modern Knowledge Conference via Zeina Chalich
Sheninger E (2016) Inspiring Students: Bringing Awe Back to Learning
Sherrington T (2013) Great Lessons 8: Awe
Zakrzewski V (2013). How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose

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