Learning through Wonder

Wonder is a state of radical attention and openness to the world around us.” Caspar Henderson – A new map of wonders – a journey in search of modern marvels

The Innovating Pedagogy Report 2019  (The Open University in collaboration with the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE), University of Bergen, Norway) identified Learning through wondersparking curiosity, investigation and discovery as one of ten emerging approaches in education.

Following on from Stefanie Panke’s post Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Learning can be wonderful!  I creaked open a cabinet of curiosities to gaze deeper into some of the resources about learning through wonder in the report.  I found a few extra wondrous resources too. 

I hope these lead you into your own expeditions to learn through wonder.

Approaching wonder

The Innovating Pedagogy 2019 report shares five phases of wonder from the doctoral thesis by Dr Matthew McFall (2014). 

  • Anticipation: a sense that something is going to happen and a desire to know more.
  • Encounter: the moment of experiencing the wondrous.
  • Investigation: pursuit of the wondrous, to understand it better or to continue the experience.
  • Discovery: coming to understand, or realise how much more there is to know.
  • Propagation: continued working with this wonder, to share and celebrate.

Finding inspiration

McFall designed learning activities for wondrous learning within primary schools in the UK.  He describes how his investigations began, based on his own love of stage magic. His full thesis,  Using Heritages and Practices of Wonder To Design a Primary-School-Based Intervention has lots of nooks and crannies to explore. McFall also explains a little about his approach to wonder in the video  Amazing people: the wonder room.

Learning through wonder already has a valued tradition within early childhood education.  Can we bring this sense of wonder into adult learning too?

I began looking for resources aimed at wonder for older learners. 

A great book to explore is A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels by Caspar Hendersen. Hendersen describes the process of writing a book about wonder by linking seemingly unconnected observations which all began with observing a patch on sunlight on a wall in his kitchen

There are sections in A New Map of Wonders that ponder the future of technology including artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, quantum computing and the wonder and mystery of the human brain. 

What triggers wonder?

Both McFall and Henderson seem to trace their inspiration about wonder, to a triggering event of fascination.

I wandered next onto Wonderopolis: which was mentioned in the Innovating Pedagogy report.  

A characteristic of Wonderopolis is that it starts with great questions.  Wonderopolis seems to me to be like a contemporary version of a book I loved as a child.

I remember my neighbors giving me a book when I was aged seven.  Their teenage son had “grown out of it”. It was an old book written in the 1960s called Every Child’s Answer Book by Mary Elting. (Elting, Mary Every Child’s Answer Book, Illustrations by Tran Mawicke, Odhams Press Limited, Long Acre, London, 1964.) 

The format was a question and answer on each page with simple line illustrations.  It was about all sorts of things, from rockets, geography, the human body and technology. They were real questions that children had asked.

Why do stars twinkle? Why do cats’ eyes shine at night? What is the sound barrier? Why does frost on windows look like ferns?

Mary Elting, and her way of answering questions created even more big questions in my young mind.  The curious thing about the book was that the answers did not tell you the answer. They were mostly speculative. They invoked fascination.

As a child, I vividly remember reading the answer to Why do you yawn?

In explaining the physiology of yawning, and the end of the page the text read  “You may be yawning now, just from reading this!”. I really was yawning at that precise moment. I quickly closed the book, almost frightened.  It had seemed very much like magic. How could the technology of paper – a book, do this?


I felt an intense feeling of wonder the first time I saw 3D volumetric display at a Maker Faire. Adults and children were gathered around in awe. Regardless of age, we all had the same question. How does this work?

I also witnessed wonder through technology the first time I showed children a micro:bit and Scratch project.  Micro-controllers use Bluetooth and so can be easily hidden inside everyday objects, like Lego or cardboard. Hidden workings seem to help create an initial sense of wonder with technology.

Our responses to 3D holograms, micro:bits and books seemed similar despite the gulf between these technologies.  There were gasps. Rapidly fired passionate questions said aloud. Frown-lines of thought. Utter delight. How does it do that? 

Remembering these moments, these are the launch points where wonder sparks curiosity. 

Your turn to wonder

Reflecting on McFall’s phases of wonder, I realise now that I could have intentionally designed those technology experiences to leverage anticipation,  and follow on with phases of investigation, discovery and propagation to lead onto learning from those precious moments of not understanding a new technology.

I will try to explore some of the phases of wonder in my own practices as a Learning Designer. I hope you will discover your own trigger for wonder – what will you notice

More wondrous resources

Wonder in fiction

The Wonderous Science by Brian and Josie Parker

12 year old Zora Sparks can invent incredible wonders through her art for the Wonderous Science!

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend

‘Wunder’ as an energy source of an imagined world

Great wonders of the world

New ‘public voted’ seven wonders of the world

An interesting approach to bring a democratic approach to identifying wonders of the world.

Great wonder of the world – Powers of 10 

A nine minute film from 1977 that starts on earth and zooms out to provoke a sense of wonder at the scale of the universe.

Wonder projects

Imagination.org – the storybook

Real examples of projects all over the world using wonder to inspire change. This also includes low and no-tech wonder projects such as the Global Cardboard challenge

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  Comments: 3

  1. I recommend the book “Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder” by Dennis Quinn. The book is out of print, however, there are still copies available at Amazon. This book is a master work. Following is the book description at Amazon:

    Iris Exiled is a critical history of wonder from the Bible and Homer to modern times. Dennis Quinn examines the subject in relation to various disciplines and modes of discourse- philosophy, theology, poetry, art myth, history, rhetoric, psychology, education, and modern science. Quinn shows that wonder, originally seen as the principle of philosophy and poetry and as a passion essential to the highest order of education, has been weakened by certain intellectual, cultural, and religious shifts during the past 600 years. The history is synoptic in two senses of the word: it is comprehensive but selective, and illustrative not exhaustive. Iris Exiled is presented from a single theoretical perspective, that of the original understanding of wonder as developed and set forth by such authors as Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Ruskin, and Joseph Pieper, as well as a host of other writers of all kinds and from all eras of western history.

  2. very good

  3. Something fishy is going on when I try to add this article page to my Safari reading list on an iPad Pro running iOS 15.0. Instead of saving the URL of this page it’s saving a URL iOS/Safari suggest may be a spoofing page.

    Actual URL of this page: https://aace.org/review/learning-through-wonder/

    Possibly spoofed URL saved to reading list: https://www-dev.aace.org/review/learning-through-wonder/

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