One of the most useful teaching techniques I have found is using awe to inspire learning. What is awe? This word is both a verb and a noun, according to the Oxford online dictionary:
It is interesting to note that both of these examples from the dictionary cite our natural world! There is so much from which we can be inspired existing in nature!
I believe my interest, and initially accidental, use of awe in my teaching came from raising monarch butterflies and sharing the miracle of their metamorphosis with first my family and then my garden club students, and other community members.
Once I saw how engaging and motivating awe could be to students’ willingness to learn, I purposely sought topics that contained some element of awe. For example, did you know that the famous carnivorous plant called the Venus Fly Trap is the ONLY species of kind? And the only place it grows indigenously is the sandy, bog-like soils of the Carolina coasts in the United States? You might not realize that because, in this day of global trade, fast shipping, and unfortunate poaching, you can buy a Venus Fly Trap in any number of places…..especially at Wal-Mart in August! Of course the geographic habitat of this plant is not the only thing that is interesting. The Venus Fly Trap has evolved to trap insects to make up for growing in those poor, quickly drained soils! It is amazing!
Another example that always intrigues my students is the fact that we have a cactus that grows outdoors in Wisconsin! It is a variety of the Prickly Pear Cactus. When we talked about cacti and succulents during the garden club unit on this topic, once again, habitat was discussed, as it should be. But, who could guess that after finding out about the environmental needs of cacti, we would find one growing on the prairie or in someone’s yard, here in Wisconsin?! I further inspire awe and imbue excitement in the students by explaining that I have seen this cactus grow in many places during my travels…..Bermuda, California, New York State, and others….few of which possess desert-like conditions. After all, I don’t think you can say the side of the highway between Carlsbad and San Diego, California is a desert!
There are many, many other examples. Others have noticed the effect awe has on a human’s curiosity. You can read more about it in this article by Jake Abrahamson in the Sierra Club Magazine from December 2014, The Science of Awe.
It turns out that not only does awe inspire curiosity, it is also healthy for us to feel it! As a parent, many of us aspire to letting our children know that we are all part of a bigger picture, that the world is not only about us. What better way to convey that than through providing some awe-filled experiences? And the best part is, many of these type of experiences do not cost a thing! They are free!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Gaze at the stars on a summer night – get out of town and city lights for the best viewing.
- Watch a monarch caterpillar form its chrysalis.
- Watch a monarch butterfly emerge from the chrysalis.
- Find out about rare and endangered species in your area, make an effort to learn about them and see them, if possible.
- Visit a big city with little kids and look up at the tall buildings! Humans designed and constructed these structures.
- Watch a baby being born. (Maybe, starting with an animal baby would be best!)
- Stand on a mountaintop and take in the view.
- Ride a bike down a volcano (Yes! This is possible! We did this in 2015 on Mt. Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii.
- Find out how corn kernels are formed – amazing! You’d never guess all that corn silk had a purpose!
- Grow a flower bulb without dirt!
- Watch tadpoles turn into frogs.
- Watch a chick hatch from an egg.
- Marvel at the colors in a sunrise or sunset.
- Watch an eclipse (with protective eye-wear, of course).
There are so many things that can inspire awe. What awe filled experiences have you had, personally? Have you ever used awe-inspriation in your teaching? I hope you consider adding some awe to your teaching or parenting style. I have found it not only useful, but extremely satisfying for both me and the children.