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Searching for wonderment and awe

I was talking to Luke McKenna from Unleashing Personal Potential last week about the things people find awe-inspiring.

As part of his work with Positive Education, Luke pointed out the benefits that arise when we find something awe-inspiring. These benefits include feeling deeply connected with the world, being less self-centred and behaving more generously towards others.

Most of us can recall a time when we’ve experienced wonderment and awe. Perhaps it was the birth of a child, witnessing an exceptional sporting match, listening to an incredible personal story, walking through the wilderness, discovering something amazing in our work or staring into the eyes of someone we love.

It’s a remarkable and powerful experience.

In fact, Art Costa and Bena Kallick defined “Responding with Wonderment and Awe” as one of the 16 Habits of Mind common to successful people. They rank it alongside Managing Impulsivity, Striving for Accuracy, Thinking Interdependently and Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations – to name just a few of the Habits.

But I don’t think they’ve got it quite right.

You see, everyone one can respond with wonderment and awe. This response is universal. We see it in the faces of babies when they discover they can elicit noise from their toys by hitting them. Their faces light up and they squeal with joy!

I believe the skill is not in the response of wonderment and awe. The skill is in the search for wonderment and awe.

If I were to revise the Habits of Mind, I’d replace the passive verb “responding” with the active “searching”. We don’t need people to get better at responding with wonderment and awe. We need them to get better at searching for the things that cause that response.

Because the truth is, the remarkable is all around us. Yet too often, people don’t bother to spend a little time searching for the remarkable and walk straight by something that is potentially awe-inspiring.

Costa and Kallick accurately recognised that successful people frequently respond with wonderment and awe. They are awe-struck by what they do. They find excitement in their work and become passionate about it.

The skill these people have is to constantly search for the exceptional. They take the time to understand what they are looking at and ask, “In what ways is this different? What separates it and makes it unique and special?”

When I was in high school, my art teacher took me to the National Gallery of Australia. As a 15-year-old boy, what stood out for me was not the paintings on the walls – they were just pictures. What stood out was the way my art teacher stared at them for hours, marvelling at them, eyes transfixed.

What I recognised as exceptional that day was my teacher’s reaction. This reaction was obviously different and unusual to me. I didn’t have to look hard or have any deep understanding to see that. My response of wonderment was directed at the teacher. I completely missed the importance of the artwork!

Why did I only glance at the paintings while my teacher stood transfixed?

Because when my teacher and I looked at the paintings, we saw different things! I didn’t have the deep understanding of the history of the paintings. I didn’t understand the context in which they were painted, the subtle messages they contained.  I couldn’t recognise the ground-breaking and unique techniques that had been used. My teacher saw the exceptional; I simply saw a painting. He responded with wonderment and awe. I didn’t.

When we respond to something with wonderment and awe, it is because we recognise the things that make it special. I don’t believe it’s possible to get better at responding with wonderment and awe. This response is innate. But what we can get better at is searching for what causes us to feel wonderment and awe. Most importantly, we can teach our students how to get better at this.

Luke McKenna reminded me how important it is to experience wonderment and awe. As teachers, if we want students to experience this, it will usually take more than an excursion to the art gallery and telling them to “look at that amazing painting”.

We miss the point if we simply expose students to increasingly amazing things – the extraordinary video we found on YouTube, the bigger the explosion, the larger event.  We may elicit the response of wonderment but at the expense of students learning how to seek it and find it themselves.

If we want our students to experience wonderment and awe, we must help them understand what is normal – and teach them how to search for the exceptional so they can discover and respond with wonderment and awe.



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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