Blog: Anders Schinkel about his current research on wonder-full education and the sense of wonder in children

Education is commonly seen as crucial to individual and collective well-being. Government policies tend to focus on how the education system can contribute to economic growth and international competitiveness. At the same time schools are required to supply the labour market with the employees it needs and society in general with liberal-democratically minded citizens. The Inspection assesses school quality primarily in terms of average scores as an indicator of whether government-set learning goals are being met. In this context, schools focus on the core curriculum (that children are tested on), and on preparing children for those tests, resulting in a high-pressure learning environment.

This situation raises a host of concerns (about psychological problems in children, work stress in teachers, as well as the place of less utilitarian subjects on the curriculum, such as music and the arts), but among them is also the concern that something that lies at the heart of education is at risk of being lost here, namely wonder about and at the world and everything in it. It is often a sense of wonder that inspires students to become teachers of particular subjects, and it is this sense of wonder that teachers hope to pass on to or nourish in their students. Wonder is not simply an emotion, but is a complex experience, comprising (usually) some mixture of surprise, bafflement, a sense of the importance of what one is contemplating, and a desire or felt need to dwell on the object of wonder, to keep attending to it. It may be more inquisitive, entailing an inherent drive to investigate the how or why of things, or more contemplative, in which case it is a primarily receptive state, a silent response to mystery, an ability to see beyond the familiar.

We tend to think that a sense of wonder comes naturally to children, but beyond that we know surprisingly little about it. How prone children are to experience wonder, and what they wonder about or wonder at, and how that makes them feel and what that makes them do – these are questions that have hardly been investigated empirically. Nor has there been much research, except in science education (and with a focus on inquisitive wonder), on what schools actually do and may do to promote wonder. Our research project hopes to shed light on these two things: how much children wonder and about what; and what primary schools do to promote wonder.

For this purpose we have developed two new instruments: the Wonder Chart and the Wonder-full Education Questionnaire. In the Wonder Chart five vignettes and five videos are followed by a series of questions. The student is asked to imagine they’re the protagonist in the story; what would they do/feel? Then follows a list of questions like ‘I’d wonder how (…)’, ‘I am curious’, ‘I’m speechless for a moment’, about which they say to what extent it applies to them. Our studies so far indicate that with the Wonder Chart we’ve developed the first instrument that really tells us something about what children wonder about and wonder at, and how prone they are to experience wonder!

The Wonder-full Education Questionnaire is now in the validation stage. Please encourage any primary school teachers or school leaders you know to fill out the WEQ! Here’s the link for teachers and here´s the link for school leaders (The first takes just 15 minutes to complete, the second no more than 10). The quantitative data that will be gathered by Evelien Broekhof and Judith Conijn in the coming 6 months or so will be supplemented by qualitative data gathered by Willeke Rietdijk, who’ll conduct semi-structured interviews with teachers and school leaders, as well as micro-phenomenological interviews with students. This is an approach uniquely geared towards getting on the inside of an experience, but seldom used with children – an interesting challenge!

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Upcoming publications and events apart from papers related to the subprojects an edited volume ‘Wonder, education, and human flourishing’ will appear with VU University Press before August 2020. Anders Schinkel’s philosophical monograph ‘Wonder and education’, published by Bloomsbury, is scheduled to appear in 2020. Near the end of this academic year (probably in June) we will organize a conference for teachers and school leaders (particularly those who participated in the project) – more about this to come.