Imagine an ice-cold night, bathed in neon by the aurora above. Picture the intricate, elegant inner workings of a cell, churning energy and matter into life. Awe-inspiring, no? These phenomena can be explained, but there’s still something ineffable about them. Science abounds with concepts like these, positioning it as an academic subject well-suited to induce awe. It’s a powerful emotion, but what is awe, exactly? And can its power be leveraged to better engage learners in the science classroom?
The concept of awe first showed up in writing about 2000 years ago, but it wasn’t until recently that a rigorous definition has been attempted. In 2003, University of California, Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, along with Jonathan Haidt, then a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, published a landmark definition of awe. They surveyed the written record, searching for patterns in how thinkers throughout history have defined this arresting emotion. They concluded that awe has two key aspects: perceived vastness, and a need for what educators call ‘accommodation’ — a reshaping of our existing understanding of the world.
Perceived vastness refers to “anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference.” Stimuli that evoke vastness are often physically vast — a breathtaking vista, or a massive galaxy, for example — but need not be. The incomprehensibly small scale of atomic particles is also ‘vast,’ in that it challenges our normal sense of scale. Vastness can also be perceived more metaphorically, as in a vast sense of time, complexity, ability, or power. It can even be evoked by the sheer scope of an idea, like that of evolution.
Whatever shape it takes, this perception of vastness upends our existing understanding of the world. It exposes us to things we don’t yet understand, and our brains scramble to make sense of it. This sounds messy, but it’s actually a key element in one of the most widely accepted theories of learning. According to constructivism, all learning is ‘constructed’ atop our existing knowledge; new information either makes sense or it doesn’t. When it makes sense, it’s smoothly incorporated (or ‘assimilated’) into what we already know. But when it challenges what we thought we knew, our knowledge has to restructure itself in order to accommodate it. Fittingly, this process of learning is known as ‘accommodation,’ and it’s an essential part of gaining new knowledge about the world.
The Pedagogical Possibilities
“Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”
So when Keltner and Haidt describe awe as a ‘perceived sense of vastness’ and ‘a need for accommodation,’ they’re essentially describing its potential as a tool for education. They believe it could be doubly potent for children, who are still discovering the world and their place in it. However, most research on awe has been limited to adults in laboratory settings, and little work has been done to examine precisely how the emotion could facilitate learning in children.
Megan Powell Cuzzolino, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is currently researching just such a thing. She believes that awe could be particularly valuable in the science classroom, where scientific concepts often “deal with extreme magnitudes of scale, whether in space, time, quantity, or complexity — this makes for a high likelihood that a science learner will have opportunities to perceive vastness.”
This perception of vastness could represent even greater educational potential — it can help learners understand that the world is bigger than themselves, and inspire them to act accordingly. This “small self,” as University of California, Irvine psychologist Paul Piff and his colleagues put it, “may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern.” Awe could help students come to understand themselves as part of a larger community, be it the classroom, locally, or globally. Piff’s work also suggests other socio-emotional benefits: awe-struck research subjects have shown greater generosity, more ethical decision-making, kinder behavior towards others, and decreased entitlement. By inducing awe in the classroom, according to Piff, educators could help learners “forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”
“Awe-struck research subjects have shown greater generosity, more ethical decision-making, kinder behavior towards others, and decreased entitlement.“
Vicki Zakrzewski, education director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, argues that, by helping students connect to something larger, awe could also help them discover a deeper purpose in life. “An awe experience has the potential to open their minds to new ways of thinking, including what their place in the world might be.” This sense of purpose can lead to “positive emotions such as gratitude, self-confidence, optimism, and a deep sense of fulfillment.” Keltner and Haidt take this further, theorizing that “awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”
With Great Power …
If educators are to wield awe as a pedagogical tool, they must be aware of the divergent ways it can impact learners. It can inspire and humble, but awe might also leave students feeling powerless and insignificant. Cuzzolino encourages educators considering implementing awe to “consider developmentally appropriate framing that will leave students feeling energized rather than paralyzed.” For example, when she laid out a timeline of Earth’s history with her students, she was concerned that the tiny sliver at the end representing all of human history “could make us feel that our lives are insignificant and meaningless. But on the other hand, it could also make us feel fortunate to be here, empowered to make good use of the time we have, and motivated to protect the Earth, because we want to ensure that this timeline stretches way into the future.”
The efficacy of awe can be further enhanced by giving students time to acknowledge and reflect on their awe-inspiring experiences. This would allow them to probe how their ways of seeing and thinking have been altered, enabling them to build a new understanding of the world. Cuzzolino suggests that educators can scaffold this type of learning by encouraging students to explore such questions as:
- What was so surprising, exciting, or disorienting about this experience?
- How does it feel to think about this concept in a new way?
- What new questions or wonderings do you have as a result of this experience?
Given enough time to process these questions, students might be better able to accommodate such awe-inspiring information.
Nevertheless, many awe-invoking stimuli may still defy comprehension. So where is the educational value in presenting students with situations that cannot be understood? Even when unsuccessful, the quest for accommodation can lead students to probe fundamental frameworks of how and why. Anders Schinkel, assistant professor of philosophy of education at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, believes that this sort of philosophical inquiry — “deep wonder,” in his words — may not result in accommodation, but it can help students to develop a more active sense of wonder. This, in turn, can lead to inquiry into more answerable questions.
Putting Awe to Work
“Truly seeing the big picture for the first time can forever alter how all pictures are viewed.”
Awe can inspire much, but what inspires it? What specific elements can conjure up a sense of vastness? In their research, Keltner and Haidt rounded up an impressive list. The following is just a selection, along with some suggestions for how to frame key science concepts with vastness in mind:
Beauty – It may be in the eye of the beholder, but aesthetic pleasure can often evoke awe.
- A dazzling sunset, rich with color, could lead to rich discussions about optics, the chemistry of the atmosphere, or the rotation of the Earth.
- Music, with its mesmerizing harmonies, dissonances, and textures, is an excellent overture for lessons about frequencies, harmonics, and interference patterns.
- Plants, ranging from delicate ferns to stunning redwoods, have evolved gorgeous and unique forms through a combination of environmental factors and genetic variation.
Complexity – Something can be so bafflingly complicated that one can’t help but gape, wide-eyed.
- Biological systems, from plants to humans, must strike an incredibly complex balance in order to survive.
- The sheer diversity of life on planet Earth could be a compelling way to generate conversations about ecosystems and their complex interdependencies.
- Exploring the intricate inner-workings of a clock may be time well-spent during a lesson about gears, ratios, and potential and kinetic energy.
Exceptional ability – We’re not just in awe of nature; the skill of others can also leave us dumbstruck.
- The precision of athletes — especially as they deal with, and often manipulate, powerful forces — could kick-off lessons about momentum, the nervous system, or even the material science of athletic equipment.
- Any number of revolutionary scientists could be heralded for their exceptional skills, from Tycho Brahe for his remarkably precise naked-eye astronomy, to Einstein, for his ability to see what no one else could about the fabric of the universe.
- Humankind’s ongoing inventiveness, in fields ranging from industry to sustainability, can be celebrated and examined in any number of subject areas.
Powerful forces – Nothing like encountering the immensely powerful to make one feel small.
- Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes are arresting ways to begin conversations about complex air-mass interactions, solar energy, or plate tectonics.
- The immense pressures and unbelievable energies involved in nuclear fusion are ready-made for awe-struck lessons about the creation of elements and the lifecycles of stars.
- Immense g-forces — like those experienced in racecar crashes, or the experimental work of Dr. John Stapp — are an attention-grabbing way to discuss acceleration.
Infinity and infinite repetition – Our brains haven’t evolved to understand immense numbers or concepts, much less (seemingly) endless or repetitive ones.
- Evolution could be framed as an unimaginable number of permutations carried out over an immense span of time resulting in a seemingly endless variety of species.
- Nature exhibits some remarkable patterns, and could be a great way to broach the concept of infinity itself.
- The number of stars we can see from Earth, not to mention the number of stars in existence, is a way to start discussions about cosmology and the composition of matter in the universe.
Breadth and scope, especially of a grand theory – Truly seeing the ‘big picture’ for the first time can forever alter how all pictures are viewed.
- Evolution could also be framed as the grand theory that explains the origins of every part of ourselves, from fingers to feelings.
- Earth’s timeline, as evidenced by the geologic record, could be the foundation for any number of lessons ranging from geology to biology.
- The periodic table of elements reveals that a relatively small set of particles make up nearly everything we will ever interact with.
There is great potential for awe in all of science — from the intricate mechanisms of life to the expanding scope of the cosmos. Frame your next lesson with awe in mind, and it may just help your kids see the bigger picture.