Wonder in Online Classes

by John Mays

People who know me know that I spend a lot of time talking about wonder. Plato and Aristotle both wrote that "wonder is the beginning of philosophy." Wonder should be the beginning of all our science teaching as well.

Recently, I was asked about "the practical art of bringing wonder into moments during live online high school science classes." This is no small issue and no small challenge. And the question is especially relevant in our post-COVID times.

When I address questions about the fierce challenges of teaching, my advice always begins with doses of reality, as well as encouraging teachers to break out of their own mental prisons. So, here are some ideas about our reality.

  1. Encourage teachers to practice the art of marveling and documenting their thoughts in their own journals (or commonplace books). Then have teachers share from these regularly during faculty meetings. Be intentional about this, and discuss with teachers the fact that we can't pass on to students what we don't have ourselves. If we aren't in the habit of stopping in our tracks to watch a bug, or grabbing the binoculars on the back porch when a new bird species turns up at the bird bath (followed by reaching for Birds of North America to try to identify it), or staying up all night to watch a lunar eclipse, or driving around in silence while reflecting on ways we can do better at creation care, and so on, we will not be able to stimulate wonder in our students. The stimulation of wonder flows first from the overflow of the heart, not from a clever technique. (It's a lot like love. In fact, it is love.) For more on meditating on Scripture and creation, read my upcoming post, "Here Shall Your Proud Waves Be Stayed."
  2. Next, dose of realism #1: We can't do it all. We need to know and admit our limitations.
  3. Realism #2: Online learning places a barrier—the screen and the internet—between teacher and student. It is not like in-person teaching and never can be. However, it is a mode that is helpful to people these days, so we should be encouraged for the good that it can do rather than discouraged by its limitations.
  4. Realism #3: Teachers and students should acknowledge, admit, confess, and discuss together the reality of the world we live in. Only then can we hope to rise above it. Here's the reality: We are busy; we never slow down; we spend 99% of our spare time thumbing a device; we rarely read; even more rarely do we meditate on creation (again, see my next post); instead of going "placidly amidst the noise and haste," we go around tense and angry because we have so much to do and our frustration at our teachers, our parents, the world we live in, two defining years of COVID, the war, climate change, the economy, and so on, knows no end. I would spend an entire class period together on this at the beginning of the year (after a week of aggressive assignments so that the students really appreciate the break in pace). The class could become one of those holy moments during which people are truly moved. Then this class could be referred to often afterward, and we would have the common ground of knowing that we seek the transcendent amidst the unrelentingly mundane—truly a quixotic and thus desirable goal. (Nota bene: In The Monster and His Critics, J.R.R. Tolkien summarizes the Norse heroic ethic in Beowulf: Just because you kill me doesn't mean you win. This is the Christian heroic ethic as well—our eschatological vision, in fact.)
Now for some other thoughts:
  1. Meditate on—and tell students to meditate on—and lead them in meditating on—the difference between describing (which science does well) and explaining (which it doesn't do well, and in biology, almost not at all). Example in biology: describing meiosis, which biologists can do, and explaining meiosis, which biologists cannot do. The more you look at this dance all germline cells perform, and the more you wonder "How do the cells know how to do all that and when?", the more obvious it becomes that the wonder of creation exceeds everything we can even think about it. It is like magic, or better yet, it is as if an infinite supernatural being made it!
  2. Make small allusions, along the lines of: "This is one of those times when we should notice how awesome this is before we start talking about it...". Making references to what is wonderful can often be done in passing; it only occasionally should consume an entire period.
  3. Make the references to wonder a sort of inside family joke, the way family members do when old Uncle Joe launches again into his stories about the war: everyone smiles, elbows each other, winking back and forth. The teacher can establish the same rapport, including the nod and wink, with the students, as if to say, "There creation goes again; we've seen this before!!"
There are many more ideas in my book From Wonder to Mastery, which I commend to you.