TUNE IN: The Wonder Approach to Learning

Wonder is at the origin of reality-based consciousness, thus of learning.... Unfortunate misinterpretations of neuroscience have led to false brain-based ideas in the field of education, all of these based on the scientifically wrong assumption that children’s learning depends on an enriched environment.

By Catherine L’Ecuyer - Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


It is well documented that the organic constitution of a child’s brain plays a key role in his development. But how does a child learn? Is the organic structure of the brain what drives the child to learn? Or is there any state of mind emerging from the brain that is responsible for the desire to learn? Or is the child’s learning the mere result of mechanical responses to external stimulus? What is the difference between a child that seizes learning opportunities and one that does not under the same external conditions? Throughout the last decades, many neuroscientists have tried to understand the sense of self, of consciousness, in most cases recognizing that the issue escapes the scope of neuroscience. As a matter of fact, Huxley said, “how it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp” (Huxley and Youmans, 1868).

What is the relationship between self-consciousness and learning? What is the origin of learning? Does it come from within the human being, or from without? It is organic, or intangible? Is it a by-product of the neurological makeup, or does it lie deeper than the brain?

Dan Siegel, who himself recognized that “the idea of intention is itself a philosophical puzzle” (Siegel, 2012), also said:

“When we think about psychological development, about the developing mind, it is helpful to think about what the “psyche” actually is. There is an entity called the psyche or the mind that is as real as the brain, the heart, or the lungs, although it cannot be seen directly with or without the aid of microscopes or other tools of modern technology. One definition of the psyche is: “(1) the human soul; (2) the intellect; (3) psychiatry—the mind considered as a subjectively perceived, functional entity, based ultimately upon physical processes but with complex processes of its own: it governs the total organism and its interaction with the environment” (Webster, 1996). Within this definition, we can see the central importance of understanding the psyche, the soul, the intellect, and the mind in understanding human development” (Siegel, 2001).

It is not a coincidence that world spiritual leaders took interest in Siegel’s Interpersonal Neurobiology. In 1999, John Paul II invited Siegel to deliver a speech (Towards a Biology of Compassion: Relationships, the Brain and the Development of Mindsight Across the Lifespan) at the Vatican; in 2009, the Dalai Lama shared a panel with Siegel on the scientific basis of compassion.

Regardless of whether we hold religious beliefs or not, and of what they are, there is a growing sense that the motor of the human being is something intangible that cannot be seen with the eye nor can be measured with scientific instruments. Does it emerge from the brain, from interpersonal interaction (as suggested by Siegel’s Interpersonal Neurobiology), is it previous to any other human process, or is it embodied within the brain? At this point, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary in order to get a broader picture.

Wonder: a reality-based consciousness approach to learning

More than three centuries B.C., the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle said that the principle of philosophy was wonder (Aristotle, 2014; Plato, 2014b), the first manifestation of something intangible that moved the human being towards reality, also defined by Aquinas as “the desire to learn” and later by the English philosopher Francis Bacon as “the seed of knowledge”. Chesterton talked about wonder as a principle, not a consequence: “This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of fairy tales is derived from this” (Chesterton, 2004a).

More recent authors have written on the importance of wonder for the purpose of awakening ecological awareness in the child (Carson, 1965), as pedagogical proposals or tools to be used in the classroom (Legrand, 1960; Lipman and Sharp, 1986; Egan et al., 2013). But to this day, and despite the fact that it has been discussed during more than twenty-four centuries, wonder has not yet been proposed as a theory of learning.

Not only is the idea of wonder as old as Greek philosophy, it is also a universal phenomenon, well-known by any parent. Why is it not raining upwards? Why is the moon round and not square? Children have asked these questions since the beginning of time. When children ask these questions, they might not be demanding an answer. Rather, they might be wondering in the face of reality. They are wondering because it rains downwards and because the moon is round. When children ask these questions, they are, as Plato and Aristotle suggested, philosophizing. They are surprised at the mere fact of seeing that things “are”. Babies wonder when they first see the sky, the stars, the face of their mother, when they first touch the grass, see a shadow, experience gravity and so on. As Chesterton wrote: “The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of 3 months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea” (Chesterton, 2005).

The Scope of Wonder

The scope of wonder, as discussed in this present article, is greater than a mere emotional response. It is worth mentioning that many authors, a detailed analysis of which may be found in Artemenko (1972), have referred to “étonnement” (an alternative French translation for “wonder”) as a spectrum of emotions ranging from a reaction to novelty, to fear, to surprise, etc. According to the Wonder Approach discussed in this article, the emotional response would be a possible consequence of wonder, not wonder as such.

Furthermore, the scope of wonder goes beyond curiosity. Curiosity is the urge to explain the unexpected (Piaget, 1969), or the urge to know more (Engel, 2011), and may be an instinctual response. Wonder is the desire to know the unknown, as well as the already known. Before the already known, a child may wonder again and again, because to wonder consists in “never taking anything for granted”, even that which is already known. So regardless of whether a thing is already known, the wondering attitude is to consider this thing “as if for the first time”, as well as “as if for the last time”. This metaphysical manner of thinking is typical of a person that realizes that the world is, but also, that could not have been at all. We are—the world is—contingent. If we cease to exist, the world still exists… We participate in something greater than us, the world that surrounds us. Wonder is precisely what allows us to be conscious of the surrounding reality, through humility and gratitude. Wonder is a sort of reality-based consciousness, which perhaps could shed some light on the issue of the subjective aspect of experience that is part of what some have called the “hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers, 1995).

The wonder approach vs. the behaviorist approach to education

Contrary to the Wonder Approach would be the Behaviorist Approach to education, according to which everything is programmable and the volitional aspect is irrelevant because the child is completely dependent on the environment in order to learn. Therefore, according to this view, education would be reduced to “bombarding with information” (the more the better) and to “training in habits” (as mere mechanical repetition of actions), as reflected in John Watson’s promise “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…” (Watson, 1930). The Behaviorist Approach emphasizes the accumulation of information (knowledge), on external behaviors (skills and mechanical habits) and their emotional and physical reactions in given situations, rather than on the person’s internal mental states, such as intentionality, which are much more complex.

According to the Wonder Approach, learning would start from within; it would be an inner personal “desire”. The environment would be important, but the environment would not be per se what makes the child learn. And so it follows that “more” would not necessarily be better.

In recent years, neuroscience has come to the conclusion that more is not necessarily better and that learning is not a matter of overwhelming “enrichment” or excessive intellectual stimulation:

“There is no need to bombard infants or young children (or possibly anyone) with excessive sensory stimulation in hopes of “building better brains”. This is an unfortunate misinterpretation of the neurobiological literature—that somehow “more is better”. It just is not so. Parents and other caregivers can “relax” and stop worrying about providing huge amounts of sensory bombardment for their children. This synaptic overproduction during the early years of life has been proposed to allow for a likelihood that the brain will develop properly within the “average” environment that will supply the necessary minimal amount of sensory stimulation to maintain necessary portions of this genetically created and highly dense synaptic circuitry” (Siegel, 2001).

The “unfortunate misinterpretation of the neurobiological literature” has brought on a series of “neuromyths” and false beliefs in the field of education, such as “more is better” and “earlier is better” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1968; Goswami, 2006; Howard-Jones, 2007; Hyatt, 2007). These unfortunate misinterpretations have also encouraged false brain-based ideas in the education industry, with products such as Brain Gym®, Baby Einstein™, the use of flashcards in classrooms, attempt to repattern the child’s brain through co-ordination exercises, so-called educational toys and videos, etc., all of these based on the scientifically wrong assumption that children’s learning depends on an enriched environment during the period of synaptogenesis. Valuable time and money, both of which schools often lack, is being spent in obeisance to these myths (Howard-Jones, 2009). These beliefs have re-enforced the Behaviorist Approach to education and to parenting and have contributed to deadening our children’s sense of wonder. The process by which this is suggested to have happened is explained below in more detail.

Beauty triggers wonder in the child

Children wonder because they realize that a thing “is”, while it could “not be”. What is it in the “being” of the things that surround children that trigger wonder in them? The Greek philosophers have identified some of the properties of “being”, one of which is beauty. Thus, one of the properties of “being” of a thing that triggers wonder in children is beauty. READ MORE

Image: Girl being illuminated by three coloured lights: a red, a green and a blue one, Image Credit: Festival della Scienza