Awe-some Classrooms

KellerCurrent Educational Issues, Leadership, Relationship-based Teaching Leave a Comment

How do we re-imagine education if we are not teaching in awe-some classrooms? One accepted definition of AWE is…“Awe is a feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”

Stop for a moment while reading this article and think of a moment when you have experienced a sense of awe.

For many it is being in the beauty of nature and experiencing for a moment the utter beauty and majesty of the world in which we live.  I often feel that sense of awe as the sun sets over the beach near our home in Kommetjie.  

But my experience of awe is flavoured because it is context-specific.  Super-natural belief systems are another flavouring of awe.  Experiencing the  storm, wind or a magnificent moon may also bring about the sense of vastness beyond your current understanding.

But awe can also have layers of perceived threat, fear, uncertainty, alienation and terror.  People who come from hierarchical cultures like the Chinese and Russians may experience a great deal of fear blended with their awe. Some people, experiencing psychedelics like LSD and MDMA, feel pure awe and others are flooded with terror.

The researchers expected the responses to be typical, ie nature, spiritual practices or listening to music. In fact it was none of those.  From all over the world, awe was explained as watching other people display kindness, courage, strength and the ability to overcome.  

This indicated that humans from all over the world, irrespective of their culture or creed, see awe when they are moved by moral beauty.  This was their number one wonder of AWE.

Unlike beautiful images of snow capped mountains, ancient cities or beautiful beaches, moral beauty is marked by a purity and goodness of intention and action – and it is this that moves humans to AWE.

Perhaps as teachers we have become a little confused about AWE.  

With an over-stuffed curriculum, constant demands and assessment tasks, teachers have lost the desire to generate an awe-some Classroom experiences.  It is just too much work.

But awe is not physical.Awe is an action.  

When we teach, really teach our students to be kind, honest, courageous and able to share and be helpful, then we are teaching the great moral beauty of AWE, and in turn could develop Awe-some classrooms.

There were eight on the list:

1. Moral Beauty

2. Collective effervescence – the feeling of awe we experience at a wedding, christening, bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations and when South Africa wins the Rugby World Cup.  

3. Nature – being in nature and acknowledging the beauty of creation.

4. Music was the fourth highest.  Concerts,  symphonies or a delightful piece of music you play when traveling on an aeroplane.

5. Visual design was the fifth wonder of awe.

6. Stories of spiritual and religious awe were sixth.

7. Stories of life and death came in in seventh place.

8. Epiphanies – the moment when we suddenly understand the essential truth about life.

If your explanation of awe never made it into the Top 8, do not fret.  The last 5 percent of participants out of 2600 could not be categorised under a single heading, but included things like incredible flavours, video games, overwhelming sensations and …the first experience of sex!.

What struck me the most as I read Dacher Keltner‘s book, AWE, is that money never featured.  

“When I win the lotto, it will be awesome!”  Apparently not!  Not one of the 2600 participants mentioned their laptop, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Apple Watch or their Smartphone.  

There was no mention of owning a Tesla or any motor vehicle.  In fact awe occurs in a realm separate from the mundane world of materialism, money, acquisitions and status.  

Perhaps AWE fits into a world many call sacred.


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