Evidence That It Works
In a study of 447 high school students in a Midwestern state (56% White, 25% Black, 6% Hispanic-American, 3% Asian American, and 10% multi-ethnic; 54% middle class), researchers found that dispositional awe (the tendency to feel awe in general) predicted academic outcomes, i.e., work ethic, behavioral engagement, and academic self-efficacy, via curiosity. In other words, awe-inducing activities may improve academic performance.
Awe also increases our cognitive capacity to learn and reason. A study of U.S.-based adults (75% white) found that people who often feel awe show greater intellectual humility (the ability to recognize the limitations of our knowledge and beliefs) and wise reasoning (the ability to consider others’ perspectives and search for compromises).
Furthermore, a qualitative study with 34 public school teachers from the Southeastern U.S. (14 elementary school teachers and 20 middle school teachers; 74% White, 26% Black, .05% multi-racial) found that science teachers report using awe-invoking experiences in the classroom to facilitate learning outcomes and inspire long-term science interest. This included the use of hands-on opportunities for students to explore the concepts they were learning about or brief demonstrations by the teachers, such as demonstrations of chemical reactions. Teachers also identified a few individual factors that can influence how effective awe-inducing experiences are such as the childrens’ ages, prior experiences, initial interest levels, general curiosity, and the presence of other emotions.
Why Does It Matter?
In 2019, the New York Times asked students how to improve education. One student criticized the emphasis on standardized testing, stating, “That is not learning. That is learning how to memorize and become a robot that regurgitates answers instead of explaining ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ that answer was found. If we spent more time in school learning the answers to those types of questions, we would become a nation where students are humans instead of a number.”
Awe is a natural part of learning and can help “humanize” the educational process. Indeed, as educators, we have the opportunity to create more spaces and places for joyful exploration, part of which includes awe. Awe can foster curiosity for learning and exploration, and help create learning environments that feel welcoming for all by reducing feelings of personal grandeur, allowing students to pay greater attention to each other’s needs.
Awe also inspires us, making us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and changing how we think about our place in the world. In other words, awe can help students find meaning in what they’re learning—a powerful tool for motivation and engagement.