Extreme close up of thrashing ocean waves

Sparking Discovery Through Awe

Students consider questions that allow them to find awe and wonder in various topics and to consider the connections between specific topics/skills and larger ideas.

Level: Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
Duration: ≤ 30 minutes
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Planning For It

When You Might Use This Practice

  • At the start of any lesson to excite and interest students in a topic or skill
  • To help students engage more deeply with an academic concept
  • To foster curiosity, creativity, and wonder
  • To help students see connections across topics/ideas


Time Required

  • ≤30 minutes




Learning Objectives

  • Students will:
    • Grow curious by considering multiple questions about a topic
    • See connections among topics/ideas, and thus find greater meaning in what they might be learning about that day
    • Reflect on what other classmates said
    • Consider their own feelings about the ideas presented


Additional Supports


Character Strengths

  • Awe
  • Wonder
  • Curiosity
  • Intellectual Humility


SEL Competencies

  • Self-Awareness


Mindfulness Components

  • Focused Attention
  • Open Awareness

How To Do It

Reflection Before the Practice

  • Take a moment to think about the topic or skill you are about to teach. How might you find awe, wonder, and or/curiosity in thinking about this topic or skill? How is the topic or skill connected to broader ideas? Why might it be helpful for students to think about these kinds of connections?

Awe is described as a self-transcendent emotion, which helps us feel more connected to the natural world and to greater humanity. Awe is often accompanied by a sense of wonder, which is our response to curiosity and is elicited through exploration and by asking questions. In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, awe scientist Dacher Keltner writes:

“As one historical example, Newton and Descartes were both awestruck by rainbows. In wonder, they asked: How is it that rainbows form when the sun’s light refracts through water molecules? What is the precise angle that produces this effect? What does this say about light? And our experience of color? This wonder for rainbows led these two scholars to some of their best work on mathematics, the physics of light, color theory, and sensation and perception.”

This practice uses awe to encourage greater curiosity and interest in students when learning about a new topic.


Introduce the topic and ask “awe-inspiring” questions

  • Start each lesson with an awe-inspiring example/comment/fact/question followed by several questions that lead to wonder. Tell students that you are not looking for right or wrong answers, so it’s okay for them to share their ideas even if they are not sure about whether what they are saying is correct or not.
  • After sharing a few questions, encourage students to come up with their own “awe-inspiring” questions.
  • Below are a few examples of topics and questions.


  • When talking to students about civic participation, you might start with a present day example of a large protest. Perhaps show students this video (8:40) about how the Black Lives Matter marches that occurred after the murder of George Floyd sparked marches around the world. Or share this inspirational story about a BLM demonstrator carrying a counter-protester to safety. Follow this by asking questions such as the following to excite their interest:
    • How do protests contribute to the advancement of democratic values?/Why do people protest?
    • What kinds of issues do people protest?
    • What factors bring people together to protest?
    • What kinds of challenges do you think protesters face during their struggle for change and what do you think keeps them going?
    • Do you think you could help someone in danger who is openly going against a cause you really care about?
    • What causes do you care about?
    • How might your civic participation be important to making an impact in the causes you care about?


  • When teaching students how to calculate a volume, start by showing students images like these of the ocean.
  • Then, ask how they might calculate the volume of all the oceans on Earth. Follow this with a few more questions, such as the following, to spark their wonder:
    • Do you think everyone would take the same approach?
    • Why might it be helpful to understand the volume of water present on Earth?
    • Do you think the amount of water in the ocean changes at all?
    • What factors might cause a change in the amount of water present, if any? (You could talk about climate change here.)
    • If you only knew the height of each of these towers, could you figure out the volume with just this information? What other information might you need, if any? Could we actually compare the towers in any way, given how different they are in shape?
    • If we wanted to build a container to hold every book in the school building, what would we need to do to start thinking about the dimensions of our container?
    • How many different methods do you think exist for calculating the volume of a 3-dimensional object?
    • Why do you think it might be important to understand what a volume is and how to calculate it? When might you use this information?


  • At the start of the school year/semester, you might ask students whether they think art was present in the Stone Age. If so, ask them to explain how they think art was created at that time, and if not, ask students when they think people started creating art. Follow this conversation by showing students the following video. Then, ask students to reflect on the following questions:
    • Why might have art been created back then?
    • Why do we continue to create art?
    • What is art?
    • What kinds of things about people or history might we be able to learn about from art?
    • How do you think art has evolved over time?
    • If you could capture anything in a painting what would it be?


  • When teaching students about chemical reactions, start by using some sort of demonstration that will surprise the students and get them to wonder how something is possible. For instance, you could use one of the following demonstrations: Invisible Ink Demonstration or Levitating Ice Cubes. Follow each demonstration with questions that spark greater curiosity, such as the following:
    • How do chemical reactions play a role in everyday life, where might we see/encounter them (e.g., in cooking or digestion)?
    • Can chemical reactions be reversible, and if so, what determines whether a reaction is reversible or not?
    • What causes certain substances to react with each other while others remain inert?
    • Can chemical reactions occur in outer space, and if so, how might they differ from reactions on Earth?
    • What sorts of things might chemical reactions be able to produce (e.g., color, fire, gasses)?
    • Are there chemical reactions that occur without visible signs?


Reflect on the discussion

  • After engaging with several questions—either your own or ones that students asked— invite students to write a short paragraph reflecting on one or more of the following topics:
    • Something that another student said during the discussion that stood out to them and why
    • Whether the discussion elicited any emotions for them, naming the emotions and sharing why they think they experienced those emotions
    • Additional questions, thoughts, or ideas that the exercise sparked for them


  • As you begin the content of the actual lesson, ask the students to keep the questions in mind as they are learning about the topic and to consider whether or not they would modify their answers in any way.



Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley

Reflection After the Practice

  • Did your students show greater curiosity about the topic you covered in your lesson?
  • Did they make any new or interesting connections during the lesson?
  • Did students seem more receptive to each other’s ideas?

The Research Behind It

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.

“Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.”
–William Arthur Ward
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