Great Lessons 8: Awe


Take a look at this image. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, photographed over several days in 2003-4. As explained by Professor Brian Cox, in this patch of sky, the size of a thumbnail placed 75 feet away, there are over 10,000 objects, invisible to the naked eye. Each object is not a star..but a galaxy, each with hundreds of millions of stars. The light from some of the objects has been travelling towards us almost since the beginning of time. So, looking at the image is like looking back into time as well as into the enormity of space. For me, this is “awesome” in the truest sense. If fills me with AWE. What does this mean exactly?

  • It provokes an emotional response – it is beautiful, thrilling, magnificent.
  • It forces me to re-think some fundamental conceptual ideas; to update my mental model
  • It creates a sense of scale that makes me look on my small world with a new perspective
  • It raises lots of questions and makes me curious to know even more.
  • It is impressive as a human discovery; a human achievement.

This is AWE… often experienced alongside its counterpart WONDER.

In Great Lessons, it is important to step back from time to time to contemplate the subject in hand, instilling a sense of Awe. This is how the seeds of a deep-rooted love of learning are sown. We’re not just learning this stuff because we have to; or because it is useful. We are learning it because it is just so fabulously, fascinatingly awe-inspiring. There is no greater motivation to learn than this.

Clearly, in a five period day, with exams to prepare for and a pile of marking to look forward to, you may feel your inclination to inspire awe may be on the low side. But, who else is going to do this if we don’t? In fact, we should aim to make it our default mode, our natural disposition, to seize every possible opportunity to fire our students’ imaginations and to stoke their passions. This is as important to a school’s contribution to Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural education (good old SMSC) as any number of assemblies. Is it unrealistic to think of inspiring awe as a habit of great teachers teaching Great Lessons? It’s not all “Dead Poet’s Society” table jumping; it can be quite subtle. And look how much material we’ve got! ……

At a recent Latin workshop, run my step-Dad, Larry, (a retired professor of Medieval Latin) he introduced them to a poem that he described as “the most beautiful poem ever written in any language”. A monster claim….but did it grab attention? You bet! Here it is:

From 13th C Carmina Burana manuscript
From 13th C Carmina Burana manuscript

In Maths, the fundamental truths inherent in the patterns, theorems and axioms are all worthy of being marvelled at as well as studied and learned, from simple patterns and shapes to wonderful unifying ideas like that shown here.

Irrational and complex wrapped up; The corners of any triangle do this...
Irrational and complex wrapped up; The corners of any triangle do this…

As a physicist, I naturally feel that most of my subject is awe-inspiring. Playing with a pair of magnets is a wonderful thing…just sensing that invisible mysterious force. Seeing a simple current carrying wire moving in between a pair of magnets…well that is extraordinary. Imagine Faraday’s surprise and delight. Making a simple motor…well, we’re becoming ecstatic now…

Awe in a balloon bursting and a simple motor spinning
Awe in a balloon bursting and a simple motor spinning

Taking a high-speed film of a water balloon popping, we captured this image. The balloon has gone….but the water retains the shape for a while longer. Inter-molecular forces in action. Awesome!

In Literature, or art or music, we can get stuck into a groove of doing the formal analysis or making the comparisons. We must also be sure to capture the spirit of a piece of art… to bask in its glory, for its own sake.  In history….as well as learning the chronology and the causes and effects, we need also to consider the human courage displayed or the sheer enormity of certain events.

Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men; The courage of soldiers at war
Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; The courage of soldiers at war

In Geography or Science, as well as trying to understand the wonders of the natural world, from plate tectonics to the extraordinary fact and beauty of evolution, we need to step back and contemplate just how fabulous these things are:

The Natural World is Awesome!
The Natural World is Awesome!

In all subjects, we can marvel at the range and scale of human achievements from building buildings to conducting genome research:

Human achievements... awe-inspiring.
Human achievements… awe-inspiring.

For me, and I hope for you too, this isn’t just a bit of icing on the cake.  Inspiring Awe is a core function for teachers.  We need to take every opportunity we can to communicate our own feeling that life is full of wondrous things that are there to be studied, discovered and enjoyed.

As well as transmitting our enthusiasm to students and modelling the importance of seeing awe and wonder in the physical and cultural world that surrounds us, in Great Lessons we also have an opportunity to shine a light on our students’ work. Encouragement and praise that keep students motivated, engaged and on track, can sometimes be taken up a notch or two into all-out AWE.

It has a great effect. Not only does it make the students feel great, it highlights what can be done…what is possible…. And that is the subject of Great Lessons 9: Possibilities.


I’m delighted that this post features alongside the others in the #blogsync initiative:

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  1. The awe factor is awesomely better than the X-Factor. Many of the really awesome things in the universe have taken a very long time to be the way they are. This teaches children that there are benefits from focusing on many years in the future and not just on instantaneous results.


  2. Another inspiring post in a brilliant series – have a look at ‘Science is Awesome’ on Facebook for similar images/findings, we’re obsessed with it in our department!


  3. […] We’ve had some great visitors this year.  Highlights for me were the attendance of ex-KEGS student Alex Dowsett, now an international cyclist for Movistar and winner of a Giro d’Italia stage.  He gave our prize-giving speech – probably the youngest person ever to do so – reflecting on how he’d turned adversity (living with haemophilia) into triumph.  Students found him truly inspiring.  I also enjoyed the visit of my step-dad Larry, a retired professor of medieval Latin who  come in to deliver a workshop.  He shared a poem that he described as “the most beautiful poem in any language ever”.  It is featured in this post about ‘Awe’.  […]


  4. hi, you have used my image of durdle door. And while i support educational items and would have granted permission happily, I would have appreciated you asking my permission and adding a photo credit.

    Please bear this in mind for future this is a real bug bear to photgraphers, I appreciate this is probably not a commercial use, but is still techmically copywrite theft.



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