COVID-19 and the resulting period of extended school-building closures have popularized debates vis-a-vis the purpose of schooling that had previously been limited to pedagogues and academics. The sudden prominence of this conversation presents a significant opportunity to promulgate a particular mission and vision of schools.
Schools ought to be, primarily and essentially, incubators for a sense of wonder. The period of prolonged building closures offers even more evidence. As schools swiftly shifted their regular programs to a completely new format, the pieces that we chose to retain should signal to us the elements that we most cherish. To paraphrase the old adage: adversity does not refine a school’s mission; it reveals it. It is no wonder that most schools eschewed memorization and rote skill building in favor of creativity and community building. Certainly, basic skills and facts are important and irreplaceable, but they are not essential. They are the indispensable tools we need to achieve our goals, but they are not the goals in and of themselves. Wonder, not memorization, is the greatest desideratum of education.
Why: Unpacking Wonder
Wonder is our capacity to appreciate without fully understanding. It is what causes our jaws to drop slightly, and our eyes to stare in disbelief. It is provocative and entrancing. Even, perhaps especially, a destructive virus such as COVID-19 evokes our sense of wonder. In an era of unprecedented medical innovation, this virus has imprisoned an entire world. It inspires awe: the ineffable amalgamation of fear and amazement. That visceral reaction is what we will call wonder.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century philosopher, wrote poetically about our unquenchable thirst for wonder. “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.” Wonder, he teaches, is a basic, perhaps existential human need.
Wonder is our inclination to appreciate beauty rather than dissect it. It is enjoying a song, rather than dissecting the rhythm. In Heschel’s words, wonder is, “the perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all.” It is the impetus to question specifically from a place of awe and amazement. Unfortunately, too often we seek to suffocate this wonder, and we attribute it to obnoxiousness rather than genuine curiosity. Wonder is what leads us to ask why, rather than how.
Warren Berger wrote a book entitled A More Beautiful Question. What he describes as beautiful questions is the result of what Heschel described as Radical Wonder. Throughout the book Berger describes how beautiful questions, rather than innovative answers, have led to most of societies greatest innovations. “You don’t learn unless you question […] A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change” (A More Beautiful Question 9). What Berger is explaining is the transition from what he calls why questions, to what ifs and ultimately resulting in how. The why is what emerges from our sense of wonder. The what if is our ability to take ownership and explore how it could look differently. The how is the change that we create and the action we produce.
In the book Berger describes a university level class where students are asked to play a game called “And What If”. In it someone has to propose a ludicrous idea (what if we made a toaster that couldn’t toast bread). The next student had to build upon the idea, hence the name And What If. The result of the game was remarkable; it produced several marketable products. He attributes the success to the games ability to force people away from what they think they know. It forces you to look at something you have seen the same way for years, but experience it completely differently.
What If: A Wonderful New School
And what if we shifted all of our schools to a model of distance learning in a matter of days?
Certainly no one had asked that question in any game, but reality is stranger than simulations. Schools across the world, and Jewish day schools in particular, have answered this question. And I believe that our answer to this question has been proper and deserves to be embraced even when school buildings reopen: whatever we lose, never lose our sense of wonder. Instilling wonder is our primary mission.
Janus Korczak was a Polish educational leader who famously perished at the hands of the Third Reich after refusing to leave the children at the orphanage he ran. His educational vision was remarkably ahead of his time (and, in fact, would likely be considered ahead of his time if it were published today). In articulating the purpose of schooling, he taught, “I have the mind of a researcher, not an inventor. To study in order to know? No. To study in order to know more? No. I think it is to study in order to ask more and more questions.” Education is what occurs when newly learned information generates newer and deeper questions. As educators we are successful if our lessons evoke more questions rather than more answers. This model of education is beneficial in terms of instilling a sense of yirat shamayim (awe of Heaven) and in nurturing the necessary ingenuity for a successful career in today’s world. Just how we facilitate that (and how our experience of extended building closures helps us) is the what if that Berger described.
School across the country, including the one I head in Sharon, Ma, have developed robust schedules and online curriculums. Starting in pre-Kindergarten classes, students are toggling between synchronous (e.g. Zoom) and asynchronous (assignment) activities. Recommendations about limiting screen time are being widely ignored. Yet completely replicating a traditional classroom would be impossible. From an early point it became patently clear from that a simple 1 to 1 shift of the content we intended to teach before closure would be implausible and undesirable. I, and so many school leaders, worked closely with teachers to adapt their content.
Immediately it became clear that the foremost goal must be to give the students a sense of normalcy. We wanted to help facilitate their social groups and to support their social-spiritual-emotional needs. We emphasized that if given the choice between proper attendance that caused emotional distress or tardiness that brough relief, parents would be wise to support social emotional needs at this juncture. Yet we needed to offer more than emotional support, and we had to evaluate our content. The question then becomes: what if we lead with wonder?
How: Using Wonder
Aristotle is famously (though so far as I can tell, without actual attribution) quoted as saying, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” A peer once used a poignant image to describe this to me. Imagine a circle; whatever is contained within the circle is what you know, and everything beyond that circle is what you don’t know. As the amount that you know increases, so does that size of the circle. As the circle increases in size, the circumference interfaces with even more of the unknown. The more that we learn, the more that we are humbled. It seems to me that what we can learn from the prolonged school building closures is that this realization must be integral to our educational model.
Whether it is learning the basics of roots or the complexities of photosynthesis students learn some form of earth science throughout their school life. But how often are they taught to simply be amazed at the miracles occurring in a garden? How do we move them to a place of wonder? Our lessons must be intentionally designed to promote this thinking. It is our religious and educational imperative.
The same could be said of biology, astronomy, or any other science. And, the same can we said of any subject, whether it is the use of language, the waves of history, or the sequences of math. Our bifurcation of limmudei kodesh and limmudei chol undermines our appreciation of both. All learning must be understood through a prism of wonder.
It has been evident since the beginning of our distance learning that a typical curriculum would be insufficient. We were forced to slow down, and to have even greater intentionality in our lesson planning. This is a tremendous blessing, and one that we must capitalize on even when, G-d willing, we return to our buildings. In slowing down, we lean into the why. We provide students the space to explore and we buttress that exploration with awe. Wonder has two simultaneous effects: it allows us to appreciate the world as it is and empowers us to explore the power we have to change it. This is not simply an educational model; it is a covenantal vision of existence. From Avraham to today our peoples’ mission has been to appreciate with awe and improve with vigor; this renewed emphasis allows us to pursue this mission faithfully.
Rabbi Jordan David Soffer is the Head of School at Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, MA. Previously, Rabbi Soffer was the Rabbi-in-Residence at Carmel Academy, in Greenwich, CT. Rabbi Soffer has a BS from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and a Master’s Degree in education from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Soffer lives in Sharon with his wife, Marti, and their daughters Maayan and Reiut. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.