Working as a magician and puzzle-maker helped Matthew McFall develop a fascination with creating a sense of wonder. In recent years he has been applying his expertise to education, starting by touring schools with "cabinets of curiosities" containing intriguing games and mysterious artefacts.
Building on this work, Dr McFall has been completing a doctorate on the subject of wonder and learning at the University of Nottingham's Learning Science Research Institute. It was in a corridor at the university that he first bumped into principal Dave Harris, and the two hit it off immediately, talking about better ways to engage pupils.
When Mr Harris prepared to open an academy sponsored by the university, they discussed whether Dr McFall should have an official role at the school - and his own unique space in the building.
A "Wonder Room" was created in the Nottingham University Samworth Academy (Nusa) when it opened in a new building in September 2010. The room had initially been allocated as an ICT suite, but is now instead a treasure trove of curious objects, including seeds, animal skulls and teeth, old technology and mechanical puzzles.
The room is overseen by Dr McFall, who works part time at the academy as its "Agent of Wonder", a role in which he also helps to organise other activities. The word "agent" was deliberately chosen, he said. "It's not just me doing stuff; it's about enabling things to happen."
Nearly all the items in the room can be touched, and pupils seem particularly attracted to writing using a 1930s typewriter - a novelty in our digital age. The skulls on display include those of a kangaroo and a cod fish - "It looks like an alien and the students ask if it's a dinosaur," Dr McFall says.
The room is open to pupils for drop-in sessions in breaktimes, used by Dr McFall for one-to-one tutoring, and is regularly booked by teachers of other subjects including English, history and science.
Like a museum, its displays change. "I keep it moving around, so it's an evolving space - novelty is important for wonder," Dr McFall says.
Tips from the scheme
- "You can fit wonder in a matchbox," Dr McFall says. So don't worry if you don't have a dedicated room - or what amounts to a cupboard (see below). You can use any space.
- Consider ideas of growth and propagation. A project like this should grow organically.
- "Ask people what wonder means to them." Dr McFall says it is even worth going out into the street with a clipboard and asking the public directly.
Evidence that it works?
A more academic evaluation of the project is to be written by Dr McFall, but anecdotal signs from the first year are strong. The Wonder Room has had highly positive feedback from pupils, who pack it during breaktimes. Feedback from teachers has also been positive.
A handful of other schools have already begun to replicate the approach, including one that plans to create its own mini version in a toilet-roll cupboard.
Approach - Creating a Wonder Room and employing an "agent of wonder"
Started - 2010
Led by - Dr Matthew McFall and Nusa principal Dave Harris
Name - Nottingham University Samworth Academy
Location - Bilborough, Nottingham
Pupils - up to 950
Age range - 11-18
Intake - More than 40 per cent eligible for free school meals, well above the national average, plus significantly higher than average with SEN
Ofsted overall rating - No full Ofsted yet, but "making satisfactory progress".