How dropping wonderbombs improves learning

Wonderbombs - amazing facts that get us thinking about the world - wake students up from lethargy, says David Murray

David Murray

Pedagogy: Why teachers should use wonderbombs to boost student engagement

Recently, I met a friend’s baby for the first time. Little Dylan is seven months old. He is still all twitching fists, watching eyes and smiles. Like all babies, Dylan is basically a budding brain and a bulging belly. Babies learn and they eat their own feet and they sleep and excrete; the rest comes later. As I watched Dylan, it was clear that, most of the time, everything is fascinating to him. Everything. He pushes and pulls and watches and grabs. And it all goes straight to the mouth.  

Anyone interested in learning can benefit from watching a little person learn. For a baby, because everything is new, everything is stimulating – until sometimes it all just becomes too much. Later, we learn to ignore most of what we experience and we take for granted most of what we know. That is how we manage to navigate ourselves through this big old world, which bombards us with its incessant information.

We have to develop habits and routines to lessen the mental load or we’d buckle under the sensory overload. So we start to live in a constant cocktail party of noise, partially paying attention for anything that might be salient, but ignoring and discarding 99.99 per cent of what happens around us. Our ears, eyes and brain are open but most of what goes in has to be discarded. That has been true for many of the students I have taught over the years, too: most of what went in was simply discarded.  

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As teachers, we might establish retrieval systems to stretch students’ memory muscles even though we realise that real deep learning requires more than simple retrieval. Actual knowledge needs integration and application. A baby learns how this fits with that, and knowing one thing means they can then start to work out other things. So novelty wears off and a child starts to cope with this overstimulating world.

Wonderbombs: Getting students to look at the world through a baby's eyes

Sometimes I think it is important to shake my learners out of their bored expectations and surprise them into thinking like a baby, with a new eye to the old world they think they know. In such a way I try to engage a much neglected but primal learning tool, which is a heightened sense of wonder. When I was with seven-month-old Dylan, he showed wonder at just about everything. Look, grass! Look, a tree! Look, a dummy! (I still think Dylan’s mum was pointing at me when she said that last one).

So, in my teaching arsenal I keep wonderbombs. Wonderbombs are small facts or bits of information that make students sit up and see the world a bit differently. They wake brains up and shake things up. Sometimes I start lessons with them. Sometimes I stop what we’re doing when I feel the collective brain power dipping and throw a few into the mix. 

Wonderbombs can be about anything. So, for instance, even in an English lesson I might tell my class that if an atom’s nucleus were the size of an orange, then the nearest electron would be three miles away, meaning around 99.9999 per cent of everything is empty space. And if you removed all that empty space, the entire human race would be the size of a sugar cube. Or I might point out that Cleopatra lived closer in time to the building of the first McDonald's than to the building of the pyramids. I might inform them that where the sun appears in the sky is not actually where it is; it’s where it was eight minutes ago. And many of the stars we see at night in fact died millions of years ago but we won’t see their fatal explosions as they fade into darkness for millions of years to come. Just as someone near one of those stars wouldn’t be seeing us right now, if they could see the Earth, but would be observing lumbering dinosaurs’ lives unfolding as if in real time. So much is so far from what it seems to be.   

Wonderbombs can be dropped and popped at any moment. The point is to put the focus on the oddness of the world around us and how little we actually know about it. And, therefore, how much we still have to learn and how exciting such learning should be. Because the world is incorrigibly plural and inexhaustibly astonishing, if we simply have eyes to see and let it be.

Well-deployed wonderbombs will open students’ eyes, puzzle them and get them talking. They should stop them in their tracks with surprise, force them to think and maybe even laugh. So, every now and then, I drop a wonderbomb. It works – and it’s wonder fuel.  

One of my colleagues, Stewart, has an enormous and handy pile of amazing facts at his fingers about hyenas. I’ll let you find out for yourself about their genitals, but don’t say you weren’t warned. Stewart does the same with his hyena facts as I do with my random ones. They’re deployed to delight and surprise, to wake up weary minds and open drooping eyes wide. 

I used to work with a Zimbabwean teacher called Erick. Erick would make people laugh or "Ooh!" with surprise so that while their mouths were open, he could pop nutritious learning inside. I always liked that image. Like little Dylan, everything goes to the mouth, even if only symbolically. We chew things over, however messily. And some of it makes it inside, gets integrated and becomes part of the very make-up of who we are. We can thereby ensure that our learning is full of wonder or, in other words, wonderful.

And if we can make our learning wonderful, then we can make our students wonderful, too, and then we have done something truly wonderful. We might even be able to consider ourselves wonderful teachers. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

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