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Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Fostering a sense of wonder

Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Fostering a sense of wonder
Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Fostering a sense of wonder

Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.

– e. e. cummings, American poet, 1894 - 1962


Years ago, our teachers put into words what they thought best described their work and purpose at Harpeth Hall. The statement began: “Our core purpose is to develop a sense of wonder.” 

Fostering, protecting, and amplifying a sense of wonder in girls ages 10 to 18 may seem aspirational. Some believe that curiosity is a fixed trait — that people have more or less of it assigned to them at birth. The good news is that it can be cultivated and amplified with role modeling and the right environment. I see this work come to fruition every day on our campus. Our teachers know that although they may never be able to impart every lesson and skill a girl needs in the 21st century, they can stimulate an active academic curiosity in their students that sparks a love of learning. 

Completing the gap between what we know and what we want to know is only the beginning. Academic curiosity has as much to do with the search or act of seeking as it does with finding the answer. When we are able to increase a student’s desire to search and seek, then we can set that student on a path of learning for the rest of her life. One search leads to another. Understanding is deepened, and the intrinsic satisfaction in exploring new things increases.  

This is especially important for the maturing young mind. A study of preschoolers back in 2007 revealed that when children reach the “why” stage of development, usually around age 3, they ask on average 76 questions per hour. Later research has revealed that a child’s sense of wonder dramatically decreases once they enter formal schooling. By kindergarten, the students asked two to five questions over two hours, and by the 5th grade, most children spent the entire school day without asking even one question. Showing a sense of wonder and amazement at a new discovery can be socially risky for adolescent and teenage girls.

At Harpeth Hall, however, wonderment is normalized. I recently sat on the floor in my office with a small group of 5th grade girls, and they peppered me with 30 questions over 20 minutes. Those questions ranged from what I do every day to one of my favorites, “Mrs. Hill, what did the boys think when Harpeth Hall first started?” Of course, I answered that one with a question of my own: “What do you think they were thinking?” 

Our classrooms are filled with examples of teachers figuratively placing a topic or idea in the middle of the room and encouraging the girls to ask questions only. The work we have done for years instilling confidence in our students lays the foundation for taking risks. Girls are surrounded by other girls who are not afraid to explore new topics and forge new paths for understanding. 

That academic curiosity breeds hopefulness in our students. As they graduate and go out into the world, their well-developed sense of wonder allows them to get to the root of the problems they face — which is the first step in solving for a better tomorrow. Curiosity challenges the ordinary solution and brings the unexplored into the realm of possibility. It may even, as Mr. Cummings suggested, “reveal the human spirit.”