The Universe of Learning and a Sense of Wonder


This is Part One of Bill Moyers’ interview with astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History.  In the interviews with Moyers, Dr. Tyson explores the nature of an expanding universe, accelerating universe, the differences between “dark energy” and “dark” matter, the concept of God in cosmology and why science matters.

On March 9, Tyson hosts a new television series entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.  Cosmos is an updated version of the PBS series COSMOS by Carl Sagan.

In the last two posts, I wrote about anti-science and unreason being played out by the actions of the Georgia Legislature in their decision to throw the curriculum of K-12 schooling into the hands of an appointed committee.

Figure 2. Carl Sagan. source:

Figure 2. Carl Sagan. source:

Today, I want to focus on the thinking of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan to bring “a sense of wonder” to our understanding of learning and teaching.  In 1980, PBS broadcast Sagan’s 13-part COSMOS series, and it became one of the most important PBS documentaries that brought a level of understanding and wonder to audiences, from young students to adults.  Now, in 2014, Dr. Tyson returns to Sagan’s Cosmos, and using new technology presents a new version for us the enjoy.  If you Google “images of Carl Sagan,” you will also find on the same page, many images of Neil deGrasse Tyson.  As we watch the new series, we see how these two scientists shared similar visions for teaching and learning.

Here is bit of information about the new series:

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is an upcoming American documentary television series. It is a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was presented by Carl Sagan. The new series’ presenter will be Neil deGrasse Tyson. The executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow. The series will premiere on March 9, 2014 simultaneously in the US across ten 21st Century Fox networks, including National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, and Fox Life. The remainder of the series will air on Fox with Nat Geo rebroadcasting the episodes the next day with extra content.  (Wikipedia, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

One of my beliefs about learning is that whatever is studied should be of prime interest to the learner, to the students.  There is no body of knowledge that all students need to learn.  We do not have scientific evidence for this.  In this standards-based era of eduction, we’ve been convinced that all kids need to learn the same set of standards or same set of content.

We shouldn’t support this idea.

Instead learning should be about a sense of wonder.  Tyson and Sagan speak the language of wonder when they speak about the universe, science and learning.

Sagan and Tyson insist that we think big, that we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to piqué their curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest them.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

In an age when we test students on content that is mandated, it is refreshing to think about content and learning that can open student’s eyes to a world full of wonder.

Many years ago Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled A Sense of Wonder. It was one of my favorites, and I remember and have used one quote from the book many times:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

Carson’s passionate book conveys the feelings that most science teachers have for their craft, and their goal is to instill in their students, “A Sense of Wonder.”

What is your universe?  How can we as teachers instill a sense of wonder into schooling?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University