Wonder and disdain

For Spinoza, wonder is not an affect but rather the “imagination of a thing” which the learner has not encountered before and finds it difficult to make connections with other things in the learner’s mind: it is a “singular imagination”.

Wonder is an imagination of a thing in which the mind remains fixed because this singular imagination has no connection with the others. (pp. 105, Def. IV).

Disdain is an imagination of a thing which touches the mind so little that the thing’s presence moves the mind to imagining more what it is not than what is. (Def. V)

There are a huge number of ways that teachers should consider the “imaginations” of wonder and disdain in various learning contexts. Any time student are confronted with something they don’t know, they will have either the imagination of wonder or disdain, mingled with the multitude of affects associated with wonder and disdain, some of which I will outline below. I would like to argue that students who feel joy are more likely to feel wonder, while those feeling sadness are more likely to feel disdain; this is because, the joyous learner is more receptive to what they don’t know, while the sad learner is is less receptive to it. Wonder is an important “imagination” to draw students’ attention to. The first signs of learning are comments like: “I don’t get it”; “That doesn’t make sense”; “I don’t understand why we are learning this”. This is what some educational theorists such as Shayer and Adey call “cognitive dissonance” or “confusion”; they feel this should be encouraged because it is the first step to students learning something new. If they become aware that what they are feeling is wonder, then they actually begin to conceive an adequate idea of what they don’t know, and thus increase their powers of action. If they are a tenacious learner, curiosity will be stirred and their conatus will strive to know more.

We see a clear role for a teacher who may be confronting learners with things that create wonder in their students’ minds; these will be concepts that learners find it difficult to connect with other parts of their learning. In such situations, the teacher should encourage thought processes that can start to give the learner a conception of the connections these “singular” things have with other things in the world. This is a fundamental starting point for constructivist ideas of learning. At the beginning of a lesson, a constructivist teacher will give students a chance to activate thoughts about a topic they are going to deal with in a lesson so that they are prepped and ready to think about the connections that the things that stir wonder in their minds might have connections with other things they have learnt about. The teacher wants to create the habits of mind in the learner that mean they are able to “combine” wonder with a “striving to know”, “joy” or “desire” (the active affects) so that they make connections.

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