Somewhere in the East Midlands is a school.
And somewhere in that school is a room.
We know about this particular room because we’ve read about it. It’s full of wondrous things – puzzles, unusual objects and artefacts gathered together with the sole aim of stimulating students.
The man behind Nottingham University Samworth Academy’s Wonder Room is Dr Matthew McFall, brought in by the then new head, Dave Harris, as an Agent of Wonder with the remit of inspiring students.
Dr McFall is also the man behind A Cabinet of Curiosities — The Little Book of Awe and Wonder.
As teachers, we like curiosity. It’s the fuel that drives young minds to want to know more. The desire to want to get to the bottom of something, to understand it more deeply. And yet it’s so easy to stand at the front asking questions trying to force some kind of half-baked curiosity in our students. Sadly, that stuff’s not real. Real curiosity doesn’t fit into neat 50 minute chunks and is satiated when the plenary comes along. Real curiosity nags and eats and provokes long after the bell at the end of a lesson.
‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ takes its theme from the old idea of the Wunderkammers (Wonder Rooms) of Rennaissance Europe. These rooms were not easily categorised and contained objects and artefacts from a wide range of disciplines – animal skeletons sat side by side with portrait miniatures, religious items and mineral samples. These Wonder Rooms sometimes took on a bizarre feel, but their purpose was always the same – to provoke an interest in the wonderful.
‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ is a treasure trove. From the tiny message on the front cover to the miniature coded answers throughout, it’s full of little delights and comes with its own magnifying glass bookmark to spot them. The book is split into 6 sections – Wonder Rooms, Wondrous Forms, Wonderful Life, Wondrous Sights, Mercurial Wonders and Wonderful Constructions. A quick flick through will whisk you from diagrams of the human stomach to instructions on how to make your own sun dial, from a riddle that killed Homer to a Malaysian tongue twister.
What’s best about ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ is that there are no curriculum links or lesson ideas here. In the world of wonder, these are irrelevant distractions. In fact, although you get the sense that Matthew McFall has collated these “objects” with some care (see p.31 where he matches a doodle of Auntie Mary scrubbing the floor with a diagram of a water molecule), he doesn’t pepper the book with many of his own ideas and words at all. The curiosities are there to look at and the questions must come from you. It’s a clever idea and it works – we’re still not sure why there are there tiny ants marching across the first few pages!
It wouldn’t be right to suggest ways in which ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ could be used in your teaching. It’s not that sort of book and it’s probably not what the author would want. But we’re pretty sure he’d appreciate the following idea. Here’s our recommendation for what to do with this little book of awe and wonder in your classroom…
- 1) Find the darkest corner of your garage.
- 2) Cover the book in dust and cobwebs.
- 3) Take to school and hide in a place where a student will stumble across it.
- 4) Put on your best “I know nothing” face when the book is found.
- 5) Just leave them to it… Curiosity will out.
More than anything else, ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ serves as a reminder that a natural curiosity about the world is to be nurtured. Be the Agent of Wonder in your school and make your classroom a little space of awe and wonder.
PS. If you ever work out what those ants are doing, don’t let us know — we quite like wondering.
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