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Dr Matthew McFall

Awe and Wonder - Curiosity - Engagement

What would be the effect on learning and motivation if you focussed less on simply teaching knowledge and more on developing curiosity and wonder in your learners? And, for that matter, what is wonder, what does it feel like to do it and why wonder anyway?

These are questions that are vexing the quite extraordinary mind of one of Independent Thinking’s most magical Associates.

Dr Matthew McFall first came to our attention after Associate Dave Harris had bumped into him in the corridors of the Learning Sciences Institute at Nottingham University. Matthew was part way through his (second) Phd, this one on the power of wonder as a tool to improve education for all children and in all settings.

Dave was hooked and employed him as the UK's only 'Agent of Wonder' at the inner-city school he was leading at the time. One of Matthew's first jobs was to transform a space - too small for a classroom, too big for a cupboard - into a Wonder Room. 

Recent titles include:

  • Meaningful Learning through Collaborative Curiosity
  • Creating and Growing a Culture of Wonder in School and Beyond
  • Cabinets of Curiosities, Labyrinths, and Mechanical Puzzles: The Powerful Heritage of Wonder, Wondering, and Wandering.

A Wonder Room, in case you're wondering, is basically a full size Cabinet of Curiosities - a space full to the rafters with the weird and the wonderful, the enlightening and the mystifying: puzzles, riddles, bones, books, seeds, ancient games and mysteries.

‘Every exhibit is a potential treasure for learning,' as Matthew explains. 

Despite dire warnings that the students would break, lose, sell or just run-off with everything, the Wonder Room proved to be a great hit, students, staff and families becoming joyously part of a culture of wonder.

The Guardian, visiting Matthew at the Wonder Maze, a collaborative celebration of wonder, surprise, and creativity at the heart of learning, declared ‘Every school should have one’.

What Matthew’s amazing work – academic research supported by experience in a real-world setting – shows is the power of awe, wonder and curiosity to excite and engage even some of our most hard-to-reach children and young people. While most schools would accept that wonder has its place, to actually create a physical space for wonder to happen takes the approach to a whole new level. Even if that space is, as is the case with some of the schools Matthew has worked with in recent years, a cupboard, a table top or even a matchbox.

Hooked on conjuring since the age of four, Matthew’s love of the art and craft of magic has led to a range of unusual commissions and inventions. He has worked with a number of august and quirky institutions (from The Royal Society and Cambridge University to Derby Museum and the Anti-Boredom Campaign). He is currently engaged on some very hush-hush work creating a Cabinet of Curiosities for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, complete with ruby red slippers from you know where.

He’s been a ghost writer and a writer of ghost stories. He’s written beautifully about 'Wonder Walks' and 'Nature Tables' and he even wrote the obituary for Yvonne Kapp, the celebrated biographer of Karl Marx’s daughter and in 2016 he was awarded the distinction of being an ‘Amazing Person in Education’ by the DfE.

He also knows quite a lot about stick insects.

Thank you again for such an inspirational morning yesterday. You really fired everyone up and I’ve seen all sorts of interesting things appearing and happening today

You were simply outstanding today - a breath of fresh air

Every school needs a Dr Matthew McFall the aka professor of curiosity; what's that under the hedgerow? I've got lot's of interesting things in my pocket. Would you like to see something.....amazing? Fabulous

You should invite all the head teachers in the country to hear you talk. And if at the end anyone doesn’t ‘get it’ they should be immediately fired from their jobs and prevented from ever going near a school again

We had it all – magic, creativity, ponderings, curiosity piqued, awe and wonder in abundance – the whole caboodle!

A really exceptional day. The feedback from staff has been excellent – people still buzzing today and still trying to work out how you knew about the amoeba and the feather

The best staff INSET day EVER!

It just seems to be what education should all be about, doesn’t it?

Dr Matthew McFall In His Own Words


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