Wisdom: A Missing Focus
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Wisdom: A Missing Focus

Wisdom: A Missing Focus

You’ve likely heard the chatter. Educational reform seems to be to be the obsession of the moment in Educaburgh.

Testing’s good! Testing’s bad!
Take this acronym and call us in the morning!
Here comes our superhero! No, it’s just a guy with an eraser that can change standardized test answers in a single swipe.
Join the race! Boycott the race! Take a shortcut!
Save the children! Save the teachers! Save the status quo! Dismantle the bureaucracy!
Power to the #2 pencils! Wifi’s where it’s at!
Phones! Tablets! Laptops! Hardcovers! E-textbooks! Paper! No paper! Online! Offline!
Parents know better! The community knows better! The government knows better!
We want a choice! We are the choice!

No matter your position, you can broadcast your opinions at high volumes in the modern media vortex.

In an attempt to hit the mute button, at least momentarily, may I suggest a topic that seems to be missing from the megaphones of rights, power, money, influence, etc.?

That topic: wisdom.

Wait! I’m not talking about the reasoning (or lack of it) behind any opinion or initiative. I’m suggesting that equipping our students with wisdom should be a major focus of our efforts and “discussions.”

If there is one fact frequently cited in education-related discussions, it’s that we do not know what kind of world the students of today will live in as adults. The skills we believe to be so important today may be unnecessary tomorrow.

Ah, but wisdom will most certainly be an asset.

Believe it or not, even with the difficulty in defining wisdom, there is a growing body of research devoted to it—what it is, how it develops, what capacities support it, and so forth. And this research reaches beyond pithy sayings and accepted precepts to explore the neurocognitive girders of sagacity. The findings suggest a new direction for our academic emphases—less on what than on how we teach.

Admittedly, giving these capacities the needed emphasis is a challenge. (I’m just beginning to consider possible instructional implications.) They exceed the traditional boundaries of academia. However, if wisdom is a characteristic we’d like to see developing in our students, we cannot avoid accepting the challenge.

One more note before I present the list: above all, the message of this research may be for us as educators. As I’ve pondered this list, I’ve been asking myself how much I model each of these capacities. To that end, I’ve included a self-reflection question with each trait. Perhaps, if nothing else, we can renew our commitment and effort to live wisely in front of our students (and everywhere else!).

Here are the support beams of wisdom identified by researchers so far:

  • self-regulation, especially making choices that promote progress toward a goal rather than immediate emotional gratification
    Am I making choices that enable or increase the likelihood of achieving a long-term goal rather than settling for immediate gratification?
  • discernment, especially acting on larger principles rather than personal pride
    Do I base my actions and interactions on principles that are more noble than my personal pride (e.g., justice, integrity)?
  • emotional steadiness, not allowing external circumstances to determine reactions or one’s state of being
    Are my actions and interactions consistently calm enough to promote trust from others?
  • compassion, seeking justice for all regardless of personal feelings
    Am I aware enough of injustice to be moved to act? Within my realm of possibility, do I seek to meet the needs of others?
  • empathy, able to demonstrate respectful understanding of others’ viewpoints
    Do I listen with full attention? Do I wait for others to finish speaking? Do I pause to construct understanding of what others’ say before forming my response? Do I make every effort to understand the perspectives of others or spend my energy forming a defense of my own viewpoint?
  • altruism, sacrificing self-interests for the benefit of others
    Do I allow the potential benefit to others to influence my thinking about my own rights and responsibilities? Do my actions suggest I have a greater interest in helping others than in making my own life as easy or comfortable as possible?
  • resilience, redirecting focus forward and away from self-pity
    Do I quickly redirect my attention to what lies ahead rather than fretting or stewing in self-pity? Do I dwell on disappointment?
  • security, able to function even when not knowing all the answers
    Do I seek answers without allowing ambiguity to cripple me? Do I recognize, accept, and admit the limits of my knowledge?

These eight traits do not equal wisdom, neither individually nor collectively. However, they are what researchers find as common among individuals identified as possessing wisdom. As teachers, we have much to live up to if we are going to be models of wisdom for our students.

Now, how do we teach or at least establish educational environments where these capacities can develop?

That’s one reform that, if we find the answer, could change more than education. And, yes, it would be worth shouting about.



Hall, S. S., (2010) Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience (New York: Knopf).
Barred Owl via Crikey
“Old train tunnel, Wise, VA”  by Gamma Man

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