Ideas for teaching wisdom

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:

Dr Stephanie Thornton continues her series on the teaching of traits and skills to our pupils. This time, she considers ‘wisdom’ and whether we can teach the young to be wise

Robert Sternberg, one of the most prominent psychologists of recent decades, has argued strongly that we should be teaching wisdom to the young.

Palpably, education is failing in this area: for example, the people who brought the international economic system to its knees in 2008 were shining products of education: bright, well-informed, knowledgeable, the successes of the exam system. None of this stopped them from making decisions that were dreadfully, disastrously unwise – decisions that have damaged us all.

Nor is this an isolated incidence of folly. History is replete with other examples. Sternberg (2012) suggests that events in this 21st century make the teaching of wisdom urgent: more than ever before we need a population that can make wise decisions as they take direct action, such as voting, or even tweeting.

Sternberg is sweeping in his accusation that schools don’t teach wisdom. In fact, he asserts that wisdom is generally not even discussed in our schools, let alone taught. Sternberg believes that this is because while it is easy to test what information the young have mastered, it is hard to test their wisdom.

The culture of assessment, assessment, assessment focuses us on imparting information: teaching knowledge at the expense of wisdom. Alas, knowledge is not enough to shape wisdom. Wisdom is about action in a way that information and knowledge per se are not.

Others – and this is the popular view – believe that one can’t teach wisdom to the young because wisdom is the product of experience, and so comes with age. But as the cartoonist Tom Wilson pointed out: “Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself” – an observation we can, sadly, all relate to. History shows that we cannot rely on age and experience to induce wisdom.

How do you teach the young to be wise? If wisdom were simply the product of experience, then the task would be impossible. Luckily it isn’t. Experience may provide information which wisdom needs to work with (though we don’t always learn the lessons of experience, and experience is not always necessary to wisdom).

But wisdom involves much more than experience: it is about the exercise of good judgement, and that is defined in terms of the process through which decisions are made. This process is reflective rather than impulsive; it draws on critical evaluation of information rather than unquestioning acceptance; it tries to anticipate consequences before committing to a decision; and it evaluates those consequences against values. These are all skills which the young can be taught, giving them the tools with which to make wiser decisions.

Making decisions

It is not what you decide, it’s how you reached that decision that matters and that is the first lesson we need to teach the young, en route to wisdom.

The idea that wisdom is about how you think, not what you think eludes the majority – even many of the intelligent. We tend to view ourselves and those who agree with us as wise, and those who disagree as unwise, showing poor judgement (or worse).

But obviously social support is not enough to identify what is wise: nothing stops me (or you) from holding unwise beliefs or taking unwise decisions (which of us has never regretted anything in the wiser light of hindsight?).

The mere fact that others agree with us offers no guarantee of wisdom, as history has repeatedly shown. If all we do in schools is convince the young of this, and sow the idea that wisdom involves a more reflective way of thinking that is well worth embracing we will have made a crucial difference.

Reflection

Can teenagers be taught to be reflective? Reflectiveness as opposed to impulsivity is the defining characteristic of wisdom. Much has been written about the immaturity of adolescent brain structures, which some have interpreted as evidence that teenagers are inherently unable to inhibit impulsive reactions and so cannot reason reflectively.

However, this conclusion is controversial. Not all teenagers are impulsive, though all go through the same neurological development. And there is clear evidence that adolescents can be taught to control their reactions, and so inhibit impulsivity (Romer 2010).

Many websites offer advice on how to do this – some more sensibly than others. Expert opinion suggests that the first step is as simple as talking to the young about how the mind works.

Conveying the idea that it can be controlled, educated, changed can have a surprisingly large impact (Blackwell et al 2007). And any strategy that interrupts impulsive reactions can pay dividends – even simply counting to 10 before reacting.

Critical-thinking

Foster critical-thinking. Human beings are not naturally critical-thinkers – even trained minds slip up outside their areas of expertise. We are far less rational a species than we suppose, prone to many errors of thinking.

For example, we generally think we know far more than we do about a subject (the fallacy of omniscience, as Sternberg put it). We are insufficiently sceptical about what is presented to us as fact, often accepting very dodgy information (especially if it fits our preconceived ideas and comes from a source we identify with).

We often don’t know how to evaluate “facts” (news vs fake news?), don’t know what would constitute good evidence, still less where to find it. Yet these skills are, ultimately, essential to wise decision-making. It would be naïve to imagine that we could train all – or even most – of our teenagers to be adept critical-thinkers, overcoming all of these problems. Even universities struggle to inculcate such skills in students.

A full capacity for critical reasoning on some topic requires expertise, vast knowledge in that area – which adolescents (and actually, usually the rest of us) do not have.

An age-appropriate goal for teenagers in the teaching of wisdom is simply to introduce the idea that “facts” may not be facts, that a sceptical stance to ‘information’ is always wise, that there will always be things one doesn’t know (but could find out) and other things one doesn’t know (and can’t find out), and some things one doesn’t even know one doesn’t know (Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”).

Accepting these truths may make decision-making harder for the young, but that is the way the world is. Accepting these truths can induce caution. Wisdom is about knowing where you are. Even knowing that you don’t know is wisdom – an insight that may have potent implications.

Anticipation

Anticipating the consequences of actions is always going to be the hardest part of wise decision-making. The starkest truth is the law of unintended consequences – effects of well-intentioned actions that no-one anticipated or wanted, a phenomenon constantly in the news just now. The younger you are, the less experienced and the harder to anticipate consequences. It’s an issue for the young to discuss: wisdom demands a consideration of consequences that we may not be informed enough to predict. What to do? How to do better?

Evaluation

Evaluating consequences against values. Values come in many shapes and sizes. The evaluation of values is a matter for philosophy and faith as much as science – each approach offering different criteria.

On a day-to-day basis, schools may often be thrilled if teenagers’ values are entirely self-focused – if that reduces substance abuse, risk-taking etcetera. But from a global perspective, one may suggest that it is wise (for reasons practical, not to mention moral) to consider the needs, the impact of actions on others across the world. Here is a prime topic to engage with the young, in fostering the foundations of wisdom.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, including in this current series, go to http://bit.ly/2o1BVxK

References

  • Blackwell, L, Trzesniewski & Dweck (2007) Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A longitudinal study and intervention, Child Development 78 246-263.
  • Romer D (2010) Adolescent Risk-taking, Impulsivity and Brain Development: Implications for prevention Developmental Psychobiology 52 263-276.
  • Sternberg R (2012) Teaching for Wisdom in Our Schools, Education Week 22 42-56.


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