[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I’m continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be “thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind” — and I do — so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part two. Thoughtfulness was Part One.]
If you google “Definition of wisdom,” you get the following definition:
1. The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
2. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment. (https://www.google.com/search?q=Definition+of+wisdom)
We think of wisdom as something that only comes with time. Traditionally, the young person is head-strong, the elder is wise. Societally, we think of wisdom hard-earned — and interestingly, it is often gained by those who are not considered “good at school” — it is the stereotype of the elder who learned at “the school of hard knocks.” It is not something that we traditionally think of when we think of high school students to the point where when a young person actually displays these traits, we say they are “wise beyond their years.”
And yet, if we are to help students to become fully realized citizens during their time with us, helping them to develop “soundness of action” and “good judgement” — in other words, wisdom — during their time with us is essential. Because intellect and knowledge without the wisdom to apply those ideas thoughtfully can be profoundly dangerous.
So then, wisdom becomes about decision-making and action-taking, but the accumulation of wisdom is about reflection. Wisdom is about understanding that “doing” is not the end of the learning process, reflecting on what we have done is. Wisdom is about learning from your mistakes, but then — importantly — being able to apply those lessons not only so that you do not make the same mistakes again, but that you can imagine and foresee mistakes before they happen.
Wisdom means not falling so in love with your own ideas that you cannot see the unintended harm those ideas could do.
So how we do help our students to become more wise?
Do Real Stuff: We have to dare kids, help kids, support kids to attempt great things, struggle, reflect, learn and try again. That is the cycle through which wisdom is gained. But we rarely reflect on the things we do not care about. When kids are engaged in work that matters to them, work that is authentic and has real meaning, we create the conditions for students to reflect and gain wisdom. The coach who has students watch game footage and critique their own performances, both individually and as a team, is doing more to help her students become more wise than the teacher who covers the content of a World History class at blistering pace.
Be Scholar-Activists: It isn’t enough to do real work that matters. We have to help students see that work in the context of the work that has gone on before us. That is why it is important not just to study history but to develop the tools of the historian. When our students see themselves as scholar-activists, they place their actions in the stream of human history and they can learn from the mistakes of the past while they endeavor to take action in the present.
Be Willing to Live in the Soup: Life is messy and there are few absolutes. When we own that publicly with our students, encouraging them to come with us on our own journeys of figuring all of this out. In a conversation on Twitter, Bill Ferriter wrote, “Learning only happens when there is tension between what kids think they know and what they see in the world around them.” (https://twitter.com/plugusin/status/318394936233951232) And he is right, it is in that moment of conflict between what we think we know and what we experience that meaning happens. We need to help our students understand that we — all of us — are forever engaged in what Alvin Toffler said was the process of learning, unlearning and re-learning. (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Alvin_Toffler/) And our students will be far more willing to listen to that message if we model ourselves.
In the end, our willingness to engage in reflective practice with our students, our dexterity in creating the conditions for students to engage in real work that matters, and our ability to help them see themselves and that work in the context of the never-ending stream of human history — in short, our ability to help our students to become more wise, is the most important thing we can do. If our students can learn from their experiences with us, when they still have a safety net, we will have enabled them to make better decisions about their own lives when they leave our walls. And if we have helped them to be more thoughtful about wise about their world around them, then we have helped them become better citizens for the world at large.