Can you teach ‘wisdom’ in a general way?

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A new study in Learning and Instruction reports on an attempt to teach wisdom, generally.

The authors start by noting a couple of previous attempts to teach wisdom in this way. However, these attempts led to no apparent change in student wisdom levels, so you might think that was the end of the matter. But, no, these studies did not have a control group and this matters.

In the new study, there are three groups. The first group followed the ‘Wisdom 1’ course, the second group followed the ‘Wisdom 2’ course and the third group was a control. It does not appear that the college students involved were randomised into these conditions. Instead, it appears that they were selected into these courses in the same way that they would be for any of their other college courses. This lack of randomisation is a major issue and makes it hard to interpret the p-values that are later quoted because p-values assume a random sample.

The two ‘wisdom’ courses seem to have involved a mixture of reading literature, writing in journals and so on.

The intriguing part is how the authors supposedly measured the construct of wisdom. There is, apparently, a pre-existing ‘three-dimensional wisdom scale (3D-WS)’, the validity and reliability of which has been confirmed by previous research. I was not aware of this so I was keen to find out what it involves.

Students are asked a series of questions about how strongly they agree with a statement, or how true a statement is about them, which they rate on a Likert scale (1 = strongly agree, 5 = strongly disagree and so on). The statements include the intriguing ‘ignorance is bliss’, for which I am not even sure what the ‘wise’ answer would be. The researchers are aware that students may give socially desirable rather than honest responses and they attempt to counter this by wording some of the statements in the negative. I’m not sure why this would remove this problem.

The results are interesting, if difficult to interpret given the lack of randomisation. One of the wisdom courses led to no change in wisdom, the other led to an improvement and the control led to a decline! Commenting on this decline, the researchers suggest that a wisdom course that leads to no change in wisdom could actually be beneficial because it may be arresting a decline.

I think that’s a stretch.


6 thoughts on “Can you teach ‘wisdom’ in a general way?

  1. I think its a stretcy too! Wisdom typically comes with years; if one can accelerate the ‘years’ of accumulation of experience and reflection that leads to wisdom, maybe we loose other things.

  2. The way they worded the final conclusion is interesting – “this is the first time that a wisdom curriculum has been demonstrated to increase wisdom in a traditional higher education setting”.

    Perhaps it is the first time in any setting, perhaps there have only been two previous attempts. Perhaps the same team tried three times and got this result on the third. If you try to figure out if this “first” is good news for teaching wisdom you can’t. If this is the first time in this context but there are lots of other positive results then it is good news. If this is the first ever positive result of many trials it is bad news as it is likely just random chance. The statement has no information content.

  3. David F says:

    Hannah Arendt wrote: “Wisdom is a virtue of old age, and it seems to come only to those who, when young, were neither wise nor prudent.” Seems like “teaching” wisdom to young people is counterproductive…

  4. DWL says:

    Admittedly, I haven’t read the full study referred to here, but their definition of wisdom seems pretty thin. A very detailed look at cultivating wisdom in public education–with a deep understanding of the tradition of philosophy (i.e. the “love of wisdom”)–is in Sean Steel’s “The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education
    Historical Sources and Contemplative Practices” (SUNY Press, 2014). His critique of Bloom’s taxonomy is worth the price alone. Sean is a teacher in the Canadian public education system with plenty of classroom experience. His follow up book “Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses” (Peter Lang, 2018) contains practical suggestions and plans for teachers about how to encourage a love of wisdom. It would be interesting to see a comparison of a group of students who follow Steel’s program and those who don’t.

  5. Iain Murphy says:

    It’s a step to maybe find a way to teach something rather esoteric, so great.

    It wasn’t that long ago we thought the number of neutrons in the brain could only decline and that students couldn’t improve beyond their academic range (ie: A C student would always be a C student). These ideas have been destroyed with good research, maybe this is the start of that.

    It’s certainly better than the wishy-washy approach most progressive educators are taking that Greg argues against.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Cant agree Iain. Teaching various “skills” out of the context of knowledge is entirely in the progressive mantra. We’ll have these “wise” students who don’t know enough to be wise about. So not wise then.

      Sadly wisdom is, like all things, subject dependent — we all know wise people about some area, say relationships, who you wouldn’t let near another area, say buying a car.

      I’ll stick to teaching facts and relevant skills and trying to impart some wisdom, if I’m lucky.

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