Professing Education


Educating for wisdom: Can an ancient virtue be
cultivated in postmodern times?

Dirk Windhorst

Redeemer University College, Ontario

About fifteen years ago, Robert Sternberg invited eighteen colleagues to contribute to a volume that assessed the feasibility of studying wisdom as a psychological construct. Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development (Sternberg, 1990) exhibited a coherence and collaboration that is uncommon among edited books: each contributor referred to the others in ways that made the reader wonder if they had coordinated sabbaticals and attended a semester-long seminar together. More importantly, this book boldly asserted that wisdom could be studied with scientific seriousness despite its past association with speculative metaphysics and spiritual mysticism. Psychologists were entering a field where analytical philosophers fear to tread. How many reputable philosophers would have the audacity to assume the literal meaning of their titles and call themselves lovers of wisdom?

Since 1990 two research groups have continued to develop and test psychological theories of wisdom: 1) Paul Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Plank Institute for Human Development and Education in Germany and 2) Robert Sternberg and his associates at Yale University's Centre for Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise (PACE). The Baltes group has defined wisdom as expert knowledge and good judgment regarding the practical affairs of life. They seek to understand wisdom from a developmental perspective: how do perceptions of wisdom change for individuals across the lifespan? The PACE Center has developed a conception of wisdom that has evolved from Sternberg's triarchic theory of intelligence. The remainder of this article will review Sternberg's balance theory of wisdom as it has been applied in education, specifically, an eighth-grade American history curriculum entitled Thinking Wisely about History (2003).1

Sternberg's balance theory of wisdom is based on his theory of successful intelligence2 _ an idea which seeks to broaden the notion of intelligence beyond I.Q. testing. He has maintained the unity of this construct by formulating a triarchic theory that embraces all the environments in which intelligence can be applied without assuming the existence of "multiple intelligences" (Gardner, 1983). Although Sternberg distinguishes three kinds of thinking _ analytical, creative, and practical _ that address the continuum of reasoning from "school smarts" to "street smarts," he maintains a unified model of intelligence.

How does he do this? First, at the base of the triarchic theory is a set of problem-solving components or processes that Sternberg (2003) believes underlies all aspects of intelligence for any individual in any culture (p. 44). These processes involve three main components: metacognitive skills (the understanding and control of one's own thinking), learning skills (the acquistion of knowledge), and thinking skills (knowing how to analyse a problem, knowing how to generate a solution, knowing how to apply a solution in a particular context). Second, these components operate through an experiential dimension where the relative ease or relative difficulty of processing is determined by how familiar or how novel a problem appears to an individual. "Analytical thinking is invoked when components are applied to fairly familiar problems abstracted from everyday life" (Sternberg, 2003, p. 44). Schools emphasize analytical thinking, and I.Q. tests are good at measuring it. "Creative thinking is invoked when the components are applied to relatively novel kinds of tasks or situations" (Sternberg, 2003, p. 44). Schools usually do not encourage creative thinking as much as analytical thinking, especially when creative individuals challenge conventional wisdom. Students rarely have to grapple with novel problems that require thinking "outside of the box." Third, these problem-solving components operate more or less successfully in a variety of contexts or environments _ the domain of practical intelligence. Here the youngster who barely passed grade school surprises former teachers by eventually becoming a successful entrepreneur. "Practical thinking is invoked when the components are applied to experience to adapt to, shape, and select environments" (Sternberg, 2003, p. 44).

Sternberg views intelligence and creativity as necessary but not sufficient components of wisdom. Successful intelligence _ "the ability to achieve success in life in terms of one's personal standards, within one's sociocultural context" (Sternberg, 2003, p. 42) _ is the basis for his theory of wisdom. Wisdom seems to grow out of practical thinking in balancing the three responses to an environment: Should one adapt to this environment, or shape it, or select another one? Yet wisdom transcends successful practical thinking in that it seeks the common good beyond one's own immediate interests. "Wisdom is the application of intelligence, creativity, and knowledge for a common good by balancing one's own interests, other people's interests, and higher level interests (e.g., organizational, community, cultural), through the mediation of values, over the short and long terms, in order to adapt to, shape, and select environments" (Sternberg, 2004).

How can one educate for wisdom understood in this way? Sternberg and his research associates at the PACE Center have developed an eighth-grade history curriculum that attempts to teach wise-thinking skills. The curriculum is divided into two units: one focuses on the causes and events that led up to the American Revolution; the other looks at slavery in the United States from its beginnings to the Emancipation Proclamation. Three groups of middle-school students were taught using three different curricula: a control group who were taught these topics using primary source materials; a second group that used the same primary source materials embedded within activities that employed critical-thinking skills; and a third group that used the primary source materials embedded within activities that employed critical-thinking and wise-thinking skills. All students were assessed to see whether the third group were more likely to develop habits of wise-thinking than their peers who had engaged the primary source material in other ways. The PACE Center is currently interpreting the data and writing up a report.

How does one distinguish between critical thinking and wise thinking? Jill Citron-Pousty of the PACE Center provided the following explanation:

Critical thinking is the ability to look at a situation and identify those important bits of information that can bring you to the point at which you can decide on the best course of action. Wise thinking is a completely different level of thought. Once you pick out those elements of a scenario which are most
important or critical, the information can then be considered on multiple planes: How does this situation affect the community-at-large? How does it affect my relationship with other people? How does it affect me? How was this situation handled in the past? How is it best to handle it now and in the future? (Windhorst, 2004a).

Phil Montanaro, an eighth-grade teacher in Connecticut, taught four months of American history using Thinking Wisely about History (TWH). Although looking at primary sources is a current emphasis in the teaching of American history, Montanaro was impressed with the way TWH structured group learning tasks to evaluate arguments and to appreciate opposing viewpoints. For example, in assessing what happened in the Boston Massacre of 1770, students read and evaluated three accounts of the event: one by a British officer, another by a Boston shoemaker, and the third by a Boston newspaper of the day.

At times, the history lessons came close to home. His students found it difficult to understand how Thomas Jefferson could write the lofty sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence while at the same time owning black slaves whom he believed were inferior to whites. Because of the activities of a racist gang called the "White Wolves" which operated in the vicinity of their own school, the students' sensitivities were particularly acute to what they viewed as Jefferson's hypocrisy. On the more positive side, Montanaro's students took Ben Franklin's maxims to heart. Many of them took seriously the curriculum's invitation to imitate the way Franklin tried to improve his character by developing their own maxims and keeping daily logs of their own behaviour.

As a Canadian, I was impressed by the way TWH brought out the historical dilemmas faced by the American colonists as they became increasingly frustrated with British taxation policies. Since English Canada began with Americans who chose to stay loyal to Britain, it was heartening to see them referred to as "Loyalists" rather than the more pejorative "Tories." The Loyalist side of the debate was represented fairly. Nevertheless, this curriculum did not proceed to show further how many Loyalists were forced by the "Patriots" to leave their homes without compensation and begin life all over again as refugees north of the border.

As a former teacher of eighth-grade students, I appreciated how TWH introduced students to wise-thinking exercises in a gradual, incremental fashion. For instance, the idea of achieving the common good was introduced in the second lesson and then was elaborated as the unit progressed through a number of activities that taught students how to deconstruct arguments until eventually they were challenged to solve dilemmas with a view towards achieving a balance among the competing parties in 1776. At the same time, it artfully wove historical dilemmas with current ones that students could connect to their own experiences. For example, after the lesson in which it is recalled how the Daughters of Liberty protested British policies by spinning cloth in public rather than buying imported British material, students consider the dilemma of whether or not to buy a popular brand of sneakers manufactured in Asian factories where workers are paid about a dollar a day.

Did the students experience any problems with the curriculum? Linda Jarvin (one of the researchers) and Phil Montanaro (one of the teachers) both replied that many students had difficulty reading the eighteenth-century prose of the primary source material. Montanaro addressed this problem by performing the role of the original speaker. For example, he preached a short sermon on drunkenness originally delivered by George Whitfield, one of the influential religious leaders of the Great Awakening. As a result of Montanaro's oral performance, the students were better able to appreciate the emotional impact of Whitfield's words, something that is difficult to pick up on the written page. In the following lesson, students were instructed on how to analyse his argument and discovered how Whitfield artfully combined an appeal to reason with an appeal to emotion _ something all effective speakers do.

Thinking Wisely about History is a rich, engaging curriculum. In my view, it successfully applies Sternberg's balance theory of wisdom in an educational setting. It will be interesting to read the PACE Center's report on this experiment to see if this curriculum cultivated the virtue of wise thinking among middle school students. Sternberg (2003) notes that despite the fact that IQ scores have risen in the past century, the world "at times seems bent on destroying itself" (p. 147). If we believe that educating for wisdom has a better chance of alleviating the needless suffering in the world of tomorrow,

then we need to put our students on a much different course. We need to value not only how they use their individual abilities to maximize their attainments but also how they use their individual abilities to maximize the attainments of others. We need, in short, to value wisdom. (p. 173)


1 I am indebted to Dr. Linda Jarvin and Dr. Jill Citron-Pousty, two research associates at the PACE Center, who gave me copies of Thinking Wisely about History and consented to be interviewed for this article (Windhorst, 2004a). I am also grateful to Phil Montanaro who shared with me some of his experiences teaching the wise-thinking curriculum to his eighth-grade history class in Connecticut (Windhorst, 2004b).
2 For a comprehensive summary of two decades of work on intelligence, creativity, and wisdom see Sternberg (2003).


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Sternberg, R. J. (2004, December 8). [Personal communication].
Thinking wisely about history: The birth of the nation. (2003). New Haven, CT: Yale University PACE Center.
Thinking wisely about history: The land of the free? Slavery in the United States. (2003). New Haven, CT: Yale University PACE Center.
Windhorst, D. (2004a, October 29). [Interview with Linda Jarvin and Jill Citron-Pousty]. Unpublished raw data.
Windhorst, D. (2004b, December 7). [Interview with Phil Montanaro]. Unpublished raw data.