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