Reflections on Wisdom in Education

William Harms
Photo Credit: 
Pietro Testa, Google Art Project

Reflection and critical thinking are compass points on the pathways to wisdom, participants observed at the “Wisdom Research Forum on Education.”

In November, an international group of about 30 presenters and guests came together in Chicago to discuss how wisdom strengthens education as they listened to talks on the topic from a variety of perspectives. Wisdom grows, they agreed, through questions asked in a space that encourages trust and allows for self disclosure.

“We are taking the term ‘wisdom’ broadly, not looking at classroom education solely, but looking at the notion of education as a set of experiences that can change people,” said Howard Nusbaum, Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of Wisdom Research at the University.

“Wisdom is an aspect of human potential, and we want to understand how it can be inculcated in others,” he pointed out in his opening remarks. “Wisdom is a property of people, a form of expertise, an integration of cognitive, reflective and affective characteristics. It has to be studied with multi-disciplinary approaches.”

Wisdom research at the University began with a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation for the Defining Wisdom Project. In 2012, the Templeton Foundation gave the University a $5 million, three-year grant, of support that made the University “the center of gravity” for wisdom studies, Nusbaum said.

The research effort has created a network of wisdom scholars and led to a productive contribution to the literature on wisdom. Scholars associated with the Defining Wisdom Project produced over 250 deliverables including, four books, 24 articles, 14 chapters, 11 courses, 10 student theses, and over 95 presentations, with another 11 books, 7 chapters, and 40 articles still in preparation. The new project spawns six research projects: empathy in medicine; economic expertise and wisdom; linguistic expertise; language use and reflection; developing insight; and somatic and mental training for wisdom.

Reflecting on their own work

Participants at the forum discussed the interplay between their own work in education and how they drew upon wisdom and tried to encourage its development among their students.

Harry Davis, a business school professor with more than 50 years of teaching experience, said he thinks of teaching as a theater performance. That model requires wisdom-related skills of knowing oneself and understanding an audience. The teacher selects and shapes the material to be taught and uses improvisation in her ‘performance’ in light of what she learns from her audience. She stays open and mindful of what students have to say, and creates an environment of support without an agenda, he said. As an actor, the teacher transforms the self to become a bridge in linking the material to the audience, thereby making meaning for her students, and deepening their understanding of the material.

“You want to create an environment where the students can penetrate the material,” said Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

A teacher is responsible for a “dance between content knowledge, pedagogy, and knowledge of students,” said Kavita Kapadia Matsko, Director of Teacher Preparation in the University of Chicago Urban Teaching Education Program (UTEP).

Wisdom plays a role in helping provide insights along the way. Successful classroom teachers gain wisdom of practice through “reflection in and on action. In UTEP we use reflection protocols and journals as important vehicles to reflect on teaching and learning and deepen reflection,” she said.

Wisdom research as lab experiment

In addition to wisdom being an attribute of an individual, it can be influenced by other members of a group, explained Ilan Yaniv, a professor of psychology (and a member of the Center for Rationality ) at Hebrew University in a talk titled, “Learning from the Wisdom of Small Crowds: A Lab Study.”

Yaniv discussed experiments investigating the role of advice in which people collectively made quantitative estimates. In making judgmental estimates in response to questions about objective, factual knowledge, such as the calorie-content of food, people’s ability to make an accurate estimate could be increased by considering additional pieces of advice.

Other people’s opinions, however, had limited effect on accuracy, he found, because people tend to be egocentric in their use of the estimates.

“While independence of thought contributes to accuracy, individuals like opinions that are similar to their own (i.e., non-independent) and such consistent opinions induce unfounded confidence,” he explained. He cited examples of individuals who have found to their dismay that becoming confident based on a limited set of perspectives can lead to their undoing.

Wisdom in college

By the time students enter college, they are ready for a more serious look at wisdom themselves, according to David G. Mick, the Robert Hill Carter Professor of Commerce Marketing at the University of Virginia.

Wisdom becomes important for students going into business because of the many ethical questions business raises, said Mick, another business professor at the conference. Business people are confronted with questions like the moral soundness of selling equipment to customers when a business person knows the product is about to become obsolete.

Mick, conducts a class for seniors in the university’s bachelor’s program in business to help students grasp moral and ethical issues related to business. The course “Cultivating Wisdom and Well-Being for Personal and Professional Growth” is broad reaching and includes times for contemplation and opportunities for goal setting among the students about their life-courses. “We draw on Western and Eastern philosophy, contemporary social sciences,” he explained.

“We look at the pillars of wisdom as described by Stephen Hall (author of Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience): reasoning, altruism, patience, resilience, mindfulness, humility and compassion. “We take advantage of a variety of learning opportunities, through videos, case studies, and writing a life envisionment document,” he said. He also introduces students to meditation. “Contemplative practice is an essential aspect of wisdom,” he explained.

Meditation supports self-reflection. By introducing students to the practice, Mick is taking a step toward inculcating students with an understanding of wisdom. That lesson and others that promote critical thinking help students see their full potential. Exceptional teaching, the forum participants said, leads students to learn how to make wise decisions.


Although education typically focuses on intelligence, knowledge and skills, the discussion regarding wisdom suggested that education across many levels of formal schooling and informal opportunities for learning can benefit from thinking about wisdom. Increasing reflection about the educational process and increasing the skill of reflection in students, teachers, and administrators may move education from a 19th century model of instruction to a 21st century process of personal growth and development. The discussions in the forum suggested some of the ways in which this kind of reflection may benefit education both broadly as a profession and more specifically in terms of the development of new skills and abilities in teachers and students.


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