The Wisdom of Practice

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Around 1990, I started working on a research project which was published as a book entitled Minds on Science (library copy). I was interested in exploring teaching from a humanistic and progressive point of view. One aspect of this project was to include “wisdom-of-practice” interviews with teachers that I had met from various parts of the country. I interviewed more than 20 teachers, grades 5 – 12.  An example of this kind of knowledge is expressed by Bill Blythe, an 8th grade physical science teacher, when he answers the question, “Is science teaching an art, a science, or both?

This seems like an easy question but I believe that it changes constantly. Good science teaching is based in the methods and best practices that have been developed over the years. Also, as I have progressed, I believe that I have become a more artful teacher in that it is not always the best move to follow a script. You have to follow your instincts to where your students take you. You have to be well-versed in the best practices but at the same time have the confidence in yourself to allow changes of direction and then use the art of teaching to bring you back to the science that you are teaching. The science is first and the art takes you to where you need to be; they must work together dependent on the circumstances (Hassard, and Dias, 2009, p. 21)

What I discovered was that teachers were vocal about pushing themselves to take risks in their classrooms, and that they believed that their multiple years of teaching contributed to their willingness to practice teaching as an art, and that the wisdom they gained, especially from colleagues, was a part of their professional development.

As you will find out, as you read ahead, teaching wisdom–insight, common sense, astuteness, experience, gumption, sageness, sophistication–is not fully appreciated nor understood, but is crucial if we believe that it is teachers who will lead us out of the present mire. Clearly, we will not be lead out of the present movement by corporatist reformers.

Howard Zinn  speaks eloquently about where wisdom is NOT, and points out how all social change takes place. He writes:

One of the things that I got out of reading history was to begin to be disabused of this notion that that’s what democracy is all about. The more history I read, the more it seemed very clear to me that whatever progress has been made in this country on various issues, whatever things have been done for people, whatever human rights have been gained, have not been gained through the calm deliberations of Congress or the wisdom of presidents or the ingenious decisions of the Supreme Court. Whatever progress has been made in this country has come because of the actions of ordinary people, of citizens, of social movements. Zinn, Howard; Arnove, Anthony (2012-11-06). Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963 to 2009 (public library) (p. 59). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Zinn argues that education does not convey wisdom.  In his view, there are values that transcend centuries that are missing in school.  These transcendental values center on “human life, of concern for human beings, which are not limited to one historical period.”  In the present age, there are many things about which we should be concerned.  These include surveillance of citizens, insecurity created by capitalism run amuck, diminishing voting rights, and the corporatization of American eduction.

To push back against the corporate infusion of public education will need wisdom, risk, and courage.  These human attributes are not platitudes, but are everyday actions of teachers and administrators who not only reject the movement to privatize, “charterize”, and “voucherize” public education, but know that this movement is politically and economically chartered.  The movement to privatize education is not based on evidence.  It is based on the “cozy” relationships among corporations, especially charter management companies, and e-publishing ventures, and corporate family philanthropists including Gates, Walton, and Broad.

In the last article in this series, I discussed the corporate the communal approaches to teaching.  In research over many years, Professor Christopher Emdin, Teachers College, Columbia University, has explored teaching and learning in urban classrooms, primarily in New York City, based on communal classrooms.  In Emdin’s research, teachers who are willing to reflect on their own connection with students tend to embrace an approach to teaching in which students are given voice, and indeed take part in constructing what is learned, and how it is learned.  This approach is not only courageous and risky, but involves insight, understanding, experience, in short, wisdom.

Questions Unknown

Grant Lichtman, in his book, The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School (public library), provides powerful insight into the nature of teaching, especially the attributes of courage and wisdom.  His book provides a rich story of teaching based on his “conversations, trials, and testing in the classroom ranging over a period of more than twenty years.”  It is from reports by educators such as Grant Lichtman that we find out how courage and wisdom emerge from professional work.

Like Howard Zinn, Grant Lichtman doesn’t think that we are teaching our students what they really need to know.  He asks if there is a space or step in the learning process that we have not considered that transcends our fetish for the teaching of competency and knowledge.  He wonders if this hidden dimension might give students the tools of creation, invention, and wisdom.

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.

Where is the wisdom in this approach to education?  There is no where in standards-based curriculum where students are encouraged to take risks, or show courage.  They essentially are told to learn what others think is important without consideration of their community and personal needs and aspirations.

Teachers who have worked in schools for at least a decade have built up and constructed an understanding of teaching from their collaboration with colleagues (other teachers and administrators), and among their students, and their parents.  Wisdom emerges from these experiences.

In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.  Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Grant’s thinking reminds me of a song that John Denver wrote called Calypso (YouTube), which was about the research vessel of oceanographic researcher Jacques-Yves Cousteau.  Denver’s lyrics of Calypso give another way to envision science teaching.  Here is the first stanza, followed by a YouTube performance of Calypso by John Denver.

To sail on a dream on a crystal clear ocean,
to ride on the crest of a wild raging storm
To work in the service of life and living,
in search of the answers of questions unknown
To be part of the movement and part of the growing,
part of beginning to understand, 

The Ecology of Wisdom

In this article, an underlying assumption is that continuous open inquiry is the path towards wisdom.  There are many examples we could explore to help us understand this process.  Perhaps, one of the most significant examples is the work of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term “deep ecology.”  In a marvelous book (The Ecology of Wisdom, public library) that brings together many of Naess’ thinking, editors Alan Drengson and Bill Devall, suggest that Naess embodies the spirit of philosophy as a “loving pursuit of wisdom.”

How can we bring a “loving pursuit of wisdom” to public education?  There are many examples of how we can do this (please see Grant Lichtman’s book, The Falconer), but for this essay, I am going to focus on Arne Naess as depicted in Drengson and Devall’s book.

How can an ecology of wisdom become a part of American school culture?

One of the principles of learning that can be applied to teaching is the notion of deep inquiry, which to Arne Naess, reflects the real day-to-day work of scientists.  Unfortunately, when experts are commissioned to make recommendations for (science, or math, or history or literature) curriculum, they end up creating a book of knowledge arranged into topics and lists of performances.  In the case of science education, the latest rendition is the Next Generation Science Standards.  Although these recommendations include statements about values, methods, and approaches, the overwhelming result is that all students should learn the same science, in the same order, and on the same time schedule.

This does not create citizens who question, inquire, wonder about, or go out of their way to search for new understandings.  The curriculum in most of education is learning about stuff (or in many instances, learning what will be on the test), rather than capitalizing on “our spontaneous experience, which “in the world is far richer than we can ever say (Drengson and Devall).  They write:

Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music, or art.  Devall, Bill; Naess, Arne; Drengson, Alan (2009-05-01). The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess (p. 20). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Naess believed that dogmatism was anathema to an ecology of wisdom.  He, like Lisa Delpit, advocate social movements and education supported by diverse people with multiple worldviews.  Schools that are diverse have an innate richness when all experiences are valued.  Because of corporate reform, schools have become increasingly segregated, thereby eliminating conditions for diverse worldviews.

Naess also was convinced that people (read public education students) with no special training are able to think deeply about the meaning of ideas such as freedom and truth.  One of my colleagues at Georgia State University, Dr. Bob Almeda, emeritus professor of philosophy, decided to find out if this was really the case.  During a one year period (in the 1980s), he taught a philosophy course for 5th graders at a local elementary school in DeKalb County, GA.  In the course, he engaged the students in discussions of a variety of moral questions, a different one each week.  He found that students were able to discuss birth, death, truth, freedom, and relate them to personal and social circumstances.  The students were at ease when they talked about such philosophical issues, and pursued their discussions with a sense of inquiry and knowing.  Too bad this kind of wisdom was missing when the Carnegie Foundation brought together scientists to decide the next set of science standards.

What students learn, to help them develop the ability to create, innovate and pursue wisdom, does not have to be laid out in bits and pieces, like it is in the Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.   Students are able to purse complex questions, and indeed, ask questions that are important, which will help them be active and participatory citizens in the democratic society.

To develop wisdom, Naess would suggest that education should involve students in social change, and engage them in real projects in which students uncover truths and knowledge.  This is just the opposite of the way school is organized today.  But it can be done.  It has been done.

For more than 20 years (1981 – 2002)  teachers, administrators and academics in the U.S., Russia (in the beginning, it was the Soviet Union), Spain, Czech Republic, Australia and other countries collaborated with each other to discover ways of working together that would benefit their students (Hassard, 1997).  This project was an environmental one based on citizen diplomacy and youth activism.  It made use of the Internet to bring disparate groups together. Through face-to-face exchanges of teachers and students and the Internet, hundreds of individuals worked together to create the project, which became known as the Global Thinking Project (public library).  As Dr. Jennie Springer, Principal and Associate Superintendent for Instruction in DeKalb County, GA said about this kind of work:

We must be scholars and activists. It is simply not enough to be scientists–that is to measure and calculate, but rather we must be willing to dedicate ourselves to causes–to be activists who are willing to commit to environmental and humanitarian issues.

But it was much more than a global project.  As Naess has said, people who want to live wisely realize that most environmental problems are not simply technical, but are also personal and local; they have community and global dimensions.  By bringing students and educators together from diverse families, the GTP was able to engage students in big questions: How can we work together to solve environmental problems?  How can we work together to end violence, improve social justice, to consider other possible solutions to problems?  In this kind of work, Naess would suggest that students would begin to act as if “anything can happen.”  The choices they make do matter, and their future is open.  He would call this being a “possibilist.” In the Global Thinking Project, the wisdom of students and educators led to student and teacher activism (for more information follow this link to the GTP Archive).

The ecology of wisdom, in Naess’ view, derives from the notion of deep ecology or deep questioning.  Crucial here is understanding that the quality of life depends on the quality of relationships.  If we design schooling based on the relationships of students with their local communities then we have the possibility of establishing school climates that foster deep understanding and wisdom.  A deep ecological perspective applied to education would reject the recent movements that seek to privatize education, and dictate what knowledge all students should learn (and be tested).  A deep ecological perspective would respect the worth of all people, and would prevent the predator behavior of wealthy people and their family foundations, and organizations (such as ALEC–please see ALEC Exposed) from encroaching public education.  Public education should be respected in the same way that we respect public grounds and spaces like national parks and forests.  The students and teachers who spend a lot of time in the spaces of public schools should be given the same protections that we have established for our public spaces.

Many people cherish those moments and memories of visiting a national or state park, and experiencing the peacefulness as well as the richness and diversity in these environments.  For many, wisdom is sought in these spaces.

So it should be in schools.  Students should find schools as environments that offer the same kind of richness and joy that they experience visiting a park, climbing a tree, or being with their friends in a coffee-house.

Eight More Things

Before we end this post.  The wisdom of practice is inextricably linked to the writings and doings of Arne Naess.  The common themes that Arne Naess and George Sessions described in 1984 are essential aspects of the wisdom of practice that so many teachers and administrators aspire. The list that follows is provocative. Could these themes be applies to education (Retrieved on 12 August 2013 from  

1. All living beings have intrinsic value.

2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.

3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.

4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.

5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.

6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.

7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.

8. Those who accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the

necessary changes.  Devall, Bill; Naess, Arne; Drengson, Alan (2009-05-01). The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess (p. 28). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

What do you think?  How would these principles, if implemented, affect the quality of education for students that you know?



About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.