Learning Wisdom

Clark Quinn, Ph.D.



I hosted my first ITFORUM discussion 10 years ago this month.  In the subsequent 10 years a lot has happened in the world, and to me: I changed and lost jobs, my two children were born, we moved back to the US from Australia, I had a book published, for some examples.  One constant has been ITFORUM, even when I was too busy to contribute.  When offered the chance to post again, there were several more typical things I could have talked about: emotionally-engaged learning design, mobile affordances, or elearning strategy.  However, I wanted to take a somewhat different path, a bit broader and more reflective.  So I’ve chosen to do that, with the attendant risks.  This is a personal journey, one that I believe is important enough to ask you to join me on, at least for the duration of this week. It’s more about questions than answers, but in today’s turbulent times, I’d like you to consider that we might be able to do more than we do, and consider being willing to do so.  If this sounds like just so much hazy cosmic jive, write it off to the fact that I’m a native Californian…

A while ago now, I had a chance to hear Lance Secretan, author of Inspire: What Great Leaders Do, talk about inspiration (as opposed to motivation).  It’s a worthwhile distinction and an interesting subject, but what I most took away from the talk was his Why Be Do, “Why are we here on Earth, how we will Be while we are here and what we have been sent here to Do?” Maybe I’m of an age, but it caused me to ask these questions of myself. What is my mission?  What am I here to do?

Now one of the ways I characterize what I do (and, by extension, what you all do) is that I make people smart (through the use of technology).  Some of that is smart ‘in the moment’ through performance support, and some of that is ‘smart over time’ via elearning.  It is broader, with a whole process about moving up the ‘value chain’ of elearning strategy, from improved design, through mobile, single-sourcing and more, up to performance ecosystems, but at core it’s about making people smart (or smarter).  I like what I do; helping people achieve their goals is gratifying and worthwhile, and doing it through technology appeals because, as I say, “I’m a boy and I like toys”.  And I immodestly think that I do it very well.

So, OK, that’s what I do, but that’s a career, not a mission. Where could I go?  Following that old dictum of data becomes information becomes knowledge becomes intelligence becomes wisdom, I was led to the thought that maybe my mission was to take what I do to the next level: making people wise (through the use of technology).  Or, rather, to help people make wiser decision (very much taking a stance).

This was something I could get behind.  I can’t claim to be wise, but I’d like to be.  I also think it is very clear that the world could use more wisdom.  And so, that’s now been my mission for close to two years (though in many ways it’s merely a new articulation of a search I’ve been on for most of my life).  Not what I do day to day, but instead my own personal quest, and it’s been an interesting one.

What is wisdom?

So, of course, the first question has to be: “What is wisdom?  Answer this yourself before we move on, as I’ll ask you to do throughout.

Thinking Today as if Tomorrow Mattered” - John Adams

I found out that’s not a trivial question.  When I raised this question to a NextNow () gathering, the resulting discussion was fascinating.  Some of the answers included it’s something that can’t be defined, it’s a process, it’s an attitude, etc.  Some called me brave (read: foolish) for even trying to tackle it!

Some notes from that discussion include that we know it when we see it (what characterizes those you think are wise?), that it takes compassion, it’s emergent from the earth, that it sees behind, it’s calm and reasoned versus “snap”, the intersection of earth mind and spirit mind. 

Now, some of this is actionable, and some is not. I’ve looked at a wide variety of approaches, including previous work trying to understand myth and ritual.  Life coaches Peter & Penny Fenner, in their book Essential Wisdom Teachings, in addition to talking about an open mental state without expectations, also talk about how trying to answer questions and understand things is not wise.  Instead you need to accept what is.  

Let me be very clear, I’m interested in finding ways we can improve ourselves.  As a mission, I have to be in this for changing the world, not for personal gratification.  So, I’m rejecting those who say it’s ineffable, unitary and non-decomposable, or unteachable. It may well be, but I’ve got a job, so don’t distract me…

So I’ll take that attitude of openness and non-judgement, the non-dual mind, as a useful attitude to maintain, but not that we shouldn’t examine wisdom and consider whether there are things we can do to develop it. So we need to be wiser, to rise to a higher-level of thinking.

“Wise people look out not just for themselves, but for all toward whom they have any responsibility” - Robert Sternberg

As a counterpart, we have the very western approach of Robert Sternberg, the respected psychologist.  In addition to models of intelligence, he’s created a model of wisdom. In it, he argues for:

One thing that came up in the NextNow discussion that his model doesn’t include is humility, a recognition that you may not be smart enough to solve the problem, and a willingness to investigate and search.  And the other thing I took away from the discussion is that there are many different aspects to wisdom.

Stan Lester did an interesting job of researching the history of thoughts about wisdom and brings in a number of facets that constitute wisdom.  I recommended reviewing his telegraphic but thorough notes (but I can no longer find it).  He suggests wisdom also includes taking a holistic approach to the problem, considering the context and a systematic view of the situation in your decision process. 

Lester suggested that ill-structured problems are an important consideration.  Well-defined problems are likely to have well-defined solutions, but the real world is more murky.  We know some ambiguity serves learning if we accept some constructivist perspectives.  The late David Jonassen  has also argued that the problems we typically teach in schools aren’t useful for the real world.

I urge you now to consider your own thoughts before listening to mine.  Be wise, stop and reflect!

A wisdom model

The short version of my synthesis starts with a mental state of openness to the process, without desires or expectations of the outcome.  We need to approach the process with an attitude of humility, curiosity, and patience.  We must be willing and even eager to learn, and be willing to take the time necessary to achieve a truly wise decision.

I believe we need to consider the situation from a systemic perspective, as Lester would have us do.  And I think we need to evaluate alternatives from a perspective of their contribution, guided by our values.  This consideration needs to include, as Sternberg has it, considerations of both short- and long-term consequences, for not only ourselves and those we feel affiliated with, but society as a whole. 

My take away is that wisdom is making decisions on a systemic basis that are in line with our interests in the long-term as well as the immediate moment, and in line with our values for not only ourselves but others and society and the world as a whole. It comes into it’s own when dealing with the messy world we really live in than the well-structured world of formal problems (cf. David Jonassen’s work on the problems given to learners versus what they face outside the classroom).  And it’s very much a journey, not a destination.

How do we teach wisdom?

So, how do we teach wisdom?  What are your thoughts? 

“These days people seek knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is of the past, wisdom is of the future.” - Vernon Cooper

Sternberg includes elements of: active discussion around classic readings, lessons learned, and practical applications; studying values and evaluate thinking in terms of good outcomes; and having teachers model wisdom.  Lester suggests we need to include ill-structured problems, evaluate our approaches systematically, and include values.  Putting this together with our addition of attitude, we have identified components of attitude and habits of mind, process, and values.  Each of those has its own pedagogy, and bears mention. 

We’d want to introduce the humility, openness, and patience identified above as attitudes to be covered using an appropriate pedagogy.  I’d suggest these aren’t necessarily attitudes someone could disagree with, but they’re also hard to acquire, so the pedagogy might circle around modeled examples, discussions of personal experiences, and ongoing support in change including strategies.

We’d need to discuss values and deliberately choose a value system to embody.  Whichever one we choose (and this is difficult subject all on its own), we’ll want to make it explicit.  My exploration of the literature makes me think the way to address deeply held values and achieve meaningful debate includes, at a coarse level, steps of:

Then there’s the process of solving problems in a wise way.  It appears that we want steps, again at a coarse level, of:

We’ll want to explicitly discuss the process, show examples and case studies both good and bad and discuss them, reciprocally model them on sample problems, and discuss situations in our own lives. 

Clearly, we should address the barriers to wisdom, as well.  Obstacles to creating wise decisions include the pressures to make quick decisions, the decrease in our ability to make objective decisions when we’re personally involved or other times there are emotions at risk, the lack of grounding experience when we’re young, and even our own egos.  Making these explicit, and discussing strategies to address these is a worthwhile endeavor as well.

What is a wise curriculum?

Another extension of learning and wisdom is thinking through what would be a wise curriculum, one that prepares our learners for the coming future.  It’s a hoary old cliché now that the half-life of information is now shorter than the average career, and we’re facing an exponentially growing rate of change. That sets the context in my mind, so then the question becomes: how do we cope with this?  What do you think?

There are lots of other perspectives.  The U.S. Departments of Labor and Education formed the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) to study the kinds of competencies and skills that workers must have to succeed in today's workplace.  NCREL has organized the 21st Century skills. There are others, with various assumptions and tradeoffs.

More recently, Guy Kawasaki kicked off a bit of a blog-world discussion with his list of Ten Things to Learn This School Year. Stephen Downes responded with a well-reasoned response that is very close to my own, and very well stated.

Giving you the short version rather than the long form, I have five major areas, in no particular order.  An overall principle is to equip with skills rather than knowledge. These are very top-level categories:

“Communication is the ability to affect other people” - Jim Rohn

At core, we do need to communicate to be effective, and that starts with literacies visual, textual, and numerical, both to comprehend and to generate.  I think leadership will also be necessary, to organize people to solve problems, and to understand when to lead, when to follow, and when to get out of the way.

"The proper study of mankind is the science of design” - Herb Simon

We don’t know what problems we’ll have to solve, so we’d better be capable problem-solvers.   This breaks down into research and design.  This is research into the problems and the effect of solutions, and design of solutions and design of ways to evaluate the solutions.

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein

The ways we understand the problems needs to be at a higher level. Dennis Meadows’ illustration of the importance of systems thinking at the 2005 North American Simulation and Gaming Association, where he indicated that unless you do systems models, it’s too late to fix the problem once it’s detected.  I include both thinking about breaking down problems in terms of systems and the specific skills of modeling systems.

“Learning to live, learning to learn, so as to be able to absorb new knowledge all through life; learning to think freely and critically” - Edgar Faure

Obviously, if the knowledge will be changing too fast to acquire it before participation, we’ll have to be able to learn ongoing.  This will require skills around acquiring information, being effective in learning (meta-learning), as well as being able to critically evaluate information sources.  It will also mean the ability to critically evaluate the information available.

“One of humankind’s biggest problems in decision-making is assigning the wrong weights to the variables…. If I have an ethical system, I have a way of assigning those weights” - Malcolm Gladwell

Finally, we’ve already argued that we need a set of values.  There are lots of candidates, from religious ones to ones derived from a society’s tenets. 

I’m not going to propose any particular set of values here, as my point is not to guide the discussion nor necessarily even engage in it here (but instead to ignite it elsewhere).  I will note that this is where you’re most likely to get some viewpoints that are, say, strongly held.

What is a wise pedagogy?

Also arising from the consideration of wisdom and learning is the question of: what is a wise pedagogy?  What are your thoughts?

“A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled” – Plutarch

I like Allan Collins & John Seely Brown’s Cognitive Apprenticeship as a design model.  I maintain that most learning approaches are not static, but dynamic, with trajectories as they change.  I further argue that they’re converging, and where they’ll end up is where Cognitive Apprenticeship already is: with modeling of behaviors, with meaningful practice, and guided reflection, amongst other elements.

Cognitive science considers that our learning is not only cognitive, as much instructional design would have it, but includes our emotional components as well: our individual characteristics as a learner, and our conative elements, which I currently construe as our intentions, anxieties, and beliefs about learning.  Consequently, I argue for explicitly addressing these in our approaches, and have subversively incorporated these elements into my approach.

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results”  -  John Dewey

Most of what I have to say here is not new, so briefly I believe strongly that the instructor’s role needs to move from information presentation to experience design and reflection facilitation.  I believe in integrated approaches, with spiral curricula and applied and active learning with case-based, problem-based, or service learning foci. 

How do we use technology to develop wisdom?

Finally, there’s the question most closely aligned to the forum, how could we use technology to develop wisdom?  What do you think?

“We invent things that make us smart.  Through technology, we can think better and more clearly” - Donald Norman

There are several ways we can use technology to make us wiser.  One quick answer is a performance support system, providing an available guide for making wise decisions. It could be a process checklist or interactive system, with a link to the values and an upfront reminder, though that might not be internalized. 

Alternatively, we could also create an elearning course on wisdom. It could be an asynchronous course or even virtual classroom. Either one would be worth undertaking, and I’m sure you’re already ahead of me on the next step.

Now, there are times when immersion in a course can evoke the changes we need, and at other times, it’s a longer and slower learning relationship that leads to development over time and acquisition of deeply integrated ways of thinking, knowing, and acting.  And I consider wisdom to fit into the latter case.

So perhaps we could combine the elearning course with the performance support system, with explicit instruction up front and then ongoing performance support.  This sounds close to what we’d do without technology, at least in an ideal world.  Though we’d really prefer a richer ongoing relationship than just tools.

Here we’re at a point that I don’t think instructional design has really taken to heart, and for probably sound reasons.  It’s only recently (say, the past five years) when we’ve had the capability for systems to start maintaining a long-term relationship with us, knowing us, and having a long-term development plan, able to be available when and where we need it. Yet we now do have that capability, and I think we need to consider what we might do with it.

At a minimum, I have argued for slow learning, a different way to learn.  The metaphor is drip irrigation versus watering via a hose.  I don’t mean it as an alternative so much as a complement to other approaches to learning, but it’s for the long-term development of individuals, and I think technology could deliver such an approach.

The notion is some upfront presentation, and then instead of abandonment, or even performance support, there’s a wrapping of preparation before the event, perhaps support during performance, and reflection afterwards.  As we increasingly indicate our schedule into calendars, and carry communication devices with us, we have the possibility of using the events in our lives as learning opportunities, instead of creating artificial practice events.  We can even combine them, if insufficient practice is coming up in a particular stretch, we could pull in some artificial practice. 

We also have other capabilities now, as well.  We have the capability to pull from and deliver to almost anywhere. We can allow broad development of material, access a broad spectrum of people, and wrap structures including business models and commerce across it all.  We can identify material by it’s meaning, not just it’s initial characterization.

So the content we draw upon might be dynamically pulled at the time of need, and it might be more serendipity than design whether it works, but that’s probably ok in a long-term relationship.  And we could actually poll and find someone willing to serve as that reflection guider in the moment.

This becomes an approximation to eCoaching, but facilitated and optimized through technology. Individual coaching would be the ideal, but it’s not practical, and this comes very close in a more practical approach.

Is there more?

What’s the wise thing to do next?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” - Nelson Mandela

Having come this far, I’d like to have the discussion talk about the questions I’ve raised, and one other. The questions I’ve raised include:

And the one other question I’d welcome your thoughts on is:

That latter one, if we’re being wise, means asking what does this mean for us today, next week, next year, and beyond?  What does this mean for us, our learners, our organizations, and society?  What do we need to do?

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to the discussion.