Sunday, February 6, 2011


Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College writes and talks about “Practical Wisdom.” It seems that with all the hoopla about education reform and who is right about what it should look like, the powers that be simply keep overlooking practical wisdom – do the right thing the right way for the right reason. It seems they are only concerned with who is right about deciding the right way. And, it seems, once getting the power to decide their way is right they set up iron clad rules to exclude other ways. This systemic approach also appeals to reformers because it is supposedly “fool-proof”. So any teacher who can follow the model can do it. No tinkering, thinking, or practical wisdom required.

Detailed procedures or scripts are created to ensure that young inexperienced teachers, more and more TFA recruited, will fit right in to the “right” system’s “right” way of doing education “right”. These scripts also theoretically ensure that more experienced poor, mediocre, fair, or even fairly good teachers get on board with the program the “right” way. However what do these prescribed and proscribed scripts do to the very best creative and successful teachers who do not fit into the new “right”? Do they stop doing what worked extremely well? Do they stop using their practical wisdom?

According to Schwartz, one of the reformers' new right ways is behavior modification using incentives and negative sanctioning. They believe that, in our market based educational reform scheme, self-interest (or selfishness) will get everyone to do the reformers’ right things. So we offer bonus pay for higher test scores and threaten loss of job for lower test scores as if the test scores on poorly designed tests actually matter as much as the market based educators think.

Guess what? Psychologists know that doesn't work with kids or adults. They know it simply changes what is important to them. It changes the rules of the survival game. So, most teachers, being easily swayed by the incentives, simply stop helping kids learn and ensure they do well on the tests. These are not the same goals or achievements.

In a talk Schwartz did for, entitled Using Our Practical Wisdom, he tells a story about Aristotle.

“Aristotle was very interested in watching how the craftsmen around him worked. And he was impressed at how they would improvise novel solutions to novel problems -- problems that they hadn't anticipated. So one example is he sees these stonemasons working on the Isle of Lesbos, and they need to measure out round columns. Well if you think about it, it's really hard to measure out round columns using a ruler. So what do they do? They fashion a novel solution to the problem. They created a ruler that bends, what we would call these days a tape measure -- a flexible rule, a rule that bends. And Aristotle said, hah, they appreciated that sometimes to design rounded columns, you need to bend the rule. And Aristotle said often in dealing with other people, we need to bend the rules.”

The moral of this story is obvious. We need wise teachers, not scripted robots. As Schwartz put it in his TED talk, “A wise person knows when to improvise. And most important, a wise person does this improvising and rule-bending in the service of the right aims."

Weren’t your best teachers those who had this practical wisdom? Weren’t they the ones who had character, along with certain principals and virtues that you may have not appreciated at the time? Weren’t they the ones who obviously loved their work and you as a result? Weren't they the ones who almost always seemed to do the right things for the right reasons, the right way? And weren't they usually different from everyone else.

Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have most…practical wisdom. There is no substitute for it.

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