ON PRACTICAL WISDOM
12 June 2018
As I was on the ferry from Manly to Circular Quay yesterday afternoon, with a beautiful rainbow over the Sydney Heads to my left, and Balmoral Beach to my right, the thoughts on my mind were almost as tumultuous as the sea swell. I thought back to the days in my office when I looked across to the Heads where the ferries usually meet as they plough their path in opposite direction through the sea, and I also thought back to my first ride on the Manly ferry. That was Easter Sunday 2015, when I took the first proper break after an intense first term in a new role, and walked the famous route from Spit to Manly, in beautiful autumn weather. I took the ferry back to the city, and vividly remember the glorious sunset – so glorious that the many tourists on board almost killed each other for the best photograph, climbing on benches and pushing each other off for that perfect shot of the Harbour Bridge. It was rather feral, and I smiled to myself, feeling very lucky that for me there was no rush: I would have plenty more opportunities. I was not a tourist, after all.
The die for my Australian adventure was cast precisely four years ago, and so over the last couple of days I have thought back to some meaningful conversations in the UK that ultimately brought me here. I look forward to resuming them one day. Very often these centred round educational fads, educational jargon, and unnecessary bureaucracy stifling teacher creativity. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I read in the Sydney Morning Herald about the latest terminological inanity, a suggestion from a UK professor to abolish ‘teachers’ and call them ‘learning designers’ instead, to reflect the nature of their jobs in the so-called 21st century context. Yet another misguided concept by the same guy who called erasers the ‘tool of the devil’ because they made pupils ashamed of their work. And this was not a joke. Difficult not to write a satire about this, as the ancient satirist Juvenal would have said. Difficile est saturam non scribere.
Which brings me to the next topic. The ancient authors, in particular the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Quintilian and others, had plenty of wisdom to impart about education. If you read them thoroughly (and by that I do not mean lifting some of their alleged quotes out of context from the internet to make yourself look clever – they are usually unreliable anyway, and people compromise their academic integrity by taking such shortcuts!), you will find that they wrote about educational justice, differentiation, intrinsic motivation, growth mindset, personalised learning, you name it – minus the cumbersome jargon. At the moment I am reading and writing extensively about educational matters, and I keep returning to the ancient philosophers to compare the substance of their thoughts with the superficiality of some modern educational theorists. I look forward to sharing some of these gems of educational wisdom with my readers over the next few weeks.
Here is a taster: there is a place for rules, and yet there can also be a case for disregarding them in certain situations. Every teacher knows this. The ability in such or similar situations to see the difference between what is right or wrong in any given situation is what Aristotle calls ‘phronesis’, best translated as ‘practical wisdom’ (a sophisticated form of common sense), which according to his ethical theory should be the master virtue guiding all others. ‘Phronesis’, for a teacher, would, for example, include the ability to deviate from their lesson plan and be guided by the moment to do something different, original, spontaneous.
In an intelligent article, the authors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe (2006) call it distressing that bureaucratization makes it increasingly difficult for people to cultivate this form of practical wisdom:
“Bureaucratization is a threat to the development of the skills required by practical wisdom and to the ﬂexibility and autonomy needed for its deployment. When teachers are forced to follow prescribed lesson plans to achieve rigidly speciﬁed curricular goals, they are hardly in a position to look for and capitalize on teachable moments. Nor are they able to gain and use the sophisticated knowledge of each pupil that is needed to tailor instruction in a way that meets individual needs, interests, and abilities. One of Piaget’s most important lessons was that cognitive development occurs when children are confronted with tasks that are challenging – but not too challenging. Bureaucratization makes the discernment of this kind of information impossible” (Journal of Happiness Studies 7, 390).
I will elaborate further on this and other thoughts in future blogs. We are but dwarves on the shoulders of giants, and no, no, no: this quote does not, as some internet sources will tell you, originate from Isaac Newton. It dates back to medieval philosophical thought of the 12th century. Plato and Aristotle in particular are the 'giants', and yet, as we stand on their shoulders, we see further than they did. It is a beautiful image for knowledge growth coupled with and based on the respect for the forefathers of our intellectual traditions.
Partial view of the School of Athens in the Stanze di Raffaelo, depicting Plato and Aristotle. In line with their philosophical paradigms, the idealist Plato is pointing upwards, to the realm of his Forms, whereas the empiricist Aristotle seems to point towards concrete reality.