A recent conversation with a colleague in my doctoral cohort led to her posing the question: ‘what [would ] education . . . look like if it were void of politics and if it was truly seen as a “gateway to wisdom” rather than a “road to money”’. I immediately thought back to some readings I have been doing recently regarding global citizenship, cosmopolitan competency, and mindfulness education in K-12 contexts. After such a detailed look these past weeks at the “nuts and bolts’ of financing and accountability, pondering this question was a not only a welcome diversion, but also an important chance to re-center the focus on why so many of us feel compelled to dedicate so much of our lives to our careers in education. Ultimately, it should all come back to giving kids the skills they need to live a good life.
If education is to be seen as a “gateway to wisdom”, then it would be in the best interest of those providing education to at least try to answer the question “What is wisdom?” Not a small task, but an important one to pursue, given the need for school leaders to put forward compelling visions and work to ensure the coherence of school activities with those goals (Enacting School-Level Leadership Practices, 2014, Uplifting Leadership, 2014; Schleicher, 2015, p. 9). Unfortunately, a standard definition of wisdom is elusive (Staudinger, 2013, p. 6). Staudinger cites G. Stanley Hall who defined wisdom as “the emergence of a meditative attitude, philosophical calmness, impartiality, and the desire to draw moral lessons” (p. 4). Distinguishing personal wisdom from general wisdom, she goes on to define it as “individuals’ insight into themselves, their own life” (p. 4). Vervaeke and Ferraro (2013), approaching wisdom from the perspective of cognitive science, define wisdom as “a self-transformation of cognitive processing that enhances the quality of life in some way” (p. 21). They go further to state that wisdom involves insights into “one’s own cognition, the patterns and processes of one’s learning and perception, . . . involving] increased abilities of self-understanding and self-transformation” (p. 25). To facilitate the development of this capacity, they cite research findings that show that wisdom development is complex and involves inter- and intrapersonal factors as well as external factors across the lifespan (p. 30).
Given the above, how might educators go about developing curricula to promote the development of wisdom in their students? Luckily for us, many of the traits and skills put forward as components of global citizenship curricula and elements of cosmopolitan consciousness and international mindedness have correlates in personal wisdom development. Glick and Bluck (2013) see wisdom as being comprised of a sense of mastery, openness to experience, reflectivity, emotion regulation, and empathy (p. 80). Cushner (2016) posits that the skills required for intercultural competency are interpersonal in nature and require curiosity, open-mindedness, empathy, and the ability to cope with strong emotions that may result from intercultural communications (p. 204). Oxfam’s (2015) Education for Global Citizenship: A Guide for Schools offers numerous skills it deems meaningful to global citizens, such as creative thinking, empathy, self-awareness and reflection, and interpersonal communication (p. 8). Rizvi (2008), in defining epistemic virtues in support of cosmopolitan learning, also puts forward an empathic understanding of others and reflexivity as traits that should be developed in international education (pp. 32-33). There is quite a lot of overlap between wisdom and international mindedness in terms of the skills they comprise.
If the above are taken to be the skills and competencies required for the development of both wisdom and global citizenship, then how can educators approach developing these skills in their students? I’d posit that mindfulness training provides a good place to begin, as it supports the development of a number of the skills mentioned above.
Already, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are being introduced in many schools and combined with modified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programming to help students deal with strong emotions and be mindful of their actions (Mindful Schools, 2016; Hyde & Frias, 2015, p. 92). Such programs have been shown to positively address interpersonal challenges (Zoogman et al., 2015, p. 292). Students also reported “getting in touch with their inner self” and “feeling an intuition for me” (Cheek, Abrams, Lipschitz, Vago, & Nakamura, 2017, p. 2573) indicative or intrapersonal learning and development. Mindfulness programs, by design, seek to promote empathy and compassion (Mindful Schools, 2016, p. 4), Neuroscientific studies have shown a correlation between mindfulness training and the development of brain structures related to empathy and self-reflection (Meiklejohn et al., 2012, pg. 293).
For many of us, education as a “path to wisdom” is a concept at the philosophical root of our work as educators. However, the increasing focus on academic achievement as measured by standardized large-scale tests (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 29) runs the risk of diverting attention away from such factors of learning and narrowing our definitions of success (NORRAG, 2016, p. 9). Thankfully, in addition to supporting student academic achievement (Bakosh, Snow, Tobias, Houlihan, & Barbosa-Leiker, 2016, p. 65) mindfulness studies in K-12 contexts can also support the development of education as a route to greater personal wisdom.
Bakosh, L. S., Snow, R. M., Tobias, J. M., Houlihan, J. L., & Barbosa-Leiker, C. (2016). Maximizing Mindful Learning: Mindful Awareness Intervention Improves Elementary School Students’ Quarterly Grades. Mindfulness, 7(1), 59–67.
Bruns, B., Filmer, D., & Patrinos, H. A. (2011). Making Schools Work; New Evidence on Accountability Reforms. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
Cheek, J., Abrams, E.M., Lipschitz, D.L., Vago, D.R., & Nakamura, Y. (2017). Creating novel school-based education programs to cultivate mindfulness in youth: What the letters told us. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 26(9), 2564-2578.
Cushner, K. (2016). Development and assessment of intercultural competence. In Hayden, M., Levy, J., & Thompson, J. J. (eds.) The Sage handbook of research in international education. London: Sage. 200-216.
Enacting School-Level Leadership Practices. (2014). Canada: International School Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=13&v=PmeKIdw1-8I
Glick, J., & Bluck, S. (2013) The MORE life experience model: A theory of the development of personal wisdom. In M. Ferrari & N.M. Weststrate (Eds.), The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience (pp. 75-98). New York:Springer.
Hyde, A. M., & Frias, E. L. (2015). Mindfulness Education and an Education in Mindfulness: Still Seeking a Less Coercive “Wheel in the Head.” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies, 25(1), 81–104.
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Mindful Schools (2016). Mindful educator essentials: Week 3 integrating mindfulness and social-emotional learning programs [pdf]. Retrieved from: http://www.mindfulschools.org/courses/mod/book/view.php?id=31295&chapterid=28497
NORRAG. (2016). Learning from Learning Assessments: The Politics and Policies of Attaining Quality Education: Roundtable Report. Geneva: Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
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Rizvi, F. (2008). Epistemic Virtues and Cosmopolitan Learning. The Australian Educational Researcher, 35(1).
Staudinger, U.M. (2013). The need to distinguish personal from general wisdom: A short history and empirical evidence. In M. Ferrari & N.M. Weststrate (Eds.), The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience (pp. 3-20). New York:Springer.
Schleicher, A. (2015). Schools for 21st-Century Learners: Strong Leaders, Confident Teachers, Innovative Approaches,. OECD.
Uplifting Leadership. (2014). [Online video]. International School Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=9V0GaLRmq20
Vervaecke, J., & Ferraro, L. (2013). Relevance, meaning, and the cognitive science of wisdom. In M. Ferrari & N.M. Weststrate (Eds.), The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience (pp. 21-52). New York:Springer.
Zoogman, S., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., & Miller, L. (2015). Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(2), 290-302.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.