Friday, January 7, 2011

Risk, rules, & the need for practical wisdom

We frequently participate in activities that, although necessary and often beneficial, entail risks.  Doctors and hospitals can treat illnesses and help us recover from terrible accidents, but unpleasant or even terrible things can and occasionally do happen in hospitals or medical clinics (e.g. the wrong drug is administered, an unnecessary and very expensive procedure is carried out, or surgeons remove a patients kidney when all they needed was a knee repair).  We invest our money with the help of banks and bankers, but they may mismanage and lose our hard-earned cash.  We send our children to schools where they can learn to function effectively in society and develop a passion for learning, but schools have the potential to become uninspiring places where teachers fail to facilitate learning.  So, what are we to do?

In a TED talk posted earlier this week, professor Barry Schwartz argues that our common response in situations where we want to minimize risk is to (1) make rules aimed at helping people know how to do the right thing (e.g. guidelines or standards for teachers to follow) and/or (2) to incentivize what we believe to be the right types of behavior (e.g. rewards for doctors who save hospitals money or teachers whose students have high test scores).  While Schwartz doesn't advocate for complete elimination of rules or incentives and recognizes that they have value in certain situations, he points out they aren't enough when it comes to finding solutions for complex problems and managing risk.  He calls for a renewed focus on helping individuals and institutions to develop "practical wisdom" (which is pretty close to Artistotle's concept of phronesis).  In other words, preparing people to figure out how to do the right thing when they find themselves in real interactions with unique people in specific circumstances.  

As I was thinking about Schwartz's ideas I recalled a comment that Derek Bitter made in response to a blog posting on what beneficial risk in the classroom might look like:  

I don't think I could walk into a classroom and follow these steps, or any others, and have them work for me and the class, unless there is something more fundamental present within me as a teacher. I have ideas on what this might be, but can't really narrow it down or even specify it. 

Derek's point is well taken.  We can't boil risk-taking in learning down to a set of rules, strategies, or activities that come to be viewed as surefire ways of improving learning.  It seems that what Derek might be calling for here is  Schwartz's concept of practical wisdom.  The success of risk-taking in the classroom depends, in part, upon a wise teacher who knows when and how to bring risk into the learning process.  So, if we want people (particularly teachers) to take risks in learning (or in any other setting where calculated risk could pay off), we have got to help them develop the wisdom to know when to take risks, how to do it without putting themselves (or others) in unreasonable danger, and how to skillfully navigate risky situations so that good things happen.  This is one of the things that seems to be missing in most teacher preparation programs (where the focus is largely on rules and strategies) and governmental programs (large collections of rules & incentives).  Yes, individual teachers may develop wisdom through their own experiences, but the institutions concerned with education (universities, governments, schools) seem to do very little in the way of promoting or encouraging the application of wisdom in the classroom.  

Instead, we largely treat the teaching and learning process as one governed by rules and incentives.  I wonder if this might be because we naively believe that by falling back on rules, policies, and explicitly stated pratices and processes, we minimize the risk that people won't learn.  Indeed, it is "risky" to structure systems where practitioners--be it teachers, doctors, bankers, etc.--are allowed to be "wise" because there is always the chance that they won't.  But, by failing to include the development of wisdom (and the freedom to use it) in conversations about reform will ultimately prove problematic and limit improvements in our institutions.

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