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Learning at its Best

Barry Schwartz on Practical Wisdom and How We Need This in Schools

I’m a big fan of Barry Schwartz, and his recent TED talk on our loss of wisdom just adds to my appreciation of him and his work. Take a look:

Many of the issues he addresses in his short talk – teaching to tests, imprisoning people for non-violent acts – are ones I’ve written about in my blog, and Schwartz’s talk dives to the crux of the problem: We are beholden to rules rather than wisdom, and in order to live moral lives we may need to bend rules while we also work toward changing unwise systems.

Systems analysis ought to be a primary subject in schools so that our students can become effective system-changers, developing solutions that transform both grossly unjust and simply unwise systems into ones that are healthy, restorative, humane and wise.

There are numerous systems within schools that are unwise – and Schwartz points out one in his talk that represents a true travesty of education: teaching and attending to only those kids who might pass standardized tests, while ignoring everyone else – and I can think of little else that would be more valuable to our children and our world than educating them in such a way that they have the critical and creative thinking skills to identify, assess, and transform those systems that harm both them and our world.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education and Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life


About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


8 thoughts on “Barry Schwartz on Practical Wisdom and How We Need This in Schools

  1. Thanks for this link, and for your comments Zoe. This was a great way to begin my Monday morning!

    The part of the talk that struck me as being particularly poignant related to incentives. The issue of merit pay for teachers began to drift north of the border, appearing in the political platform of a leadership hopeful in British Columbia. I think that it was a little bit of a trial balloon, but the fact that it wasn’t fired down immediately has raised some interesting questions here!

    Schwartz talks about the use of excessive incentives and how this can “demoralize” professional activity. I think that this has the potential of happening quite quickly as the idea of paying teachers based on the “quality” of their work becomes a reality in many jurisdictions.

    I think that demoralization (is that a word?) can happen on two fronts. First, it can remove some of the moral dimension from the activity, itself. Second, it can affect the spirit and character of those engaging in the work.

    The teaching enterprise runs the risk of being hollowed out in both ways. I think that the moral dimension that has been part of the profession, itself, is what has attracted, and continues to attract, many of our best teachers. Without that dimension, who is being drawn to teach?

    Second, I’m already noticing a huge difference in the way that my fellow teachers come to work on a daily basis. I’m noticing a huge difference in the way that I come to work on a daily basis. Gradually, we are being weighted down with a concern over the “symptoms of success” and are talking less and less about the “spark” that brought us here.

    Sparks ignite! (There’s my moral imperative for the day)

    Thanks again, Zoe!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 10, 2011, 6:30 am
  2. I woke up thinking about rules this morning, Zoe and Stephen – I’m glad to have found this post and conversation waiting for me.

    I worry sometimes that we mistake the moral dimension of teaching for the moral of public education – be obedient. I see educators re-energized by the splashy fireworks of executive control (thanks for the head-up, Kirsten) – educators eager to share their tough love with students – eager to make sure they behave like “ideal” students and absorb the no-longer–hidden curriculum of ritualistic compliance.

    I wholeheartedly second the call for engaging students with systems analysis.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 10, 2011, 7:09 am
  3. Thanks both of you! More food for thought and I appreciate the links.

    Posted by Zoe Weil | January 10, 2011, 1:48 pm
  4. I strongly recommend you check Barry’s TED in the Field talk posted very recently … as I mentioned to Stephen in my reply to his comment to my latest post, Barry speaks about systems changers, people “who are looking not to dodge the system’s rules and regulations, but to transform the system” and gives several interesting examples of such people!

    Posted by kima | January 17, 2011, 3:25 am


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