Teaching Practical Wisdom

In Plato’s dialogues we find the idea that virtue is a skill, a craft, an art of living. The knowledge of how to live well, in both a civic and an ethical sense, is not merely theoretical but also practical; it involves both knowing that and knowing how. Much academic teaching focuses on cultivating know-that, presenting students with facts and relationships to memorize and theoretical frameworks to explain. But sometimes the aim is to teach not just about virtue, but virtue itself. In these cases, emphasis on cultivating know-how could be better suited to the goal.

The aim of Harvard’s Program in General Education is “to prepare students for a life of civic and ethical engagement with a changing world.” Or articulated differently: to prepare students for “an art of living wisely in the world.” In either case, the task isn’t easy, and there are questions: What does a life of civic and ethical engagement, an art of living wisely actually consist in? How are students best prepared for this life from within higher education today? And how can this pedagogical work be assessed?

One of the ways that the Bok Center is helping to formulate answers to these questions is through its new Learning Lab. This summer the Learning Lab brought in a handful of Gen Ed faculty and worked closely with them to brainstorm, prototype, test, and reflect on a range of potential assignments and syllabi. The Learning Lab’s goal was to support the Gen Ed program by tackling that second question in particular: how do we best prepare students from within (Harvard) higher education to live a wise life of civic and ethical engagement?

One of our most fascinating collaborations involved Professor John Huth. Professor Huth came to the Learning Lab to renovate his well-established Primitive Navigation course, a Physics class in which students learn primitive methods to navigate both land and sea. But what do dead reckoning and star charting have to do with learning to live wisely? It’s not obvious how a course on primitive navigation fits the Gen Ed mold. But in talking with Professor Huth it becomes clear that he has a sense – developed throughout his years of teaching and engaging the material himself – that the work of primitive navigating is useful for more than just knowing how to get around.

Other dimensions of primitive navigation work materialized as we collaborated with Professor Huth on his first class assignment, in which students are asked to walk 20 minutes due west from the John Harvard statue without the aid of any technological devices. In a slight variation on the assignment, the Learning Lab asked student testers to use a physical notebook to respond to a set of reflection questions along the way. Upon their return, the students were then asked to hand-draw a map of Harvard Square in their notebook and complete a series of reflective exercises on their journey and mapping skills. The inclusion of the notebook and reflection questions in this assignment focused students on the value of low-tech skills and physical experience in navigating areas of uncertainty – just the kind of attentional shift hoped for in an effective Gen Ed course.

But the strongest enactment of Gen Ed pedagogy comes in inviting students to reflect on the analogy between navigating space using primitive skills and navigating other spheres of life. (As part of the Learning Lab test assignment for Professor Huth, we made the analogy and invitation to reflection very explicit for students; finding the right balance of transparency and discovery around the analogy seems key pedagogical work.) Here primitive navigation isn’t just a set of ancient techniques and low technologies; it’s an experiential metaphor for learning how to find one’s way in the world. In practice, if not in theory, a skills-based class can make all the right moves toward Gen Ed’s pedagogical aim.

All disciplines would do well to acknowledge the value of teaching with an emphasis on know-how, using experiential metaphor and skills-based learning as an entryway to practical wisdom.  

This is a guest post from Bok center Learning Lab fellow Noelle Lopez

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