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How do you measure something like wisdom? Our obsession with tests and scores can’t help

Our current system only values things to which we can assign a score – but what if we want to foster wisdom in tomorrow's generation?

Debra Kidd
by Debra Kidd
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What if the purpose of education was to create wise human beings with the power to change the world, as opposed to compliant human beings charged with the responsibility of keeping the status quo? What would have to change? What does a wise person have in addition to intelligence?

This is not a progressive versus traditional rant – to be wise one needs knowledge. But it’s what you do with knowledge that takes you from clever to wise. The ability to apply, consider, connect – to make sense of the unfamiliar – these are things wise people can do.

But there’s more. There’s the ability to learn from experience and mistakes; an open-mindedness that allows other people’s ideas and thoughts to be carefully considered and not hastily rejected.

There’s the capacity to empathise with others – to see the world through their eyes. And then there’s the ability to articulate your conclusions and processes in a way that is clear and persuasive to others. To what extent does our current system allow for wisdom to thrive?

The Education Endowment Fund has recently announced that it will conduct a study into the impact of Philosophy for Children. As its measure it will use SATs results as a test of success. My sigh is so heavy that my lungs fall out of my mouth. It’s like trying to assess the quality of a skydive by the colour of the parachute.

Is it not the point of Philosophy for Children that we transcend tests, taking children into a realm in which there are not ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, but in which they consider difficult questions, learn to listen to each other and develop the confidence and vocabulary to articulate their thoughts? Aren’t SATs the antithesis of this?

Our obsession with testing and measuring means that we increasingly only value that which can be numerically scored. In doing so we act unwisely. We are seeing children being advised to avoid attempting the use of challenging vocabulary in their writing because they will be penalized for spelling errors rather than being rewarded for ambitious choices.

In this small example of how the tests warp learning, we have a condensed version of a wider problem in education. We value simplicity over complexity – the appearance of progress over genuine advancement. We value passing tests over wisdom. What kind of world does that create?

Our children are growing up in the near certainty that climate change will impact dramatically on their own and their children’s futures. They are growing up with the increasing likelihood that most admin and skills based jobs will become automated – even right wing think tanks like Reform are now accepting this reality.

If jobs like those disappear, there will be two major effects – work for humans will become dependent on the traits that only our species does well – thinking creatively and laterally; communicating with each other; creating personable relationships; being inventive and innovative.

The jobs market will shift. Depending on how governments respond to this, it will either lead to greater inequality with higher unemployment, or the spoils will be shared across the population with shorter working weeks and more leisure time. Either way, people will need to learn to manage more free time and perhaps cope with greater instability and change.

That’s not to argue for a skills based curriculum over a knowledge based one – knowledge is interesting; it helps to build a sense of who we are, what we know, where we came from, what we can be. It’s not simply a question of the best that has been thought and said though – it’s a matter of taking that and projecting into what is yet to be thought, said and done. And for this future-looking vision to take effect, wisdom, adaptability, creativity and integrity all need to be developed by and for children.

So, don’t reduce your curriculum offer to English and maths. Take the long view. Immerse your children in experience, conversation, dilemma and talk. Teach them to think; to question. Give them space to create. All of those things will enhance SATs. But much, much more importantly, they’ll enhance the future lives of the children you teach and empower them to be positive agents of change.

Debra Kidd has worked in education for over 20 years and has delivered CPD nationally and internationally. Find her on Twitter at @debrakidd and check out her blog at website

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