When I was younger I played a a variety of role-playing games. Some were character-based like Dungeons and Dragons, Generic Universal Role-Playing System, and Paranoia. Many of these systems have players derive a set of basic attributes like strength and agility. They often include both wisdom and knowledge among the basic attributes, which led to confusion in novice gamers. Gaming books rarely explained the differences, and the average gamer did not care beyond knowing that some actions required them to roll a set amount of dice against one score or the other.
Modern science is also a little unclear on the difference between the two. There are functional definitions and little mnemonic devices that say things like knowledge is being aware a truck is coming and wisdom is getting out of the road. Those memory devices are handy, but no one has managed to exactly nail down what wisdom is (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011).
Being a learned person seems to be simply possessing a lot of information. Being wise, however, seems to be related to knowing how to use a combination of information and experience to discern the best path or to solve some interpersonal problem (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011).
Wisdom, Learning, and Cognitive Development
Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner (2007) detail several cognitive development theories. Although each studies different aspects of the human experience, they generally seem to progress from acquiring basic knowledge through a series of stages to end with being able to apply that learned information in useful ways. Even Women’s Ways of Knowing, which deals with positions rather than a step-wise progression of stages, has positions of learning information and positions of being able to apply that information (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007).
As an educator, I have seen children begin a skill, gain mastery in a specific application of the skill, and later demonstrate mastery by being able to use the information to solve or understand something unrelated. One second-language learner in my class had no idea how humor worked in English. He had a reputation as a very gregarious and amusing young man in his native language, but he struggled with even basic jokes in English. This may seem like no great thing to many people, but he had gotten his whole concept of self-worth wrapped up in the notion of being an amateur comedian. His lack of understanding had created a huge amount of anxiety for him to the point where he was reluctant to learn more English.
I used some hokey jokes as editing prompts in my grammar lessons as a way to teach idiomatic language. By mid-year, the student had learned enough to understand the puns without my explanation. The following year, his fifth grade teacher told me he was making up his own jokes, and at least some of them were rather clever. He had become comfortable enough with American humor that he could accept not knowing everything and still take advantage of his ability to solve his problem of being too self-conscious.
The Changing Nature of Wisdom
Perhaps one of the things that makes a definition of wisdom hard to pin down is that the definition may change depending on our priorities in life. When I worked with little kids, the wisest people they could think of were also the smartest people. According to cognitive development models, they were more interested in gaining knowledge than applying it (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007). Older kids started tying wisdom to age, like the tribal elder example in Laureate Education, Inc.’s video on Attaining Wisdom (2011).
Importance for Educators
So, in the end, why does all this matter to the educator? For me, the purpose of education is to make the learner completely self-sufficient, at least in the skills I’m responsible for teaching. I want my students to become intelligent and wise. The bulk of my teaching career so far has been teaching children, and some day those kids are going to take over running the details of society. For my sake, as well as their own, I want them to be completely equipped to do a good job.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Attaining wisdom, part 1 [Video Webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_3466431_1&content_id=_12897443_1#_12897505_1&courseTocLabel=Access%20Resources
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.