three groups’ working answers (for study of Oedipus Rex)

see through others’ eyes; knowledge from own experience; self-aware, while being aware of others, judgment about right and wrong

problem-solving, seeing, understanding/empathy, knowing, experience-learning

learn from experience, courage/confidence, knowledge/skills, aware of surroundings, good judgment

patterns I see in students’ working answers (for my own learning)

see, aware, understand–self and others

knowledge from experience, learn from experience, know-how (skills)

judgment

other: problem-solving, courage/confidence

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my synthesis of students’ working answers

Across three sections, students in my sophomore classes share basic ideas about what wisdom looks like.  Largely for my own learning and reflection, I have grouped these common ideas, while leaving room at the end for outliers.  Keep in mind that these ideas come from a relatively brief brainstorming session.

First, the students think wise people have a distinct awareness–of themselves and of others.  Wise people take notice of their surroundings, human and otherwise.  This category hinges on the verb “see” because to be aware is to see, while understanding other human beings means seeing them. If I truly see someone, I acknowledge his or her existence, as I do my own.  This acknowledgment, this awareness is a necessary first step to understanding someone else.  A wise person, the students seem to suggest, is one who takes both the first and second steps.

Next, all of the sophomores believe that wise people learn from their experience; some groups specified painful experiences.  Regardless of the particular nature of the experience, however, all agreed that wisdom gains knowledge from that occasion.  Groups varied in their description of knowledge, mostly in terms of what is known.  For example, some identified knowledge of how to do something, as in a skill.  Others described knowledge of world issues, which reminds me of the earlier concept of awareness.  I would call these two types of knowledge know-how and know-who.

The last common feature of a wise person is judgment.  All groups either suggested or stated that wise people make good judgments about right and wrong.  For me, this feature covers areas like justice and responsibility.  Students’ idea of judgment probably includes the making of wise decisions, and I imagine the wisdom of those decisions depends on the first two common qualities, namely awareness and learning.

Although not mentioned by all groups, two other answers emerged: courage or confidence and problem-solving.  This first answer may link to learning through experience.  If you have learned something by experience–for example, what it feels like to lose someone close to you–you likely have confidence about that knowledge.  Confidence breeds certain kinds of courage. Problem-solving seems like a skill to me; in this sense, it is something a wise person knows.  Wisdom looks like a problem-solver because wise people manage situations that confound someone else.  Instead of standing still in confusion, wise people see a way through the problem; they know how to move forward by untying the knot.

As I consider this collection of traits described by the sophomores, it looks like a wise set of answers to a challenging question.

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