Elementary, My Dear Watson: Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom

Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens. ~Jimi Hendrix

Relevancy is a popular catch phrase in education these days. The virtues of creating lessons anchored in a curriculum that speaks to learner interests and motivation is extolled in nearly every educational journal article, textbook and staff professional development meeting; without a doubt, there are brain-based reasons why cultivating relevance is crucial to learning. Jensen (1998) tells us that the biology of relevancy is an easily constructed meaning that occurs at the cellular level; “An already existing neuron simply “connects” with a nearby neuron. If the content is irrelevant, it’s unlikely a connection will be made…relevant connections are made more often, and that strengthens them” (p. 92). The building of strong neural connections help to move cognition from the working memory along the path towards long-term memory storage but these connections must first be grounded in some sort of prior experience or tacit knowledge. Unfortunately, as Jensen (1998) succinctly point out “Classroom instruction lacks the personal relevance necessary for any meaning” (p. 92). Knowledge is constructed through relevant connections; whether it is between information and self, the physical world or social interactions it seems that ultimately we are (or become) as “smart” as we think.

But is merely equipping our students to be “smart” enough? Sternberg, a cognitive psychologist, would argue no. Instead, Sternberg puts forth the idea that there is value in pursuing wisdom as a goal for education. In his Balance Theory of Wisdom, Sternberg (2012) defines wisdom as,

“The application of successful intelligence and creativity as mediated by values toward the achievement of common good through a balance among (a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests, over (a) short and (b) long terms, in order to achieve a balance among (a) adaptation to existing environments, (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments.” (p. 133)

This is a visual of his model copied from The Jossey Bass Reader (2012)


When confronted with this model, it is clear that Sternberg envisions the goal for education as creating individuals that are interested in the common good while balancing a variety of interests and responses that are mediated by values. Adaptation and shaping of the environment is important as well, but again, the goal is to achieve a balance amongst these concerns, undoubtedly no easy task. This brings us back to the necessity of grounding knowledge in an understanding of when, where and how to apply knowledge, what Sternberg (2012) refers to as tacit knowledge. Paradoxically, we are cautioned by Sternberg that knowing the when, where and how of knowledge “cannot be directly taught in school lessons. They are the lessons learned from experience. They can be learned in school, but they are not directly taught out of textbooks or lectures” (p. 136).

It’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. ~Unknown

What role does curiosity play in the acquisition of tacit knowledge? If we get back to the original argument that education should be built around relevancy, it stands to reason that curiosity would play a large part in piquing learners’ interest in a subject that would lead them towards a deeper exploration that extends beyond the classroom. Sternberg (2012) tell us that, “Wisdom also involves creativity, in that the wise solution to a problem may be far from obvious” (p. 133). Everyone knows that children are curious; it is through our natural curiosity that we learn about the world and our place in it. In the book Brain Rules Medina (2008) laments what is tantamount to a slow killing of innate curiosity by an educational system that is too systematized and measurement focused to support the natural exploration of children.

How can educators support students’ natural proclivity for exploration and creativity while still attending to the needs of addressing a curriculum build on standards? Wolfe (2010) tells us that while our neural networks are formed through experience, that not all experiences are the same but are made-up of concrete, symbolic and abstract learning opportunities. Each of these learning opportunities provide a give and take amongst developmental appropriateness, individual learning style and the ability for students to make concrete, personal connections; no one should be refuted in favor of the other(s). Wolfe (2010) offers direction in “meaning making” that have the potential to activate each of these experiential modes through problem solving, projects and simulations. We are reminded that these instructional strategies are not a means in of themselves and must meet curricular goals; just because it’s “fun” doesn’t mean it’s relevant or building the kind of tacit knowledge that leads to application of the when, where and how of wisdom.

Another way that educators can support creativity in students is quite simple. Be curious and make your curiosity evident. Engel (2012) has noticed, not surprisingly that children show much more interest in materials when an adult visibly shows how curious he or she is about the materials. In other words, children’s curiosity can be fostered or squelched by the people they spend time with. Ouch. One suggestion that Engel gives is to “think of question asking (by students) as the goal of an educational activity, rather than a happy by-product. Develop activities that invite or require students to figure out what they want to know and then seek answers. It seems that we’re back to creating relevancy through a variety of instructional strategies that support students’ curiosity that they are asking (and finding out the answers to) their own questions.

Those who know are wise. Those who know themselves are enlightened. ~Laozi (Lao Tzu)

It is through prior experiences and our thinking about those experiences that we gain something even more valuable than knowledge, wisdom. Sternberg discusses the importance of teaching students to monitor their own lives and their thought processes related to these experiences “One way to recognize others’ interests is to begin to identify one’s own” (p. 144). But how we approach this thinking makes a difference for students and teachers. Engel (2012) knows that reflective thought is good, but reflective thought based upon “precise and methodical data collection enables us to learn things that are counterintuitive” (p. 40). While educators may think they are cultivating the skills, dispositions and opportunities that learners need to move along the path from receptacles of knowledge towards a dynamic interplay of experience, curiosity and reflection (tacit knowledge) that leads to wisdom, we can’t be so sure.

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.~ Khalil Gibran

The reading of Sternberg and others this week has given me much to contemplate in my own practice as an educator; have I engaged my students is activities that have supported their journey towards wisdom? While I need to spend additional time reflecting on how this theory will influence my philosophy of education (because it already has) I do believe that I have offered opportunities that have engaged students in relevant, creative experiences that require them to connect to prior knowledge, interact inwardly and with each other, while responding in an environmental context. I could make a case that for some of the students’ they had to adapt their own interests in favor of the common good. The following example was by no means inclusive of all the aspects of Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom for any one student, but does touch on a many.

Last year in my Grade 8 language arts class, I did a unit on short story writing. We looked at a variety of different genres, worked on creating characters, setting, the scene; essentially everything involved in writing a short story. After studying murder mystery as a genre, students ended up writing their own murder mystery with a partner or individually. Students shared their stories in the library by inviting other classes, administration and parents to come listen to the telling of their tale; it was a wonderful success. Students were motivated and creative, as I did not place any limiting parameters on their tale; I was more interested in their writing process and feeling successful rather than a “perfect” end product. Our final culminating activity for this unit was somewhat unique (I think) as it was an after-school murder mystery party, Last Train to Paris. A group of girls volunteered to create a design, make and then transform the space we used to look like a WWII era luxury train; it took them two weeks of afterschool commitment to get it finished. A parent volunteer cooked a three-course meal that students raised money to purchase the food and drinks with and everyone dressed their part. With 34 students, I had four groups of eight simultaneously engaged in acting out their character in three parts throughout the evening. Staff volunteers, including our middle school Principal served the food and I had era-appropriate music playing in the background; the mood was perfectly set. Throughout the evening, students had to balance their own interests (everyone wanted to figure-out the murderer first!) while interacting within their table group and the larger group in general. They had to “stay in character” and not reveal too much so as not to ruin the game. One of my students in this class is absolutely brilliant, but has a difficult time in social interaction with peers; he feels they are too immature and doesn’t typically bother. Despite his distaste for spending time with fellow classmates, he played his character, dressed up and essentially conformed to what was tantamount to putting the needs of the class’s common good before his own. I think the only aspect of Sternberg’s theory that is absent from this particular scenario was “values”. However, earlier in this short story unit, students were confronted with making value judgment regarding their reaction to first acting-out, then viewing The Lottery by Shirley Jackson; the stoning scene was quite powerful and students had very strong reactions to the “value” of a society ritualistically stoning a member based on tradition. So, I suppose that not every activity will contain every element of Sternberg’s Balance of Wisdom Theory, and perhaps that is not the point. The point is to provide multiple opportunities throughout students’ education across the curriculum and content areas that build upon each other. I believe that this artifact is an example of the Curriculum and Instruction Standard 2: Evidence of a classroom environment that empowers student learning through the provision of challenging learning opportunities.

These are some pictures from that night.

 DSC_0016 Some of the decorations the girls made


The plot thickens


Another group works together to solve the mystery

010bThe only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. ~Socrates

I have much to learn as a teacher, educator and human being. I believe that each of us has our own path to tread and we each seek something that only we can fully realize. The depth of a humans’ soul is unfathomable and it is in seeking that subterranean knowledge that we derive wisdom. It is a personal journey of a lifetime that will at times be awash with the illumination of wisdom while at others dark with the cavernous ambiguity of uncertainty. But, this is a journey we needn’t tread in isolation. Perhaps this is why I teach, for the opportunity to serve (because teaching is a profession of service) others as they are engaged in a synchronous journey of wisdom that is of their own making yet indelibly linked to us all.


Engel, Susan. (February, 2013). The Case for Curiosity. Educational Leadership, 70:5.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Jensen, Eric. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Medina, John. 2008. Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Sternberg, Robert J. 2008. The Balance Theory of Wisdom. In The Jossey-Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


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