Evidence That It Works
Social cognitive theories suggest that character develops through our day-to-day lived experiences, which are stored in our brains, providing us with helpful information that informs our responses to dilemmas as they arise. Such theories suggest that giving adolescents’ opportunities to develop reflective thinking skills can increase their practical wisdom. Practical wisdom refers to one’s ability to know what the right response is at the right time, particularly when faced with difficult situations.
In one study, researchers interviewed students between the ages of 12-15 to better understand how they approach decision-making, particularly when faced with moral dilemmas. Researchers were particularly interested in understanding what kinds of thinking skills needed to be developed and practiced so that they become more internalized and intuitive to students—or how students develop “practical wisdom.”
Researchers found that there are three interrelated processes that occur as students decide how to respond to a moral dilemma. Specifically, students activate and draw on existing knowledge, they pay attention to factors within the immediate context, and they weigh consequences against guiding principles to judge the best course of action.
Why Does It Matter?
Often, teachers focus on developing virtues in students like honesty, generosity, and forgiveness. Yet, many of the decisions we face in life are complicated and can often pit virtues against each other.
For example, a student may wonder whether to tell the teacher that his friend cheated on an exam or whether to remain loyal to his friend. Practical wisdom allows students to navigate dilemmas like these more thoughtfully, helping students understand what action is best in a particular situation—for all individuals involved. Thus, as students develop practical wisdom, it will help them navigate moral dilemmas with greater attentiveness to all the factors in play so that they can make values-based decisions that are responsive to a given context and the people involved.