Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Phronesis - What is that?

This was the question guest host, Susan Page, asked author, Eric Greitens, on an episode of The Diane Rehm Show. Greitens responded:
Phronesis is so interesting because it's a concept that we really don't have a word for in English. You could say that it's something like common sense, but it is really more than that. What phronesis means is practical wisdom. And phronesis is the ability to both figure out what to do in any given moment while also knowing what is worth doing. So the idea is that it's a practical wisdom - that you are wise about your intentions, wise about your ends, and at the same time you have a very clear understanding of the means that you need to actually get there.
Upon hearing this, I immediately said, "That is what I want teachers to have - phronesis!"

Teacher effectiveness is an important topic to me and I am not alone. There are centers devoted to teacher quality (TQ Center) and programs popping up dedicated to improving how teachers learn how to teach (Teaching Works). Distilling teaching to a few measurable points is beyond my current level of comprehension, however. Which is why I wanted to write about it - to try and, as Cambourne suggests, "talk" my way to understanding.

As I read the description above, it suggests four things for teachers to consider in supporting the development of their educational phronesis.

  • Can I identify my learning goals (ends)? 
  • Can I provide purpose for my instructional choices (intentions)?
  • Am I aware of the resources available to support teaching and learning (means)?  
  • Am I able to make decisions about what is "worth doing" in my educational setting?
It is tempting to affix to this list the things I stress in teacher preparation and professional development. In fact, I have written and deleted numerous sentences that use these four questions to support my use of particular teaching frameworks or instructional approaches. (I think Grace would say I was trying to make sense instead of developing understanding.) But are these things truly necessary for all teachers or are they just the resources available to me that I have deemed worth doing?

I'm done talking for now. This has certainly helped me develop a better understanding of phronesis but I am left with many questions. Is it enough for teachers to be working to answer the bulleted questions above or does effective teaching require more? And how do we design teacher preparation to support the development of phronesis? I look forward to your ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Hi David,

    Nice questions. From my personal experience as a substitute teacher, I can confirm that I consider all of these points when I address my students, as a whole, in groups and individually. They are in fact the basis upon which I choose how to help students learn the concepts their regular teachers offer. I believe they are essential or fundamental to how we teach; everyone considers them to varying depths. It is nice to see the teaching unpacked this way though.

    For the most part, I ask and answer these questions in a few seconds, making use of the tools I have available to me. If I were planning lessons, I would research tools and methods and likely get different, perhaps better, results.

    I think you need to also add a knowledge of your students, both of their abilities and willingness to learn specific topics from you at specific times; knowledge of the content (and beyond); and knowledge of the mechanics of the tools you decide to use.

    Interesting concept: developing understanding instead of making sense. I glean a bit of what it means, but I am not sure I quite understand it. I guess that means I am in the "making sense" phase of the statement.

    I particularly like your question about providing purpose to one's instructional choices. And the last question, about worthiness of doing, definitely has to take student readiness and willingness in account.