Creating a wisdom space

From the Director of the Centre for Professional Practice

This term, our Centre for Professional Practice has been hosting pre-service teachers from the University of Queensland, Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology for their field experience. In reflecting on the purpose and substance of the many mentoring conversations that have occurred between the pre-service teachers and their supervisors, I have come to appreciate the shared commitment of parents and teachers to encouraging their charges to become the very best that they can be. Key to their development is the shaping of identity, the pursuit of wisdom and respect for authenticity.

In and out of class, our school students learn concepts, skills and capacities in diverse fields and in diverse ways. When they learn Science, for example, they are not just learning facts and theories, but also ways of thinking like a scientist and whether a career in this field should be theirs. When they learn Music, they learn not just technique and the joy of sounds, but also self-discipline and an appreciation of quality performances. In their community service and Ethics programme, they learn about core community values and experience opportunities for developing integrity and personal growth.  Both their “learning about” and “learning to be” are helping to shape their identities and ways of acting in the world.

In their field experience, each pre-service teacher has worked hard to deliver curriculum in well-structured, engaging and age-appropriate lessons. All have observed educational theories in action and developed skills in the craft of teaching. Each has experienced a sense of what being a teacher entails and, importantly, whether this career choice truly reflects their sense of who they are and the kind of teacher they may wish to become. In essence, they are beginning a transformation from tertiary student to classroom teacher, hoping to anchor their career aspiration firmly to their sense of self. They are in the process of aligning their personal and professional identities. Core skills required in this transformation are observation, attentiveness and reflection. Our pre-service teachers observe teachers and students in action. Supervising teachers observe the pre-service teachers in action. It is what is noticed, attended to and reflected on that helps their professional wisdom to grow.

According to Socrates, the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing. When you are overloaded with information, it is difficult to make sense of it all. It can feel as if the more you come to know, the less you really know about anything. A first step towards growing wisdom is making the time and space in which to allow self-knowledge to surface and blossom into insights. We like the creative ideas that can be inspired in creative spaces. We can appreciate the collaborative learning that thrives in virtual spaces. We need first to create a wisdom space.

Many people can speak of moments when they have been able to “see” a simple, elegant truth that helps transform their sense of self. These insights tend to pop into one’s consciousness from seemingly nowhere, usually unbidden. One such example is Otto Scharmer’s (2009) story of Miha Pogacnik, a Slovenian classical violinist, innovator and motivator for organisational change. Miha was able to pinpoint the moment when his musicianship first reached a higher level — playing in Chartres Cathedral:

The small violin is the instrument that is in your hands. The macro violin is the whole cathedral that surrounds you… Playing the macro violin requires you to listen and to play from another place, from the periphery. You have to move your listening and playing from within to beyond yourself. (Pogacnik, in Scharmer, 2009, p. 216)

Listening deeply and with fresh ears can help to improve our perception. If we can learn to listen “from the periphery”, we become more conscious of context, emotions and language. A conscious focus on these elements can help improve our self-knowledge, performance and even relationships.

Otto Scharmer has identified three obstacles to deep listening — our “voice of judgment”, “voice of cynicism” and “voice of fear” (pp. 42–43). Each of these blocks our receptiveness to other ideas, viewpoints or action in different ways.

Voice of judgment

If we can train ourselves to identify when we are not listening to another point of view because it does not fit with our own, and to suspend our voice of judgment, then we are taking steps towards expanding our thinking to other ways of being. It allows us to consider the value of other perspectives.

Voice of cynicism

If we can recognize when we are being cynical, we can escape the trap of scuttling others’ ideas and see them progress instead. By building on the ideas of others, together, better quality outcomes can be achieved.

Voice of fear

If we can gather courage to take a necessary risk of some kind, we can quell the voice of fear that can prevent us from action or speaking the truth, even to ourselves.

Perhaps thinking of these three voices can help us shape a second wisdom space – this time, a wisdom sound space – where listening is attentive and conversations become richer. Susan Scott (2009) gave potent advice about the types of conversations that should take place: “If your intention is to intimidate, coerce, threaten, put down, or prove someone wrong, don’t have the conversation until you’ve had one with yourself” (p. 42). Training our young people to identify these “voices” when they are watching television or disputing a point of view could help frame this wisdom sound space.

Another “must” for increasing awareness is observation. Just as there should be deep listening, there should also be close observation. Our purpose in observation should be to see clearly and to understand, improving our focus to notice even the tiniest detail. How often have we looked but not really noticed? Goleman’s (1985) description of the implications of this paradox is intriguing:

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. (p. 24­)

Goleman went on to argue that we need to pay careful attention to people, environment, nature and conversations if we are to save ourselves from “the narcotic of self-deception” (p. 14). In this context, it is clear to see how critical it is to be honest about what is actually noticed, especially if it concerns one’s own thoughts or actions.

Another example of the benefits of close observation is Susan Scott’s (2009) story of the deep sea divers looking for squid on the ocean floor. To the novice diver, no signs could be found. To the experienced diver, the “tell” (p. 28) was obvious. Once the novice learned what to look for, the “tell” was so easy to spot, they had to wonder why they hadn’t seen it before.

If our purpose in observation is to see clearly and to understand, then being able to notice the smallest detail is the goal. A useful starting place could be with proof-reading. How many times do we find typographical errors when we thought we had completed an accurate copy? How many times do our minds compensate for errors, telling us what is written there, even though it is not? If we are to help our young people to be the very best that they can be, we need to encourage time for deep listening, close observation and reflection.

By creating a wisdom space and attending to listening and observations, we awaken those parts of us that have not been as perceptive as they could be. As Susan Scott (2009) explained:

Self-examination is not ethics, nor judgment, nor a quest for perfection. It is recognition, awakening… Only when we better understand ourselves and our own direction can we change the beliefs and practices that are keeping us from happiness and success. And once we change, the people around us can change, our careers can change, our companies can change. The world can change. (p. 273)

With heightened perception, comes a better quality of self-knowledge. With greater clarity of vision, the recognition of others’ viewpoints, and the honesty of one’s self-knowledge, our level of insight will deepen and relationships improve. Consciously attending to all these in our own wisdom space could be the key to tapping into our true potential.


Goleman, D. (1985). Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self Deception.  New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Pogacnik, M. (no date). You and Miha. Website. Viewed 20 May 2011 at

Scharmer, O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Scott, S. (2009). Fierce leadership: a bold alternative to the worst ‘best practices’ of business today. Cornwall, Great Britain: Piatkus

Leave a Reply