Back to the future

Mark Smith

I attended a conference here in Edinburgh last week called ‘Towards Professional Wisdom’. It attracted academics from different professional backgrounds and interests from across the world. There might be some irony attached to the fact that a conference on professional wisdom in the people professions was attended, almost exclusively, by academics rather than those who actually do the job, but perhaps that’s just the way of conferences. And because of the preponderance of academics, discussion of wisdom was often couched in rather obtuse language and concepts, which might be argued to render it beyond the grasp of most of us seekers after wisdom.

Those caveats aside the ideas that I did manage to understand made a lot of sense and have real implications for the way we think about practice, and in particular how people learn for and in practice. What was really striking was a real discontent with current ways of doing things across professional groupings. Everyone, from their own different places seemed to be reaching similar conclusions about disciplinary knowledge and practice. And reaching these conclusions had led many of them to reach backwards to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, seeking to reclaim traditional views of what might constitute wisdom, a concept that has been lost and devalued amidst the technical rationality of the modern period.

Before I lose myself in philosophical nuance let me try and say what I take this to mean. The modern period, stemming from the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, privileges concepts of reason and more specifically scientific or technical reason. From such a position knowledge is perceived to exist independently of the knower. It is objective, universal, and detached from the context of its knowing or its operation. Now such a paradigm might be applicable to the natural sciences (although increasingly scientists too are loathe to make such a claim), but it is manifestly unsuitable to human activity as it decouples practice from its situation and context and indeed from the character and intentions of the practitioner.

The conceptual difficulty of applying technical/rational ways of thinking to human activity hasn’t stopped people trying to do so; we see it all around us in the push towards evidence-led practice (as though concepts such as evidence were clear and detached from human subjectivity), in increasingly instrumental and technical forms of training, in research that merely serves to bolster dominant policy initiatives, and in Codes of Conduct which tell us how to be suitably deferential and compliant employees.

This is where Aristotle comes in with his idea of phronesis (variously translated as prudence or practical wisdom). Phronesis is the kind of knowledge that we accumulate over time and in particular situations. In residential child care it gives us the insight when to intervene in situations and when to take a step back. It gives us some insight too into how to intervene in particular situations, for what might be right in one situation with one kid is unlikely to be right in a different situation with that same kid or a different kid. It is the kind of wisdom that we witness in the old heads that many of us learned our trade from through an apprenticeship type model.

As I was preparing the paper I delivered at the conference, I looked back at some of the older literature on residential care. As far back as the 1980s people were bemoaning the loss of practical wisdom in the profession. Ironically, much of it was lost in the push to ‘professionalise’ residential care, moving it away from live-in staff for whom residential care was a lifelong career and indeed a vocation, towards what Douglas and Payne call an industrial model, where increasing numbers of staff began to work shifts and to be paid overtime should they exceed their stated hours. Many of this new breed of residential worker became more interested in conditions of service than in the needs of children and most, too, used their time in residential care as a stepping stone into ‘real’ social work, which was considered to happen in the community rather than in residential settings.

In place of the professional wisdom of seasoned practitioners the bureaucratic apparatus of local authorities sought to introduce targets for training, competencies for practice and codes for behaviour. From a scientifically rational perspective this might be thought to make perfect sense. However, as a means of bringing practical wisdom into residential care the strategy has been worse than useless. Students are taught abstract principles of practice, in abstract situations and generally by teachers who have no direct experience of the residential context, all in pursuit of some mythical ‘best practice’. And we wonder why it doesn’t work when they try and put these abstract principles into practice in situations that don’t come much more real than residential care.

Phronesis doesn’t eschew procedure or guidance altogether but it does require that it is pliable and can accommodate the demands of specific and changing circumstances. Knowing what to do in particular circumstances requires wisdom. And wisdom is located within individuals rather than in procedures or training manuals. Aristotle called the way in which individuals practise that wisdom in the interests of the common good, virtue. Virtues are those qualities that are embodied in the character of real people rather than in the Codes of Conduct beloved by regulators. You can keep within codes of conduct by doing nothing wrong but also by doing not very much right or indeed at all. Virtuous people on the other hand might fall foul of procedural or behavioural codes but when all is said and done they are the people who make a difference to kids’ lives and are the ones that kids remember. The idea of virtue residing in the character of the one caring is summed up in this quote from a lad brought up in care

“There was a nun, who was the head nun of our children’s home who was very, very fair, and kind, but not in a ‘goody-goody’ way – she was a just person, and she offered us protection.’ (Cree and Davis, 2007).

Kids know those who practice the virtues and they also know those who don’t. We would do well to reclaim ideas of phronesis and of virtue, dusting down Aristotle for the 21st Century.


Cree, V. and Davis, A. (2007). Voices from the Inside. Abingdon. Routledge.