Intellectual thoroughness is about going deep. An intellectually thorough person considers all the evidence, not just what is conveniently available. He double-checks his sources. And he considers multiple perspectives before making judgments.
But, ultimately, intellectual thoroughness is about deep understanding. An intellectually thorough person isn’t content with surfacy knowledge. He likes to wrap his mind around important ideas, to grasp why, and to be able to explain what he knows.
Teaching for deep understanding is a rare phenomenon in settings where scores on standardized exams and “teaching to the test” define the educational culture. Sadly, in settings like these, the opposite of intellectual thoroughness (intellectual hastiness, laziness, etc.) is the natural outcome.
You might think that teaching for intellectual thoroughness by teaching for deep understanding would be off-putting to kids. They might regard it as simply involving more work. But what’s the alternative? Typically, it’s a matter of teaching for memorization and short-term retention. Is that rewarding? Of course not. Challenging students to “go deep,” on the other hand, involves engaging their minds and tapping into their natural desire to learn. The results can be exhilarating. After all, it feels good to understand. Understanding also breeds greater confidence.
Last night our 11-year-old son asked me to review some material with him for an upcoming test on climate science. His objective was to review a sheet of definitions. As we began working our way through the definitions, I asked him: “Do you think this is really helping you understand the material?” “No,” he replied. So I asked, “Wouldn’t it be more interesting if you really did understand what you’re learning about?” He quickly acknowledged that it would. For the next several minutes we began to engage the simple content on the page a bit more closely and rigorously. We compared and contrasted related concepts (hurricanes vs. cyclones). We puzzled over some ill-defined terms (“convection”). And we delighted in some truly fascinating natural phenomena. For instance, we observed that air pressure allows us to move things—like the marshmallows in his PVC blowgun—without actually touching them. Amazing! (This reminded my son of a conversation we’d had long ago about magnets: two things pushing and pulling each other without actually touching. Astounding!)
We live in a marvelous world. There is so much to puzzle about, to learn, and to delight in within science, math, history, literature, and other disciplines. But if no one nurtures or inspires intellectual thoroughness in our children, such goods will remain forever beyond their grasp.