An Educator's View

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_post-it-art.jpgI’ve spent the past nine weeks on this blog offering brief sketches of IVA’s Nine Master Virtues. These don’t exhaust the full range of intellectual virtues. But they’ll provide us with a more manageable and immediate focus as we begin “doing education” in a way that’s aimed at nurturing growth in these important qualities.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve received countless emails from all over the world expressing interest and enthusiasm about what we’re doing at the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach — from Italy, France, England, New Zealand, Australia, and Philippines, to name just a few. These are in addition the many emails and phone calls I’ve received from across the United States. One thing is becoming very clear: what we’re doing is striking a chord.

My own (admittedly fallible) take on this is that a certain pendulum within education has reached its furthest point in one direction (a point marked, among other ways, by the No Child Left Behind legislation passed in 2001) and is beginning to swing back in a direction that favors a richer, more personal, and holistic approach to education — one that does not result in an obsessive concern with standardized testing, teaching to the test, and related unintended but manifestly bad consequences of the previous paradigm.

An intellectual virtues educational model is extremely well positioned to explain what’s gone wrong, and to offer a positive alternative. According to this model, education should be aimed in part at shaping who students are becoming as thinkers and learners. It should, in a focused and systematic way, aim at helping them grow in curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual autonomy, intellectual tenacity, and other intellectual virtues.

To be clear: this is not a radically new model.

First, as I often say, the main thing we’re doing is equipping educators (and students) with language and concepts to better describe, understand, and practice what they are (at least in their better moments) already trying to do. In this way, we’re providing a character-based conceptual structure for better understanding and implementing best practices within education.

Second, while not always using the language of intellectual virtue, the ideas central to this approach have been at the heart of a great deal of excellent classroom-based educational research generated by Harvard’s Project Zero over the past three decades. This includes research on thinking dispositions, teaching for understanding, cultures of thinking, and making thinking visible. An intellectual virtues approach is also importantly related to approaches that emphasize “social and emotional learning,” “habits of mind,” “metacognition,” and critical thinking.

Third, it’s important to keep in mind that educating for intellectual virtues isn’t an alternative to educating for academic knowledge and skills. We don’t promote growth in intellectual virtues primarily by teaching students about them, or by telling students to “be intellectually virtuous!” On the contrary, growth in intellectual virtues is largely the result of thoughtful and active engagement with traditional academic knowledge and skills.

While an intellectual virtues approach isn’t the only way of moving forward in education, it’s one very promising way — a way that highlights and emphasizes the personal dimension of good thinking and learning. To get a better sense of the growing momentum in support of this approach, I recommend looking at two recent reports. The first is a report on IVA and the Intellectual Virtues and Education Project at Loyola Marymount University produced recently by the John Templeton Foundation. The second is a report recently released by the US Government on promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance in schools. We’ll have more to say about the latter in coming weeks and months. It’s a promising indication that we’re onto something big.