Posts on Master Virtues

Intellectual Humility: A Researcher's Perspective


By Tenelle Porter, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of California, Davis

It’s commencement season and last week I found myself listening to David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College graduates. He tells a story of two young fish that pass an older fish who is swimming in the opposite direction. The older fish says “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The young fish swim along for a while until one looks at the other and says “What the heck is water?”

The point of the fish story, Wallace explains, is that we are often blind to the most obvious and important realities. Even more, lots of things that we are absolutely, automatically certain about turn out to be completely wrong.

Research suggests Wallace is right. Lots of work in psychology shows that we routinely overestimate how much we know, that we have self-serving biases that distort our thinking, and that we are blind to our own bias (while holding fast to the belief that others are biased).

This sounds like a bunch of bad news -- especially for those us who strive to be (and want to educate children to be) fair thinkers, and genuinely open-minded. Are our strivings in vain? Is there any overcoming the forces that incline us to thick-headedness?

New research coming out of Duke, Brown, Princeton, Cornell, and Stanford (among other places) suggests that the answer is yes. This research investigates Intellectual Humility – one of IVA’s intellectual virtues.

Intellectual humility is about acknowledging that in the vastness of all there is to know, what I know is only partial. It’s about owning my intellectual mistakes, and believing that I have something to learn from everyone.

New research is suggesting that, despite the many tendencies that make it hard to have intellectual humility, it’s possible to have it. And when you do have it, it can help you.

For example, in research that I did at Stanford University with Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck, we found that the more intellectually humble an adult was, the more likely they were to learn from those who disagreed with them. They were also more liked and respected by others.

In other research, we found that freshman and sophomores in high school who were higher in intellectual humility were rated by their classmates as being more admired, more respected and more intelligent. Their teacher also rated them as being more engaged in learning. The intellectually humble students also ended up earning higher grades in math (those were the only grades we looked at), and growing more in math achievement over the school year.

Interestingly, in the same high school study, students who didn’t like it when others pointed out their mistakes (a negative indicator of intellectual humility) also ended up earning higher grades in math. However, when we looked at how the intellectually humble students ended up with higher grades vs. how the students who were uncomfortable with their mistakes ended up with higher grades, we found very different paths to achievement.

The students who were high in intellectual humility cared more about learning and their strong motivation to learn is what fueled their achievement. By contrast, the students who didn’t like it when others pointed out their mistakes cared more about looking smart, and their motivation to look smart is what propelled their achievement.

In the long run, caring a lot about looking smart can sabotage intellectual growth – particularly when the going gets tough. For example, if I care a lot about looking smart and enroll in a course in quantum mechanics where I quickly realize that I don’t look smart, I may disengage from the course– stop doing the homework, stop coming to class, maybe even drop the class. But if I care a lot about learning – and care more about learning than looking smart – I can persist in the course because it is a valuable learning opportunity.

Bottom line: in our study, intellectual humility boosted students’ achievement, and it also seemed to foster a more durable, adaptive motivation to learn.

Because intellectual humility seemed beneficial in our research, we wanted to investigate how to foster it. Our research suggests that one way to become more intellectually humble is to monitor how you think – particularly, how you think about the nature of intelligence.

We found that when we taught college students that intelligence can grow and develop (a growth mindset of intelligence) they became more intellectually humble. When we taught students that intelligence is a fixed, stable trait (a fixed mindset of intelligence), it dampened their intellectual humility.

We believe one reason these mindsets about intelligence affect intellectual humility is because they make it more or less easy to acknowledge what you don’t know. In a growth mindset, if you don’t know something you can learn it and get smarter. In a fixed mindset, if you don’t know something, your innate, fixed level of intelligence is called into question.

Certainly, there is a lot about intellectual humility, and other intellectual virtues, that we don’t yet understand. But the burgeoning empirical research is beginning to uncover the nature and consequences of these constructs. Indeed, how little we know, how eager to learn.

Intellectual Tenacity

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_image.jpeg.jpgHow do you respond to challenge? In my own case, this tends to depend on what’s at stake. I’m quite willing to embrace challenge and work extremely hard if I care enough about the goal at issue. On the other hand, if I don’t see the goal as especially important, I tend to shy away from challenge. In other words, I don’t in general think of challenge as a good thing or as an opportunity for growth.

This ambivalent attitude toward challenge illustrates some important points about trying to educate for growth in virtues like intellectual tenacity, perseverance, courage, and grit. These virtues have in common a willingness to embrace intellectual challenges or obstacles for the sake of some greater good. An intellectually tenacious person engages confronts and seeks to overcome these challenges instead of giving up or avoiding them.

First, the ambivalence described above shows that as educators we should take significant pains to help our students understand the value of what we’re asking them to learn or do. If they don’t see or appreciate this value, then they aren’t very likely to show tenacity or related virtues in their thinking or other work as students.

Second, it suggests the importance of subverting many of our default attitudes toward intellectual risk and struggle. As described in a previous post, teachers and the classroom cultures we create often inadvertently encourage students to avoid taking intellectual risks. Instead we tend to encourage smoothing over or quickly moving past—rather than remaining in and trying to learn from—experiences of intellectual struggle. This is unfortunate because it robs students of opportunities to broaden their horizons, expand their intellectual skill sets, and learn important lessons about themselves.

Third, this highlights—yet again—the importance of virtues like intellectual honesty and intellectual humility. Intellectual humility involves an ongoing but healthy awareness and “ownership” of one’s intellectual limits and weaknesses. As human beings, we go to great lengths to avoid this kind of self-knowledge. This is precisely why many of us shy away from intellectual challenges or struggles—why we elect to play it safe. This in turn leads us to give up too quickly or to avoid pursuing worthy goals in the first place. Therefore, fostering growth in intellectual tenacity requires fostering intellectual humility as well.

Intellectual Courage

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_blog.jpgWe show courage when we are willing to suffer a potential loss or harm for the sake of some greater good—when we judge that a certain risk is worth taking. We show intellectual courage when we subject ourselves to a potential loss or harm in an intellectual context, for example, in the context of learning or in the pursuit of truth.

One memorable example of intellectual courage is Edward R. Murrow’s famous World War II news broadcasts. Murrow subjected himself to harrowing conditions (conducting live broadcasts from London rooftops with German bombs raining down around him) for the sake of reaching the truth. He felt that the American public had a “right to know” what was happening during the war and he was willing, for a time, to place this right above his own well-being.

If this is what intellectual courage looks like, what does it have to do with middle school education? In fact, intellectual courage wasn’t initially on IVA’s list of “master virtues.” However, as we reflected more on the obstacles to getting middle schoolers to engage learning in an active and positive way, its importance quickly became apparent. Middle schoolers are an inhibited and self-conscious bunch. They are quick to judge and criticize and slow to take risks. This mentality extends beyond lunch hour and passing periods into the classroom, where they tend to be reluctant to share their honest opinions, speak in front of the class, or admit that they actually like learning.  Tragically, they succumb to social fears and in doing so forfeit a great many intellectual opportunities and goods. This suggests that intellectual courage—far from being irrelevant to middle school education—is profoundly necessary.

How, then, can teachers foster intellectual courage? This is no small task. Here are a few steps in the right direction:

1. They can create a classroom culture in which students feel “safe” and accepted. Students need to know that if they say something wrong or “stupid,” they won’t be judged or ridiculed for it.

2. Teachers can also create a classroom culture in which intellectual risk-taking and struggle are encouraged and rewarded. In a previous post, I referenced a recent NPR story on competing educational perspectives about intellectual struggle. According to the story, certain Eastern cultures view intellectual struggle as an important part of the learning process that should regularly be used by teachers to promote intellectual growth, while Western cultures tend to eschew and disincentivize intellectual struggle. The latter is an unwise approach if we are committed to giving students frequent opportunities to practice intellectual courage.

3. A related step is to model and promote intellectual humility (another master virtue). Intellectual humility is partly a matter of “owning”—instead of running from or denying—one’s intellectual weaknesses and limitations. This frees us from the fear of having to appear to be something we are not, which in turn makes intellectual risk-taking seem a little less costly.

As parents attempting to nurture intellectual courage in our children, we can take many of the same steps. We can provide safe and supportive home environments for our children—environments in which they are not led to feel that their worth is measured by, say, their grades or other successes (or failures) in school. We can also give them regular opportunities to take intellectual risks, for example, by allowing them to take a class or participate in an activity that is outside their comfort zone, or by encouraging them to take a novel or creative approach to a class assignment or project. And we certainly can model intellectual humility ourselves and praise it when we see it in them.


b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_a-kid-in-love.tumblr.com_.jpgAs human beings, we love to be right—right in how we act, but also in what we believe. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this desire. However, the desire to be right often has such a strong grip on us that we have a very difficult time handling it when someone disagrees with us or criticizes something we believe or have said. Our kneejerk response is to be defensive or to attack the person who has challenged us. One illustration of this is our susceptibility to what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” a pervasive human phenomenon whereby we unconsciously seek out evidence that supports our beliefs and ignore or distort evidence that doesn’t.

Open-mindedness is a virtue that helps loosen the grip of our desire to be right. It frees us up to consider alternative views—even those that have been thrust upon us in a negative or critical spirit—in a way that is open, fair, and honest. It permits us to give opposing views or criticisms their due.

A powerful illustration of open-mindedness is the way that Abraham Lincoln responded to an antagonistic advisor and Cabinet member:


At the height of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was doing everything in his power to preserve the unity of his crumbling country. As both the nation’s elected president and as one of the most intelligent men of his generation, Lincoln had every right to expect deferential respect from his subordinates. And yet, as the war waged, he found himself being criticized and ridiculed by friends and foes alike. One man Lincoln was supposed to count as a friend was his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. However, both publicly and privately Stanton had made no secret of his disrespect for Lincoln. Even though Lincoln was aware of Stanton’s insubordination, Lincoln kept his secretary of war, believing that Stanton’s sharp mind and independent perspective would be a valuable balance to his own.

At one of the war’s most critical points Lincoln sent a direct order to Stanton. Not only did Stanton refuse to carry it out, but he again publicly mocked Lincoln, calling him a fool. Instead of reacting out of anger or spite, Lincoln is said to have replied, “If Stanton said I was a . . . fool, than I must be one. For he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.” Lincoln was no wimp. He had demonstrated many times over that he was more than willing to buck the opinions of others if he believed they were wrong. Still, as the story goes, the two men had a meeting in which Lincoln listened carefully to his subordinate, concluded that Stanton was right and withdrew his order. (Phil Dow, Virtuous Minds)


Lincoln was not afraid of being wrong. He refused to allow a desire to be right to get in the way of an even deeper desire to get to the fact of the matter. Just imagine a world in which politicians—and any of us with strong political beliefs—demonstrate such open-mindedness and intellectual humility!

Some worry that open-mindedness amounts to a kind of intellectual wishy-washiness—hence the familiar admonition: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” But this is mistaken. As an intellectual virtue, open-mindedness is rooted in a desire for truth and understanding. We listen openly and fairly to competing views because we recognize that we are not cognitively perfect and therefore have much to learn from others, including those who disagree with us. Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put this point nicely (if bluntly) when he said: “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I suspect that most of us would like our children to have firm convictions—to be intellectually courageous—but also to be open-minded. Few of us, at any rate, are comfortable with them becoming closed-minded, narrow-minded, or dogmatic. How, then, can we help nurture open-mindedness in our children? One general strategy is to seize any opportunity to encourage them to think and wonder. This can foster a kind of intellectual nimbleness and suppleness that make open-minded thinking much more natural. Another strategy is to create frequent opportunities for them to “perspective switch” or take up alternative standpoints or perspectives. This might involve something as simple as reflecting with them about how different life must have been in different time periods (e.g. before there were computers and smartphones!). Or it might involve imagining what life must have been like for particular individuals living in different times or places (e.g. a black child in the South during the Civil Rights movement). Another useful strategy is helping them to come up with reasons for and against various beliefs. For instance, as my 8-year-old daughter and I took a walk the other day, she explained to me that they had been “debating” the practice of whaling in her second grade class. Together we tried to come up with the three best arguments for and against this practice. We then considered how someone “on the other side” might object to these arguments. By engaging in this kind of mental exercise, she was getting practice in being open-minded. She was also having some intellectual fun.

It’s worth reiterating that open-mindedness is not an end in itself. Rather, it is aimed at developing a richer, deeper, and more accurate view of the world. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Intellectual Thoroughness

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_Heart-at-Work.jpgIntellectual 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.


b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_1879b55a40fa69f77027ea1597586e49.jpgIt’s easy to think of an attentive student as one who always follows the teacher’s admonition to “pay attention!” But this is a very limited way of thinking about attentiveness. Understood as an intellectual virtue, attentiveness involves much more. Most significantly, it involves attending to subtle but important details.

The attentive person noticesthings. She picks up on critical nuances of meaning. She registers the significance in what another person says. And she sees beyond mere appearances to the more important—or more beautiful, shocking, delightful, or sinister—details of the world around her.

The attentive person also tends to be inquisitive. She asks questions about the things she attends to. In this respect, attentiveness is an extension of curiosity. It is curiosity expressed in how we direct our attention, what we focus on, what we give our minds to.  The attentive person, like the curious person, has an engaged and inquiring mind.

This point is illustrated nicely in an article by Shari Tishman from Harvard’s Project Zero. She discusses an exercise in which students were asked to attend carefully to the details of a “darning egg” (an implement used in mending garments):

As I listened to the discussion, I was struck by the quality of students’ thinking as they examined and discussed the darning egg. They made nuanced observations, posed generative questions, and developed explanations for the darning egg’s features, often drawing evidence from their observations and their own background knowledge. They considered the context of the society in which people used this tool and made connections to their own lives. It took only a little probing to uncover the complexity of the object, and that complexity provoked students to think.”

What keeps us, our children, or our students from being more attentive? The reality is that we live in a society in which “Stop and smell the roses”  is a well-worn cliché. What does this say about us? Roses are things of extraordinary beauty. Their colors, textures, and scents are exquisite. Yet we have to be reminded to stop and enjoy them! This is but one of countless indicators of the frenetic pace at which we live our lives—a pace that is hostile to the growth of attentiveness.

The rapid-fire media that saturate the lives of our children and students is another obstacle to attentiveness. Therefore, it’s up to us as parents and teachers to lead the way. This requires doing more than limiting their intake of television, movies, or video games. It requires taking deliberate steps to open their eyes to the world of meaningful and delightful details that lies just beyond their consciousness. It requires teaching them to look.

Intellectual Carefulness

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_from-nasas-archives-50-amazing-photos-of-the-apollo-moon-missions.jpgIntellectual carefulness is not the sexiest of virtues. And yet it is critically important. In fact, part of why it may be less alluring than, say, curiosity or intellectual tenacity is that the need for it is so familiar and pervasive.

Intellectual carefulness involves an awareness of and responsiveness to important intellectual rules or requirements – including, perhaps most importantly, the requirements of good thinking. The careful thinker is alert to potential mistakes and errors and takes pains to avoid them. She desires to know—to understand—and therefore is slow to judge and quick to probe deeper.

The far-reaching importance of intellectual carefulness is nicely described by author Phillip Dow in his forthcoming book Virtuous Minds:

“Of course, few of us consciously rush to judgments in situations of such gravity. Yet in the so-called little things we are often guilty of habitually hasty thinking. How often, for instance, do we uncritically accept casual office gossip or leap to hasty judgments about others based on innuendo or flimsy circumstantial evidence? If you are anything like me, the answer is far too often. Not only does this form of intellectual hastiness lead to reckless judgments against colleagues—creating a lens through which we then begin to unfairly interpret all other information we hear about them—but it inevitably influences our actions toward those people. Even if we never explicitly pass on our unsubstantiated impressions to others (which we almost always do), our intellectual hastiness has poisoned a relationship and probably affected the way that person is treated in our community.”

Aristotle famously said that every virtue has two corresponding vices: a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. The deficiency of intellectual carefulness—intellectual carelessness—is familiar enough, as are its negative consequences. But it is also possible to be excessively intellectually careful. Interestingly, excessive carefulness is often rooted in a fear of failure. As Dow says:

“Just as in NASA’s aspirations to put a person on the moon, our pursuit of the truth in every area of our lives almost always includes the risk of failure. Sometimes the risks are large and call for extraordinary caution, but it is also possible to become so careful and fastidious about getting things perfect that we never risk and therefore never grow. The student whose fear of getting the answer wrong keeps her from answering a test question and the secretary so concerned about misspelling a word that he reads over every memo thirty times are examples of carefulness gone awry. William James said excessive intellectual carefulness ‘is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound.’”

In this way, intellectual carefulness needs to be tempered by intellectual humility. An intellectually humble person is comfortable in his own skin. He can freely acknowledge his intellectual limitations. As a result, he is free to take risks, and therefore free to grow.

Being a careful thinker can also be a source of great comfort and security after the fact. Here again Dow offers an insightful example:

“A lack of confidence is another natural attribute of the habitually careless or hasty thinker. Consider the following example. Nigel and Jess are on their honeymoon and decide that they would like to try parachuting. From an early age Nigel has been taught to dot his “i’s” and cross his “t’s.” His love of truth was also enough to push him to take reasonable intellectual risks, but when he goes to pack his chute, Nigel’s habitual intellectual carefulness serves him well. He listens closely to the instructions and follows them faithfully. Then he goes back and double-checks his work. Nigel’s brilliant and carefree bride, on the other hand, has always gotten by on her natural smarts and charisma. So when it comes to packing her parachute, Jess wings it. On the ground both are equally relaxed, but standing on the edge of the plane’s door, ten thousand feet up, their experiences are worlds apart. Nigel is excited about the jump, knowing that his chute is sound and set to function perfectly; Jess is rightly paralyzed with fear.

The consequences of her carelessness are obviously potentially tragic for Jess, but for the sake of pleasantness let’s say that she gets lucky and her chute still functions properly. Even though they both made it to the ground safely, the thinking habits they had developed prior to the jump still had an important influence on their experience. Rooted in the confidence gained from his habit of careful thinking, Nigel’s experience was one of unabashed exhilaration while Jess’s intellectual carelessness rightly produced intense and paralyzing fear. Paying close attention to evidence and taking care that we don’t hastily pass over important information will not produce a higher rate of success in every area of our lives, but it will also necessarily create the peace of mind and confidence needed to tackle life’s opportunities and obstacles.”

Intellectual Humility

301741243753474214.jpgThe very idea of humility tends to elicit mixed reactions. Some equate it with spinelessness, servility, diffidence, and other undesirable traits. They think, for instance, of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore, or of the famous Dickens character Uriah Heep, who says of “umbleness”:

“They taught us all a deal of umbleness – not much else that I know of, from morning to night. We was to be umble to this person, and umble to that; and to pull off our caps here, and to make bows there; and always to know our place, and abase ourselves before our betters.”

But this is a far cry from genuine humility.  Consider, by contrast, a person who is so comfortable in her own skin or has such a strong sense of self-worth that she can freely acknowledge her limits, struggles, and failures. She is not afraid of what other people think. She does not try to micro-manage their perceptions of her. Nor is she very concerned with status, pecking orders, or the like. She is free to be herself—so free that she can comfortably reveal her imperfections. This is real humility.

Intellectual humility involves an awareness of and a willingness to “own” one’s intellectual limits and imperfections.  An intellectually humble teacher isn’t afraid to acknowledge when he doesn’t know something or when he has a made an error. Similarly, an intellectually humble student is aware of the gaps in her knowledge and of the ways in which she tends to struggle intellectually. She does not attempt to ignore or cover up these limitations. On the contrary, she can freely admit them—especially when doing so may serve to facilitate her intellectual growth.

Intellectual humility is a radical but utterly essential virtue. It is radical because as parents and teachers we tend exclusively to value and praise strength and competence. While strength and competence are good, an overemphasis on them can leave our students and children (and ourselves!) feeling that any kind of intellectual weakness or deficit is something to be ashamed of and hidden from view. Intellectual humility is an essential virtue for the familiar and straightforward reason that personal growth is possible only when we can identify and “own” our limits and weaknesses. This is a necessary—if sometimes painful—starting point.

There is an interesting connection between intellectual humility and the kind of perfectionism that many students exhibit. Specifically, perfectionism can indicate a lack of intellectual humility. Why? Students who feel they must do everything right are often driven by a fear of failure. And this fear is often an indication that they are “hiding” from—they have not yet come to terms with—their intellectual limits, weaknesses, or imperfections.

What, then, can we do as parents or teachers to encourage intellectual humility in the children whose lives we influence? For one thing, we can make our homes and classrooms spaces in which it is “safe” to admit our intellectual weaknesses and limitations. We can also help our children and students see these admissions—as well as the kinds of failures that sometimes result from them—as opportunities for growth, not as reflections on their self-worth. As suggested in a recent and widely listened to NPR story, this might involve the encouragement of intellectual struggle.

To illustrate some of these ideas, I am happy to share some recent experiences of a local high school teacher who has been attempting to educate for intellectual virtues like intellectual humility and intellectual courage (her remarks are excerpted from an email to a group of teachers meeting on a regular basis to talk about intellectual virtues and education):

Discussing the issue I’m having with [trying to foster intellectual courage and intellectual humility] in my AP classes with you all earlier this month was extremely helpful, and I wanted to share a couple of the things I’ve tried that seem to have had some positive impact.  The Monday after our seminar, I drew a spectrum line on the back board of the classroom with “terrified of answering and being wrong” on the left and “totally confident answering whether I’m right or wrong.”  Per Jacquie’s suggestion, I gave each student a small post-it and as we conducted class (facing the front), each student went back one at a time and put their post-it on the spectrum.  After they’d all finished, I had them turn around and look–sure enough, most of the post-its were grouped on the left side of the spectrum.  Thinking back on it, I should have had them write a reflection on those results, but we just had a brief discussion about it together as a class.  We concluded that it’s not only important for me to reinforce risk-taking and wrong answers as a great way to learn, but that they needed to reinforce that with each other.  A number of them said it really helped to have that visual reminder that they’re not alone in feeling afraid of looking ‘dumb.’

 Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to praise students for taking a risk with an answer they weren’t sure about.  Yesterday, as we were discussing a poem, there were several times I challenged students’ answers and asked them to defend their interpretations.  When they couldn’t, the class was tasked with figuring out how they were off in their answer and what the text was pointing to instead.  I could tell these students were out of their comfort zone (I was too!), so at the end of the period, I asked the class, “how many of you learned something today because someone had a wrong interpretation?”  Nearly every student in class raised his/her hand, and I could see the visible relief/encouragement in the faces of the students who had given those answers.  I asked a couple of the students who raised their hands to share how it helped them and they said that it made them analyze the text more closely and also analyze their own thinking more carefully.

Kudos to this teacher and to all the other teachers and parents who are taking positive steps to nurture intellectual virtues in the children they serve and love!

Intellectual Autonomy

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_autonomy.jpgWhat’s your image of the ideal student? Many of us are likely to imagine a student who pays attention, listens quietly, completes all of his homework, scores well on exams, follows the rules, and so on. To be sure, these are some good intellectual behaviors. But notice that they are consistent with a complete absence of one very important intellectual virtue: intellectual autonomy.

Intellectual autonomy is a willingness and ability to think for oneself. A person with this virtue is not overly dependent on others when it comes to forming her beliefs. She is not a mere receptacle for information and ideas deposited by others. In other words, her thought life is not primarily passive. It is active. The intellectually autonomous person is capable of forming her own judgments, initiating reflection, and asking probing questions.

Of course, intellectual autonomy needs to be balanced and tempered by other virtues like intellectual humility and intellectual trust. We need to be aware and accepting of our intellectual limits. And we need to be able to recognize and give due respect to genuine intellectual experts and authorities.

Why, then, is intellectual autonomy so important—particularly for young people, whose lack of knowledge and other intellectual limits are especially conspicuous? For one thing, many sources present themselves as “expert” or “authoritative” when in fact they are not. So we all need the ability to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information. This requires intellectual autonomy.

Similarly, as philosopher Richard Paul explains, many social institutions today “depend heavily on passive acceptance of the status quo, whether intellectual, political, or economic.” The result, he adds, is that “large masses of people are unknowing conformists in thought and deed. They are like mirrors reflecting the belief systems and values of those who surround them. They lack the intellectual skills and incentive to think for themselves. They are intellectually conforming thinkers” (Critical Thinking, p. 33).

Most of us who are parents don’t want our children to be “conforming thinkers.” We do not want them to bend to peer pressure or the latest media messages about what they should care about, buy, or look like. We want our children to be intellectually autonomous.

As with all of the virtues, nurturing intellectual autonomy in our children means possessing and modeling it ourselves. How intellectually autonomous are you? Paul suggests the following helpful exercise as a way of answering this question:

Briefly review some of the variety of influences to which you have been exposed in your life (influence of culture, company, family, religious, peer groups, media, personal relationships). See if you can discriminate between those dimensions of your thought and behavior in which you have done the least thinking for yourself and those in which you have done the most. What makes this activity difficult is that we often perceive ourselves as thinking for ourselves when we are actually conforming to others. What you should look for, therefore, are instances of your actively questioning beliefs, values, or practices to which others in your “group” were, or are, conforming. (33)

Are you willing to try this exercise? If so, what does it reveal?


b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_curious.ladder.jpgCuriosity isn’t always a good thing. It was curiosity that killed the cat, after all; and, if Curious George is any indication, it is very closely tied to mischief.

But think of someone whose mind you admire. What are the qualities or characteristics of this person’s mind? Chances are that curiosity is among them. Curiosity can, then, be an admirable intellectual trait. It can be an intellectual virtue.

Real learning begins and ends with curiosity. It is curiosity that causes us to ask questions, to wonder, to seek understanding. Just imagine what human civilization would be like if curiosity had never made an appearance—if people only sought the knowledge or understanding necessary for survival. There would no science, no technology, no art. There would be no real culture.

What, then, are our schools doing to facilitate curiosity in students? Suppose you were to pull aside your son or daughter’s teacher and ask: “What specific activities, assignments, or teaching strategies do you employ in an effort to inspire curiosity in your students?” What would you expect the reply to be?

You might think that teachers simply don’t have the time to teach for curiosity (or any other character traits). If they hope to keep their jobs, they need to focus on teaching academic standards and skills instead. But this is a false dichotomy. You don’t teach curiosity by teaching about curiosity. You teach it through an active and reflective engagement with academic content and skills. Educating for curiosity and other intellectual virtues is more a matter of “how” one teaches than it is about “what” one teaches.

To get a better idea of what curiosity looks in action, consider the following passage from the novel by British author C.P. Snow called The Search:

“When I was a child of about eleven, a new excitement suddenly flared up in my life …

This particular Sunday night was warm and twilit, and I fancy summer was nearly over. As we came to the end of the town, the sun had just gone down behind the river, and – I remember it as though it were yesterday – in the yellow sunset sky there was a sickle of new moon, and high over our heads a sprinkling of stars just coming dimly out. We stopped and looked.

My father said:

‘I wonder if they’re what we think they are? Stars! Stars like this!’ He waved vaguely. ‘People think we know about them. I wonder if we do.’

I gazed up at him.

‘I wonder if we can,’ he added.

I didn’t know what he was thinking. All of a sudden I felt that all the things around me were toys to handle and control, that I had the power in a tiny, easy world.

‘I wonder if they are what we think they are,’ my father was saying again.

‘Let’s find out,” I said. And then: ‘I’m going to find out.’

My father looked puzzled. ‘Well,’ he said.

The night had taken hold of me. I wanted to do something with those stars. I did not quite know what, but I was elated. Their beauty stirred me, but it was not only that. If I had been older, I should have said I wanted to know, to understand, to alter. I wanted to rush out and have them for my own. I laughed:

‘I’m going to find out all about them.’” (p. 11)

The narrator is gripped by the stars. He wants to figure them out—to understand what they are and how they work. He is moved by the possibility of understanding.

Note as well that the narrator’s curiosity appears to be precipitated by his father’s own attitude toward the stars. This raises the question: what are we doing to inspire curiosity in our children? Do we give our children any reasons to think that curiosity is a good thing—an important educational value?

This can be done in at least two ways, both of which are illustrated by the father in the selection above. First, we can make a practice of modelingcuriosity to our children. The most obvious way to do this is by asking questions—by thinking and wondering aloud. But curiosity isn’t just about asking questions. It’s also about trying to find answers. Therefore, we also need to model this activity. The next time our child raises a question that we can’t answer and we reply by saying “We’ll have to look that up,” we need to make good on this suggestion (for those who smartphones, chances this can be done presently).

Second, to help inspire curiosity in our children, we also need to model a felt interest in or passion for understanding. Children notice when something excites us. And this means something to them. Therefore, we need to show them that we value curiosity, not just by asking questions and seeking answers, but also through our emotions and feelings.

How have you managed (whether deliberately or not) to inspire curiosity in your children or students? How have you seen others do the same?