Guiding Principles

What does educating for intellectual virtues look like in practice? It’s not primarily a matter of teaching students about intellectual virtues (though this can be helpful). Instead, it looks like implementing a range of principles and practices aimed at giving students frequent and well-supported opportunities to engage in intellectually virtuous activity. See below for a brief explanation of several principles (and here for an explanation of several practices). For a much more in-depth discussion, and for several additional principles and practices, see Cultivating Good Minds: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Educating for Intellectual Virtues.

 

A realistic view of success

 

First and foremost, it is important to set realistic expectations and goals. If you intend for all of your students to experience extensive intellectual character growth within a relatively short period of time, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Therefore, prior to making a concerted effort to educate for intellectual virtues, you will want to spend some time reflecting on the following sorts of questions: Knowing what I do about the abilities and limitations of my students, what might realistic growth in intellectual virtues look like for them? In the course of a semester or year, what might it look like for several of my students to increase in their love of learning? Or to grow in their ability to ask thoughtful questions (curiosity), acknowledge their intellectual limitations (intellectual humility), formulate their own ideas and conclusions (intellectual autonomy), or take more intellectual risks (intellectual courage)? The kind of growth or progress you envision in response to questions like this should guide and inform the steps you take to help bring this growth about.

 


 

"First and foremost, it is important to set realistic expectations and goals. If you intend for all of your students to experience extensive intellectual character growth within a relatively short period of time, you are setting yourself up for disappointment."

 


 

Target specific virtues

 

It can be tempting to try to help our students “become more intellectually virtuous” without having a very clear or specific sense of what intellectual virtues are or of what exactly we are trying to accomplish. This is not a recipe for success. In addition to being realistic, our character-based aims and goals for our students must be specific and concrete. For this reason, it is extremely helpful to focus on a limited subset of specific virtues like curiosity, intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility, attentiveness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, or intellectual tenacity. If you are doing this for the first time, you might select just two or three virtues to focus on. Further, it is important to have a firm understanding of what exactly these virtues involve, how they are related to each other, and how they differ from other virtues. (See here for resources that can help you acquire this understanding.)

 


 

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A developmental focus

 

Intellectual virtues look different at different stages of human development. Intellectual autonomy, for instance, looks different in an adult than it does in a high school student—let alone in a third-grader! Therefore, as we try to help our students become more intellectually autonomous, curious, careful, thorough, and so on, our efforts should be guided by a developmentally-informed idea of what these virtues amount to. One way to acquire this perspective is to ask yourself: What exactly would it look like for a typical student in one of my classes to demonstrate greater curiosity, autonomy, or thoroughness? What would this student do, think, say, or feel? A second way is to educate yourself about the psychology (and underlying neurobiology) of whatever developmental stage your students are in (e.g. childhood, adolescence, early adulthood). If you are a middle school teacher, for instance, then you might spend some time learning about the key features of adolescent psychology. Knowledge of this sort is readily accessible. It should inform, not only the character-based goals you have for your students, but also the interventions you use to achieve these goals.

 


 

"Intellectual virtues look different at different stages of human development ... Therefore, as we try to help our students become more intellectually autonomous, curious, careful, thorough, and so on, our efforts should be guided by a developmentally-informed idea of what these virtues amount to."

 


 

A cultural focus

 

Intellectual virtues blossom in supportive environments or cultures. This includes classroom cultures. Therefore, it isn’t enough to use certain pedagogical techniques or practices to help our students become more virtuous thinkers. These efforts need to be complemented by a supportive classroom culture. Thus anyone interested in educating for intellectual virtues would do well to consider: What is the culture of my classroom? What are its distinctive values, attitudes, themes, sayings, or rituals? What is its overall “feel”? Does the culture of my classroom obviously support my attempts to help my students grow in intellectual virtues? Or does it, at least in certain respects, run counter to this goal? How can I better align the cultural elements of my classroom with the goal of helping my students grow in intellectual virtues? In short, educating for intellectual virtues isn’t just a matter of teaching in a certain way. It is also a matter of creating a learning environment or culture that is oriented toward and supports this goal. (For more on cultural elements that support intellectual character growth, see Ritchhart (2015) and Chapter 15 of Cultivating Good Minds.)

 


 

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 A thoughtful and organic approach

 

Successfully integrating a deep concern with intellectual virtues into your pedagogical outlook and practices is not an easy task. There are many ways of going about it that are ineffective. This includes trying to encourage the practice of intellectual virtues by superficial means—e.g. pencils, bracelets, posters, “virtues of the month,” etc. While these can have a place in a comprehensive approach to intellectual character education, they have very little impact by themselves. Another problematic approach involves the “forced use” of intellectual virtues language and concepts (e.g. trying to use such language as much as possible, even when it doesn’t clearly apply). This can turn students off to the very idea of intellectual character growth. Therefore, it is essential to encourage the practice of intellectual virtues in ways that genuinely and naturally apply to the situation at hand and that stand a reasonable chance of having an impact. It is also important to use intellectual virtues language in an appropriately sparing manner.

 

References

 

Ritchhart, Ron. 2002. Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass).