Knowledge that Lasts: Teaching Intellectual Character

As much as we want to deny it, students forget much of what they learn in school. We spend the better part of thirteen years filling pristine stainless steel buckets only to realize there were holes in the bottom all along. Perhaps the periodic table leaked out first, followed by the amazing four-color world history timeline of famous names and dates. Quadratic equations made a big splash, and the rules for pronoun usage resemble an ongoing monsoon. By middle adulthood, the only things most people remember about parts of the cell are Styrofoam and toothpicks. Just recently, I was talking with a friend who could remember what he wore to senior prom and exactly what he ate for dinner that night, but he could not recall a substantive detail of American literary history.

I call it the teachers’ existential anxiety—the awareness that much of what we teach will be forgotten. But still we teach with the optimism that those few things that remain will be life-changing. Years ago Benjamin Bloom gave us a taxonomy of cognitive skills. While Bloom’s taxonomy garnered much attention, his structure of knowledge never quite commanded popular appeal in either curriculum departments or classrooms. The revision of Bloom’s taxonomy in recent years presented four levels of knowledge that can describe a learner’s development in a domain: (a) factual knowledge, (b) procedural knowledge, (c) conceptual knowledge, and (d) metacognitive knowledge.

More often than not, curriculum is designed and delivered to emphasize the first three, but metacognitive knowledge is what we might call a hopeful curriculum. If we teach the facts, procedures, and concepts, we hope the students develop metacognitive skills and awareness in the process. In other words, the metacognitive curriculum is typically not very intentional. I want to offer another way of thinking about metacognitive knowledge. Metacognitive knowledge is a deeply personal way of knowing. It includes personal awareness and dispositions that profoundly influence learning and thinking. Metacognitive knowledge includes mental habits—intellectual traits that distinguish experts from novices and deliberate cognition from impulsive cognition. While students might forget much of the facts and details of what we teach, metacognitive knowledge is the learning that lasts.

Some of the best work on intellectual virtues emerged from The Critical Thinking Community and the work of Richard Paul and Linda Elder. There are eight intellectual virtues that are indicative of critical thinking, careful deliberation, and thoughtful beliefs and action. These eight intellectual virtues can be integrated into curriculum at any grade level and across all domains. The eight intellectual virtues include:

Intellectual Humility. Intellectual humility is an awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge and the tendency toward egocentrism. Students with intellectual humility are aware of the potential bias, prejudice, and limitations of their viewpoints. Moreover, students with intellectual humility do not claim to know more than they actually know.

Intellectual Courage. Intellectual courage is the willingness to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints with which one has strong negative emotions or with which one has not previously given serious attention. Students with intellectual courage do not passively and uncritically accept what they have learned. Students with intellectual courage are willing to admit that there may be truth in ideas that appear dangerous or absurd as well as acknowledge that some ideas strongly held in their social group may involve distortion or falsity. It takes intellectual courage to be a non-conformist when conformity contradicts well-reasoned positions.

Intellectual Empathy. Intellectual empathy is a willingness to imagine oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them. Intellectual empathy begins with consciousness of one’s egocentric tendencies to identify truth with one’s own beliefs or perceptions. Students with intellectual empathy are able to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than their own. Additionally, students with intellectual empathy recall times past when they were mistaken in their conviction that they were right, and it is possible to similarly be deceived at present.

Intellectual Autonomy. Intellectual autonomy is the conviction to control one’s own beliefs, assumptions, and inferences. Students with intellectual autonomy think for themselves without falling victim to group think tendencies. They analyze and evaluate beliefs using reason and evidence, and they question when questioning is appropriate and believe when belief is justified.

Intellectual Integrity. Intellectual integrity is a commitment to be true and consistent in one’s thinking. Students with intellectual integrity apply intellectual standards when they think and hold themselves to principles of reason and evidence. They are willing to admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in their own thinking when appropriate.

Intellectual Perseverance. Intellectual perseverance is a conviction to seek intellectual insights and truths even when such pursuits are difficult and frustrating. Students with intellectual perseverance stand firm in their use of reason even when others oppose rational principles. Students with intellectual perseverance understand and embrace the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over time in order to achieve accurate understandings.

Intellectual Curiosity. Intellectual curiosity includes maintaining a desire to know more or understand something deeper. Students who are intellectually curious are not satisfied with shallow, surface level explanations. Rather they seek complexity and deeper meaning in the ideas, principles, and narratives that they encounter. Students with intellectual curiosity consistently want to know more, raise new questions, and pose new problems.

Intellectual Imagination. Intellectual imagination includes generating new ideas, questions, applications, and insights as a result of learning experiences. Students who have intellectual imagination seek new ways to understand and apply what they are learning. They imagine new possibilities, connections, and outcomes that others may not immediately conceive; moreover, they develop a disposition that each encounter may become opportunity to create a new idea or extend an existing idea.

It is not likely we will soon find the educational magic that prevents students from forgetting most of the facts and details of the curriculum. But that’s okay. Students who are taught to develop intellectual virtues will demonstrate metacognitive skills, and those skills will make them better students of the factual, procedural, and conceptual curriculum.

Todd KettlerComment