Building Intellectual Character

Written by on May 29, 2009 in Learning Tips - 6 Comments

6 Attributes That Will Make You a Better Learner

La PenseurThe biggest mistake learners make is viewing intelligence as a fixed attribute. You’re either smart or you’re not. You have “it” or you don’t. In reality, our brains are pliable and our capabilities are often limited by our own self-doubt.

While some people may be more naturally gifted in the academic field, everyone can improve their capacity to learn by building their intellectual character.

What is Intellectual Character?

Intellectual character is an assemblage of attributes or dispositions that distinguish a person as someone capable of clear, effective thinking.

In the teaching-oriented book Intellectual Character, Ron Ritchhart explains it like this:

“Intellectual character…[is] an umbrella term to cover those dispositions associated with good and productive thinking…the concept of intellectual character recognizes the role of attitude and affect in our everyday cognition and the importance of developed patterns of behavior. Intellectual character describes a set of dispositions that not only shape but motivate intellectual behavior.”

Someone with moral character is said to be honest, fair, kind, and loyal. Someone with intellectual character possesses attributes that result in effective lifelong thinking and learning.

The attributes of intellectual character are not simply habits; they are beliefs about learning more permanently ingrained into a person’s way of seeing and interacting with the world. Attributes of intellectual character persevere in different situations, different places, different times. Just as a person with moral character would be honest in a number of different circumstances, a person with intellectual character demonstrates effective thinking in the workplace, the home, and the community.

You Won’t Learn This in School

Unfortunately, most people don’t develop intellectual character by sitting in a classroom. Many adults still don’t have the attributes necessary to think critically and learn effectively on their own. Their intellectual character isn’t flawed; it’s simply underdeveloped. David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education put it this way:

“The problem is not so much bad intellectual character as simple lack of intellectual character. It’s not so much that the world is full of dedicated anti-intellectuals out to ignore evidence, think along narrow tracks, sustain prejudices, promulgate falsehood, and so on…as it is that the common lot is to be neither here nor there, neither high nor low, neither strong nor weak, in fact, mediocre in the Latin root sense of medius, middle, without much distinctive intellectual character at all.”

An underdeveloped intellectual character is a problem, both on a personal level and a societal level. People lacking intellectual character find their growth stunted and interact with their circumstances on a childlike level. When a nation consists primarily of people who do not have the attributes of effective thinkers, the progress of an entire society can be hindered.

The 6 Attributes of Effective Learners

Many traits may fall under the umbrella of intellectual character. However, Ron Ritchhart has narrowed it down to six essentials. He categorizes these traits into three categories: creative thinking, reflective thinking, and critical thinking. You’ll find them below with my notes added.

Creative Thinking (looking out, up, around and about)

Trait #1 – Open-minded. A person who is open-minded is willing to look beyond what they know, consider new ideas, and try new things. Instead of closing themselves off from “dangerous” information that may alter their world-view, they demonstrate a willingness to consider alternative possibilities.

Trait #2 – Curious. Many inventions, discoveries, and creations were the result of a curious mind. A curious thinker isn’t afraid to wonder and ask questions about the world.

Reflective Thinking (looking within)

Trait #3 – Metacognitive. To be metacognitive is to continually think about your thinking. It is to monitor your own thought process, be aware of problems that arise, and direct your mind in the way you want it to go. This is probably the most difficult attribute to acquire. However, the payoff can be tremendous.

Critical Thinking (looking at, through, and in between)

Trait #4 – Seeking truth and understanding. Instead of simply believing what is most convenient, people with this attribute actively seek. They find truth / understanding by considering many possibilities, searching for evidence, and testing the validity of possible answers.

Trait #5 – Strategic. Most learning doesn’t happen by chance. Strategic people set goals, plan in advance, and demonstrate productivity.

Trait #6 – Skeptical. A healthy dose of skepticism helps people better evaluate the information they come across. Effective learners are open to considering ideas. However, they carefully evaluate new information with a critical eye. This helps them sort out the truth from the “spin.”

How Gain the Attributes of Intelligence

Building intellectual character won’t happen overnight. Just as the body requires exercise to get into shape, the brain requires practice to change the way it processes information.

Chances are you already have many of the attributes listed above (you are, after all, someone who reads a blog about learning). However, everyone can strengthen their character in some way. Identify an area that could use improvement and work towards integrating it into your intellectual character.

Think about the attribute you want to develop regularly and find opportunities to practice it when you come across difficult information (in a book, on TV), need to solve a problem (at work / in the community), or are presented with a new experience (traveling / meeting new people). Soon, your thoughts will turn to habits and your habits will become an essential part of who you are.

Creative Commons License photo credit: santanartist

Further Reading

6 Comments on "Building Intellectual Character"

  1. Randy May 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm · Reply

    A valuable reminder for us all. Thank you, Jamie. Your posts always generate additional questions for me to ponder. Such as:

    How many K-12 teachers integrate these six principles as strategies to explore the given subject matter? I ask because the deficiency defined in the article: many adults lack at least some attributes of intellectual character, leaves us with a dilemma. If it’s not learned in school, and adults lack some of the skills to pass it on at home, how do we do better than a “hit-and-mostly-miss” approach for today’s youngsters?

  2. Brian May 31, 2009 at 1:03 pm · Reply

    I’d also like to add–confidence/arrogance.

    While it is a delicate balance to keep, I think a certain degree of confidence in your opinions and arrogance in your beliefs are necessary when forming opinions. I find that many people who hold the “open-mindedness” trait in extremely high esteem tend to lack confidence in a lot of their opinions and instead bend to the view that seems to carry the most authority, rather than the view that is correct.

    A fine example of this is when Ken Binmore called G.E. Moore’s formulation of the naturalistic argument “puerile”. I laughed when I saw it written, as I do not think I have the gumption to call anything that G.E. Moore writes “puerile”, but maybe I ought to.

  3. Jamie June 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm · Reply

    Randy, you definitely have a valid concern. Unfortunately, teachers rarely demonstrate these attributes. Instead of helping students learn how to think, they spend time teaching them what to think. I don’t have a great solution to the problem. However, I do think that just talking about these ideas raises awareness and can hopefully help people (including teachers and parents) think about their own intellectual character.

    Brian, that’s an interesting addition to the list of attributes. I can see what you mean about the need for confidence in decision making. George Crane said: “You can have such an open mind that it is too porous to hold a conviction.”

    A scientist, for example, can be open to many possibilities. However, at some point he has to make a decision and write down a theory based on the evidence he’s observed. It may not end up being correct, but it’s better than becoming so overwhelmed with the possibilities that he doesn’t explore the one that makes the most sense.

    I don’t think “arrogance” would be the right term for it. Maybe something like “decisive?” I’ll put this on my list of “things to think about.”

  4. Anon June 1, 2009 at 8:47 pm · Reply

    Calmness of mind is also very important for learning. When people are constantly
    interrupted by cell phones, each other, or are easily distracted it is hard to learn.
    One needs a certain amount of quiet and peacefulness if not on the outside then at
    least on the inside in order to be able to read, listen and absorb knowledge.

    Another thing that trips people up is not having sufficient foundation to be able
    to appreciate what they are learning. Sometimes if as little as one or two pieces of information have not been absorbed, a certain appreciation is lost, and learning becomes less meaningful. Thus, certain topics appeal to different people at different times
    in their life.

    Trait 4 needs to inform trait 5. If one seeks some goal other than understanding,
    understanding will probably suffer.

  5. jess November 22, 2009 at 2:24 am · Reply

    Hey jamie,
    its funny because i actually have a whole years worth of learning focused around IC dispositions at my school
    it was only introduced last year
    but its helpful:)

  6. Ahmed Dickison November 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm · Reply

    Superb post! Don’t forget to pass along the Wisconsin State School of Character Award Program 2011. Deadline for application is December 1, 2010. Application info here:

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