From the Christian Science Monitor, Tuesday, May 14, 2002,
Lessons in shaping 'intellectual' character
By Mary Kuhl
You're in an art museum and see a painting you wouldn't normally pay
much attention to. But instead of thinking, "I don't like it" and
passing by, you pause and wonder: "What was the artist trying to
convey? How does it relate to other pieces in the room? How does it
make me feel?" You crouch down on the floor, walk around to the side,
tilt your head, and ponder how these different perspectives have
changed your answers.
According to Ron Ritchhart, author of the new book, "Intellectual
Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How To Get It"
(Jossey-Bass), such behavior is a sign of intellect. Human
intelligence is not ability centered, as is commonly believed, he
says, but lies in a set of dispositions or patterns of behavior.
"Traditionally, intelligence is very focused on testing - the book
says not to test these intelligences," he says. "If you view
intelligence as based in disposition, it is about patterns of
behavior, not what they [students] show on a test."
Dr. Ritchhart is a research associate with the Cambridge, Mass.-based
Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero, which looks at
ways to promote critical and creative thinking. He taught for 14
years in New Zealand and the United States, and won the Presidential
Award for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics in 1993. As a doctoral
student at Harvard, Ritchhart worked with professors Howard Gardner
and David Perkins, whose research on teaching and learning, he says,
helped him "see that standard approaches to education were missing
Ritchhart has identified six dispositions as central to intelligence.
A person must be curious, open-minded, reflective, strategic,
skeptical, and must search for truth and understanding. By looking at
cognitive ability as a set of behaviors rather than an innate talent,
intelligence becomes something that educators can teach.
Teachers must explain to students that the process of learning, and
the questions they ask, are just as important as the answers,
He visited numerous classrooms in his research, and concluded that
"the best teachers present their goals at the very onset of the
course by asking [students] questions and asking them to think right
off the bat."
He offers one math teacher he observed as an example. On the first
day of class, the teacher presented his students with a long math
problem. He asked them to solve it, and after the class came up with
almost as many answers as there were students, they discussed how the
order of operations could help them solve the problem. They discussed
not just what the order of operations is, but why it exists and how
it could further their understanding of math.
Other teachers inspire their students through classroom atmosphere.
One who displayed many posters and pictures in his room asked
students on the first day to look around and tell him what the class
was going to be about and what he was like.
Students suggested he was married because there was a picture of a
woman and children on his desk. He pushed them to further support
that statement, and a student pointed to his wedding band. This
exercise showed students "this class is going to be about observation
and analysis, not just rote memorization," Ritchhart says.
Throughout the year, teachers must pose challenging questions, push
students to support their responses, and encourage them to ask
questions of the teacher, their peers, and themselves. This can be
done through journals and student-led discussions as well as standard
By teaching intellectual character, educators are "giving students
something they can ... transfer into other classrooms.... [Later,
students] will remember how a particular class taught them how to
think, not their algebra assignments."
This is "something that should be done kindergarten through graduate
school," he adds. "Focusing on intellectual character tells kids why
they are in school."
Students who have learned to memorize answers and spit them out for
tests may not like a thinking classroom right away. But in the long
run, most students prefer it, this advocate says. "Teachers begin to
notice a shift.... Students become more independent in their
This kind of participation also helps improve retention, he says.
High-stakes testing may distract people from the real goal of
education, Ritchhart says, but there is nothing inherently in
conflict between teaching for a test and teaching for intellectual
character. He cautions, though, that teaching kids to think "can get
lost in a classroom where passing the state test is the main goal."
Ritchhart acknowledges there is content to be developed in the
classroom, and material that needs to be taught. But he urges
teachers not to lose sight of what else they need to teach. It is
never too late to develop intellectual character, he says: "The best
time to teach thinking is always now."
Jerry P. Becker
Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: [log in to unmask]