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Teaching Intellectual Virtues Through Successful Intelligence

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The mission statement of Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Texas is “To provide a college preparatory education and evangelize students to be tomorrow’s servant leaders through education in faith, formation in hope, and perseverance in charity.” It is obvious that the school’s aim is not just to academically educate the student, but to educate the entirety of the child. This type of mission statement is seen in Catholic schools around the nation and world, but how does this play out in the classroom? If you were to ask a Catholic school teacher how they educate the entirety of the child, they may respond with, “I model acceptance and love in my classroom.” While these are great practices to bring into the classroom, it is not necessarily grounded in appropriate pedagogy for reaching the ultimate goal of educating the entirety of the child. Educating the whole child should, of course, include love and embody service, but teachers aren’t directly teaching students what it means to be a good learner. Catholic school teachers must also assist students in acquiring the types of characteristics that lifelong learners embody. These characteristics are called intellectual virtues and, more often than not, are not an obvious component of classroom instruction. There is backing in both Catholic and classical education to support the idea that it is appropriate to directly teach intellectual values in the classroom.

In 1852, John Newman’s The Idea of a University stated that the aim of education should be to ”[apprehend] the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little…” and by acquiring this knowledge, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” Here it is obvious that Newman believes that a thorough and whole education includes the cultivation of habits that enable students to learn beyond the classroom. Moving into Classical education, Aristotle identified five main intellectual virtues that reveal the truth to the human mind: deduction/induction, proper reasoning, prudence, initiation, and wisdom (1893). He believed that these virtues were acquired over time and via experience but that it was important to also have exemplars to learn from. This is where the teacher comes into play. Intellectual virtues are a realm that has been thoroughly explored within the field of educational philosophy and psychology. Suggestions from various modern psychologists about what it looks like to integrate intellectual virtues in the classroom will be explored in addition to a triarchic theory that divides intelligence into three different realms. It is the intention of this paper to fuse together the two in a claim that has not ever been published before: Robert Sternberg’s theory for successful intelligence is nothing less than the explicit teaching of intellectual virtues. To begin to establish where the focus on integrating intellectual virtues should lie, it is important to be familiar with John Dewey’s perspective in The Child and the Curriculum (1902). In this publication Dewey, an American philosopher and psychologist, looks at the conflict between two educational approaches. The dichotomy of teaching the curriculum versus teaching the child plagued the country in the early 1900s.

A child’s development and knowledge is vastly different from adults. Their perspective is drawn to their observable world yet they are curious and learn via experience as they build bonds with those around them. This encourages self-realization and as a result, the child is both academically and morally educated to some extent. The requirements of a curriculum driven learning environment are specific and focused on mastery. Active experience with the material is limited as the truths are revealed via study. Dewey goes on to argue that the curriculum and the child are not two separate entities but instead “two limits which define a single process” (1902). That being said, Dewey would have been likely to support the notion that children have the innate potential to acquire intellectual virtues through experience, but there also needs to be an explicit pedagogical structure to teach them as well. If there is a history in both Catholic and classical education to teach these virtues that are reinforced by Dewey, it is crucial to understand what exactly the formation of intellectual agents look like in the classroom.

“The formation of excellent intellectual agents is clearly the business of schools and parents,” states Roberts and Wood as they break down the setting for intellectual virtues in a school environment (2007). Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge and the rationality of beliefs. From this definition, epistemic goods can be defined as the aim of the intellectual life. If a person has a love for knowledge and views it as a good to acquire, they are more likely to seek out ways to actively engage and understand the material. A science classroom is a great setting for this knowledge seeking endeavor as collaboration and humility are in abundance throughout the academic journey. The attraction to academics and the willpower to persevere in a challenging setting are virtues that students often bring to the classroom yet to access the material they rely on faculties such as memory and deduction. Students bring a wide diversity of faculties into the classroom with varying levels of executive functioning, it is up to the teacher to guide students in utilizing their faculties to their greatest potential.

Lastly, through the lens of Roberts and Wood, the accumulation and use of these virtues is identified as a practice. The practices related to intellectual virtues are the “medium of intellectual life” (2007) and dictate what is pursued throughout the academic journey. This begs the question, “Does the teacher need to dramatically and explicitly alter their interactions and curriculum to foster an environment in which epistemic goods are accessed through intellectual virtues?” Not necessarily. Using Roberts and Woods work, one could argue that the intentional and compassionate teaching practices of Catholic school teachers are sufficient. For example, when a student answers a question wrong, “the teacher might express the virtues of empathy, attentiveness, courage, love of knowledge, humility, and patience by staying with the student a little longer, trying to draw out of her more thought about the question and its answer” (2007). Moving forward, Jason Baehr delves deeply into the identification and implementation of intellectual virtues in the classroom. Previously, epistemic goods were defined as the aim of the intellectual life. Baehr would define this even more specifically, saying seeking out epistemic goods embodies how intellectual character serves as “the dimension of the self where cognitive function intersects with personal character” (2017). Aristotle would have categorized intellectual virtues under the realm of character development in this respect. Baehr reveals a solid list of intellectual virtues, such as curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility, wonder, attentiveness, intellectual thoroughness, reflectiveness, and intellectual perseverance. This listing is not extensive, as there have been other intellectual virtues claimed by the various others previously cited, but it does give the reader a good grasp of what these virtues could look like manifested within students.

This is not to say that academic ability has any influence on the expression of intellectual virtues. In fact, the most naturally gifted student in the room may also be the most careless and close-minded. It is important to notice that these virtues can be taught and improved upon, but how? As teachers might suppose, an intellectual virtue such as curiosity is not going to be acquired by students just because they were told to “think creatively,” on an assignment. These types of virtues are internalized when they are as familiar as classroom procedures, and allow students to be actively involved in their education. Baehr proposes that to effectively integrate intellectual virtues in the classroom, there needs to be a supportive institutional culture, explicit direct instruction of terminology of these intellectual virtues, direct connections between the material and intellectual virtues, the opportunity to practice these characteristics, and teacher modeling, among other tools. While a well-rounded intellectual virtue-filled education would be ideal, Roberts and Wood remind the reader that, “different virtues are structured quite differently from one another,” there is “No one-size-fits-all analysis… [that] will describe the actual variety within the virtuous character” (2007).

Here is where Robert Sternberg’s theory of successful intelligence comes into play. As mentioned above, there is immense diversity in the types of faculties that students bring into the classroom. These faculties may manifest themselves as various strengths and weaknesses for each student. Sternberg’s teaching for successful intelligence encourages teachers to provide lessons that allow students to access the material in ways that may be more catered to their strengths: memory learning, analytical learning, creative learning, and practical learning. Memory learning is utilized most often in a classroom as students are required to memorize facts, theories, and equations. A student who thrives in an analytical learning setting may be exceptionally strong at evaluating and explaining a concept. A creative learner is likely going to be skilled at creating and synthesizing within the content. A student who is skilled at retaining information when it’s presented practically would be able to easily apply their knowledge and implement it into real-world scenarios. If a classroom is pedagogically strong, it is extremely likely that there is already diversity in the way that material is presented. This reinforces the suggestion that perhaps teaching for successful intelligence is simply good teaching.

Nevertheless, teaching explicitly for successful intelligence gives students more opportunities to succeed in the classroom as they are able to utilize their strengths to reach their full potential. Therefore, it would appear to be that by differentiating instruction to meet the strengths and needs of students, the students are able to compensate for their weakness by engaging with intellectual virtues such as autonomy, wonder, and attentiveness. Here is the connection that was promised – the idea that intellectual virtues are already infused into teaching for successful intelligence and simply need to be explicitly revealed.

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Teaching Intellectual Virtues Through Successful Intelligence. (2019, March 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
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