The classroom is where habits are created, mentalities are formed, and lessons are taught. Classrooms are spaces to encourage students to learn as much as they can—but also to recognize what they do not yet know.

Four students looking back at their teacher, who is sitting on a desk

This skill is part of what researchers call intellectual humility, the ability to accept that our beliefs and what we think may not always be correct. Intellectual humility can help students with learning, critical thinking, and collaboration. Now, two new studies consider the ways that classroom environments can promote intellectual humility in students. 

In the first study of over 500 middle school students across two academic years, researchers found that classrooms that emphasize effort and growth and normalize mistakes encourage the development of intellectual humility.

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In the fall, researchers surveyed students on their intellectual humility with three statements: “I am willing to admit it when I don’t know something”; “I admit it when I make mistakes on my schoolwork”; and “I try to learn something from everyone.”

Students were also asked to assess how important learning and understanding were as goals in their classroom (compared to, say, looking smart). Students ranked these statements: “Trying hard is very important,” “It’s important to understand the work, not just memorize it,” and “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you are learning.”

Then, from the fall to spring semester, observers came into the classroom to watch teachers teach and rated how much they promoted classroom participation, encouraged students to practice conceptual thinking, and spoke about how abilities or intelligence can be learned (fostering a “growth mindset”). This is known as mastery-oriented teaching—as opposed to performance-oriented teaching, which puts more emphasis on students demonstrating abilities to others even if they don’t necessarily understand the underlying material.

Ultimately, the researchers found that in classrooms that prioritized mastery-oriented teaching, students became more focused on learning and growing intellectually—and in turn they became more intellectually humble in the next school year compared to their peers.

Why? Classrooms that are oriented toward learning and growth may promote long-lasting skills in students, such as the ability to identify and articulate what they do not understand, and to grow from these challenges. 

Additionally, in a larger sense, these classrooms may encourage students to form stronger relationships with each other. Students who are comfortable exhibiting vulnerability without fear of being embarrassed are probably more likely to admit when they are wrong or do not know something.

“Classroom contexts can play a role in helping middle school students become more willing to publicly express intellectual humility,” write the University of California, Davis’s Tenelle Porter and her coauthors. “Teaching practices that emphasize personal improvement can . . . foster willingness to confess ignorance and admit mistakes for the benefit of learning.”

In a second study focusing on high school students, young adults, and undergraduates, Porter and her colleague Andrei Cimpian discovered a different type of classroom environment that may stifle intellectual humility: one oriented toward intellectual ability. 

In one experiment, half of the students in the study imagined a university where intellectual ability was emphasized: “We would like to admit students whose intellectual abilities stand out from those of their peers.” Intellectual ability in this case meant high IQ, natural intelligence, and the capacity for big ideas.

The rest of the students imagined a university where intellectual ability was not the priority: “We would like to admit students who are willing and able to meet the high standards we set for ourselves.”

  • Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility

    This article is part of our three-year GGSC project to raise awareness about intellectual humility research and its implications.

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They found that if students believe a university emphasizes intellectual ability, they see the environment as more competitive and would be less likely to express intellectual humility by admitting what they don’t know or if they made a mistake.

“Admitting ignorance and mistakes in such a context carries the risk of being perceived as lacking intellectual ability—an outcome that would compromise the fundamental need to be valued by others,” write Porter and Cimpian.

So how do we encourage students to learn from their mistakes and express intellectual humility at school? More so, how do we get students to focus on digesting the information presented to them instead of just working to turn in an assignment?

Fostering environments that place emphasis on learning and growing from mistakes, as opposed to discouraging students from being confused or asking questions, could be a place to start.

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