“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
I once had a third grader in my class who was one of those happy-go-lucky, super smart kids bound for great success. But he had a funny quirk: He was obsessed with nuclear bombs. He wrote, talked, and drew about them nonstop, without stopping to consider their impact on human beings.
His super nice mom was totally freaked by this obsession—it didn’t align with their family’s values, nor was it good for the world. In response, she started the school’s first character education committee, inviting me to join—which I did and which is where I got my first introduction to what I do now at the Greater Good Science Center. I had the same reaction that many educators do: I absolutely saw the value and need for this work, but where could I find the time with everything else I had to teach?
Now, 25 years later, with society on the verge of major technological advances while, at the same time, fighting a dictator with nuclear weapons at his fingertips, the need for developing a strong ethical core in our future scientists, mathematicians, engineers, lawyers, politicians, and business leaders is more urgent than ever.
As educators, we play a key role in the ethical development of these future generations. And even though we may feel limited by time or by the current structure of our school systems or just plain exhausted from the last two years, it is possible to enhance students’ academic learning while cultivating a strong moral foundation. One of the simplest places to begin is by helping students cultivate intellectual humility—a quality that helps us to appreciate the humanity in each other.
Intellectual humility as moral development
Intellectual humility is part of a suite of “intellectual virtues,” such as curiosity and open-mindedness, which can contribute to academic success.
That makes them highly attractive to educators. According to Jason Baehr, philosopher and cofounder of the Intellectual Virtues Academy in Long Beach, California, these virtues encourage students to “act, think, and feel well in the context of inquiring, learning, and reasoning.” For instance, imagine a classroom where students are fully engaged in what they’re learning, feel safe to ask questions, share ideas and opinions, and take risks with the content—that’s the classroom culture that intellectual virtues can create.
Intellectual humility, in particular, helps students recognize that their beliefs or understanding of a concept may be incorrect—and to accept these limitations without feeling defensive or threatened. It can also make them more open to other people’s views. In other words, students who practice intellectual humility feel safe to engage in a discussion in which they share their views with others, and if they discover that those views may be myopic or incorrect, they don’t take it personally. They just change their thinking and move on.
At first glance, intellectual virtues don’t appear to cultivate a moral foundation in students given their emphasis on cognitive development. However, Baehr argues that without them, we may become dogmatic, arrogant, or apathetic—all of which have moral undertones.
That’s corroborated by a recent study. The researchers found that intellectual humility protects against “social vigilantism,” or the tendency to think that your beliefs are superior to others’ beliefs, and that you have a responsibility to assert those beliefs on others for the “greater good.” (Note that researchers have found social vigilantism in both liberals and conservatives.) In other words, recognizing that you may not have all the answers keeps you from acting as a know-it-all and forcing your beliefs on other people.
How does this relate to morality? In a different study, scientists found that people who score high in social vigilantism tend to verbally (or sometimes just in their own heads) insult or dismiss people who do not agree with them. And dismissing others, especially when we feel that they do not share our values, is a subtle form of dehumanization.
The impact of “social vigilantism” can be seen in our schools. In a 2021 survey of 37,000 university students, over 80% reported some level of self-censorship when asked how often they felt they could not express their opinion because of how their peers, professors, or the administration might respond, with more than half stating “occasionally,” “fairly often,” or “very often.”
In a recent New York Times article, a diverse group of high school students spoke of their concern about sharing their ideas in class, fearing they would be judged. As one student put it, “If you’re not super educated on a topic, it’s scary to put your opinion out there, because you don’t want to be wrong.”
Cultivating intellectual humility in the classroom
So, how can educators encourage intellectual humility, especially those who have no idea where to find the time or how to fit it into the subjects they teach?
Before I make some really simple suggestions, I strongly suggest you try it on yourself first. For myself, I’ve found that practicing humility is like a breath of fresh air. Not only does it free me from having to protect my “intellectual ego,” it also makes my connections with others more trusting and open and, frankly, more fun.
The next time someone expresses a different belief than your own, you might ask yourself, “Could I be wrong?” And then go one step further and ask, “Do I think that my belief is the correct and only way to think, and that this person needs to believe what I do…for the greater good?” In other words, check whether you’re tempted to be a “social vigilante.”
Another way to practice humility that can help us to humanize our interactions with students comes from Jacquie Bryant, the founding principal at the Intellectual Virtues Academy (IVA). She told me that every year the IVA educators choose an intellectual virtue, such as intellectual humility, to work on for themselves. Then, during professional development meetings, she asks, “Describe an interaction that you had with a student this week. If you had practiced more of this virtue, what would it have looked like?”
Even if you don’t have a principal or school culture that supports intellectual humility—or any other virtues, for that matter—you can still find a colleague to explore what it might look like in the classroom before trying it with students. Bryant shared that when she went to her first summer seminar on intellectual virtues, there was no manual for how to bring them into the classroom. Instead, the educators were asked, “How would you do this?” (Interestingly, she said that just being asked for her ideas rather than being handed a manual made her feel like she was being treated like a professional for the first time—a form of humanization.)
So, get together with your partner teacher, talk about how to set up a classroom culture that welcomes compelling ideas (that are not harmful to others), dazzling mistakes, and absurd questions. In other words, how will you make sure that students see themselves and each other as imperfect, beautiful human beings who welcome each other’s opinions, insights, and questions…without being social vigilantes?
After exploring and trying intellectual humility yourself, here are some other simple things that educators can do to cultivate it in students:
1. Be a fly on the wall. Our beliefs are part of the fabric of our being. When we meet someone who doesn’t share those beliefs—especially those we feel strongly about—it can feel like a personal attack, leading us to respond like a “social vigilante” rather than with intellectual humility. At these moments, becoming a fly on the wall can help.
One study found that “self-distancing”—looking at oneself like an outside observer—could significantly increase intellectual humility. In this study, participants were asked to keep a daily diary over the course of a month in which they wrote about the day’s most significant event. One group wrote in the first person (e.g., “This happened to me”) and the other group wrote in the third person (e.g., “This happened to Bob”).
The people who wrote in the third person—or who “self-distanced” from the incident—became much more intellectually humble when reflecting on interpersonal challenges. Not only can this help us to connect with our own humanity, it also helps us to see others as humans who are just doing the best they can.
It takes just a couple minutes to teach students to self-distance when they face a challenge. For example, if they’re worried about an upcoming test, have them try asking themselves, “How does [insert name] feel about this? Why does [name] feel this way?” If you get rolled eyes, try modeling it for students the next time your emotions get a little piqued—they might laugh, but they also might try it.
2. Emphasize the human side of academic content. While many educators love the academic content they teach, it can be hard for students with so little life experience to understand why this content is important. (I, myself, am still struggling with why I had to learn geometric proofs.) Helping students to discover how the content is personally meaningful to them and how it might impact human beings brings humanity into the curriculum. And if they share these ideas with each other, they’ll experience how other people might see the world differently from them—one step closer to expressing intellectual humility.
The Greater Good in Education practice Making Science Meaningful is a super fast and simple way to help students personally connect to the content—and it can be done in any type of class. Based on a study of a diverse group of high school science students that found that both grades and interest in science increased after a brief writing exercise, the practice takes five minutes at the beginning of class. Very simply, students write about how the current academic topic is relevant to their lives or how it can make the world a better place. Then have students share their ideas in pairs, small groups, or the whole class. That’s it!
Another great exercise for math class comes from Jamaal Sharif Matthews at the University of Michigan. In this video, he describes how to relate math to students’ lives by “finishing” math word problems, asking students to not just share how they solved the problem, but to also take the answer and put it back into the word problem to “determine the conceptual and contextual meaning.”
The example he gives focuses on the increase in cost of iPhones over the years. After getting the answer, he suggests asking students about what the 54% increase in iPhones actually means. In other words, why did this price increase? Because there is no one correct answer, sharing ideas with their peers gives students an opportunity to practice intellectual humility as they consider and adjust their own ideas.
3. Use a variety of pedagogical techniques. When I asked Bryant about how her teachers helped cultivate intellectual virtues in students, she turned me on to Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox. This treasure trove of pedagogical techniques includes several that help cultivate intellectual humility, such as 3-2-1 Bridge and Tug for Truth.
In 3-2-1 Bridge, students are asked to reflect on a new academic topic that they are about to learn. Specifically, they write down three thoughts/ideas, two questions, and one metaphor or simile about the topic. When the lessons on the new topic are completed, students do the same exercise, then share with a peer how their thinking changed from the beginning. In this way, students can see how their knowledge and views may shift with new information—a great example of intellectual humility.
In Tug for Truth, teachers identify a question of truth, such as “Social media usage has a negative effect on adolescents’ health,” and they ask students for an opinion about the claim. Students then add Post-its to a “tug of war” diagram on the board, providing evidence backing up the claim or refuting it—tugging toward the “Yes/True” direction or the “No/False” direction. They also can ask questions that ask for more information or pose a “what if.”
But one of the simplest ways that research has found we can cultivate humility is to have students just listen to each other and realize that other people have something to teach us. According to Baehr, practicing these virtues can make learning joyful—and maybe, just maybe, we can move beyond bombs and find the joy once more in being human together.