How to Teach Intellectual Virtues

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Last week I shared the views of Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe who advocate for the teaching of intellectual virtues in addition to learning outcomes. They identify the areas of intellectual virtue as:
 -The Love of Truth
-Honesty
-Courage
-Fairness
-Wisdom

Last week’s blog engendered a great deal of debate and dialogue. Readers shared many perspectives on this issue, but generally agreed that developing virtue in our students is important, especially at a college like Anna Maria. Several readers were interested in reading more about this topic. Others questioned how one teaches virtue. Here’s what Schwartz and Sharpe suggest.

First, they contend that few colleges actually think about developing virtue. They suggest that more time should be spent by faculty and academic leaders in reflecting on how to teach and develop intellectual virtues and incorporating this dimension into learning outcomes and the curriculum.

I would suggest further that this is true for co-curriculum as well. Our students can develop virtue outside the classroom as they participate in service programs, athletics, clubs and organizations, student government, etc.

In terms of specific strategies, Schwartz and Sharpe reference the philosophy of Aristotle. They write, “Aristotle rightly argued that character and wisdom are developed through practice and by watching those who have already mastered the relevant virtues.”

They cite the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, which focus on inner city elementary children. In these schools, which have been very successful in raising academic achievement, the development of virtues is key. The central approach is for teachers to model virtuous behavior, not simply talk about it. Teachers in these schools model hard work, perseverance, honesty and good listening. Students see these behaviors in the classroom and develop them in their own lives.

Lest one think that developing virtue is only successful with younger students, Schwartz and Sharpe also cite an example from Harvard Medical School. Barbara Ogur and David Hirsch have redesigned their third year program for medical students. They have developed a learning approach that requires students to work in a clinic every morning for a year in close relationship with their doctor-mentor. Further, these students are assigned 15 patients to work with throughout the year.

This approach remains successful in teaching “technical skills,” but has significantly improved “the development of empathy, humility, courage, perseverance, perceptiveness, and reflectiveness.”

In the end, modeling is the key. Students in our classrooms learn so much by their professors’ behaviors. Schwartz and Sharpe write, “We teach them when and how to interrupt—by when and how we interrupt. We teach them how to listen by how carefully we listen. If they see us admitting that we don't know something, we encourage intellectual honesty as well as humility. We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better.”

In the past I have written about my concerns about the erosion of civility and professional behavior. We want to graduate the most knowledgeable and skilled students. But I would hope we also want to graduate people of virtue who are committed to citizenship, civility, and concern for the Common Good. What do you think?

P.S. I am on chapter four of their book. I might return to this topic after I have read the entire book …. the virtue of perseverance.

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Guest Tuesday, 29 July 2014