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Lessons in shaping 'intellectual' character

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.

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"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 the mark."

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, Ritchhart says.

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.

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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 classroom exchanges.

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 learning."

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."