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Curiosity: A Catalyst for Intellectual Character

Two decades ago, Ron Ritchhart from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, visited Graland to explore the question, “What is intellectual character? Why it matters, and how to get it?” ...
He was specifically interested in the classroom of John Threlkeld, a Graland math teacher who taught students not only how to do math effectively but how to think effectively.  Ritchhart’s study of John Threlkeld, as well as his exploration of several other teachers, resulted in the book, Intellectual Character, which was the required faculty reading my first-year teaching at Graland. Aside from my respect for John Threlkeld, who was a significant mentor to me, my own interest in the convergence of intellect and character had me return to this book almost twenty years later, looking for answers to the questions: What is intelligence?  What is character?  How do they work together to prepare students to thrive in the world? 

Motivated by a similar guiding question, “What does intelligence look like in action?”, Ritchhart delves into the dispositions that he believes make up not just a static measure of intelligence but the dynamic traits of intellectual character.  By defining intelligence as more than “a state of possession,” he arrives at a list of three broad thinking skills: creative thinking (including open-minded and curious), reflective thinking (metacognitive), and critical thinking (seeking truth and understanding, strategic, and skeptical).  He then explains how teachers can create an environment suited to help students cultivate these dispositions.  John Threlkeld’s classroom was one such environment.

After only several visits, Ritchhart noticed an essential element in John’s craft: he honored his students’ thinking, often by saying something as simple as, “Great question.”  By showing a genuine interest in the cognitive workings of his students, he elevated the sophistication of their classroom interactions. As Ritchhart described, “When students regularly see their questions and confusions honored in this way and treated as important opportunities to learn and explore, students are more inclined to engage in thinking deeply about the material and are less afraid to show their curiosity and confusion.” John capitalized on this “shared sense of discovery, excitement, and enjoyment in the act of thinking” to cultivate intellectual character.

He also inspired other teachers to do the same.  This excerpt from the 2006 Ninth Grade Platform demonstrates how he influenced all of us ninth grade teachers to commit to the catalytic power of questioning: 

In geometry, for example, the question that resounds throughout the year is, “Why?” In visual and performing arts, it is, “What if?” Whether the student or the teacher asks the question, each question begs for some form of answer. Whether that answer is a thesis statement, a scientific hypothesis, or a mathematical argument, students must present and defend their analysis. In the arts, when a student is handed a block of clay, that clay begs the question, “What can you make of me?” The resulting sculpture is an answer, representing their creativity. In the examples above, the important element is that the student’s answer is not predetermined. The answer belongs to the student, not to the teacher. The thinking is the student’s thinking. 

The description guiding ninth-grade teaching back then is very similar to how educators approach teaching and learning at Graland today.  Though it refers to work with older students, the general principles relate to education at any level.  All Graland teachers strive to stimulate the curiosity, deepen the understanding, and strengthen the intellectual character of their students.

Over the past decade, another impressive educator, Tony Wagner, has helped further our thinking about this topic, specifically reflecting Ritchhart’s view that a set of multidimensional attributes define intelligence.  In his book, Creating Innovators, Wagner shares the traits of a successful innovator, which are quite similar to Ritchhart’s characteristics of a successful thinker: 
  • curiosity, which is a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply
  • collaboration, which begins with listening and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are different from your own
  • associative or integrative thinking
  • a bias toward action and experimentation 
Wagner’s work inspired us to develop these traits in Graland students through designing and constructing a space dedicated to discovery, the Corkins Center, and implementing a curriculum devoted to developing the Graland Innovation Skills—empathy, creative and critical thinking, grit, experimentation and collaboration.  These initiatives extended the endeavors of past Graland educators, all devoted to the cultivation of curiosity.

Curiosity propels intellectual growth. So much of what we do as educators begins with a question or a problem that leads to more questions and provides a catalyst for deeper inquiry. That is what defined John Threlkeld’s teaching and the educational approach of Graland faculty members, past and present. From the early grades onward, our teachers dedicate themselves to developing a love of learning that will grow and sustain their students’ intellect and character. Curiosity leads to the thinking skills needed to succeed as a student and a citizen; it opens us to a diversity of perspectives and fuels our need to understand and learn from others; and finally, it maintains a resolve that perseveres through problem-solving.  Without curiosity, intellectual character is unsustained, intellectual excellence unattained. 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.