Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Intellectual character development (2017 Term 2 Week 7)

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things,  ..I am tempted to think ... that there are no little things.

The quote is from Bruce Barton, as cited in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His point has to do with character formation. The little things are the things that shape us. 

The same point is made in the difficult-to-attribute proverb that the students at Inaburra have heard from me time and time again: 
We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny

The Bible has the same dynamic in mind in Philippians 4:8, which reads: 
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. 

I read a fascinating book recently by Philip E. Dow, titled Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. He argues that schools should be equally concerned for both the formation of moral character and the formation of intellectual character. 

The first element seems obvious; as I speak with parents in enrolment interviews, many of them are very clear that the formation of their child's moral character is important to them. We all want our children to be honest, to be trustworthy, to be kind and to be self-disciplined. Schools like Inaburra are unhesitating in affirming our desire to cultivate moral virtue in our students.

However, it was his articulation of the second element that captured my attention. Dow describes intellectual character as "the force of accumulated thinking habits that shape and colour every decision that we make." Rather than life consisting of a series of unconnected isolated moments of decision, most of the choices that we make are not the result of conscious and deliberate reasoning, but mental autopilot. We rely on mental ruts that have been long engrained in us through habits; these become our intellectual character. Dow argues that both the way that we think, and the stuff that we think about, will determine the kind of person that we will become.

He goes on to identify seven intellectual character traits that we need to function in the ever more volatile, unpredictable and changing world. His case is that, far more than any particular knowledge or skills outcomes, these habitual intellectual characteristics are crucial. His list is:

  • courage
  • tenacity
  • carefulness
  • curiousity
  • fair-mindedness
  • honesty
  • humility
There is a challenge here for us as parents and as educators. What are those small thoughts and actions that are shaping the intellectual character of our children? What little decisions are adding up to be cumulatively transformative over time? How do we encourage the virtue and discourage the vice, without just adding more elements to our nagging repertoire? 

Of course, recognising the powerful effect of our role-modelling, we would do well to ask some searching questions of ourselves first! 

I commend Dow's book to you.

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