Cultivating Intellectual Humility

“Saying something doesn’t make it so.” My grandmother would issue this reminder whenever my siblings or I would try to insist that having another cookie wouldn’t ruin our dinner or that pulling weeds was bad for our backs. She would then list evidence to contradict our claims: food left on our plates, the health benefits of squats. These early experiences were some of my first lessons in intellectual humility.

Also known as healthy skepticism, intellectual humility is the ability to recognize that we don’t know everything and need to employ various skills to decide what is true. Just because we might think something, or someone else has told us something, doesn’t make it true. We have a responsibility to examine our own and others’ ideas, rather than assert or accept them without question.

Intellectual humility is a form of social emotional learning (SEL). Teachers and group facilitators can promote this SEL capacity by creating opportunities for children to test assumptions and explore diverse viewpoints. Psychology professor Maurice Elias suggests that such efforts will help combat social polarization and build appreciation for different perspectives.

One strategy leaders can use is a reflection method called Yes/No/Maybe. A child offers a statement, such as “I respect others even when we disagree” or “I believe that only bad people go to jail”. Other children indicate whether they agree (yes), disagree (no) or are unsure (maybe). They then share the reasons for their answer. The leader then calls attention to the variety of perspectives and/or reasons expressed and invites all children to think about if and how their thinking has changed because of the exercise.

Leaders can also encourage curiosity. Elisa suggests holding up a simple object and asking children to list all the different things that object could be. For example, a plastic cup could be a drinking glass, a means to rinse hair in the bathtub, a measuring cup for sugar, etc. A candle could be an emergency light, something to blow out on a birthday, a religious object, etc. Make a game out of seeing how many different possibilities children can name.

Third, leaders can model lateral searching. When children share information they’ve heard elsewhere, encourage them to investigate the source as well as the claim. Suggest that they look for data about their informant’s credentials and why the person cares about the topic. Then reflect together on how this background affects how children judge the reliability of the claim.

Another technique is asking kids to explain how they know what they know. Prime this exercise by sharing an abstract image or optical illusion and inviting children to write or say what they see. Then ask how they know that they are right. Move on from the image to other topics, such as opinions about social issues or ethical responsibilities. As they listen to the reasons why others see things differently, children learn to appreciate the diversity of perspectives. They also discover that their own knowledge is challenged and shaped by the exchange of ideas.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *