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Critical reflection and intellectual character

Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the true goal of education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The words “fake news” have been significant and controversial in the last few years and are especially relevant now as misinformation about COVID-19 spreads as fast as the coronavirus itself. The pandemic is a pertinent backdrop for considering how our intellectual character influences our approach to information that shapes our daily lives. The high stakes of COVID-19 have thrown the importance of teaching critical thinking and reflection (key skills for students under the best circumstances) into sharp relief as we navigate a deluge of constantly changing information and an evolving new normal that would’ve been unimaginable only months or even weeks ago. In light of these conditions, how might we…

  • use our intellectual character – critical thinking, truth seeking, and problem solving – to sift through the sands of data to identify information that is useful and accurate?
  • focus our intellectual character to remain informed but not panicked during a crisis where discerning reality from misrepresentation is essential to our health and well-being?

Being “smart” does not automatically confer strong intellectual character. A person with intellectual character is curious; they value knowledge and understanding, and they demonstrate these attributes in the home, workplace, and wider community. They tend to treat problems and challenges with an inquisitive, open mind and a systemic approach to problem-solving. In the context of COVID-19, a person with strong intellectual character seeks information from multiple sources and perspectives, considers facts in context, and takes a measured approach to gauge their relative risk. This critical reflection is applicable to any subject or circumstance and is a vital part of education as a whole.

Reflective questions to engage intellectual character assets might include:

  • Am I working with accurate information about the person, place, or environment with which I am collaborating/interacting?
  • What are the multiple ideas and solutions that have been presented around this problem?
  • Have I sought to inform myself deeply on this topic through credible sources of data?
  • What data informed our decision?
  • What evidence do I have to support my perspective?
  • Is there research that supports this response?
  • Am I open to sharing new ideas, even when they seem contradictory to others?
  • What evidence are we seeing that the solution or decision had a positive impact?

This type of reflection and curiosity about our own intentions and actions propels intellectual growth in the classroom and workplace. Reflecting on our experiences, thoughts, feelings, and actions often leads to more questions instead of definitive answers, and can be a catalyst for further discussion and ideas. Intellectual character, when paired with, moral and civic character, contributes to the development of practical wisdom, which guides decision-making in education, and in our society.

When considering our wider community, especially during this time of crisis, we have to home in on our intellectual character to think critically and act compassionately. It enables us to make meaning of experiences through contemplation and consideration of our thoughts, feelings, and actions and the way they affect others in the community.