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Book Review 

Intellectual Character:  What it is, Why it Matters, and How to Get it, by Ron Ritchhart, published in 2002 by John Wiley & Sons in The Jossey-Bass Education Series

Positive Review — Overview

This book gets a thumbs-up from me.  It takes the reader beyond “critical thinking” into a realm of thinking that is grounded in a “new view of smart” and what it means to be “intelligent” in the 21st Century and then suggests how educators can move in that direction in their classrooms and schools.  This book is like putting the caffeine in the coffee, the taste back in the tomato, the rhyme behind the reason (or is it the reason behind the rhyme).  People who are interested in going beyond subject matter would be interested in this book.

This book is nicely structured as a melding of theory and practice.  You would like this book if you are interested in teaching children to “think” (beyond critical thinking) and wonder HOW to make it happen.  Additionally, if you need to convince anyone that teaching thinking is important work, this book could help you provide that ever so important rationale.

Book Structure

The book has three sections.  It starts off by thoroughly defining “Intellectual Character” and making a well-grounded case for the development of it in Part I.

In Part II, Ritchhart discusses what “Intellectual Character” might look like in a school-setting and explains how to lay the groundwork for its development (Chapter 4), how to create spaces and encourage its continued growth (Chapter 5), how important it is to develop a language of thinking in the classroom (Chapter 6), and how one might work toward sustaining a culture of thinking over the entire school year (Chapter 7).

Part III provides readers with an opportunity to see how other teachers in different settings have tried and been successful at building an Intellectual Community in their classrooms and, upon reading this third part, you could see what to emphasize and what you might avoid.

A Few Key Ideas

The main reason I am so positive about this book is that it takes conventional idea of what it means to be “intelligent,” or “smart,” and turns them upside down.  Intellectual Character concerns not how “intelligent” one is in a conventional sense, as measured, for example on tests of intelligence, but how they use their intelligence in the world – over and over again.  Thus, intellectual character is not about how much someone knows. “…character,” Ritchhart suggests, “is not a matter of ability but of commitment.  So, with intellectual character:  it basically has to do not with how smart people are but how they invest their intelligence, with what commitment to imagination, evidence, inquiry, fairness, and the like.”

A chart on page 31 abbreviates the main points of this discussion – which is another thing this book has going for it.  There are charts at the end of chapters that clearly summarize key points of that chapter in an accessible way so that you don’t have to do it  ;  o-( — <

This book shows readers how to build a culture of thinking in classrooms (and schools) that supports the development of intellectual character through dispositional thinking.  The thinking dispositions he suggests come from a careful analysis of several scholars’ work on thinking from both philosophical and educational perspectives.  The Table on pp. 24-25 that summarizes these different lists of thinking dispositions is very interesting and helps but the six dispositions Ritchhart proposes in a larger context.

Key Ideas for Developing Intellectual Character in the Classroom

Conveying a sense of history of thought and the power of ideas.

Jumping into a Big Subject-Matter Idea

Laying a Foundation for Ongoing Dialogue

Setting an Agenda of Understanding

The Role of Thinking Routines

The Idea behind Thinking Routines which is likely what people have encountered, (i.e., See, Think, Wonder) is interesting to ponder.  Ritchhart makes the case that schools are filled with “routines” – most of them managerial (how to regain order, lining up) procedural (how to pass in papers), getting ready to leave at the end of the day (housekeeping) and learning (assignments and rote responses).  Routines as established so that the classroom runs more smoothly, so that everyone knows what to do, so that students and teachers can engage in a shared school culture – so that everyone knows what to do and that it can be done with relative ease, without “thinking.”  Ritchhard suggests that this “school culture” is established for the joint purpose of attaining answers that reflect a conventional view of “smart” rather than the newer view of what it means to be smart – to have intellectual character.  Why not, he suggests include routines for thinking – routines that reflect intellectual character?  The thinking routines then, each reflect one of the dispositions.  “See, Think, Wonder,” for example, reflects the disposition to observe and describe.  “What makes you say that?” reflects the disposition to reason with evidence.

If you want a meaty book that moves your understanding of how to transform a really good classroom into one in which you are clearly developing the intellectual character of students, then this is the book for you.