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A new project will help gauge how students feel realizing the limits of their understanding — and ways they can positively respond

Much of the goal of education is about getting students to know things — to be informed discussion participants or well-prepared test-takers. But for education to be successful, and for students to flourish in the classroom and beyond, it can be equally important to show students productive ways of not knowing. Intellectual humility, which might be defined as recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge and being open to learning from others, has emerged as one of the central virtues of the new social science of character. 

Over the next three years, developmental psychologist Tenelle Porter will be leading a series of studies, funded with a $235,000 grant to the University of Pennsylvania from the John Templeton Foundation, to examine how students engage with intellectual humility from elementary school through the start of college. The goal is to increase understanding of how students experience intellectual humility, how they express it, and in what ways they are able to internalize it as a central character virtue.

Porter, who is currently a scholar in residence at Angela Duckworth’s Philadelphia-based Character Lab and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California, Davis, has a background in studying intellectual humility among adolescents. Under the new grant, Porter and co-project leader Andrei Cimpian of NYU will collect open-ended surveys of 250 high school students’ thoughts about expressing and experiencing intellectual humility in order to tease apart motivational factors, such as eagerness or embarrassment, which might help or hinder their embrace of intellectual humility. They will also interview college freshmen about their experiences of intellectual humility in the classroom. Using insights and hypotheses gained from talking to these older students, the team will then shift focus to a group of 150 younger children in first through eighth grades, guiding them through short-story vignettes featuring characters who try to do well in school but don’t know or understand something. The goal is ultimately to test whether there are causal relationships between the motivational factors they identify and the students’ experiences and expressions of intellectual humility.

“Understanding the limitations of our own knowledge, and the possibility that we have much to learn from others seems so crucial to the health of society,” says Sarah Clement, the John Templeton Foundation’s Interim Vice President of Programs. “Tenelle Porter’s project has wonderful potential to increase our understanding of how intellectual humility functions in the classroom — and of what teachers can do to cultivate it among their students.”


Learn more about project leaders Tenelle Porter and Andrei Cimpian.

Read the Intellectual Humility Playbook, which Porter wrote for Character Lab.