12 Online Classes to Build Intellectual Character

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What Is Intellectual Character?

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The biggest mistake learners make is viewing intelligence as a fixed attribute. You’re either smart or you’re not. You have “it” or you don’t. In reality, our brains are pliable and our capabilities are often limited by our own self-doubt.

While some people may be more naturally gifted in the academic field, everyone can improve their capacity to learn by building their intellectual character.

Intellectual character is an assemblage of attributes or dispositions that distinguish a person as someone capable of clear, effective thinking.

In the teaching-oriented book Intellectual Character, Ron Ritchhart explains it like this:

“Intellectual character…[is] an umbrella term to cover those dispositions associated with good and productive thinking…the concept of intellectual character recognizes the role of attitude and affect in our everyday cognition and the importance of developed patterns of behavior. Intellectual character describes a set of dispositions that not only shape but motivate intellectual behavior.”

Someone with moral character is said to be honest, fair, kind, and loyal. Someone with intellectual character possesses attributes that result in effective lifelong thinking and learning.

The attributes of intellectual character are not simply habits; they are beliefs about learning more permanently ingrained into a person’s way of seeing and interacting with the world. Attributes of intellectual character persevere in different situations, different places, different times. Just as a person with moral character would be honest in a number of different circumstances, a person with intellectual character demonstrates effective thinking in the workplace, the home, and the community.

You Won’t Learn This in School

Unfortunately, most people don’t develop intellectual character by sitting in a classroom. Many adults still don’t have the attributes necessary to think critically and learn effectively on their own. Their intellectual character isn’t flawed; it’s simply underdeveloped. David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education put it this way:

“The problem is not so much bad intellectual character as simple lack of intellectual character. It’s not so much that the world is full of dedicated anti-intellectuals out to ignore evidence, think along narrow tracks, sustain prejudices, promulgate falsehood, and so on…as it is that the common lot is to be neither here nor there, neither high nor low, neither strong nor weak, in fact, mediocre in the Latin root sense of medius, middle, without much distinctive intellectual character at all.”

An underdeveloped intellectual character is a problem, both on a personal level and a societal level. People lacking intellectual character find their growth stunted and interact with their circumstances on a childlike level. When a nation consists primarily of people who do not have the attributes of effective thinkers, the progress of an entire society can be hindered.

The 6 Attributes of Effective Learners

Many traits may fall under the umbrella of intellectual character. However, Ron Ritchhart has narrowed it down to six essentials. He categorizes these traits into three categories: creative thinking, reflective thinking, and critical thinking. You’ll find them in this presentation – each with links to free online courses you can take to help you build your own intellectual character.

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Character Trait #1 – Open-minded

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Jamie Grill / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

A person who is open-minded is willing to look beyond what they know, consider new ideas, and try new things. Instead of closing themselves off from “dangerous” information that may alter their world-view, they demonstrate a willingness to consider alternative possibilities.

If you want to open your mind, try looking for free online classes on subjects that might feel uncomfortable to you. Consider courses taught by professors that may have opposing political, religious, or ideological beliefs.

A couple of smart options include WellesleyX Introduction to Global Psychology or UC BerkleyX Journalism for Social Change.

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Character Trait #2 – Curious

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Andy Ryan / Stone / Getty Images

Many inventions, discoveries, and creations were the result of a curious mind. A curious thinker isn’t afraid to wonder and ask questions about the world.

Spark your curiosity by taking a free online class in a subject that you wonder about (but doesn’t necessarily tie into your career).

Try HarvardX The Einstein Revolution or UC Berkley X The Science of Happiness.

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Character Trait #3 – Metacognitive

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Kris Ubach and Quim Roser / Cultura / Getty Images

To be metacognitive is to continually think about your thinking. It is to monitor your own thought process, be aware of problems that arise, and direct your mind in the way you want it to go. This is probably the most difficult attribute to acquire. However, the payoff can be tremendous.

Start thinking metacognitively by taking free online courses like MITx Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge, and Consciousness or UQx The Science of Everyday Thinking.

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Character Trait #4 – Seeking truth and understanding

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Besim Mazhiqi / Moment / Getty Images

Instead of simply believing what is most convenient, people with this attribute actively seek. They find truth / understanding by considering many possibilities, searching for evidence, and testing the validity of possible answers.

Build your truth-seeking character by taking free online classes like MITx Introduction to Probability: The Science of Uncertainty or HarvardX Leaders of Learning.

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Character Trait #5 – Strategic

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Tetra Images / Getty Images

Most learning doesn’t happen by chance. Strategic people set goals, plan in advance, and demonstrate productivity.

Develop your ability to think strategically by taking free online courses like PerdueX Communicating Strategically or UWashingtonX Becoming a Resilient Person.

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Character Trait #6 – Skeptical

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Brand New Images / The Image Bank / Getty Images

A healthy dose of skepticism helps people better evaluate the information they come across. Effective learners are open to considering ideas. However, they carefully evaluate new information with a critical eye. This helps them sort out the truth from the “spin.”

Build your skeptical side by taking free online classes such as HKUx Making Sense of the News or UQx Making Sense of Climate Change Denial.

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How to Build Intellectual Character

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Kyle Monk / Blend Images / Getty Images

Building intellectual character won’t happen overnight. Just as the body requires exercise to get into shape, the brain requires practice to change the way it processes information.

Chances are you already have many of the attributes listed in this presentation (you are, after all, someone who reads a website about learning). However, everyone can strengthen their character in some way. Identify an area that could use improvement and work towards integrating it into your intellectual character as you take one of the courses listed (or learn about it in another way).

Think about the attribute you want to develop regularly and find opportunities to practice it when you come across difficult information (in a book, on TV), need to solve a problem (at work / in the community), or are presented with a new experience (traveling / meeting new people). Soon, your thoughts will turn to habits and your habits will become an essential part of who you are.