One of the Greatest Lessons 2020 Can Teach is Intellectual Humility


Between a global pandemic, a presidential election, and heightened focus on equality and justice, 2020 has been a year like no other for learning.

Amidst the challenges and uncertainty this year has brought, students of all ages are being challenged to reevaluate not only how they learn, but how to relate to one another. They are learning that life and routines can change in an instant. They are learning how to communicate their knowledge, opinions, and thoughts in ever-changing environments. They are learning to listen and evaluate the positions of their peers. They are learning the importance of respect, collaboration, and togetherness. And perhaps most importantly, they are learning the power of intellectual humility.

What is Intellectual Humility?

Intellectual humility is a state of open-mindedness – to being accepting of new ideas, receptive to new evidence, and willing to question the limits of what you know. Considered a moral virtue, intellectual humility compels you to become more curious and appreciate of what is out there to learn, especially from others.

Why Does Intellectual Humility Matter?

When you approach life with intellectual humility, you open your mind to learning. You are able to learn from opposing views and have more constructive discussions, even when you disagree. No matter how old you are, with intellectual humility you become wiser. It helps you be less judgmental of others, learn more in school, and be a better leader.

Pulse Check: Intellectual Humility in Practice

Think about yourself. How many of these things are true?

  • I question my own opinions, positions, and viewpoints because they could be wrong.
  • I reconsider my opinions when presented with new evidence.
  • I recognize the value in opinions that are different from my own.
  • I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong.
  • In the face of conflicting evidence, I am open to changing my opinions.
  • I like finding out new information that differs from what I already think is true.
  • How do I encourage intellectual humility in others?

Model it. Admit when you do not know or understand something: “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but let’s look it up.” Appreciate others’ insights and let them know when they raise a point that you hadn’t considered: “I never thought of it that way, so it’s interesting to hear what you have to say.” Be willing to change your mind and let people know when you do: “I’m convinced by articles I’ve read about the problem, so my views have shifted.”

From a very young age, children can understand qualities like curiosity, attentiveness and tenacity, and adults both at home and in the classroom can help them understand what they look like and create opportunities for these life skills to be identified.

Celebrate it. Recognize when someone demonstrates intellectual humility: “I appreciate how open you’ve been to learning more about all sides of this issue.” Look for examples of intellectual humility in science, politics, and other areas; highlight these on social media.

Enable it. Value learning and point out that learning happens when you acknowledge what you don’t know. At dinner, make a habit of sharing a question you have or one new thing you learned. Keep media from diverse perspectives in the house. Establish a birthday ritual of noting how you have changed your mind over the past year.

We are in a cultural era where it’s easier than ever before to surround yourself with people and information that only confirms what you already know and those that disagree or challenge that perception are inherently wrong. Crafting intellectual humility not only helps us learn, but also help us collaborate and learn from each other.


This piece was based on “The Character Lab Playbook for Intellectual Humility,” which was published as part of a collaboration between McGraw Hill and Character Lab. Character Lab advances scientific insights that help kids thrive (you can watch a short video here). By connecting researchers with educators, Character Lab seeks to create greater knowledge about the conditions that lead to social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being for young people throughout the country.

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