Thursday 20 April 2017

The school research lead and the case for intellectual humility

In a recent post for the Chartered College of Teaching blog I argued that intellectual humility was a fundamental component of being a ‘conscientious, explicit and judicious’ evidence-based practitioner.    This is particularly important as for, as (Leary et al., 2016) note, much of what we believe to be true is either inaccurate, subject to bias or completely wrong.    So the rest of this post will draw upon the work of (Leary et al., 2016) to:  

  • explain what is meant by ‘intellectual humility’; 
  • report on research in which people recognised that their beliefs might be wrong; 
  • identify questions for further research
  • discuss the implications ‘intellectual humility’ for you in your role as school-research champion or research lead

Intellectual humility – what is it?

(Leary et al., 2016) define intellectual humility as recognizing that a particular personal belief may be fallible, accompanied by an appropriate attentiveness to limitations in the evidentiary basis of that belief and to one’s own limitation in obtaining and evaluating relevant information (p1)

As such, although intellectual humility is fundamentally about private assessments by an individual of the accuracy of their beliefs, intellectual humility is also manifested in how individuals respond to others, and which may or may lead to conflict.

Research on intellectual humility

(Leary et al., 2016) report on four research studies which have looked into the nature of intellectual humility.  One of the studies showed that intellectual humility was associated to variables related to openness, curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and low dogmatism.  In the other three studies, higher levels of intellectual humility were linked with people being: less certain about their religious beliefs; less inclined to see changes of opinions as flip-flopping; more attuned to the strength of persuasive arguments.

Questions for further research

(Leary et al., 2016) identify a number of questions which call for our attention.
  • In what ways in individuals who possess high levels of intellectual humility compared to low levels of intellectual humility different in the way they process information?
  • Do intellectual humble people possess more accurate and nuanced knowledge than those individuals who are less intellectually humble?
  • How do different levels of intellectual humility influence individuals in how they handle differences of opinions or conflict with others.
Implications for you as a school research lead

There are a number of ways in which this discussion about ‘intellectual humility’ can inform your role as a school research champion.

First, there should be a degree of intellectual humility about the role of research and evidence in helping teachers bring about improvements in pupil outcomes.  We just don’t know whether providing teachers with access to research makes them better teachers, leading to improved outcomes for pupils

Second, given the diverse range of views within education about the pros and cons of different types of research and research methods, an appropriate stance to take would be that all methods have their uses, and may shed some light onto a problem of practice.  We probably don’t know enough to say we should prefer any one type of evidence or another.

Third, it’s important that as a school research lead, you demonstrate and role model intellectual humility, by displaying genuine curiosity and openness about the views of others.   In particular, it is important that you are not dogmatic and do not treat with disdain the views of colleagues who do not share your views about the value of research and other sources of evidence.

And finally ...

In my next post, I'll be looking at the relationship between empathy and being a 'conscientious, explicit and judicious' evidence-based practitioner.  The answer may well be surprising.


LEARY, M. R., DIEBELS, K. J., DAVISSON, E. K., JONGMAN-SERENO, K. P., ISHERWOOD, J. C., RAIMI, K. T., DEFFLER, S. A. & HOYLE, R. H. 2016. Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167217697695.


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