Helping Teens Understand the Value of Intellectual Traits


We know that we want to teach high school students to think critically, but where is the best place to start? In a situation where the most you seem to be able to get out of a kid is “This sucks!”-- where do you begin? 

The Paul and Elder framework for critical thinking has three main components--standards, elements of thought, and intellectual traits--which can help us out. 

The movement of the components of the framework is cyclical as the thinking (if properly implemented) perpetuates and improves itself—that is, the standards must be applied to the elements of thought in order to develop the intellectual traits which help us better evaluate our thinking based on the standards, which are applied to the elements of thought, and so on… So, determining where to “jump” into the cycle is a decision we want to carefully consider.

One of the best hooks we can use for teens is anything that points directly back to them. Tressidder (2010), certified family, parent, and teen coach, notes that teens are “by definition, narcissistic.”  Ask any veteran high school teacher and you’ll hear rousing support of that point. This is Generation Me! I’m thinking we can use that inherent narcissism to draw students into the cycle via the intellectual traits, which focus on the thinker.

High schoolers will no doubt be interested in whether they have certain traits (such as Intellectual Courage and Intellectual Autonomy), and they might also have some misconceptions about Intellectual Humility. The opening discussion on the traits will need to be very compelling and open. The introduction is half the battle as we have to somehow convince the most stubborn, narcissistic group of inhabitants on the planet that intellectual traits are desirable and worth the effort to cultivate.

In a society where it’s all about the “bling,” it’s no easy task. We have to convince adolescents to do what most adults don’t do: look at things from multiple perspectives in a reflective, mindful way, basing their decisions on relevant facts as opposed to opinions and bias. 

Here’s what might work. (Again, this is just a way to begin the discussion. The idea is that you’ll revisit the traits throughout the year—this isn’t a one-time deal.)

Pre-assessment: Have students write down what they think about these statements (or possibly create a quick online survey with a Likert scale that runs from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree:

When I have to solve a problem, it’s important that:

            I make sure I have all the facts, and if I don’t, that I can identify that I still need to gather              information.
            I don’t take things for granted and that I ask questions.
            I endeavor to see things from the other person’s (or others’) point of view.
            I don’t give up, even when things seem frustrating.

1.  First, we’re not going to discuss the definitions and “go over” the traits. Rather, we want them to pose a problem to figure out.  We want them to “do” something. Just telling them all of this stuff will most likely turn them off to it.

Give them some options: write down a problem you’re having or have had with someone else (that you’re willing to share), examine a problem you’ve seen other people having with each other, or consider a problem that you’ve seen evident here at school.

2.  Have them summarize the situation in one part and offer their thoughts about the situation in another part. Clarify that the first part is similar to a police report: just the facts about what happened, when, and who said what. The second part is what they think about the first part.

You’ll probably have to give them a model. You might find a relevant scenario at The Daily Dilemma to use for a parallel. Follow through on each of the steps.

3.  After they’ve posed their problems and noted what they think about them, it’s time to share. You might consider a collaborative online approach, here, such as an online discussion forum, Google docs, Padlet, or another online app. Students comment on each other’s thinking and provide their own thoughts and advice.   

4.  Then, we have them reflect on their thinking about the problem. Introduce the concept of Intellectual Traits. Provide students with a handout or link to online doc with relevant questions as definitions for the traits. Consider starting with these four from Elder and Paul (1998):

  • "In this situation, what do I really know? What do I think I know but am not completely sure of? What do I need to learn? What do I still need to figure out?" (intellectual humility)

  • "Am I uncritically accepting what I have learned, or do I have the courage to question what I have learned? Am I afraid to question certain beliefs or practices because I may be rejected for questioning them?" (intellectual courage)

  • "Am I honestly trying to imagine this situation from this other person's point of view? Can I accurately state another person's point of view--which is in conflict with my own?" (intellectual empathy)

  • "Am I thinking through this issue in a way which does justice to its complexity, or do I come to a conclusion too quickly? Do I give up when figuring things out becomes frustrating?" (intellectual perseverance)
I find these four traits to be the most tangible of the list, so students might be able to grasp them a bit more readily.  We want them to use these questions to reflect on their thinking. Their goal is to review the second part of their submissions to determine the extent to which they’ve reflected the traits. This is going to be clunky—don’t expect perfection.

5.  Your role at this point is to ask questions designed to elicit deeper thinking and guide students in the right direction with their evaluations of their thinking. This might be a good spot to incorporate some questions based on the standards as a sort of segue:

·        Clarity: How clear is my thinking? To what extent is my point readily understood by myself and others?

·        Accuracy: How accurate is my thinking? To what extent is my information true and correct without distortion?

·        Precision: How precise is my thinking? To what extent is my information exact and specific to the necessary level of detail?

·        Relevance: How relevant is my thinking? To what extent does my information and input relate to the issue at hand?

·        Depth: How much depth is there to my thinking? To what extent am I engaging with the complexities of the issue?

·        Breadth: How far my does my thinking reach? To what extent am I considering the issue within the necessary contexts and relationships?

·        Logic: How logical is my thinking? To what extent do my conclusions follow from the evidence?
        Significance: How significant is my thinking? To what extent can I identify and focus on the most important aspects of the issue at hand?

·         Fairness: How fair is my thinking? To what extent am I able to avoid privileging my own biases?
(You’ll find a nice image for these at University of Louisville Posters)

6. After these exercises, consider having students take the survey again. Has their thinking changed? If so, why?  This final reflection may help them arrive at the conclusion that intellectual traits are worth having.  Again, this will be something that you have keep reinforcing over and over, but I hope that I’ve given you some inspiration for where to start!

You can also find additional free resources.for Paul and Elder’s Framework for Critical Thinking on their site, specifically designed for high schoolers. 



Elder, L., & Paul, R. (1998). Critical thinking: Developing intellectual traits. Journal Of Developmental Education, 21(3), 34.

Tresidder, T. (2010, Jan 30). Narcissistic, needy, or normal? What’s really going on with my teen? Retrieved July 28, 2014 from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/narcissistic_needy_or_normal_what_is_really_going_on_with_my_teens_behaviour