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Long Beach charter school models learning on 'intellectual virtues'

A dozen Southland educators met recently to learn how to instill
A dozen Southland educators met recently to learn how to instill "intellectual virtues" in their students.

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Long Beach school district officials gave the green light to a charter school that'll open next year with the mission to teach “intellectual virtues,” a concept with roots in classical Greek philosophy.

Two Southland philosophy professors launched the charter school effort; public school teachers and parents have joined in. Their goal is to instill critical thinking skills they believe are woefully underrepresented in public schools.

The study of how people develop life-long intellectual traits is called virtue epistemology. It's become a branch of philosophy research in the last two decades.

Loyola Marymount University philosophy professor Jason Baehr has made it his expertise for more than a decade. But just researching and writing about the topic left him unfulfilled — especially after he saw the way public schools value rapid recall, high IQs and high scores on multiple-choice tests.

“What that stuff leaves out is a more personal dimension, personal qualities like curiosity and attentiveness, open mindedness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, important for knowledge and learning,” he said.

Armed with a project grant of more than $1 million from the John Templeton Foundation, Baehr organized a one-week crash course on virtue epistemology for teachers during the summer. National and international experts offered a dozen L.A. and Orange County educators ideas on how to teach students to become lifelong critical thinkers. The group met in October to talk about how it's working in the classrooms.

Twelfth grade English teacher Katherine Lo said the course taught her to push her students harder to question why they were studying the ancient play "Antigone."

“The kids at first gave the expected answers, the expected to hear, develop skills, better readers,” she said.

“OK, what else?” she asked the students. There was a long, uncomfortable pause.

“I didn't jump in and rescue them, I waited. One of my students, she's an inclusion student, she has a learning disability; she raised her hand and I called on her, and she said, 'Well, we read so we can feel less alone.’”

Beautiful, Lo thought. The observation prompted a 10 minute student discussion. Lo said students became much more engaged talking about the 2500-year-old play.

Teachers learn about nurturing critical thinking skills in their teacher education courses and in professional development classes once they’ve begun teaching. San Pedro High School English teacher Jaquie Bryant said none of that training unlocked the secret to teaching critical thinking.

“I never quite understood what that was. And I would try some activities but I didn’t have a language or a frame of mind to know what I was doing with my students,” she said.

Teacher Agustin Viyera said he’s begun getting students to think about what it means to be open minded, intellectually courageous, and intellectually humble as soon as they start their day. He shared a video he took of a morning call-and-response ritual that sounds like intellecual boot camp.

The students in the video nearly yell:  “Be intellectually aggressive. Be intellectually humble. Be respectful of all people and things. Sit like a scholar. Be an intellectual leader.” Some of them raise closed fists as they recite. 

“Every morning part of our routine is to do our pledge to our country, our pledge to our school, and our pledge to ourselves and our classroom. It’s a two part pledge I make my pledge to them, my pledge is to give them my best, to challenge them, to treat them as scholars,” Viyera said.

His third graders, he said, are developing into an intellectual community with a more sophisticated understanding of what makes a good thinker.

U.C. Irvine researcher Elizabeth van Es says what’s kept this type of classroom approach from taking root on a mass scale in public education is that U.S. public schools have a set of institutionalized routines to educate students that don’t leave much room for such out of the box learning.

“Many educators have been advocating for this type of learning for over a hundred years,” van Es said.

That’s one of the reasons philosopher Jason Baehr and others have set out to turn a philosophical idea of intellectual virtues into a brick and mortar, independent charter school.

Baehr, a Biola University philosophy colleague, and former teacher Bob Covolo and others opened the board meeting of the future Intellectual Virtues Academy at a Cal State Long Beach classroom on a recent evening.

“I just want to start off by saying this is exciting and I’m thrilled to be a part of something really valuable,” Covolo said.

Board member Shelly Milsap said she plans to enroll her three school-age daughters in the Intellectual Virtues Academy when they’re old enough.

“It’s not just a philosophical endeavour, I’m an implementer. I come from a business background and it’s really important to me that this doesn’t just maintain an ideas driven concept that’s actually being applied and is accountable and we have action oriented results,” she said.

Long Beach school district officials approved the school to launch a sixth grade class in the fall and seventh and eighth grades in subsequent years. Finding a suitable facility - and raising the money to sustain it - are big concerns, board members said.

Meeting standardized test requirements that require few critical thinking skills should be another big concern for the school, said U.C. Berkeley education researcher Janelle Scott.

“What happens if the teachers are teaching in in the way that more grounded in this model and the students don’t perform on the assessments in the way that they had hoped. Do you then abandon that approach in favor of something more traditional or do you persist?” she asked.

Founders of the charter school maintain that if they teach students to model the thinking skills and traits of the ancient philosophers, mastery of any subject matter will follow.