As part of our Conversations on Intellectual Humility series, we paired psychologist Shauna Bowes with Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a mathematics educator and professor of education, to explain why there’s more to math than the correct answer. Listen up.
Sara Ivry: Hi, folks. Welcome. I’m Sara Ivry, features editor at JSTOR daily. We’ve got something special up for you at the website, and that is a podcast series about intellectual humility and how it might work in different contexts. Broadly defined, intellectual humility is an openness to being wrong. In this installment, you’ll hear a conversation between Professor Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Shauna Bowes. Professor Ball used to work as an elementary school teacher, and she’s now a professor of education at the University of Michigan. Shauna Bowes is finishing up her post-doc at Vanderbilt in clinical psychology with a special interest in intellectual humility. They talk about a lot of things, including about how teachers and students can both benefit from intellectual humility in the classroom. Here’s their conversation. Enjoy.
Shauna Bowes: So I don’t necessarily have a firm idea of how to start, but I think I was just going to, you know, jump in with asking you a little bit more about your background and why you’re interested in intellectual humility.
Deborah Loewenberg Ball: So, for a lot of my career, I was an elementary school teacher, and since then, I’ve become somebody who continues to work in that space but also studies it. And I have a particular interest in classroom learning environments as spaces where children can thrive and flourish—their identities, their intellectual growth—a lot of classrooms aren’t like that, particularly for children of marginalized identities. And I also work primarily in elementary math, it’s kind of the context for the work. So, I’m interested in—children of identities that are often marginalized, and math has a long history of that, and math is also an interesting space for this topic because it’s so permeated with both racialized views of who’s competent and gendered views of that, but also it has an enormous heritage of like, rightness and wrongness. And school math is often, in fact, probably math in general is really filled with like trying to figure out what’s wrong with something. So, it’s a space where the work of teaching, if you’re trying to resist that and create a space for children to grow intellectually and to interact in ways that are different from what’s maybe normal in some aspects of mathematics as a discipline, it’s a great space for thinking about that work. And you can say that about any subject probably, but I do think that because my work has been in elementary math on the work of teaching and learning of children, math creates this context like a crucible for thinking about that.
Bowes: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I’ll share a little bit about why I’m interested in intellectual humility. I started studying it in graduate school, and I’m really interested in it as a vehicle for understanding political polarization and decision making and misinformation susceptibility to things like conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. So, I’ve never directly studied it in an educational context, but I study it in the use of decision making. So, I think there’s definitely applications to education. And like you’re saying like this is kind of, um, a really ripe playing field for understanding intellectual humility, and how we help people thrive and still orient to accuracy, you know, in their decision making, but maybe not in a way that’s so focused on right versus wrong or good versus bad.
Ball: I mean, what you’re partly making me think about is that the intellectual humility that might be at issue in a classroom is also the intellectual humility of the teacher. Because if you take seriously that children are robust thinkers with active intellectual lives and ways of thinking, then the positioning that teachers have of being the authority for knowledge could mean that one way to take what you’ve been thinking about is that for a teacher to work with children requires managing the responsibility for what they’re learning, and also appreciating that often they’re actually bringing up ideas that are new and aren’t wrong. And so the rightness and wrongness trend in teaching is also a space for the teacher to be able to take a step back and actually listen to what children are saying, and not automatically assume that if it’s an unexpected idea that it’s wrong.
Bowes: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think something that people are starting to get more interested in in the field, and is really kind of new is: What role does modeling play in facilitating intellectual humility? And I think teachers could be those kinds of models where they’re up in front of a classroom expressing and exhibiting intellectual humility. You know, a teacher is actively engaging in the practice of saying, “I don’t know the answer to this. Let’s all work together.” Or “Who might know more about this than me?” Um, helping students really reflect on the decision-making process rather than just the outcome. So, I’m curious to hear from you because I’ve never worked in early education, you’re actually, you know, you’ve been in the classroom, in the field. How do you think a teacher could effectively model intellectual humility, especially considering all of the challenges and constraints that happen in the classroom setting?
Ball: That’s a really interesting question, because I do think it’s a somewhat normalized practice for teachers, I would say to inauthentically model it. For example, saying things to kids like, “I need you to explain this to me,” about something they obviously already know. And you could say that when you’re actually interested in what the child is thinking. But often teachers, is it like a kind of normal thing for elementary teachers to say, like, “Can you explain this to me?” as though they didn’t really know it. Or something rather, I guess I would say maybe this isn’t quite fair, but something a little bit trivial, like misspelling a word on the board and then making kind of a big point about like, “Oh, you found out that I was wrong.” Maybe that is a reasonable example, but it’s not deep. It’s probably still better than not admitting that you spelled it wrong. But teachers will sometimes make a big point of having kids catch mistakes. And what I worry about that a little bit is that I think some of this effort that I’m interested in is about not classifying everything is so cleanly and thinly, right or wrong. So yes, a misspelling or miscalculation on the board is something to notice, but I think when I think about intellectual humility, I think I’m trying to think of something a little bit deeper, I think. I could tell you a story that might exemplify that, and we could decide if that’s useful to talk to it. Would that be useful?
Bowes: Let’s do it.
Ball: So, one year when I was teaching third grade—this is a fairly well-known story, actually, but in other words, I wrote about it later because it was kind of amazing. We had been studying even and odd numbers, so that’s a pretty typical topic. And one of the problems that had come up was whether an odd number plus an odd number would always be an even number, which is a great mathematical question and kind of interesting to think about how eight-year-olds could try to decide if that’s true or not, because in mathematics it doesn’t really establish truth to just make a long list of examples. In other fields, making examples is a way of establishing the validity of a claim, but in mathematics, you have to find a way to show that you’ve actually accounted for all the examples. Making a list is great. It might make you feel more convinced, but it isn’t actually a proof. So, it’s interesting to think, what would eight-year-olds have at their disposal to be able to try to take that on? And they were pretty interested in this, and they were interested in other things like is zero even or odd. So they’ve been already thinking a lot about this, but on this particular day, which I think was after a day that we’d have this conversation about zero, one of the boys in my class, I can almost recite this like as though it were a poem by now, because I’ve watched the video of it so many times. I’d ask something like, “Does anybody have any comments about what we talked about yesterday?” And he said, “I haven’t—I don’t have any comments about what we talked about yesterday, but I’ve been thinking about the number six, and I’ve been thinking it could be even or it could be odd.”
So that’s a nice example where you and I probably both know that six is not both even and odd, but so one first step is like being able to say, like, “I wonder what he’s saying,” um, and not immediately say, “Let’s just review again, like numbers are either even or odd. So can somebody tell Shea you know, what it is?”
That would be a very typical kind of reaction. But, um, what I like about the story is that it involved both the teachers in like, school, humility and the child. So, I’ll tell you more what happened after that. So, I asked him to clarify what he meant, and he kind of stood up and said, again, “Six could be both even and odd.” A lot of the other children were like, “No.” And then one of the other children said, like, you know, “Can you prove that to us? Like, what are you talking about?” And he said, “Well, six is like three of something, which is odd, and it’s also two of something which is even. So, it’s even and odd.” So then again, somebody said, “Can you show us?” And he went up to the board and he made a picture of like six circles. And he showed like with marks, like, look, “It’s, you know, it’s two groups of three and it’s three groups of two. So it’s both even and odd.”
So, at that point, I asked if other people knew what he was saying. And again, this is way off of what would really be typical, because many people who watch the videos say like, “Why doesn’t the teacher just explain, like, that’s not how we think about even and odd numbers and move on. It’s pretty clear, like he’s confused.” But I don’t think he was confused. And as it plays out, you’ll see he wasn’t actually confused. He had an idea. And that is a mathematical thing to do, is to notice patterns and like start to think about things. So, someone else then said that they objected to that because—so this girl, Tina, goes up to the board and she points at the number line that’s over the board and goes like starting at the zero, uses a pointer, goes like zero’s even, one odd, even, odd, even. “So how could six be even and odd when you can see that when I do it this way, when I land on six, I’m saying even?” which actually is a definition of evenness, so that’s kind of interesting to hear that she’s making an important point that we do think of them as alternating. And then after that, he said “Yes, but it’s also three of something and two of something,” he kind of insists on it some more. And at that point someone else begins to talk about that and says, “I think I know what he’s saying,” which is also very interesting. So this girl named Lynn says, “I think I get what you say” because everybody else is kind of saying like, “It’s not, it’s not right.” And he kind of sticks to his guns. And Lynn says, “I think I know what he is saying,” just like that. And she says, “Well, I think what he is saying is because six has three in it and it has two in it, it’s even and odd.” And I say to Shea, “Is that what you’re saying?” And he said, “Yes.” And Lynn says, “I don’t, I don’t agree with that.”
So, after she’s just clarified his thinking, she said, “But I don’t think that’s right. Can I go up to the board?” And she goes up to the board, and she says, “If you say that six could be both even an odd, what would you say about?” She pauses and she draws ten circles on the board, and then she marks them off by twos and says, “If you think six is both even aloud, why don’t you say ten could be both even an odd because it’s like five twos, right?” At that point, Shea says, “Thank you for pointing it out. I hadn’t thought about that before. I say ten can be both even and odd.” So then Lynn says, “Yeah, but if you say that, and if you keep going on like that, it’s going to turn out that all numbers are even and odd. And if all numbers are even and odd, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.” So, he just stands there and he’s just interested that this is being challenged. So I would consider that also a case of intellectual humility. He’s like pondering what other people are bringing up. And then the story ends by another girl who’s often very quiet, going up to the board and saying, “But odd numbers are things like this.” And she shows that an odd number is something you group by twos and you have one left, and that that’s not true of six. So, from there, it turns out that lots of kids say, “Oh, but Shea’s idea are there lots of numbers like six and ten, like fourteen is like that and eighteen is like that, and twenty-two is like that. Those are all the ones that are odd groups of two.”
So it becomes this thing where he’s actually discovered something that isn’t part of a canon, but it’s sort of a nonstandard idea. And I think the whole story illustrates a possibility in a classroom for a child to do something that’s actually a very mathematical thing to do: notice something, make a conjecture, hold his own against challenges. But everybody in that context was in some sense exhibiting some intellectual humility. The teacher was, the kids who challenged him were, the kids who took him seriously. And I think that’s just the story is interesting to me because it plays out so differently on a very ordinary concept. Some people who hear the story think, “Oh my gosh, that the kids are so confused,” but they weren’t confused. If you ask them later, like, you know, “Is thirteen even or odd, or is eighteen even or odd right?” They weren’t confused. They just got excited that this was an interesting idea. Um, and it was a really close, a really deep example of what it means to do mathematics in school. But, there’s so many things to kind of, in some sense made it unlikely that that could play out because of the way that math is positioned and how a boy like Shea, who often was mostly sitting under his desk and not participating, how he might have been positioned. So, I think all the way around, I’m curious what you think about any part of that story.
Bowes: Yeah, I actually think it’s a really nice example of intellectual humility, too, because I think we can get a little stuck with thinking about it intellectually humility as an outcome. Like to be intellectually humble, you have to hold a certain belief, or you have to arrive at a certain outcome, and I don’t think that’s really what it’s about. Intellectual humility to me is a stance. It’s a way of information, you know, seeking information, evaluating information. It’s a willingness to consider other ideas. It’s a willingness to consider, “Hey, I might be wrong, I might. Other people might know more than me. Maybe I should hear them out.” So I think what I’m hearing in this anecdote or this story is that the kids were actively pursuing information in a way that was open. Like, what if you consider this? What if you consider that? What if we weigh different parts of the evidence and treat them with respect, treat them with open mindedness, and maybe we’ll change our minds, maybe arrive at a new conclusion, maybe we won’t. But the way that I went about getting to that conclusion was with an open spirit, with respect, really listening to different perspectives, and it was modeled all the way around. So I think that’s a really nice example of intellectual humility because it’s not just, oh, I have a certain belief, but how do I get there in the first place? That’s what intellectual humility, I think, is really about, is how we get to the information.
Ball: I think this idea of considering other ideas is, other perspectives than your own is really interesting, because many people don’t think of math as a place to learn that. They think of that as something you learn, like reading literature or various social science topics or, you know, things like that. And I think math actually is a really good place to learn this because, it interestingly turns out—I don’t think this is a justification for it at all, but it is interesting—that the Greeks did have in, in their writing about number and theories of number, did have a number that was basically what Shea discovered. It was like an even odd sort of number. It kind of atrophied in the discipline. It isn’t really part of what people talk about, but it actually was something others had noticed before. That doesn’t validate it, but what I think it does is to say that kids weren’t like doing nonsense. And I think some people who don’t think enough about what mathematical doing is might have thought like, “That’s crazy. Why would a teacher take that kind of time?” And often I show the video not to people interested in math, but just closer to what you’re talking about. Like, is this a good use of school time or not? Because you have something like a forty-minute discussion, which in the end, that’s not a goal that they learn that that eighteen is both even and odd. That’s not actually a learning goal in school, but what the learning goal was like, what you said, like considering an idea, noticing a pattern, making a claim, listening to other points of view. And one thing I discovered when I was doing this work was that there’s some vocabulary in math that supports what you just said, which is thinking, “I might have an idea. I might be wrong, but I want to hear what other people think.” And that word is conjecture.
So, the word “conjecture” means: I think something might be true. I’m not sure. It doesn’t mean I’m sure of it. And it’s a little bit like a hypothesis, but it’s not quite the same. It’s more specific to math. And I taught that word to the children. And many people have said like, “Why would you teach that word to children?” I said, “Because without that word, they don’t have a name for that kind of knowing where you kind of think something’s true. You’re not sure, it might not turn out to be true, might turn out to need to be changed.” That vocabulary supports the development of what you were talking about, because you have a name for knowing something in that way. And once they had that word, I noticed that they more often ventured into making conjectures about things because they had a name for that. That is a form of knowing something where it could turn out you’ll have to change your mind. But it’s something you’re thinking could be true. And it’s not nonsense. You don’t just say it about anything.
Bowes: Now, I love that idea of, like, form, of knowing there’s multiple ways of knowing and arriving at information and math is pretty wild. I think we like to think of it as really concrete and abstract. But like when you think about calculus, like infinity is a part of the equation. Like that’s not something very concrete. There’s imaginary numbers and abstract theoretical math. So, I agree, I think it’s there’s a lot more to explore there than we often teach. And getting into math a little more, I want to share from my perspective too and talk more about diversity implications.
So, I’m a first-generation student and, you know, female. And I have so much math anxiety even to this day after getting a PhD in clinical psychology, right. And growing up, all my, a lot of my school anxiety was around math. And I have early memories from like kindergarten of just feeling really bad about math because of something a teacher said to me when I got something wrong, for instance, learning math. And we know there’s a lot of math confidence problems with women, with first-gen students, with more diverse populations. That it’s seems kind of unique to math—this anxiety built up, this lack of confidence. And then I think that channels people away from STEM, away from science, away from PhDs. So I can’t, I can’t do that, and the teacher told me, basically, I can’t do this. So, can you explore that a little bit, how that plays out and how intellectual humility might actually overcome some of these diversity barriers?
Ball: Yeah, I think that’s extremely interesting. I think part of what that has to do with is that these narratives about what it means to be good at math are not about individuals, they’re groups. But when someone experiences it, they think it’s about themselves uniquely and they don’t know that this is like societally how math has gotten positioned about who gets to be good at math, what math even is. And those are two related things.
So, the first is who gets to be good at math? Most of what you see, if you ask children to draw who’s a mathematician, they pretty much one of my colleagues, Maisie Gholson, does this—they draw pictures that, you know, are of white men, basically. So to begin with, they don’t identify, they don’t see people who look like themselves or seem to be like them doing it. Another is very narrow views of what the subject is. So, if what you’re exposed to is a very dry sort of diet of, you know, calculating numbers, let’s say in kindergarten or identifying the names of shapes, and it really is a space where really you’re either right or you’re wrong, and a lot of it isn’t even making sense all that much or even very interesting, people dis-identify with math, and it’s reinforced through these larger narratives about who gets to be at and what it is to be good at math. So, trying to reframe what math includes, so that it’s a much broader space, is one of the ways of including more people in it. And the other is to be aware of these larger historical and social and political narratives, and deliberately intervene on those by practices that we actually help teachers to learn about, watching for things that children are doing, like Shea doing what he did, or Lynn being able to come up with that example, and, and being able to name like that was a really important mathematical thing you just did. And that’s combining sort of broadening their idea of what it is to be doing math, making it seem a little bit more exciting, but also naming things that particular children did as important mathematically.
When you do that, if I say, like “Shauna had a really important insight just now, can someone say what it was she came up with that?” Then I’m doing a couple of things. I’m lifting Shauna up who might not see herself as good at that, and other people are saying like, “Oh, huh, Shauna contributed something important.” And what gets named that Shauna did broadens everybody idea like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was part of doing math well.”
So deliberately learning to make moves like that requires a lot on the part of the teacher, because you have to actually yourself have a broader view of math. And many people who have become teachers have had the same experience as you described. So, if you become an elementary teacher, you’re not choosing to teach math, you’re choosing to be a teacher, and math comes along for the ride. And because the history is that many people like you described haven’t had a great experience with it, and many of them are first-gen students or are students of color, or are, you know, women and all of those intersectional identities, so they’re carrying that with them, so there has to be some chance to, like, heal from that in a way and be ready to do that with children and hear that in children. And then the moves that I’m describing have to be made deliberately, like what I do when I make a move like that if I lift up a white boy consistently, I’m actually undercutting the purpose of this. That doesn’t mean I would never do that. But you want to think about how are the kids positioned relative to each other and think about identities and be rather deliberate about how you over time manage who’s getting named and what’s getting named. And I think you can do a lot. And I think it does have to do with intellectual humility because it’s opening up the space on what kinds of things count as doing math. And many of those could be things like noticing something unusual, having a really different answer, like in the video records from the work that I do, there’s so many examples of kids coming up with things that aren’t the expected answer, and three-quarters of the time, literally, those are not wrong answers. They’re either the child is answering a different question than the teacher thought that they posed, or the child has made one little different move that’s made the answer turn out differently. Or they’ve actually thought of something like, Shea, that’s different and it’s totally mathematically valid, it’s just not what’s typical. And that’s three of the four cases, the fourth is they just have something wrong. But that’s not most of the time.
And so intellectual humility is like recognizing all of those and really listening a lot more closely so that the teacher can actually name things, and children are getting a lot more experience with when you come up with something nonstandard that’s cool, that’s important, and where did you get that idea and what’s the reason for that? And sometimes it will turn out not to work. But that even can be named like “That was that was really important that you tried that. What was it that eventually didn’t work about it?” That kind of thing, that kind of conversation, which all seems like it fits with what you’re saying about considering a wider range of what could be the case, taking up other people’s ideas, changing your mind if needed. Sticking to your point of view if you need to.
Bowes: Yeah, I completely agree. And you know, I think that it can create a really important and nice cycle. So yes, a lot of this would be on the teachers, which can be tough, especially in the in the classroom environment to model this, to set the precedent for it. But I think what was really inspiring about the example you shared is that the students started to jump in. So maybe the teacher has to work hard to set this precedent or set this norm in the classroom, especially at the beginning of the school year. But it sounds like the kids took the ball and ran with it. And even kids you mentioned that normally, like, didn’t say anything, started jumping in because you’re setting this norm of participation in a in a way that’s, again, respectful. It’s not like, “Okay, let’s call someone out and tell them they’re wrong. Let’s just, you know, open your textbook and let’s read the pages. And, you know, make sure we all know the facts.” But getting that ball in motion of “Let’s explore together,” got the kids to participate in intellectual humility and push each other. So, I think it could get kids more involved in the classroom too, it sounds like.
Ball: I think that’s really important, what you just raised about the classroom environment, because one person in that story who’s very important is Lynn. Lynn is the person who says, “I think I know what he is saying.” And she turns out not to agree, but she starts by honoring what he said and repeating it really, really clearly, and he feels heard. Whereas to that point, some of the kids are just saying, like, “What’s he talking about? Like six is not even and odd.” And then she validates by saying, “I think I know what he’s saying,’ you can see by his expression like, “Yes, now I you get what I’m saying?” And then she says, “But I don’t get it. Like, why is ten not even and odd then?” I think maybe she is trying to prove that it doesn’t work, but actually her example shows how well it works. So, the whole thing is very interesting. But I think she’s a key person and sometimes if I use this video just around how does schooling promote democracy, the video is—forget the math in a way does show something about kids what you’re describing learning to interact across difference in a class, in a public-school classroom, in ways that our society lacks right now. And I think math could be a good environment for that, but the larger goal may not even be about, it’s definitely not about whether they know even or odd numbers. It’s definitely not at that level. It might be something about math and what it is to be good at math and what math is, but it’s also about like learning to interact with people who are different from yourself, who have different thinking, which I think goes back to what you said you’re interested in more from a bigger space, right?
Bowes: For sure. I think we, we put so much into disagreement. It’s so emotional, it’s so social. And even though disagreeing over something like a math fact, people start to get activated and they start to maybe not like you because you disagree with them. And that’s where I think we start to get really, really far apart from each other, especially on important issues. And I think something we can teach that’s fundamental to intellectual humility is what happens when you’re wrong, what happens when there’s disagreement? I don’t think we emphasize that enough in education. And I love, again, returning to that example that I think we’re really, you know, pulling from this conversation is that it’s okay to be wrong. You can handle it if you’re wrong. You’re not going to get punished if you’re wrong. And you know that idea of, “Okay, we tried something, it didn’t work. What went wrong?” Exploring what failure looks like. I think we, we build up this idea of perfection and having to be the best, so failure is so threatening. And when an intellectually humble person can say like, “Oh, that did not go well,” or “Oh, I’m wrong and I’m going to live, it’s going to be okay that I’m wrong.” So, can you speak to that a little bit in the classroom, how we might kind of teach that emotional aspect of intellectual humility?
Ball: Yeah. I mean, one thing you made me remember is that, um, when I first was really trying to do this kind of work with children, something I didn’t completely realize could happen was that it would become very unpleasant. And so what happened during one of the probably the first year I can remember really trying to emphasize, like, we’re going to have ideas, we’re going to discuss them, suddenly, I noticed that the kids were saying things like, “I want to challenge Shauna.” And I realized, like, you’re not challenging Shauna. You may want to challenge or disagree with her idea, but it’s not her that you’re challenging. And I had to learn to step back and teach like ways of talking about what you do when you want to disagree because you’re not disagreeing with like the overall person, which is very personal then, and it can make you feel like, “Oh, like I’m not going to talk again.” But if it’s the idea, it’s a slightly different thing. It’s a little like writer’s remembering that we’re talking about a text that you wrote, not the person. I mean, the author is related to the text, but it’s still what you’re talking about is the text. So, then I learned to say that you should say “I’m disagreeing with the idea.” But then I learned that even that didn’t completely offset this pattern that you’re describing. So, for probably ten or fifteen years now, what I learned from this research is that the children should be taught first the norm. Let’s put it that way—the norm in the classroom should be that after someone puts an idea out, the next move for the next speaker is not to agree or disagree, but to either say what they think the person said or ask a question of clarification. And once that norm got put in place, things really changed.
So, you can see in the videos repeatedly the kids being reminded, like, “Okay, who wants to comment now on what Shauna said, remember, you’re not disagreeing or agreeing. You just all you can do is ask Shauna a question or you can try to say what you think she said.” That changed everything because it put, a like a put a buffer before you start to get that. Once that was clear what the person said and they get to say, “Yeah, you do understand that was what I said,” then there can be like, “Who wants to either disagree or agree with it?” but it becomes more, it becomes more of a rhythm of how you do that. Like if that happened in everyday life, we would all be very different right now. That isn’t really what happens. And this current time right now, which I probably we shouldn’t go down that, is really a clear example of how—and there’ve been many examples in the last few years of how really unprepared we are as citizens to do what you said you’re more interested in, which is at the level of just, maybe you could say more about what role you think public education might play in producing a society where the things that you’re interested in were more common. Like, do you have thoughts about that? Because I feel like that’s where our work could intersect.
Bowes: I absolutely think that education could be a fundamental way to, like you said, prepare people for these kinds of bigger topics that come up, you know, in adulthood or the things that are plaguing society. I think the earlier we can teach people how to interact with information, interact with their own beliefs, and interact with others, we’ll be in such a stronger position to have a less polarized and less, you know, divided society. And I think, you know, data shows we don’t do a great job of teaching critical thinking skills in in the classroom. We teach information really well. We teach like this is stuff you should know. We do that really well. But how do I know evidence is good? How do I know whether it’s strong or weak? What do I do when I turn out to be wrong? What do I do when someone challenges me? I think that’s where we can really prepare people for the future more effectively. And, you know, kids most of their lives, when you think about it, they’re spent in the classroom. They’re not spent at home. They’re spent in the classroom five days a week, all day. And it’s such an important period of time to start acquiring these skills.
And some of the things you said too, like, I think this is where psychologists can really come in and help. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but that like rephrasing technique, we teach that in clinical work all the time. That’s what we teach to patients. When people are getting into those intractable arguments, it’s that back and forth of—“You did this.” “No, you did that.” “No, you did this”—and one of the first interventions is actually saying, “Let’s not do that. Why don’t you just repeat what they said, tell them what you heard so that we all can make sure we have the same basis of understanding.” So yeah, psychologists and educators, the more we can work together, I think the more we can hopefully even prevent in a small but meaningful way, some of these big polarization sort of conflicts we see, just not normal interpersonal levels, but also like societally. Right?
Ball: Yeah, I mean, that’s very interesting. That could be a more explicit mandate for elementary or at any level, I just it happens that I work with very young children, and I do want to put out that. I think very young children can do this. I think, too, sometimes when we talk about talking about controversial or difficult topics, we automatically think high school or college, and college is an important space because that’s often for many young people the first time they’re really with people who identify very different from themselves, or at least for some groups of people that’s true, whereas public school is so segregated that that’s less true. The school I taught in happened to be extremely diverse. But when you have diversity, that is a place where they’re getting opportunities to interact across difference, which is part of what’s necessary for this, is learning to interact with people who do have different views than you. And I think I’m curious what how you see the role of standing up for yourself, and also being willing to revise your thinking, like some of it seems like those are—I just curious because you’ve been emphasizing a lot like being willing to admit you’re wrong or stepping back, but what’s the role of like what Shea did? Like sticking with this idea for a while, he wasn’t being stubborn, but he was trying to keep it alive longer while he—but then he accepted some of the things that were brought up about it. But like, what’s the role of like standing up for your idea? Like, what, do you have thoughts about that?
Bowes: Yeah, for sure. So, I think what people try to say, they try to draw a line in the sand, you know, with intellectual humility that it sits between stubbornness and gullibility. So, stubbornness is I’m never going to change my mind. I’m just right. But gullibility is also not really helpful where you’re so open you stand for nothing, or you have no ideas, or you let any kind of just sort of like blowing in the wind. No matter what anyone says, you’ll believe it. And intellectual humility ideally reflects: I’ll admit I’m wrong, but there needs to be evidence to do so. There needs to be information out there to, you know, compel me to change my mind. And I think, you know, in your example that kind of played out. He came in and had an idea, stuck with it, but as the evidence accumulated, that’s when he said, “All right. Yeah, okay. I see what you’re saying. Maybe, maybe what I was saying doesn’t apply here,” but that evidence had to build up, so I think that’s a really important thing to emphasize, cause we don’t want to teach people you can’t have opinions. You can’t have strong opinions. Strong opinions are totally fine and often necessary, and you don’t want to just abandon them the second someone contradicts it. But we also need to teach, you know, if enough evidence accumulates or if really strong evidence comes out. That’s when you need to consider there’s limits to what you know. Maybe you’re not even totally wrong, but maybe parts of what you think are wrong. So it’s a balance. And that’s going to look different probably for each person. And also depending on the belief you’re talking about, right, like if it’s whether the Holocaust exists or not, that’s going to be different, then I don’t know, you know, even and odd numbers, right?
Ball: Yeah. Two thoughts are going through my mind. One is something I don’t know the answer to really is, um, whether it matters what kids practice on. In other words, if you develop this practice of these kind of orientations, probably all of it doesn’t have to be about controversial topics. Probably some of it should be, but I think the even and odd number isn’t a controversial topic exactly, but it just a mix of things. Like if we really want to study what helps kids develop, I wonder what the balance of that is and at what age.
The other thing I wanted to mention, which is a little bit different, is in some of the research my colleagues and I’ve been doing, we have learned to think about, we learned from a scholar named Lisbeth Lipari, who is a communication scholar, about the fundamental human practice of listening. And she argues that listening is actually the most important thing that human beings do. It’s more important than speaking. And I think some of what this story illustrates also is that children are learning to actually, what you said, the clinical psychologist teach about hearing other people, and this is more detail that we need, but the difference between listening and hearing people disagree about which way to use those words. But I’m wondering a bit about the role of, um, the role of listening in all the things we’re talking about, both in your work and in what I’m describing, because listening maybe gets backgrounded too much. And some of this requires listening.
Bowes: Yes. And there’s some great work coming out on listening. It’s still preliminary, but compelling, where people are showing that, um, you know, listening makes people have more empathy, makes people feel more validated, makes people feel more responsive. Listening is just a cornerstone to any kind of interpersonal interaction. And, you know, when you’re not being listened to and there’s serious damage that happens when we’re not listened to. So I think that’s going to be another skill that we teach, and just returning to a point you made earlier that I want to emphasize: young kids can do this stuff. I think they’re so underestimated and I am really guilty of that myself. I was never really like a kid person. I didn’t interact with them much, didn’t find them to be all that interesting, honestly, right. And then I worked with them clinically, young kiddos, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, they have so many ideas and thoughts and feelings and beliefs.” And I learned things from the little kids that I was working with. They were thinking about global warming. They’re thinking about relationships, they’re thinking about parenting. They’re thinking about all of this stuff. And I think it’s easy to underestimate them. And I am guilty of that. And I think we need to take a step back and think about how young can we go, because we probably can go younger than we think.
Ball: Yeah, I think that’s a really, really important point. Um, and I agree with you completely. If you really listen to children, you see that they’re developing a ton of ideas and explanations for all kinds of things, but often nobody’s listening to them or even asking what they think. And the experience they get of listening in school is mostly like, um, I would call it like a, a cultural, a cultural view of what listening is supposed to look like. It’s pretty middle class and white. And, like, you don’t interrupt when you’re listening. You know that that’s actually not true in all culture, some of the ways of listening are much more overlapped. So, it’s kind of constraining when you tell kids they have to speak. And that’s something to think about is like who’s whose view of listening are we promoting? But also listening in school is not only mostly that, but it’s also about being polite and being good. It’s not actually about actively listening to other people. In fact, in school, I would say typically most children learn the time to listen is when the teacher’s speaking, not when your classmates are speaking, and it takes some real work for them to learn, like, in this classroom what’s going to matter is hearing what your classmates think because they have ideas. That’s where you’re going to learn a lot. That’s certainly when the teacher talks that might be important too, but listening to each other. So sometimes a lot of work at the beginning of just saying, “Did you hear what Shauna just said?” Even if they’re not in the conversation, just so they begin orienting. We call that orienting them to one another because they’re really oriented toward the teacher, and they know that they’re supposed to, they can get called out for not listening to the teacher, but that’s what listening means. It’s like being good. This kind of listening you and I are talking about is actually relational and respectful and and about seeing another human as a person who has ideas and then beginning to think, how do you connect about those ideas? I think that may be a really important thing that’s right in front of us in school that we could be already like thinking about—to your point about how fundamental that is.
Bowes: And I think it’s something that we can be more explicit about even and, and provide examples of different types of listening, because I think, you know, we probably all can relate to this, and all have been guilty of it. You can listen really deeply, but the intent is like, I’m ready. I’m going to come back at you, like I’m listening really deep so that I can build my arsenal up and just come back at you really hard.
I don’t think that’s what an intellectually humble person does. An intellectually humble person is going to listen deeply. Maybe they’re building up their arsenal. Sure. Like we can’t always, like, turn that off. But as they’re building up their arsenal, I think they’re also really trying to hear, like, are there grains of truth in what this person is saying? So even if I’m not changing my mind, even if I am going to maybe come back at this person in some way, like I’m still trying to hear if there’s truth being spoken. You know, it’s I’m not just listening deeply to get back in the fight.
Ball: So I have a question for you. So I said earlier, like one of the things about math is that mostly it gets represented as an experienced as like right or wrong, so that’s very binary. But in general, there’s kind of a tendency culturally among some groups, and there are lots of names that are given to this about seeing things always in binary terms. Um, I’m wondering about how questions of seeing nuance, um, show up in your work.
Bowes: It’s something that’s been really understudied, I think, because I think there’s so many assumptions we make about accuracy and evidence that that kind of gets built into our research where we are studying, like, are people getting things right or are they not getting them right? I think what’s interesting is in some recent work that I’ve done that’s, um, unpublished the people who are most intellectually humble provided kind of a moderate amount of pros and cons for a political issue, and they thought they were complicated. Other groups of people who were less intellectually humble didn’t care. They don’t really reason about the political argument. And another group provides so many opinions on a political argument, so I know that’s not directly answering your question, but I think it kind of speaks to this idea of like, there’s middle ground, there’s nuance, and I think something I’m interested in, others are getting interested in to is intellectually humble people might say, “I don’t know” more often than “I disagree” or “That’s wrong’ or “That’s right.” But like, “I actually don’t know” It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It means they genuinely don’t know. And we need to get a better handle on those reasoning nuances. But instead of just that binary of like, did they get it right or wrong?
Ball: That’s really interesting. I noticed recently in a group of students I was working with that on some kinds of questions that were complicated mathematically, they would choose to write “IDK,” which means I don’t know about things that it’s not important to give an example right now—they were quite legitimate to not have made up their mind about it. Um, and it was, you know, ideas about infinity, which you mentioned earlier, or some things other kinds of things, or a prediction about something, they just didn’t know yet. And I think often they would be get pushed to say like, write down what you think. But what they thought was, “I don’t yet know.” And that that ought to be validated as something, um, depending on the context, of course, but that should be a valid kind of position to be taking.
I am curious about what you said about the, the strength of people’s sort of ability to hear other points of view, whether that you’ve been referring to political views. I’m just thinking about a lot of the things that we’ve seen in our, you know, in the last few years here. Um, are there times when this whole idea of intellectual humility, it’s not even quite the right label? Like are some of the things you’re seeing about humility and willingness to to encounter ideas that are different are some of them not intellectual, but they are somewhat. Does that term always work? I don’t know if that question makes sense.
Bowes: It does make sense, I think I think it’s going to apply in the spirit of humility—not always, but maybe almost always. But it is limited. Or it’s specific to how I’m relating to my own ideas and beliefs. right? Intellectual humility is about I might be wrong, you might know more than me, and I can be open and respectful, but there’s so much more that goes into an interpersonal dynamic than that. There’s just, you know, your general ability to be modest. There’s open mindedness. There’s like emotional tolerance, there’s empathy. So, I think there’s so much that’s going to go into, you know, the pot that makes an interaction effective or goes into depolarization. But I would argue that intellectual humility is a key component of that, because maybe I’m really empathic, maybe I can tolerate disagreement emotionally, but if I have the zero ability to recognize that the way I see the world might be limited, where do we kind of go from there?
Ball: Are you finding that some of the things you’re describing—I mean, I’m guessing they would be, but it’s not my field—are highly gendered and racialized, like, are some people, um, sort of more uncertain about their status and their capability, so they’re more able, they’re more they’re more likely to sort of say, “I don’t know, or I could be wrong.” And some people of very high status or dominant identities are very likely to be extremely, like, dominant about what they say. And less likely to be…how is this related to identity?
Bowes: I think that’s a great question. And one I, I’m almost certain that there’s like essentially zero work around this intellectually ability has been studied really as an individual differences variable meaning like you score high or low on this. And what does that mean? What does that predict? And that’s the the tradition I’m rooted in. And that’s what I was trained in. This is individual differences perspective. But as I move more to social psychology and social psychology training, it’s so apparent this is going to also interact, you know, with multiple different processes and manifest at different levels. And I’ve thought about this a lot in academia. What we reinforce and what we value or different groups of people. Would it be more costly for a woman to go up and say, “I don’t know” in a job talk than for a man to go up and say, “I don’t know” in a job talk. So I think these social processes are are going to make a difference. I think identities will make a difference. And that’s going to play out really a lot in education context, because what we reinforce so much early education throughout is confidence and certainty and I’m right and I am the holder of the truth. If that’s what we’re reinforcing, how is that going to, you know, affect cultural intellectual humility and intersect with diversity?
Ball: Yeah, that’s really, really interesting because I have seen that phenomenon when, like, graduate students go on job talks, and a woman says, “This is something in my research that I’m, you know, not sure quite how to handle.” I’ve watched that sometimes men will just step in and tell the person what they should do when that person is legitimately saying, “This is not known.” Not “I need your help with it.” Um, and I think this is an issue for education then, because that goes back to what I was saying about how teachers choose who they’re kind of lifting up as having contributed. You can intervene on those kind of hierarchies that persist. So I think that what the kinds of things you’re talking about, if we see education as playing a role that teaches attention to those larger societal narratives and positionings will be important to try to manipulate in the sense by how one is, how one is positioning which students in a class because although they’re individuals, they’re also situated in larger social and political and historical narratives and storylines.
Bowes: For sure. And the way we teach intellectual humility, it’s probably not going to be a one size fits all approach, because I also don’t want people to leave this conversation or hear this conversation and think, okay, well, intellectual humility means saying, I don’t know, like and we just need to say, I don’t know. That’s intellectual humility. It’s not. It’s a piece of it. It’s definitely a piece of it. But for some people we might actually need to teach more confidence to be intellectually humble because it’s not I stand for nothing. I don’t know anything but like, hey, I have a belief. And the way I interact with evidence informs whether I keep that belief or not. So, for some people, we might actually need to teach. What does it look like? What do you need to be confident in this belief? What does evidence look like for you to be more sure of yourself in the belief that you hold? How do you see that playing out?
Ball: Yeah, I think that’s a really important idea. And I do want to also, I think that you’re completely right to be cautious, that we don’t want people to take that away from this conversation. And the other is that it’s not just individual, like your earlier question about the norms of a classroom and how a classroom gets formed. So, for the education part of this, part of what teachers can do is create spaces where there are different kinds of norms and people are actually playing roles and like kids are learning about each other and about other identities in school. And if we’re inattentive to that, those same identities and same kinds of positions and roles get reinforced. But schooling is also a place where you can disrupt those. And so that’s another big responsibility, is the collective space that schooling represents that is different than individual people. It’s both, right, it’s a both/and kind of space.
Bowes: So absolutely.
Ball: This is really interesting. I’m really happy to have gotten to know more about your work.
Bowes: I really enjoyed learning from you and talking with you today. I feel like in the spirit of intellectual humility, I feel like there’s a lot I’ve taken away from this conversation, want to consider and continue updating on, especially this idea of culture and diversity, and how that’s intersecting with intellectual humility, and how the educational system, even more broadly, might reinforce or punish intellectual humility, and perhaps even how psychology and educators can come together more effectively and more often so that the burden of responsibility isn’t on overburdened teachers.
Ball: Yeah, I likewise really, really enjoyed learning about this and appreciate a lot being reminded of and maybe adding to my sense that public education at a very young children has a role to play in the political and social environment we’re creating, or trying to create. And psychology and education has a long history of working together, but not about things like this as much as at least not that I’m aware of. And I think this is extremely exciting. And there are many places that this could go, and there should be more opportunities to think about that. Like, I didn’t know about some of the things you told me. And I definitely want to follow up with you because I think they’re highly relevant and they cut across the fields that we’re in. So, thank you so much for this. It was really, really interesting to talk to you today.
Ivry: That was Shauna Bose and Deborah Loewenberg Ball speaking with one another about the possibilities for intellectual humility in the classroom. We’ve got other equally riveting conversations about intellectual humility, what it is, and how it might be applied on our website: daily dot JSTOR dot org. We’ve also got a reading list about intellectual humility. We hope you’ll check it all out and share it. I’m Sara Ivry, the features editor at JSTOR Daily. This conversation was produced by Julie Subrin with help from JSTOR Daily’s Cathy Halley, and from me.
Funding for this project was provided by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as part of its “Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility” initiative, which is supported by the John Templeton Foundation. Thank you so much for listening.