Intellectual Openness – A Key Cognitive Strategy For College Readiness

In a report prepared for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2007, David T. Conley proposed four components of college readiness. In the first – Key Cognitive Strategies – Conley identifies six strategies: Intellectual Openness, Inquisitiveness, Analysis, Reasoning-Argumentation-Proof, Interpretation, Precision and Accuracy, and Problem Solving. In this article, I will examine the first of these strategies – Intellectual Openness – and articulate my perspective as both a college professor and a high school administrator in terms and ideas students, parents, and teachers can understand and implement.

Key Cognitive Strategies: Intellectual Openness. Conley states:

“The student possesses curiosity and a thirst for deeper understanding, questions the views of others when those views are not logically supported, accepts constructive criticism, and changes personal views if warranted by the evidence. Such open-mindedness helps students understand the ways in which knowledge is constructed, broadens personal perspectives and helps students deal with the novelty and ambiguity often encountered in the study of new subjects and new materials.”

I find it intriguing that Conley would place Key Cognitive Strategies the first component on his list and even more intriguing that he put Intellectual Openness at the top of this component. No doubt characteristics such as “curiosity,” “thirst for deeper understanding,” and “open-mindedness” would serve a college student well. However, are such characteristics developed or even addressed in conventional secondary education? I don’t think so… which is why I suspect we see Intellectual Openness up front.

Conventional secondary education – I use the term conventional to describe public and private school programs that use the conventional class period, the conventional exposure paradigm of X-number of hours or minutes dedicated to a particular slice of the subject matter, and the conventional measurement that education is defined by the amount of time the student sits in a seat in a class and the number of days the student attends. Conventional secondary education generally does not have the time or even the patience to allow “curiosity,” “thirst for deeper understanding,” or “open-mindedness” except in very rare situations.

Is it that the students do not possess “curiosity,” “thirst for deeper understanding,” or “open-mindedness?” The simple answer is “NO.” Because conventional school is by and large… boring…, these characteristics go into “Neutral” during the school day. The brain ruminates in the background – thinking about Face Book, World of Warcraft, and the current Twilight saga.

Curiosity – these young people are naturally curious. They manage to surf the net, navigate Face Book, and destroy worlds and civilizations with a series of mouse clicks… and learned to do so without a class, a manual, or a teacher talking at them for 45 minutes.

Thirst for deeper understanding – these young people are constantly thirsting, starving, and ravenously pursuing deeper understanding… just not in school. Contemporary literature like the Harry Potter series and the Twilight series did not become best sellers because they had pretty pictures. Young people dive, dig, and plow into these books without adult inducement, and may even have to fight to continue to read them.

Open-mindedness – these young people pick up new, and sometimes disturbing, ideas all the time. I call these “underground” ideas because these ideas are not in the curriculum and often come from the media and the internet. These ideas remain “underground” because they are suppressed in the conventional environment. Indeed, open-mindedness is often punished. Take, for example, the issue of religion and public schools. Our students are not allowed to be open-minded about religion in public school. I am not advocating that we hold sermons in first period, but how can there be “open-mindedness” when the entire concept of existence of religion in society and influence of religion as historical, cultural, and societal phenomenon is categorically removed from the public educational experience. Where’s the open-mindedness? Not very open.

The conventional school system produces a product that 60% of those who actually graduated from high school and were actually admitted and enrolled at four-year institutions, didn’t finish in four years. The figures get worse for two-year institutions. If 60% of automobiles, refrigerators, and washing machines didn’t last four years, what would we think?

The solution does not lie with conventional institutions, and even if it did, your 9th grader will be in his or her 30’s before any significant movement will occur (sound cynical?). Furthermore, most conventional schools are not in the college preparation business; they are in the high school business.

The solution lies with parents and what they want for their children. They have to think outside the conventional school “box” and seek independent solutions for their children. Parents, not the schools, are ultimately responsible for their children and the opportunities afforded them.

Conley, D. T. (2007). Redefining College Readiness. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.

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