Science is not ‘organized common sense’; at its most exciting, it reformulates our view of the world by imposing powerful theories against the ancient, anthropocentric prejudices that we call intuition.
Stephen J. Gould

Being a teacher is a tough job. The quantity and the complexity of the decisions and responses we make in the course of a day is daunting. Useful as it would be to think deeply about and reflect thoroughly on each of these interactions, there isn’t time to stop and stare. In order to function we have to rely on our intuition. Most of what we do in the classroom we do because it ‘works’. How do we know it works? Because it feels right.

The trouble is, our intuitions may not be reliable. This doesn’t chime with what we intuitively believe about intuition. We tend to think that as we become more experience we acquire expertise: the more you teach, the better your intuitive judgements will be.

This is an attractive idea, but necessarily one rooted in reality. Experience doesn’t always result in expertise, but it does usually result in increased confidence. In some fields,the feedback we get doesn’t help us improve the quality of our judgements. Think about this example:

The physician in the emergency room must make speedy decisions and will not always receive adequate feedback. Indeed, the typical feedback he receives is short term: how the patient responds to his immediate actions. It is rare that the physician ever really finds out what happened to the patients he treated within a longer, and perhaps more relevant time frame. Some patients simply go home after treatment and never return to the hospital; others are cared for in different departments of the hospital, and so on.

Robin M. Hogarth (2003) Educating Intuition: A Challenge for the 21st Century

If emergency room physicians only get feedback on short-term effects, how will they know the effects of their decisions in the long term? And if they never find out about long term effects, how will they know if their decisions are good ones?

This example is analogous to teaching. There are some aspects of teaching where we get excellent feedback and some where the quality of our feedback is poor. We find out very quickly whether we’ve made good classroom management decisions – we get timely, high-stakes feedback from our students. Our intuition improves or we quit.

Gary Klein says in Sources of Power,”Intuition depends on the use of experience to recognize key patterns that indicate the dynamics of the situation.” But when it comes to the quality of our instruction, we’re like surgeons taking feedback from our ‘patients’ responses in the classroom. As I explain here, learning involves retention and transfer, it’s essentially flexible and durable – you can only ‘see’ it elsewhere and later. If you’re taking feedback from the here and now of classroom performance you won’t find out about the efficacy of your decisions in the long term.

It’s hard to see into the future, so we need to rethink how we think about the development of our intuitions. If we want teachers to become genuine experts we need to change the ways intuitions are acquired. Hogarth suggests 7 strategies to improve the conditions in which intuition is acquired and these seem worth us investigating:

1. Create the right environment

Teachers have relatively little autonomy – our lives are ruled by the tyranny of the bell and, increasingly, every aspect of our work is being controlled by misguided accountability measures. So, how can we create the right kind of environment for our intuition to improve? Firstly we need to shift our focus away from boosting in-lesson performance and find ways to capture the durability and flexibility of learning. Rethinking lessons so that we’re focussing on longer term teaching sequences rather than strings of stand-alone lessons will help, as will interleaving low-stakes assessments to test the skills and knowledge acquired in previous sequences.

But, probably the best bet is to work as closely as possible with more experienced, highly successful teachers. If we observe experts at work we pick up tacit information that might never be explicitly communicated. This is learning by apprenticeship. School leaders can help by giving up time and creating space to allow teachers to observe each other and, where possible, team teach.

2. Seek feedback 

If all we do is take feedback on whether our actions improve in-lesson performance, our intuitions about how best to help students retain and transfer what they’re learning is unlikely to improve.  The low-stakes assessments mentioned above will help, as could ‘intelligent sampling’ of students over the longer term: can we find ways to track retention and transfer next year and the year after that? If we can, we’ll get a much better idea of whether our teaching is genuinely effective.

3. Impose “circuit breakers”

Most of the decision we take are made before conscious thought. As soon as we achieve a measure of familiarity with teaching the curriculum we’re responsible for covering, we move steadily from the deliberate, conscious phase of practice to the automatic, unconscious phase. Thinking about all the decisions we make is exhausting and to make space in working memory to think about other things we’re driven to automatise as many rehearsed processes as possible. This results in us always doing what we’ve always done and our development soon plateaus.

To break the cycle of unconscious, automatic routines we need circuit breakers – things which snap us back to full consciousness. These might include notes in our planning, reminders to pause in our sight lines or engaging a colleague to ask us challenging questions about the choices we’ve made.

4. Acknowledge emotions

Our emotions provide us with important data. Generally, when we do what we’ve always done we’re happy. Having to think too much is hard work and feels unpleasant. If our teaching feels too comfortable it’s a signal that we’re dipping back into autopilot and a reminder that we need to think more about our circuit breakers.

Whilst our emotions can feel more like noise than signal, they’re very effective at telling us what we like. If what we like is at odds with research findings then we should acknowledge these feelings and try to prevent them from dominating our decision making.

5. Explore connections

We should always be on the lookout for similarities, analogous situations and anything which reminds us of other areas of our practice. When we conscious build on the similarities we spot we can explore why they’re similar and consider how we could make use of the information. There’s a tendency in education to look at research findings and say, “That won’t work with my students.” It might not, but this shouldn’t be our starting point. There are likely to many more similarities between contexts than differences and we should look for ways to exploit them.

6. Accept conflict in choice

Whenever we make a choice, we preclude other options, which results in opportunity cost. Our natural tendency is to make the choices which feel easiest and which provoke the minimum of discomfort. This can be problematic. It may be that struggling to make hard choices and acknowledging what we’re giving up will help us to make better decisions. When we plan a lesson using a favourite activity, what opportunities are we missing? Are we doing it just for convenience or because we happen to like it? Might there be a better way of communicating a challenging concept? When we plan a curriculum we must always acknowledge that time is finite – we won’t be able to cover everything. What trade-offs are we making? Are we really covering the most valuable, rich concepts and content?

Of course it won’t always be true that the easy choice is the wrong one but we need circuit breakers to help keep us conscious of the trades we’re making and to see that sometimes the difficult decisions result in the best outcomes.

7. Make scientific method intuitive

Acquiring genuine expertise through experience is hard, but we can learn a lot from the habits and practice of science.  We should take care to separate facts from conclusions, consider ways to generate new hypotheses, think carefully about how we test our intuitions, decide on conditions which we will accept as evidence of error in advance of acting and so on. If we put effort into learning how to think scientifically we can make it second nature, and if we get into the habit, eventually we’ll do it without conscious effort. In this way we can educate our intuition to work according to tried and tested principles of rational enquiry.

In summary, the natural conditions of teaching are unlikely to provide us with accurate feedback about how to improve learning. To improve our intuitive judgements we need to change the conditions of practice and train ourselves in the habits of mind which will help us acquire genuine expertise.