Understanding the Role of Intuition in Teaching

What is intuition? It’s one of those terms that is hard to get a handle on. And yet teachers rely on their intuition every day. A situation unfolds in class: some kid in the back moves restlessly and takes an iPod out of his back pack. Those sitting nearby look at what he’s doing. A couple of them start whispering as he continues to fuss with his iPod. Some students in the next row glance backward. The teacher continues to present information. She pauses to ask a question, and all the while she’s sees what’s happening in the back of the room. She rightly assumes that she’s lost the attention of students back there. She opts for an abrupt break in the instructional action. She stops talking, turns to the board and, without speaking, writes a question there. Then she faces the class. “Stand up. Everybody stand up.” Students shuffle to their feet. “Now look at this question. Spend the next couple of minutes talking with the people around you. In two minutes I want answers and examples.”

She had planned to ask this question: but not in this way. It wasn’t part of the day’s script, but something told her that students needed to do something different, and from her repertoire of instructional strategies she summoned this one.

The anecdote illustrates many of the features inherent in formal definitions of intuition. In the educational context intuition might be described this way: “a process in which instructors efficiently code, sort and access experientially conceived mental models for use in making instructional decisions. Put another way, instructors have cognitive schemas or mental models born of experience that they can overlay on particular instructional problems to detect a timely solution.” (p. 172)

One of the features of intuition, as it operates in the classroom and elsewhere, is the easy and effortlessness way in which faculty implement solutions to problems that present themselves on the spot. It’s one of the reasons intuition is frequently described as a “mystical sixth sense or paranormal power.” (p.172) In reality, intuition is born of experience. After years of doing something, “a skilled craftsman develops a wealth of readily available expertise so entrenched that it tends to be taken for granted…” (p. 172)

Even though teachers are regularly called upon to use their intuition, the knowledge it embodies is rarely articulated, and as a result even very skilled teachers are often at a loss to explain what they are doing and why. The fact that academic cultures prize reason and rationality compromises the perceived value of intuition even further. If knowledge cannot be explicated, does it in fact exist?

But intuition does exist. In fact, authors of the article cited below identify a set of factors that reliably predict when an instructor is most likely to call on intuitive knowledge. For example, intuition is summoned in those situations when explicit guidelines are missing. Most teachers follow rules that prescribe actions for instances of cheating. But what about when a student is unexpectedly hostile or a class makes accusations? Here teachers craft a response at the moment. Likewise, intuition is called upon in those situations without precedents for action—as when something totally unexpected happens in a class. Most teachers do not abruptly end the class and head to the library to search for solutions others have used in similar situations.

Teachers also rely on intuitive knowledge when time is of the essence. The example here relates to how experienced faculty make course planning decisions much more quickly and easily than new teachers do. Faculty are stretched so thin nowadays that time is always of the essence, leaving faculty little time for reflection and much motivation to go with their gut. And, finally, experienced teachers use intuition when a rational analysis needs to be checked. “Do those ratings make sense? Do they confirm my sense about how this class went?”

Intuitive knowledge is complex. It should not be taken for granted or otherwise discounted. In fact, teachers should devote more time and energy to understanding and improving this knowledge base. All teachers learn from experience, but that doesn’t guarantee that what they’ve learned is correct. To learn more about that intuitive knowledge, these authors suggest that instructors need to become more reflective and more aware of their responses, especially those responses not particularly effective. Then they need to talk with colleagues, finding out how others respond to a particular kind of situation. And sometimes busy instructors just need to be still. They need to stop those busy minds that would like to force intuition into the rational mold. “Quiet contemplation rather than intense concentration may be more likely to yield up a novel solution to an instructional dilemma.” (p. 176)

Reference: Burke, L. A., and Sadler-Smith, E. (2006). Instructor intuition in the educational setting. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5 (2), 169-181.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 20.10 (2006): 6.