The power and the pain of intuition

It's a useful tool, but this `second sight' can blind you to the perspectives of others
27th March 2015, 12:00am


The power and the pain of intuition

Intuition provides teachers with a second sight that can appear almost magical to the uninitiated. Place an experienced teacher at the front of any class and by the end of the lesson they will have subconsciously summed up each of the students.

This capacity allows them to pre-empt bad behaviour, push the correct motivational buttons and manage the momentum of learning in a way that a new teacher can only marvel at. But how does intuition develop and manifest itself as a teacher climbs the ladder of school leadership?

Intuition can also be described as "compressed experience". In other words, the experienced teacher has access to a vast reservoir of dj vu - they actually have been there before, which enables them to make judgements that are almost subconscious. If you ask a teacher why they have taken a particular course of action, they often simply say that it "felt right".

The same should go for school leaders. Not only do they have experiences from their journey to the top to draw on but they have also watched other senior colleagues make decisions in similar situations.

Find the right speed

In the majority of circumstances, this kind of intuition allows leaders to make accurate judgements and decide on related actions without spending an inordinate amount of time gathering the information necessary to reach a conclusion. It enables assertive, quick-response leadership.

Incidentally, this is why leaders with more classroom experience tend to be perceived as being better at their jobs. The majority of a headteachers' decisions are about teaching and learning, so those with limited classroom experience may be slower to react to situations. They have to gather an enormous amount of information before making any decision and their credibility can be undermined by that delay.

Conversely, an experienced school leader who has come through the system is often able to make a swift judgement call based on intuition.

But the power of intuition is a double-edged sword. The reality is that we are all simultaneously beneficiaries and victims of our experience. The sheer power of our compressed experience has the potential to blind us from looking at a situation from alternative perspectives.

Let us return to the teacher example. As has already been suggested, experienced teachers can make very quick - and often accurate - judgements about the children in front of them. But think back to when you were a child and your teacher made a completely erroneous judgement about who you were as a learner. Remember how unfair it felt to be misjudged so badly?

This trap awaits any headteacher who begins to believe in their own infallibility and capacity to make instant judgements based on their experience. For example, if a teacher's practice doesn't conform to the model that their school leader subscribes to, it is likely to be deemed inappropriate.

In this way, headteachers can become trapped in what might be described as "fast" thinking. Their intuition makes decisions for them, before they have a chance to step back and slow down their thinking to consider the matter from a variety of perspectives.

A perfect balance

This, then, is the real secret of the outstanding teacher and the outstanding school leader: they are aware of their own biases and mental models and are prepared to suspend them in order to allow people and ideas to flourish.

It's a difficult balance to strike: we don't want to slow our thinking down too much and we shouldn't ignore our intuition entirely. But we do need to make more considered choices. Without the capacity to see challenges from a range of perspectives, we will end up with very traditional, "linear" solutions to the problems we face, at the very time when we need to be coming up with diverse and creative solutions.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh

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