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Summer 2020

Teacher intuition illustration

Illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal

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A Teacher’s Intuition

Teachers rely on it, often dozens of times every day in their classrooms. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. It usually gets easier to trust with experience.

The class she taught in Larsen G08 had just ended, and Kitty Boles, Ed.D.’91, then a senior lecturer, was packing up her materials when a young man in his early 20s walked up to her and said he was preparing to be a physics teacher. The young man also told Boles that she had been his third-grade teacher in Brookline 15 years earlier and that he remembered, more than anything, something that had made a huge difference: her hugs.

Boles remembered the boy and how his family had just moved to the area from Iran. She remembered that he didn’t speak English and was scared to death. She also remembered hugging him.

“It was intuitive to me to hug him,” she says, “to make him feel safe and loved.” – Kitty Boles

Although Boles was herself a scared new teacher back then, she “sensed” what her student needed in that moment, not based on test scores or scientific data given to her from an administrator, but based on something teachers use every day, often hundreds of times a day: intuition.

Sometimes called a gut feeling or sixth sense, even a Spidey sense, intuition is the ability to read a situation and know something without proof or conscious reasoning. It’s the “subtle knowing,” writes Sophy Burnham in The Art of Intuition, “without ever having any idea why you know it.”

In many professions, especially those that require lightning-fast decision-making, like firefighting or medicine, the ability to tap into our intuitive sense is critical. In 2015, the U.S. Navy even started a program to look into how members of the military could improve their intuitive abilities during combat, following discussions with soldiers returning from deployment who said their gut feelings often alerted them to impending danger, even when reliable intel wasn’t available.

The teaching profession is no different. Although teachers don’t usually deal with dangerous or life-threatening situations, classrooms are complex and situations move quickly. As Anjali Nirmalan, Ed.M.’17, points out, “intuition is incredibly important for a teacher in a room full of other humans — in my case, over 30! — with a spectrum of their own needs.”

In fact, “A vital teacher skill is being able to ‘read the room’ and assess whether the mood of a class is sleepy, bored, fractious, or frustrated,” says Nirmalan, a high school English teacher at the American School Foundation of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and then respond in a way that feels right: turn on or off the lights, for example, or ask students to stretch for a few minutes.

For Edverette Brewster, Ed.M.’16, a former middle school teacher who says he relied on his intuition every day when he was teaching, reading the room started even before the lesson began.

“For many of my students, I could tell whether they would have a good day based on how they entered the classroom,” says Brewster, now a principal at Holmes Innovation, an elementary school in Boston. “It was then my job to check in with them, find a way to connect, and ensure that they were prepared to learn. If that meant a student was hungry, I would find a snack. For many of my boys, it meant giving me a number, 1–10, to indicate how they felt, then strategizing on how we could end the day higher. Intuition is what made me effective.”

It sometimes also means a change in plans.

Zachary Lindemann, Ed.M.’11, teaches AP biology at Wimberley High School in Wimberley, Texas. When the coronavirus crisis sent students and teachers home, he, like other educators, had to quickly pivot and rethink how to move learning forward with little tangible guidance. Relying on his intuition has proved vital, he says.

“I’ve absolutely had to change how I do things with the online learning gig and definitely feel like I am ‘building the plane as I fly it’ sometimes!” he says. “My initial plan was to have live online classes each morning where either my A day or B day kids would join a Google Hangout organized by me, where I would present a lecture using the share screen function and be able to engage in discussion and questions together, which hypothetically would be easy because we would all be on a video chat.”

In reality, his Internet couldn’t keep up, and he ran into myriad technical problems. He also found that many students were too nervous or unwilling to ask questions in a big online group. He sensed they might, instead, respond better to recorded lectures, paired with live Q&A sessions.

“I’ve also had to use my intuition to figure out the biggest bang for the buck in terms of content to teach for the rest of the year, and how to conduct AP exam review,” he says. “It’s simply not feasible to do every single thing I had planned in the original way I wanted to do it.”

Albert Einstein once noted that “intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience,” and most educators would probably agree that making these kinds of calls, and trusting intuition, changes with experience.

“While some may translate intuition as ‘gut instinct,’ I believe much of our intuition is developed through experience and is activated by unconsciously picking up on minute social cues,” Nirmalan says. “From the tone of a student’s voice to the way they are sitting in their chair to the direction of their eye line, I can ‘read’ everything from how their day is going to their current engagement or comprehension.” For example, after 11 years in the classroom, she says, “I can tell from the tilt of a student’s head whether they secretly have AirPods in their ears under their long hair.”

With learning now happening online, Nirmalan says all of the teacher intuition instincts she’s built up over the years have proved essential.

“There are fewer clues to pick up on through screen-only or text interaction with my students,” she says, “and yet it is more important than ever that we are conscious of our students’ socioemotional states during the anxiety of the pandemic.”illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

She’s doing this by focusing not just on her lessons, but on factors like participation and mood.

“I try to pay attention to everything from the students’ enthusiasm or reluctance to be on video or audio, how much they participate in a weekly Zoom class, whether they prefer the text chat or the ‘raise hand’ function to contribute an idea, which breakout rooms of which group combinations produce the most thoughtful work, how quickly they respond in Google Chat, and what time they send me emails,” she says. “With my current classes, it helps that I had already taught them for six months before we went online, so I am already very aware and attuned to their quirks, personalities, preferences, and home life.” It might not be as easy if classes continue online in the fall, she says, and she has to start with a new group of students she has never taught.

And science backs this up. Intuition isn’t just a feeling or something magical that just pops into your head, it’s actually our brains quickly processing information subconsciously and comparing what’s currently happening with stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and then predicting what will come next. And this all happens within seconds.

A study by psychologist Gary Klein, for example, found that firefighters can make super-fast intuitive decisions about how a fire might spread through a building because they can access memories of similar experiences and run mental simulations of potential outcomes.

Since becoming a teacher, Nirmalan has had to break up a physical altercation four times, including one that left a student hospitalized. By the third time, during her fifth year teaching, she reacted and intervened much faster than she had during previous fights.

“Within seconds,” she says, “entirely because of my own intuition picking up on a change in the room’s mood. While no educator wants to experience such events, they taught me to subconsciously recognize and react to the subtle tells of a previolent encounter: raised voices, angry tones, sharp movement, and other students crowding. While teenagers may argue and playfight frequently — and it is difficult for adults to tell how much is aggressive or not — there is a slight and significant difference to the tones and movements of a situation that is about to turn violent. One reason why I believe that I have not had to break up a fight in my classroom in the last six years is because I will intuitively pick up on and pivot towards a potential situation in order to de-escalate it.”

Knowing how to do this isn’t easy at first and requires a new teacher to build up his or her confidence, says Casey (Green) Nelson, Ed.M.’14.

“The first few years of teaching are incredibly challenging, and you feel like you have to have every minute planned and you are not able to deviate from those plans,” she says. “I did not trust my intuition because I had no data to back up what I was feeling. I was nervous every single day. But as you build experience, and confidence, you begin to sense when you need to alter course, sometimes mid-lesson, and sometimes completely unplanned.”

Reaching out to more experienced teachers helps, too, says Kenton Shimozaki, who is currently teaching seventh-grade world studies at a charter school in Denver through the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. It’s his first year in the classroom.

“As the year progresses, I sense that my teacher instincts are sharper. I feel more confident clarifying misconceptions in the lesson, defusing conflict between students, and recognizing what each student needs to be successful,” he says. “But there is a significant degree of doubt that comes with being a first-year teacher in a new school, so I find that it is important for me to check my instincts with veteran teachers. As often as my colleagues confirm my gut instincts, they also offer suggestions about how I could have better responded to a tough situation in class and how I can improve my practice going forward.”

Brewster says he also started trusting his intuition more once he had a sample of ideas under his belt and proof that those ideas might work.

“My second year teaching, I posed a question to the class: I know that we’re not going to have a difficult time being positive in room 230, right?’” he says. “Most sixth-graders responded, ‘No!’ with joy. However, Daniel, with a straight face, said, ‘Yes.’”

Based on experiences during his first year, Brewster says he knew what Daniel needed: special attention. “So I took an interest in Daniel. I made it my point to learn more about him, to connect with his family, and highlight any positive achievement he made. Daniel moved after his eighth-grade year, and we stayed in contact. May of last year, he graduated high school in Jacksonville, Florida. I was in attendance and was one of the last people he spoke to before he was recently deployed in the Navy.”

Lecturer Rhonda Bondie, director of professional learning, says that this kind of empathy for learners often comes with experience.

“Some of my intuition comes from the experience of being empathetic, so now I can look at a lesson plan and have a sense of how students might feel traveling through the learning,” she says. “When teachers are new, just writing a lesson plan is challenging, so there is little time to feel the lesson from the student experience. As teachers become more experienced, I think we think about what we are going to do in a lesson and how learners might be feeling more in concert. This type of coordinated perspective taking and thinking about learning is teacher intuition.”

Sometimes, however, trusting your gut as a teacher doesn’t always work — or not in the same way it had in the past. When Boles was teaching in Brookline, a child from a poorer family was reading two years below grade level. Again, she did what felt right. “I nurtured him, and I loved him,” she says. This had worked beautifully with other students, including the one from Iran. But in this situation, Boles says she also didn’t do something: “I didn’t push him. My intuition was to be nice to this student, to hug him. Would I have been better to push him harder or was it better to follow my intuition and hug him?”

Nirmalan says she has also made mistakes.

“There are times that I thought a student who had made a hurtful remark to another student needed a sharp rebuke, and when they either burst into tears or responded aggressively, I realized that I had unintentionally worsened or escalated the situation,” she says. “As an early-career teacher, I sometimes delivered public criticism to a student; as a more experienced teacher, I am more likely to have that conversation with a student privately in order to avoid shame or escalation. In all these cases, I file away those experiences so I can remember to act different next time.”

Bondie says the need to act quickly as a teacher often plays a role in what they do — or don’t do.

“Unfortunately, most decisions we make as teachers use what [psychologist] Daniel Kahneman would characterize as fast thinking: decisions made fast, automatic, unconscious, and prone to error and bias,” she says.

“Our decisions often live in our muscle memory, instead of being deliberate responses carefully considered by being present in the moment because teachers are making many decisions every minute of their day.” – Daniel Kahneman

As a result, a teacher’s fast, intuitive response sometimes make things messier, as John Tournas, a current fellow in the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program, discovered one day this past year when he was teaching sixth-graders, alone, at the Bronx Community Charter School.

“Students were not listening to me, and so in the moment I decided to yell really loud to get their attention,” he says. “Rather than listening to me, the class erupted in chaos, students running around, yelling, standing on chairs.” He was at a loss for what to do. “Because we have to make 1 million decisions every minute, sometimes I feel like all I have is my intuition.”

But what if teachers had more? In Somerville, a company incubated at the Harvard iLab called BrainCo, USA, recently rolled out a wireless headband that uses EEG technology to quantify when students are engaged, something critical for learning. As a 2013 Gallup study showed, a 1% increase in student engagement can lead to a 6% improvement in reading scores and 8% in math scores.

Unfortunately, gauging engagement in a tangible way isn’t easy to do.

Instead, says, Max Newlon, Ed.M.’16, BrainCo’s president, “teachers often use intuition to understand student engagement,” and usually base this on what they see: eye contact or body behavior. The student looking right at the teacher is assumed to be fully invested in the lesson while the student drawing on their arm is not.

As Nirmalan says, “teachers observe, or try to observe, and take in data on everything from eye contact, posture, work on the paper or laptop, doodling, and tone of voice to read the student’s engagement and comprehension. At the same time, people are complex and just because our hunches are sometimes proven right does not mean we can always assume, for example, that the student who is doodling is disengaged, or that the student making eye contact has a thorough understanding of the directions.”

But what if we could end the guessing when it comes to engagement, Newlon asks? “What would it be like if we could quantify this important state of mind?”

In a class where students are wearing the BrainCo headbands, teachers can do just that. Similar to a Fitbit, but for the head, not the wrist, the headband evaluates what’s going on in the brain, and then sends information to the teacher’s computer. The teacher can see engagement, in real time. For example, during a long discussion about polynomials, the teacher can glance at her screen and see that students one and two are engaged, but students three through 10 aren’t. The teacher can adjust her teaching, in the moment, maybe moving from passive lecturing to a hands-on activity. She can also review the data after class and evaluate where the peaks and lows were.

“With our technology, teachers can see for them-selves that certain methods are literally more engaging from a neuroscientific point of view,” Newlon says. “It validates their strategies and builds confidence that they are in fact more effective for increasing engagement.”

Gaining a better understanding of the science behind learning has certainly helped Bondie.“Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

I root all of my ‘go-to’ learning routines in cognitive and motivation sciences and culturally relevant pedagogy,” she says. “Teachers can look to what we know about working memory, elaboration, retrieval, and metacognition to guide decisions. For example, we know that about four bits of information is enough for our working memory, so it makes sense to move to an activity where students can elaborate and make meaning of the information rather than continuing when the students’ working memory is on overload. Teachers should continually pursue an understanding of the science of learning. This will support better decision-making.”

Even without technology or a deep understanding of science, there are ways for teachers to pair intuition with something else when making decisions in the classroom, says Barney Brawer, a former teacher and principal who codirected the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, Boys’ Development, and the Culture of Manhood.

In a course that Brawer taught for many years at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, he helped teachers really think through actions they had taken in the past with students and then understand how intuition can be the source of their “best and worst moves.” Too often, he says, “we try a little of this, a little of that.” With a disruptive student, for example, we move the student’s desk. (It worked for other students!) We call a parent. We yell — sometimes really loud. We give a hug. “We use our instincts and we improvise. We see how it goes. … Our hearts are in the right place. We do our best. If we’ve tried something before and it worked, we try it again. If it bombed, we avoid it the next time. Trial and error.”

But is trial and error really the way to go, he says? “You wouldn’t want to be a patient in a hospital whose methods relied so heavily on intuition or trial and error. ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure. I just feel like it’s time to take out her gallbladder.’”

There’s not doubt that intuition is important, he says, but what if teachers also had proven techniques they could pull out when making decisions — like doctors and nurses have — in addition to gut feelings? Techniques like setting clear goals (what do you want to have happen here?) and examining existing data (what do we already know?).

Finding distance when acting or reacting in class is another technique, Brawer says, because teaching is very personal. “Our spontaneous reactions come from deep within us. They arise from the personal history we bring to the situation.”

Nelson says she definitely has taken things personally as a teacher and reacted in response.

“There have been many times where my intuition is telling me that a student is angry or frustrated with me, when in reality their energy or emotional state has nothing to do with me at all,” she says. “Sometimes it’s drama with their friends, tough circumstances at home, lack of sleep, a difficult test; it could be anything.” Now, after teaching at Charlestown High School for nearly six years, instead of reacting in the moment, she’ll have a quiet conversation with the student or ask in a note if they want to talk.

Having data on the student helps, too, she says. Before going virtual, she had a student who was very quiet, sometimes had their head down, and of-ten left work incomplete. Intuition told her the student wasn’t understanding the material. However, looking at assessment data, she realized the student was understanding the majority of what she was teaching. The issue was actually motivation.

“Every interaction we have with a student is a piece of data that builds and adds to our expertise, which ultimately becomes our intuition,” she says. “Both are essential to rely on to be an effective teacher. Intuition helps us identify an area that needs our attention, and concrete data helps us determine a course of action to improve a situation.”

These days, with little data to guide teachers in how to wrap up an academic year during a pandemic, Lindemann says his intuition is being tested.

“There’s no ‘perfect’ way to finish up this school year,” he says. “While I’m preparing physical packets for my students without Internet access, they simply pale in comparison to what I’m doing online. And online teaching, in my opinion, pales in comparison to being face-to-face with my students. I usually am far more able to gather formative data on how lessons are going, and how my students are doing emotionally, but it’s been way more difficult online. My intuition is not quite as sharp and my effectiveness as a teacher is now diminished. I miss my students!”