Trust Your “Primary Wisdom”

What role can and should intuition play in a teacher’s decision-making process? Since first hearing the phrase “data-driven instruction,” I feel like the importance and credibility of teacher instincts have been downplayed and denigrated. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that intuition is the “primary wisdom,” and I tend to agree. I have quite a few years of teaching experience to draw upon, so when my gut tells me something is the right way or the wrong way to proceed, I feel that impulse with a pretty high level of confidence. Most of the time, I’m able to articulate a rationale for why my instincts are good, but I never have much empirical data to go along with that rationale.

So what role does “data” play in my decision-making? Well, how do we define data? If we’re talking about statistical reports based on conflicting research projects, I don’t find that very helpful. Far too often I’ve seen researchers generate conflicting data. Far too many times I’ve seen objective data cherry picked and used subjectively by leaders who are bent on imposing a specific philosophy or agenda. I can’t count how many times data has been presented to me as gospel when it was generated in very different contexts from my own.

Data based on traditional research models has never been very helpful to me in solving real-world problems. The best data I receive is when I ask students, either individually or as a class, “So, did this work for you? What helped you understand? What seemed frustrating or irrelevant about this activity?” What they tell me is golden. I consider it, sift it with my own perceptions, and almost always end up learning something that I can use next time.

Although I respect the research process, the truth is that most classroom teachers simply don’t have the time or resources to properly frame and conduct a valid research project. We’re sort of busy doing school. Unfortunately, that leaves us with either accepting data that comes to us from other sources—some of them with shady track records—or relying on more subjective, qualitative, anecdotal forms of data to inform our decision making. Even if we had the means to conduct more empirical research projects in our schools, the findings would be most applicable to our own settings and of more limited value anywhere else.

Am I right to trust direct reports from my students and my own instincts over empirical data derived from other contexts and presented to me by people who have obvious–and what I might consider misguided—agendas? If my intuition is unclear, or if the situation is new to me, I’m perfectly willing to consult other sources. I particularly admire Robert Marzano’s work in synthesizing the results of research projects with similar focuses in order to hierarchically organize the most important findings of those projects.

I invite readers here to join me in trusting your instincts and the words of your students. Those sources are not wrong. They’re important “primary wisdom.”

Cross-posted on English Companion Ning

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