Let’s start with a simple truth: Great teachers have a deep understanding of both their kids and their content areas. Drawing from extensive experience, they can accurately predict the kinds of misconceptions that students are likely to have about key ideas in their curriculum before lessons even begin; diagnose the reasons individual students are struggling during the course of a lesson; and change directions on a dime, designing new lessons to help kids move forward regardless of the circumstance.
And for the best teachers, these actions happen reflexively.
Like top-flite quarterbacks on the best NFL teams, these teachers spend their class periods constantly working through progressions and monitoring multiple signals all at the same time. They ask questions, look for student reactions, parse the meaning behind body language and facial expressions, attend to common patterns that they expect to see and tune in to the unexpected during the course of every lesson. Making sense of all of these disparate information streams and then taking the RIGHT action at the RIGHT time requires individuals who can accurately process on the fly.
If you were to ask these teachers to explain the reasoning behind their choices during the course of their lessons, they’d probably be caught off guard by your question simply because deliberate reasoning — stopping to think through and then respond to individual cues one at a time — rarely plays a role in their minute-by-minute actions. Instead, the choices made by the best teachers seamlessly blend with their rationale. Over time, choices are all that they recognize; rationale becomes intuitive.
This all sounds great, doesn’t it? How can we possibly complain about a system where highly-skilled individuals draw from years of experiences and expertise to analyze individual situations and then design an effective response to what they see happening around them?
There is real danger, however, in schools where intuition and gut reactions drive every decision.
Perhaps most importantly, relying on intuition and gut reactions in every circumstance can result in a crippling sense of intellectual complacency. Rather than pushing to constantly polish who they are and what they know about the teaching/learning transaction, expert teachers who believe that they’ve “been there and done that” enough times to accurately read every situation can end up with stale practices that aren’t as effective as they used to be.
As Professional Learning Community expert Rick DuFour explains in this piece for Learning Forward, we would never be satisfied with doctors who failed to embrace new medical practices simply because they believed they’d mastered everything that they needed to know about treating patients. Instead, we expect our doctors to constantly defend their choices against new evidence about the best ways to care for patients. Like doctors, DuFour argues, teachers must use something more than hunches to drive their instructional decisions:
“If one characteristic of a professional is to engage in a continuous process of seeking and implementing best practices in the field, it follows that educational leaders have an obligation to align the practices of their schools and districts with what we know to be the most effective strategies to achieve the fundamental purpose of our profession — high levels of learning for all students.”
For many experienced teachers working in a learning community for the first time, this can all sound like a direct challenge to individual expertise — and in a decade where the expertise of practicing educators is challenged at every turn by policymakers determined to destroy the public school system, any suggestion that what teachers know isn’t enough to validate an instructional practice comes across as just another professional insult. “You’re trying to take away my professional independence!” they say. “I’ve done this job a long time. Don’t you think my experience is worth something?”
As a real-live, bona-fide, full-time practicing classroom teacher myself, I understand these concerns all-too-well. I’m sick of being doubted — and sick of the implicit suggestion in every right-wing press release that my choices are failing American children. I know that my expertise matters and that my hunches aren’t just random guesses about what might work drawn from the professional ether.
But I also know that if we are going to reestablish ourselves in the eyes of our most vocal critics, then we need to constantly document the tangible impact that our hunches have on the kids in our care. It is our responsibility to prove that the strategies that we believe in and the choices that we are making truly represent best practice — and when confronted by evidence that our strategies aren’t as effective as we thought they were, we have to respond, change direction and embrace something better.
Don’t get me wrong: Hunches will ALWAYS play a role in guiding the work of expert practitioners.
They provide us with an often-accurate initial sense for the reasons behind student struggles and paired with years of experience, they point us towards instructional strategies that just might work. But when we fail to collect tangible evidence — common formative assessment data, student reflections and surveys, detailed observations — to support our hunches, we stagnate, fail our students, and leave ourselves open to criticism.
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