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Teacher Agency and Intuition

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

The following video and edited transcript are from a presentation I gave at the July 2020 Teach Meet. Teach Meets are informal gatherings of educations "to share good practice, practical innovations and personal insights" and the theme for this session was 'Agency'.

There are two areas of education that I am fascinated by. The first is the teaching and learning of mathematics. The second is research practices in education and what makes for effective modes of data collection and evaluation. Although these are quite disparate areas, in different ways they've influenced the topic and content of this piece.

Agency and Intuition Go Hand-in-hand

If we're going to be talking about agency, intuition is a concept that needs to be part of the conversation:

Intuition is your automatic response when faced with a problem and agency means you can choose to enact that response.

Without agency, the problems you face are someone else's to solve.

In teaching, there are very many problems that demand a response. These can be problems inside the classroom to do with what you're teaching and how, or to do with the different needs of students. There are also problems faced outside of the classroom: how you're working with your faculty or year-level team, or the high-level strategic decisions being made by the school. Either way, when facing these problems, intuition and agency go hand-in-hand.

Others Can't See What You Can See

It can be tempting – and sometimes it's necessary – to hand over decision-making to someone else. But, for anything that's in the slightest bit important, don't do things because others tell you. Those who are outside of your classroom can't see all of what you as the classroom teacher can see.

Now, this isn't a new idea. Lee Shulman is an educational psychologist who’s written extensively about knowledge in teaching since the 1980s and on concepts like pedagogical content knowledge. On the topic of understanding the classroom, Shulman explained:

“To conduct a piece of research, scholars must necessarily narrow their scope, focus their view, and formulate a question far less complex than the form in which the world presents itself in practice.”

Think about some education research you’ve come across. It could be to do with best practice models for teaching algebra or ways to develop an understanding of the periodic table or the most useful texts for learning about World War I. Each of these examples can have high quality research that sits behind it, but that research would be removed from the reality and complexity of the classroom.

Importantly, Shulman’s words don't just apply to researchers. They also apply to policymakers who are making decisions about the sequencing of the curriculum or about assessment and reporting requirements. Shulman’s words also apply to people who are selling products and programs and anyone else who's seeking to make claims or influence what happens in the classroom.

Even With Rigorous Data Collection

Even with rigorous data collection methods, those who are outside the classroom will only see isolated bits of information. They might ask a question and then seek to answer that question by collecting bits of data, calculating averages, standard deviations and so forth. They might get good answers to the question they've asked – but this is the narrow focus that Shulman speaks of. They won't be privy to the same view that you the classroom teacher gets to see.

Pixelated image with shades of green, red and blue. Each shade is represented by a number.
What those outside the classroom can see.

Particularly savvy researchers, consultants or programs will collect a broader array of data over a longer period of time. They might collect quantitative and qualitative data and, in doing so, step inside and observe what's going on in the classroom. They will ask more questions and see how the information they've collected is connected, creating a picture with more detail and nuance. However, this picture still will be incomplete:

Pixelated image of a girl in a classroom. Each pixel is represented by a number.
View from outside the classroom, with broad and long-term data collection.

It's the teacher, who sees their students every day, who gets the clearest and most accurate picture yet:

Young girl sitting at a desk in the classroom. She is wearing a red school jumper, holding a pencil and looking up.
A teacher's view, from inside the classroom.

Over Time, Intuition Gets Refined

Just like researchers, however, teachers’ intuition isn't perfect. In both cases, those who are outside the classroom and those who are inside can miss or misread things, like the causes for student behaviour or students' current knowledge and skills. The crucial difference is, for teachers, their intuition takes into account a broader context with far, far more information.

Over time, this intuition will also be refined leading to insights that are increasingly accurate and perceptive. Intuition can be refined in a few ways. Firstly, by being open to new and different ideas especially, those that don't fit with what you already know. Secondly, by seeking to understand your mistakes. Just as we expect students to understand their mistakes so that they can become better at the what they're learning, the same applies to us. Finally, intuition can be refined by knowing that your insights and your judgements are valid – in other words, by trusting your gut.

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