What Role Do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities?

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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  • SandyMerz

    Who really wants to go with what’s in the gut?

    This is timely.  I just read Focus: The Hidden Driver of Success by Daniel Goleman.  He explains that in the brain a lot of intuition and hunches and those “gut feelings” we’ere supposed to go with come from parts of the brain that work on autopilot, having learned how to react reflexively to situations which are part of the pattern of our lives – thus freeing our here and now brain to focus and process new stimuli. That made a lot of sense to me – but I would caution on evaluating a hunch against reason, whenever possible, which isn’t always possible in the flow of a class or when defending against the Colts this weekend.

    And I think a lot of what is claimed to be professional judgement has very little reasoned judgement behind it – and is often a scape-goat excuse for not addressing fair questions about one practice or being able to speak persuasively to policy-makers about best practices.


    • billferriter

      Pairing Reflexes with Reflection

      Good thinking, Sandy — and looking forwards to checking out the Goleman book.

      One of the things that I hope I made clear in my post is that I’m not opposed to teachers “working on autopilot” during the course of individual lessons.  And I don’t doubt their ability to make good choices even while they are working on autopilot.

      My central worry comes when teachers never move beyond autopilot simply because they don’t think it is necessary.  The simple truth is that the best choices are made when we pair reflexes with reflection.Does this make sense?



  • John Wink

    Think and Feel Syndrome


    Nice piece that gets to the heart of learning.  If all we have are decisions based on our thoughts and feeling, we will have no definitive information that will point us toward practices that truly meet the needs of kids.  Hunches and intuition are just as you said a great starting point, but we must gather quantitative information that complements our qualitative data.  

    The question that I have for you is this.  What teaming structures have you used to transition from discussions on hunches into selecting the best quantitative information to verify or further investigate our theories?

    Thanks for this bit.

  • Lori J. K10


    I disagree with the post that hunches are only “felt” and teachers are not aware of them on a cognitive level. Yes, the best teachers–who are aware of multiple stimuli/messages, (not necessarily the most experienced)–sense how to respond to individual student needs in any given moment. However, the post does not give credit to what teachers—mature professionals in all industries do next—-they take that “instinctive moment” and analyze it through questioning/reflection. It is the scientific method in action:  “I had/have a hypothesis, how can I prove it or disprove it? What factual information is available beyond my “feeling”? Where can I obtain it (resources) and what is the purpose for following through? What is the benefit for acting on it?. This is what often drives teachers who appear very creative with their lesson planning.

    The best teachers, in my opinion, are aware (emotionally and cognitively) of the convergence of many things simultaneously such as: the presentation of their subject matter (i.e. prepared/organized well-thought out plans that meet target audience needs and support the learning goal); an understanding of the developmental level of their target audience (i.e. how long can they sit sitll for new information, do I sense frustration?); an awareness of individual differences (i.e. academic challenges; cognitive strengths; social/emotional levels; have I convinced them of the relevancy of this new information?) principles of classroom management; how unique group dynamics of a class come into play (i.e. so and so are using sign language across the classroom and student X is distracted; there is tension between two students; another came to class upset); hearing/seeing disengagment (how/when do I react without losing everyone’s attention?);  dealing with interruptions (i.e. an administrator walks in, a student makes a joke, someone wants to tell a long story, etc.) There’s lots of stimuli!

    Teachers feel. That’s one reason it is such a unique profession. The level of emotional energy required to do it well, with enthusiasm while meeting so many needs is overwhelming. What teachers lack is acknowledgment and appreciation for what is required of them at this level. Good adminstrators voice this and provide support for teacher’s engagment of their affective domain (Bloom’s Taxonomy of Edu Objectives). Instead, my experience is that this is the elephant in the room.

    What teachers lack is time to take that emotion–the hunches—and thoughtfully work with an insightful and enlightened mentor to move it to the next level. PLC’s are meant to do this, but it is very difficult to do it when some members are on “overload” and just want to “get the meeting over with.” It is difficult to find equally-engaged teachers who understand the big picture.

    I think Goleman’s idea that “hunches” are simply a reminder of what is already known intellectually or based on past experience is spot on. I also agree that teachers, who are ironically trying to teach students to use metacognition, require metacognition as a prerequisite. Those teachers that show up and do as their told without the ability to explain rationale or tie plans to terminating objectives are not intellectually engaged.

    What I see happening in the current school reform movement in FL is this: teachers are being asked to be instructional designers. The most difficult process is recording, tracking, and analyzing formative and summative data to drive instructional decisions. Until teachers are properly trained in the entire process—not just the planning of the learning events/ activities—they will not understand, appreciate, or buy into new requirements. Teachers also need real clerical help to do this portion well. There is simply not enough time in the week to fulfill all teaching requirements and the intellectual oversight/research portion.

    • billferriter

      Lori wrote:

      Lori wrote:

      However, the post does not give credit to what teachers—mature professionals in all industries do next—-they take that “instinctive moment” and analyze it through questioning/reflection.


      Actually, Lori, this is EXACTLY the kind of behavior that I’m suggesting that teachers should embrace in a professional learning community.  Until we pair reflexive action with reflection, we’re not acting responsibly.  

      You and I are on the same page there.

      But I’ve worked in a ton of schools where reflexes and intuition are used as a professional defense for every action without any reflection being added to the equation.

      Does this make sense?


  • KrisGiere

    I like where you are headed…

    I like the concept that Bill addresses here.  Many teachers, myself included, just know sometimes.  And in the moment, that hunch is vital to the success of that moment.  Often times, the validity and power of those successful hunches can make us overlook the need to further explore them through reflection and discussion with a mentor.

    Additionally, I agree with Lori (and possibly Sandy if I am inferring correctly from the Goleman reference) that not all hunches are feelings; some indeed are very much logical.  When they are feelings though, we must recognize that the part of the brain which governs emotion has no capacity (according to neurology) for language, making the articulation of those feelings difficult and time consuming.

    I would add that all of the points here reinforce the need to allow teachers adequate time for reflection, collaboration, and indepth mentorship.  Once we have that though, we have to remember that requests to articulate our so-called hunches into sharable lessons are not challenges to our personal worth as educators.  Instead, they are opportunities to communicate with those outside our profession just how important being dedicated and invested in our profession is and how seriously we take our calling as educators.

    Many of you are Rock Stars in education.  Bill is reminding us all to take the time when we can (Lori has as good point about being overloaded) to share what we do with the world in a way that the world can understand because what we do is well…awesome.

  • Eileen Kugler

    Hunches vs. Introspection

    Well-trained experienced teachers do often intuitively “know” good practice; however, the flip side of the coin is also valuable. All educators need to take a step back from time to time and introspectively examine their practice. Teachers, like all humans, have a personal culture the acts as a lens in the way you view your own  actions and the actions of others. This complex personal culture is influenced by race and ethnicity, but also where you were born (country, region, neighborhood), your family structure (big extended family to isolated single parent), generation, parents’ beliefs, and more. This all goes into what your gut tells you, so sometimes it is good to examine that intuition.

  • DanBuckley

    The role of strong leadership

    ~~Really enjoying reading the thread and Blog.  My concern is that rather than being seen as central to the development of effective practice, such learning communities can be seen as just as an aside.

    To avoid this I think it is essential that the school leadership can conduct a discussion informed by research and debate.  Learning communities can then be set up to make such a change in direction become embedded practice.  If working in this context there is likely to be collaboration between groups as well as a greater chance of practice spreading more effectively through the school.  We used the free resources on this site http://www.is-toolkit.com/workshops.html  to get the whole school involved.

    I have added a link to this discussion on the partners in learning site to widen it further – here is the link to that too http://www.pil-network.com/HotTopics/personalizedlearning/17f4e314-5016-446b-a5b1-c0125b07d981