The Power of Intuition

It’s Saturday morning and I’m at my regular breakfast stop:  my kitchen counter with my computer at hand.  I’m watching some light Saturday morning news, which is my ‘brain break’ from the normal research and heavy reading I do during the course of a normal week.

A news story catches my interest.  A medical doctor is being showcased not to acknowledge how data drives his medical decisions (which  it does), but how intuition plays as big a role in an initial assessment of his patient.

As he said, ” When a patient walks into your office, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you tend to pay attention even before you know… you just know.”

Meriam-Webster’s online dictionary’s simple definition describes intuition this way:  “a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence; a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why.”

I’ve only recently acknowledged that I’ve been intuitive my whole life. I’ve only recently become comfortable saying, “I just know…” My husband describes his intuition as the ‘little guy on his shoulder’. If the little guy on his shoulder says that there’s something going that he can’t quite put his finger on, then he knows he needs to proceed with caution.  (I wonder if intuitive people ‘find’ each other through their intuition?  I would never describe our finding each other as ‘love at first sight’; rather, I just knew he was a good man… even before I really ‘knew’ him…)

But I digress…

My question at the heart of this is:  Where and how does intuition fit into education?  Does leadership contain an intuitive ability?

As a leader, many of you have met someone for the first time, or entered a classroom and had an intuitive reaction.  Intuition sets off an alarm in your head.  You have this innate sense of possibilities… or struggles… in front of you.  You have no data… no evidence… on which to base your assessment.  But, there’s no denying you sense it.

I set out to find out what the research has to say on the role of intuition in teaching/learning and leadership.

Atkinson and Claxton (2000) say  that intuition is defined as “one component of the dyad conscious analytical thinking”  (p.74) and the “less conscious and intuitive processes” (p.82).  Through this lens, they examine the process of mentoring.  They ask: How do mentors balance between providing specific practical knowledge and good grounding in theoretical understanding to proteges or supervisees? Their work shows that the key to a new teacher progressing from a knowledge base to the skilled teacher is his/her ability to intuitively sense how to adjust to the students’ receptivity of the lesson.  The mentors’  key? The ability to develop strong reflective practices within the mentee so she can learn to trust her intuitions.

Marzano (2011) and Danielson (1996) would, to my mind, describe this as the ‘art’ of teaching and each has built the ‘art’ into their respective models. (Marzano, Domain 3) (Danielson, Component 4a).  No one would dispute that intuition can replace knowledge. However, I would assert that a teacher with knowledge but without intuition is missing an important skill; one that I’m not sure can be taught.

In my experience, intuition can be developed. In fact, I would assert it’s the real ‘education’ in education.

 In 1986, Donna Lynne Harlan’s doctoral dissertation reminds us that the 1959 Woods Hole Conference, led by Jerome Bruner, was convened to address issues that are still circling today.  Namely, that the battle between the progressive philosophy that education requires the use of unconventional thinking (intuition/guessing (1960)/having a hunch (1971)) and the structuralist view that focuses on performance and outcomes. Bruner (1977) said that student creativity develops when students are surrounded by creativity and discussions.  It’s the reason we are focusing on higher level thinking skills at all levels of education; we want our students to trust their intuition– to take risks in their thinking– to examine, in the light, those ideas that are lurking in the background of their thoughts– to be brave and put those ideas out there, into a supportive thoughtful environment where those ideas can blossom and spur other ideas for themselves and those around them.

As a leader, from the perspective of observer instead of the observed, these are the subtle talents woven into the evaluation domains that I am looking for: can the teacher take her knowledge and interweave her intuition to create thoughtful reflective students who feel safe enough to bring their ideas to the light? Can she encourage her students to be academically brave?

Knowledge can be gained.  Intuition?  It’s stuff dreams are made of…


Bacigalupe, Gonzalo (2002). Inviting Intuitive Understandings in Teaching and Professional Practices: Is Intuition Relationally and Culturally Neutral? Review Essay: Terry Atkinson & Guy Claxton (Eds.) (2000). The Intuitive Practitioner: On the Value of Not Always Knowing What One is Doing [16 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(4), Art. 51,

Bruner, Jerome S. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960

Harlan, Donna L. (1986). The role of intuition in the teaching/learning process. Doctoral Disserations

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