Do you trust your gut feelings?

The trouble with schools is that they encourage leaders to look at the research first and not their own gut instinct, before they do anything.

This is where I get accused of being a bit of a Philistine (can I use that term?), and perhaps I’m becoming old and jaded, but this is how I feel:  I’m fed-up with people asking me what [insert your favourite educational guru here] has to say about it before I decide to launch something new.  I hate it when I see flash terms being branded to launch the latest sensation in developing teaching & learning (T&L), which in reality is a rehash of the same basic principles of T&L.  And I feel despondent (actually ‘inferior’ is probably the more truthful term) when I see shelf after shelf of educational books in a school leader’s office.  

Don’t get me wrong, that research, those books and the constant rehashes are all worthwhile; they take the profession forward little steps at a time (sadly, disproportionately small steps when you consider the amount that is published and the amount of research that takes place).  However, what they also do is detract us from something far more valuable. 

Think of your educational journey so far.  You’ve attended school, possibly gone to university and now working in or with schools (apart from the small contingent of Italian fish and chip shop owners who read this).  During this time, you have picked up little nougats of valuable information on a daily basis, which has developed your own expertise in education.  Much of this is subconscious, but it’s there.  You develop a gut instinct for all things educational, which strengthens the longer you stay in the profession.

A book well worth reading is Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink”.   In it, he describes how hours (more than 10,000 hours) of experience will give you that ‘gut feeling’; you just know when something isn’t right.    For example, he tells the story of an art historian who walks into the Metropolitan Museum in New York, spots a Greek statue and instantly knows it’s a fake.  The museum curators dispute his assertion and to prove he is wrong, send it off to be analysed.  The first tests show it is real, but the historian continues to insist it’s a fake.  They send it off several more times for different tests and each time the results claim the statue is authentic, but the historian continues to argue to the contrary.   They try one more test and the results show it to be a fake.   The more they test it after that, the more conclusive it becomes: the statue really is a fake. 

Gladwell, claims that the historian had so much experience behind him that his gut instinct had almost become an objective measuring tool.   You see this in all sorts of professions from business to sport and entertainment.    When I first became a Head, I would often comment, when something didn’t go as planned: “I wish I’d listened to my gut feeling”.   As often was the case, I knew the decision I was making was wrong, but I went with what the majority were telling me to do.    

As I became aware of this feeling that so often felt correct, I learned to trust it more and would use it more.   The downside was my ego.  It wold step and encourage me to become cocky.  Soon, after several bad decisions, I began to realise that my gut wasn’t always doing the talking, it was my ego.  I would convince myself that the decision I was making was based on gut instinct, when actually it was me trying to look superior.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  This would often happen when I was dealing with individuals who I perhaps didn’t respect or felt in competition with.  

Gladwell helped me realise how important it is to listen to your gut, but also to then rationalise why your gut feels this way.  If you can’t rationalise your feelings and vocalise them, then perhaps it’s your ego taking over and there is no rationale or objective reason for you making a certain decision.  

What I feel we are encouraged to do in schools however, to ensure we make the right decisions, is to skip the rationalisation bit and go straight to what other people think.  I was in a school recently that was about to embark on a new T&L initiative.  They had been given a huge reading list of the biggest names in T&L research out there, and were encouraged to adopt some of the practice.  Good as it all was, if the Head and leaders in the school haven’t developed their own set of values, beliefs and vision for the way T&L should look like, then how will they adapt or be flexible when things don’t quite go to plan as stated in the book?  How will they reconcile practice and research they take from different books that come from different philosophical viewpoints (e.g. classes in straight rows versus classes in groups)? 

Don’t throw away all your educational books, they all have brilliant ideas in them, but before you open them again, put them all out of your mind and ask yourself the following:

  • What have I learned along the way and what works for me?
  • What do I think the purpose of schooling should be?
  • What do I believe and value in education? 
  • Does this fit nicely with what I think the purpose of schooling is?
  • What are the basic non-negotiable elements of any good learning session? (don’t use the word lesson it’s too value laden)
  • What would my perfect series of learning sessions look like?

Asking these questions encourages you to delve into your own resources; your experiences, values and principles.  Doing this will empower and strengthen you as a professional, practitioner and/or school leader.   Do this as an individual, do this with your staff, if you are leading an initiative, substitute the term ‘learning session’ above, for curriculum, ethos or behaviour policy, whatever you are developing.  Do all of this before you look at the research or listen to what someone who has never set foot in your school, has to tell you. 

And when you have done this and feel confident in what you know and believe, have a look at some of the ideas out there.  You’ll find you won’t be swept along by the clever soundbites or persuasive writing (actually, am I falling into this writing trap???) and you won’t grasp at every new idea that comes along.   If you are a school leader you won’t have a muddled school that is forever reinventing itself.  Instead you’ll be more selective and discerning, evaluate more often and develop yourself and/or the school in a consistent way with a sound rationale underpinning you.  

Providing you have the experience, believe in yourself first and then test that belief against your own rationale (beliefs and values) and then if need be against what others have to say.

2 thoughts on “Do you trust your gut feelings?

  1. An interesting blog Armando! I would agree that you should take notice of your current experience and gut. I am very much the kind of person who likes to get on and do rather than read too much around the subject. Having said that I do think that this confidence does come from research already done along the way. It is important to recognise that we are not just going on gut instinct and there is a reason behind our thought process, even if we don’t realise it at the time. I found it interesting that you were talking about a book that you had read that guided you to this conclusion. Whether we like it or not most of what we do is based on research in one way or another.

    I think the other thing to take into consideration is that there are experts within your school that sometimes get overlooked so rather than launching something that feels right it would be sensible to consider the experts in your school and ask them for guidance and support. For example, a new literacy initiative or inquiry framework include the expertise of the school librarian. It may be that they have ideas that you had not even thought of.

    Also, I think it is important as a leader to give others the opportunity to fly too. Rather than coming up with all the ideas yourself, it is important to listen to your staff and allow them to work on their gut instinct too.

    Thanks for writing this and making me think about how all this works.


  2. Thanks for your comment, I absolutely agree. We are all action researchers and learn from our mistakes and successes every day. Just because we haven’t meticulously recorded our findings, doesn’t mean we haven’t developed a certain degree of expertise. The ‘gut feeling’ isn’t natural instinct, it is the sum of our experiences. The fear I tried to express in this article is that we are bombarded with so much formal research and words of wisdom from educationalists, much of it conflicting, it is important we first get in touch with what we believe in to avoid being drawn in many different directions.

    And you are right, it’s important we give others the chance to express their own beliefs and ideas in school; they too have followed the same action research path way. Unfortunately, I’m not always good at that. I get caught up in my own ideas and don’t listen enough – but I’m working on it . . .honest.

    Liked by 1 person

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