Tag Archives: Emerson

Trust Your “Primary Wisdom”

What role can and should intuition play in a teacher’s decision-making process? Since first hearing the phrase “data-driven instruction,” I feel like the importance and credibility of teacher instincts have been downplayed and denigrated. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that intuition is the “primary wisdom,” and I tend to agree.

I have quite a few years of teaching experience to draw upon, so when my gut tells me something is the right way or the wrong way to proceed, I feel that impulse with a pretty high level of confidence. Most of the time, I’m able to articulate a rationale for why my instincts are good, but I never have much empirical data to go along with that rationale.

So what role does “data” play in my decision-making? Well, how do we define data? If we’re talking about statistical reports based on conflicting research projects, I don’t find that very helpful. Far too often I’ve seen researchers generate conflicting data. Far too many times I’ve seen objective data cherry-picked and used subjectively by leaders who are bent on imposing a specific philosophy or agenda. I can’t count how many times data has been presented to me as gospel when it was generated in very different contexts from my own.

Data based on traditional research models has never been very helpful to me in solving real-world problems. The best data I receive is when I ask students, either individually or as a class, “So, did this work for you? What helped you understand? What seemed frustrating or irrelevant about this activity?” What they tell me is golden. I consider it, sift it with my own perceptions, and almost always end up learning something that I can use next time.

Although I respect the research process, the truth is that most classroom teachers simply don’t have the time or resources to properly frame and conduct a valid research project. We’re sort of busy doing school. Unfortunately, that leaves us with either accepting data that comes to us from other sources—some of them with shady track records—or relying on more subjective, qualitative, anecdotal forms of data to inform our decision making. Even if we had the means to conduct more empirical research projects in our schools, the findings would be most applicable to our own settings and of more limited value anywhere else.

Am I right to trust direct reports from my students and my own instincts over empirical data derived from other contexts and presented to me by people who have obvious–and what I might consider misguided—agendas? If my intuition is unclear, or if the situation is new to me, I’m perfectly willing to consult other sources. I particularly admire Robert Marzano’s work in synthesizing the results of research projects with similar focuses in order to hierarchically organize the most important findings of those projects.

I invite readers here to join me in trusting your instincts and the words of your students. Those sources are not wrong. They’re important “primary wisdom.”

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Kim Swansen: Striving for the Perfect Paper

Kim Swansen enjoys playing guitar, traveling and playing with pet newts, Vinchi and Hendrix.  In twenty years, she sees herself as a rock star, or else fat and married with fifteen kids.

She sits…at the computer, staring at the screen for hours, waiting. And she wonders why her eyesight is taking a turn for the worse. She’s not quite sure why this is taking so particularly long. “It’s only a school assignment, right?” No, this seems to be more than that. It usually is. And suddenly, like a tidal wave starting in her brain, she starts typing. A paragraph, maybe two. Satisfied and content, she begins to reread her surge of writing. As she rereads, the smile disappears and frustration grows inside. She deletes it without a second glance, hoping the next wave will produce something more worthwhile. She sits again but becomes hungry. She knows it is a self-induced feeling, and that it’s just an excuse to get up. But she gets up anyway, makes the short but relaxing walk to the kitchen. She opens up every cabinet like she does every time (knowing there is nothing in there she wants to eat), closes the cabinets one by one, and starts the walk back. The second she steps into the computer room, she feels that dreadful feeling creep up through her spine to her brain, knowing it’s time to “really start working,” and she sits, and waits some more.

I guess now it is pretty evident that I have a writing dilemma. It is so serious that I can’t be content with the paragraph above, the line before, or even the words I’m writing this moment. Am I too critical? Too picky? Do I just want to impress my teachers or do I do it for myself? I have come to realize, through many nights at the computer, that writing for me is a never-ending process of striving for self-satisfaction but always ending up a few steps short.

Obviously I wouldn’t want to share my work with an audience because I am too critical of myself and don’t approve of what I write most of the time. It is so hard for me to promote something that I am not satisfied with. It’s like, “Hey, I think this is terrible, but don’t mind me, make your own judgments. I’ll just sit here and fear your reaction.” I wonder if famous writers ever had a problem sharing their work with others. What if Shakespeare or Woody Allen (not likely) were afraid of others’ reactions? We would have never been exposed to their art. I am trying to be more open about it, trying to be less afraid of “critics.” Besides, this paper is not going to be like -God forbid- read in class; it’s not going to be published in a book, or even read by anyone but my teacher. So what do I have to worry about?

For some reason, I take writing very seriously and love to do it. When a teacher assigns a paper or an essay, I dread knowing the process at the computer will start again, yet I am excited. As a matter of fact, I love to write. That is the insane part. I love to write and I dread it. Maybe writing to me is a combination of love and dread. Maybe the feeling of dread is part of the excitement. In any case, if I didn’t have such a problem, maybe writing for me would be different. It could be a very simple process. Sit down, type, reread, smile, print, reread again, let mom read, read to dog, let whole world read, and be satisfied. If Ernest Hemingway or Ralph Waldo Emerson were here to tell me that I have potential or good writing skills or something like that, maybe writing would be a breeze for me. I’d have more confidence and satisfaction with what I wrote. Because that’s how I am. I need others’ approval. But I can’t get that without sharing my writing. Therefore, I am stuck between love and dread, striving for the perfect paper.

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