Intuition and professionalism

Earlier this month I attended the 50th IATEFL conference in Birmingham and among many of the discussions and sessions there was a moment when Jim Scrivener suggested teachers used more of their intuition. He was defending a moment for simplifying teacher training and, although I agree with certain points (e.g. training is a starting point, perhaps we should cover fewer areas), I believe it is high time we discussed and developed professionalism from initial steps into teaching. I was particularly worried that a novice teacher encouraged to rely on their intuition above all, might feel inclined to build on what they experienced as learners (not necessarily applicable to current or local teaching needs) and resent reading or doing research or attending training sessions. Simplifying training (how much simpler?) might communicate to novice teachers that teaching requires little effort or learning much more than they already know. We may be underestimating either the teachers or the career as a whole.

Intuition is very useful when finding solutions as the lesson unfolds and its unpredictability takes place in the classroom and we are all going to resort to a repertoire of ideas to deal with learners or issues that need our immediate attention. However, such repertoire does not develop without experience. A novice teacher has experience as a learner, not as a teacher to be able to rely mostly on intuition at this point. Intuition should not be taken for granted, it has its place in teaching and will definitely help teachers in their own development process. This will only be possible if we admit that what we do intuitively may not always be the best decision. In this sense intuition should be accompanied by reflection, guidance, experimentation to develop teachers’ awareness of what impacts learning positively and of the rationale behind the decision making process in the classroom. Burke & Sadler-Smith (2006) discuss intuitive knowledge and the importance of understanding and improving this knowledge in teaching. By studying to learn about what we do in the classroom and training to do what we do not do yet may help us, as teachers, to build a repertoire of techniques that will be successful in the classroom and not necessarily similar to what we initially experienced in learning from the teachers we had.

Many of us, ELT professionals, talk about the need to develop professionalism so that the field grows and we can effectively reach learners, help them communicate better – achieving higher scores in the EF EPI or better local results, for instance. The role intuition plays in this path depends on teachers’ willingness and availability to learn about what they do ‘intuitively’ and on professionals accepting intuition may be more useful for experienced teachers than to novice teachers. If we defend that anyone who speaks the language can start teaching and then build on what they do intuitively we may be reinforcing the idea that teaching is a side job, something people can do while they do not find a job in their area. In order to have a different trend in our professional field, we need to behave differently to attract the committed professionals we want to work with. Speaking the language is step one, but the willingness to learn more about students, the language and teaching is crucial and some training definitely important before anyone starts teaching, to give professionals a starting point. As teachers develop professionally they are going to use their intuition more and more often and comfortably, having developed an awareness of their repertoire and reasons for making decisions in the classroom.

What do you think? What is your experience in this regard?



Burke, L. A., and Sadler-Smith, E. (2006). Instructor intuition in the educational setting. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5 (2), 169-181.

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Marcela Cintra

Marcela Cintra is the Head of Products in the Academic Department at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has been working with English language teaching for over 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in ABCI, LABCI, BRAZ-TESOL, TESOL and IATEFL conferences. A CELTA, ICELT and Delta tutor, she has an MA in TESOL. She is the current first-vice president for BRAZ-TESOL.

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