I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell is a somewhat esoteric writer who became known through his work on tipping points and it was also he who originated he idea of 10000 hours to mastery. His work has not been without controversy.

Blink concerns itself with the processes that go through the sub-conscious in be first couple of seconds of thinking about something. Gladwell’s contention is that our minds are able to make highly effective snap decisions even before our conscious thinking processes have had a time to kick in.

He cites examples where experts were able to predict outcomes of events too soon for rational processes to have happened, and a number of cases where fakery was detected by people who ‘felt’ there was something amiss, even though they weren’t quite sure what.

He examines the ability of mavericks to out-think the system by using instinct and doing unpredictable things – and he also considers sometimes tragic occasions where the ability to read situations went wrong, which he suggests is down to the interruption or disruption of people’s instincts by distracting events.

This makes for interesting reading, and there are a few education-specific applications within the book. For example, Gladwell asks to what extent teachers should frame their guidance to a particular student based on the rational knowledge of standardised test scores, and to what extent on a more instinctive knowing of that individual.

This might also assist one of my long-standing betes-noires – the disconnect between the rationalist approach to classroom management  and the more humane-instinctive approach, which I favour.

Gladwell suggests that long experience has the effect of embedding in the subconscious much learned practice, such that it can be accessed without the need for a conscious process of introspection. I have been watching myself (and my pupils) this week with this agenda in mind. It is striking how much in-class interaction happens in the sub-two second zone. The ability of a teacher to read and react to a particular event, be that a normal intraction with a pupil or something exceptional, mostly seems to rely on what they process in under a couple of seconds. Indeed, the ‘life’ of a class depends very much on the kind of experienced spontanaiety that this generates. An hour in which everything happened only at the speed of deliberative thought would be long and dull indeed.

It is my experience that this is one of the facts that most distinguishes the experienced-teacher me from my former novice self. It would also seem, however, to be something that has been overlooked in the drive to make teaching a planned and perhaps rigid activity. I think this might be one of the ‘missing pieces’ in my case that teaching is largely a matter of heuristic skill rather than consciously practised technicalities. Or at least that it is this rather than adherence to external rules that makes for successful teaching. I would go further and suggest that the ‘sparkiness’ that can make a lesson engaging derives from this skill, and the more we can operate in that zone, the more life our lesons will have.

There are two spin-offs from this: when experienced teachers instinctively react against something they are being told to do, it may not just be from bloody-mindedness – and this phenomenon might also warrant greater attention in situations when engagement with the educative process is not all we would want, and where technical fixes seem to be failing.


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