Intuitive Thinking


Mark Edwards

There’s an ancient Chinese saying which goes something like “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.”  This intrigues me as a teacher, and not simply because I share the belief that telling pupils things in Chris Woodhead-approved style is not the most effective form of teaching and learning.  It’s rather that I wonder what “involve” actually means and whether it does indeed help learners to understand.

Back in the heady post-Plowden days, primary teachers were encouraged to involve children by given them lots of practical things to do.  A few years further on,  a commitment to children learning from “first-hand experience” became the phrase to include in your letter of application or at interview.  That kind of teaching certainly “involved” children, most of whom love “hands-on” activities, but I believe there is more to it than that.  Involving the learner means that he or she becomes emotionally connected to the activity, and that this emotional involvement leads to a type of thinking that can be highly effective.  Let me give an example.

“Nim” is a centuries old game that can be played with stones, buttons, matchsticks or any similarly accessible items.  The idea is to lay out a number of them – 21, say – then take turns to remove them until only one remains.  Each player may take one, two, or three objects on his or her turn.  Whoever is left with the last object is the loser.

I first became aware of this game when working as an advisory teacher of mathematics in the 1980s, when schools were being encouraged to develop forms of mathematical thinking using games and puzzles.  I was surprised, however, to find the enthusiasm for this and similar games muted amongst the majority of primary aged children – there was an initial expression of interest, but there was usually little motivation to avoid being left with the last matchstick or other object. 

I can’t remember if I saw the idea, or whether it came to me in a flash of inspiration, but the next time I introduced “Nim” to a group, I presented it as “The Poisoned Carrot”.  Instead of using matchsticks, I made twenty bright orange carrot cut-outs and one nasty-looking black one.  Whoever was left with the “poisoned carrot” was the loser. 

This simple alteration transformed the game for the children who then played it excitedly, and they were noticeably more adept at working out the strategies to avoid being left with the last carrot.  I realised that it was because the connection with the activity was at a deeper level than the purely cognitive.  The mathematical thinking involved was the same, but presenting the game in terms which led to an emotional connection allowed a new motivation to occur.  The notion of a poisoned carrot had meaning and relevance to them and there was a clear purpose to the game.  It engaged them and it enabled their thinking to become far more effective. 

Why should we be surprised at this?  It has long been observed that children are far more intrigued by commercial board games that involve characters and setting than those that don’t.  My daughter’s favourite game at age nine was something that involved black cats going round a board looking under witches’ hats; it was little more than a sophisticated version of Ludo, but it kept her absorbed and she quickly worked out the optimum routes to travel. 

Which leaves me wondering if the current emphasis on “visible learning intentions” and “clearly defined learning targets” reflects a rather superficial understanding of how the human mind works.  In some respects it is quite easy to say “today we are going to learn this”; teach it, and then get the children to tell you what they have learned.  But this presupposes that learning is always conscious, and that thinking is always readily visible. 

Professor Guy Claxton, author of Hare Brain Tortoise Mind – Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (Fourth Estate, 1997) suggests that too much emphasis on conscious thinking lessens our ability to think intuitively.  He cites a piece of research (1985) in which a group of 10-year olds were given a task that involved predicting where a geometric shape would move to on a computer screen.  There was an underlying logical pattern to the series of shapes and their movements, but after 750 trials the children had learned “virtually nothing”.  After changing the shapes to birds, bees, and butterflies, the cursor to a net, and then adding some sound effects, however, within a short time the children were placing the net correctly.  The logical difficulty remained the same, yet the children, by seeing the task differently (as a video game rather than another school-based activity), used intuitive thinking, which transformed their learning. 

So what is it precisely that “flips” us into this intuitive kind of thinking?  Why is it that children respond so much better to tasks that involve imaginary creatures and settings?  Is it just the stuff of childhood, or is it something that is not age-specific, but a part of human experience that is currently undervalued?  Albert Einstein was famously in trouble for daydreaming at school and is also famous for saying “imagination is more important than knowledge”.  Other eminent scientists have described the part that visual imagery played in making huge and significant discoveries.  The chemist Kekule first saw the atomic structure of the benzine molecule in a “drowsy fantasy” that emerged as he gazed into the flames of his fire, and described the shapes he saw as “snakes that turned and bit their own tails”.  Both were scientists whose work revolutionised the way we understand the world; it seems no coincidence to me that they both recognised the importance of combining imagination and fantasy with logic, reason and facts. 

It’s difficult for the over-stretched teacher to find imaginative ways to approach the teaching of the curriculum in today’s target-orientated and time-pressured environment.  But I believe it is essential if we are to develop children’s abilities to think intuitively as well as logically.  The world “out there” is constantly telling educators that we need young people who can “problem-solve” and “think outside the box”; perhaps this is one approach that needs further exploration. 

“Today we are learning to dream”.  Now there’s a learning intention to conjure with. 

Mark Edwards is a freelance teacher, trainer and writer.