Some interesting examples of tacit knowledge are described in a remarkable book by David Freeman Hawke who writes a history of “mechanicians”. Not engineers as we know them today nor mechanics but unschooled masters of the use of tools found in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The mechanicians could design new machines and invent marvelous mechanical contrivances yet were largely unknown. They were not mathematicians or scientists and possessed no fancy theories from school, yet had learned from experience a most remarkable set of skills. Hawke describes the stories told by George Sturt who ran a wheelwrights shop in the late nineteenth century. Tales of how these masters of wood came into their skill after seven years or more of apprenticeship. Reasoned science was not involved; instead they lived up to the acquired wisdom of the time. A stage was reached when the eyes and hands were left to a remarkable cleverness with no guide to follow. A good wheelwright knew by art rather than reasoning how tight a tyre should be made for a five foot wheel. It was a feeling in his bones. Sturt knew what convexity was required for a wheel yet neither he nor any other skilled workers in the ship could explain why it had to be that way. A wheelwrights brain had to fit itself to the task by growing into it. He said his own eyes knew through the feeling in his hands the difference between ash “tough as whipcord” vs ash that is “doaty” or “biscuit” yet he could not teach or explain this to anyone. With all the elaborate training systems of today we have lost touch with this side of education, the tacit side so well explained by Michael Polanyi.
Controversy is the meat of science. Cognitive psychologists are tossing around hypotheses about what they call multiple category-learning systems. This issue relates to tacit knowledge because the brain would appear to have a different operating system for tacit knowing (see implicit in the research literature) vs explicit learning. Another term for tacit is procedural; Zaki and Kleinschmidt argue in a recent paper that what seems to suggest this difference is actually caused by task complexity instead of indicating a need for some alternative brain structure. Now a new research study just published in Psychological Science (Feb 2014, V25 #2 pp.447-457) claims the opposite. Their research strengthens the view that procedural learning (giving rise to tacit knowledge) appears to be dissociated from processes exhibiting explicit learning.
I am so pleased to have the much needed help of Dr. Virginia Shepard as an editor for both content and copy. She is a former English professor at West Liberty University where we met back in a former lifetime. Not only does she find all the missing commas and other mysteries of punctuation, along with better word usage, but she is responding to the content of the book with considerable insight and requests elucidation where my words are vague and suggests fascinating tangents for further clarity. I am now in the process of incorporating these invaluable ideas and suggestions into the manuscript. Ginny is writing several books herself so no grass is growing under her feet. Retirement can be a rich opportunity to stretch ones wings!
A discussion with one of my book reviewers resulted in an ongoing exchange about the utility of memorization in learning. I express general disapproval of rote memorization in the book which elicited alarm and disagreement from the reviewer. The topic quickly grew to one that has interesting ramifications that I shall ruminate upon here. Why would memorization be contraindicated for learning? As a former college physics teacher I recall the usual plea from students who wanted to know what formulas they needed to memorize for the next test. This question is a red flag for me as memorization suggests the mindless jamming of some collection of meaningless letters into their memory. My reply to the students was always along the lines of asking them not to memorize the formulas but instead to KNOW them. What does that mean? Personally I have always disliked the process of memorization (never did well in foreign languages) and during my years of study I would count on the repetitive use of the equations (refering to the text) within a problem solving setting to gradually get them into my head. The formulas are relationships between variables hence constituted comprehension of a relationship, a concept, an idea. I would end up knowing the formula as a short hand expression for a comprehended idea. In that way I never went through a deliberate process of memorization but ended up “knowing” the formula. When I counsel against memorization I am not suggesting that formulas should be absent from the mind, after all we need to know stuff and some of the things we need to know are efficiently expressed as a formula. Perhaps some learners find it easier or quicker to begin the process of understanding by rote memorization of a formula that is then used within problem solving contexts hence they too will gradually build around the formula a state of comprehension. I guess I cannot argue that such an outcome is bad, just that I personally choose not to follow that approach. On the other hand the ugly is a state where the formula remains a dead entity, a meaningless collection of letters and symbols into which numbers (found in a problem) are inserted for the purpose of getting an answer (congruent with the one in the back of the book where answers often reside). Current educational practice slams the process of memorization quite hard with phrases such as “drill and kill”. This attitude describes an ugly outcome where learners become bored with the process of education and hate learning because all they do is memorize and regurgitate. I recall a history class where I was required to memorize the names of the capital cities for each state. After the “drill and kill” procedure I then had to take a regurgitation test linking the correct name of the capital city to the appropriate state name. All this dull cramming seemed as a useless waste of time hence undesirable. I hated doing it. Today I wonder what kind of alternative could replace this onerous task yet end up with the outcome that I indeed KNEW the names of state capitals. How about asking this question: How did each state capital become the state capital and where did the name come from? The process of determining the answer to these questions would be interesting, tell a story, (our minds are well equipped to handle stories) and, although less efficient, would yield the desired outcome. That’s good. The reviewer happens to be a chemist and we both remember the first chemistry course where the symbols representing elements needed to be memorized. This requirement is certainly an example where a down and dirty process of explicit memorization is necessary so sometimes cold hearted memorization is good.
Tacit knowledge is all about generating the “AHa” effect which embeds understanding into a more intuitive form of cognition than analytically encoded symbolic notation. I am always happy to see someone working hard to accomplish that as Kalid Azad does in his mathematics teaching blog. He complains (correctly) that most explanations for difficult ideas are offered in a logic based format (seems the best way by experts) rather than through a holistic approach. I recall as a former professor of physics the standard approach to teaching a topic in physics was to begin with an equation and show how that equation is derived. Students typically find the derivation quite baffling and may desperately memorize the steps. An alternative is to offer some exposure to examples of how the physical system behaves. Throw in a few problems, and then later work through the derivation when the learner has some grasp of what the topic is all about. Watch how Azad explains topics in mathematics to see an example of how this is done. He points out how a particular explanation may not work for you when a different one does so you might need to cast around looking for just the right kind of explanation to suit your own prior understandings. Kalid has several excellent books on Amazon to help anyone learning math develop an intuitive sense of what it all really means. Check out the calculus book here. His books make an excellent present for grandkids taking STEM in high school and college. The students themselves are not likely to realize they need his books but a parent and grandparent could help them get ahead by making sure the kids have these books to get them ahead in their education.
A recent blog written by Ian Bogogt offers a few gentle concerns about the new trend for offering “Massive Open Online Courses”. Note the added commentary from readers as well. I see a typical criticism expressed that seems to forget the “Adaptive Learning” approach that can be configured into online education. Without the adaptive part, the material offered in a MOOC does seem much like the same old story where content is shoved at a student to be absorbed sometime other than in a classroom (it’s called homework). Read the text and then come back the next day for class discussion. If the “homework” is in the form of a video it might, for a while, offer content in a fashion sufficiently novel to attract the interest of a student but after another “while” isn’t this just the same thing as studying the content in a text? I guess it is unless you add the adaptive learning part. As the student struggles with the online homework there is instant feedback that comes from the online computer delivering the goodies to be absorbed. Quick questions judge in real time how well the student is grasping the content and equally quick decisions are made by the computer regarding what the student might be having trouble understanding. Now the program branches off to offer special added help to get the student back on track. This is a key feature to the Polanyi theory of tacit knowledge where insight comes after the artful give and take between student and tutor. If a MOOC instructional design fails to offer adaptive learning as a core part of the instruction, then of course all you have is a rather elaborate system for delivering content without feedback; might as well just read a textbook.
One reason for developing this blog is to help me with the task of writing and editing a book explaining the structure of tacit knowledge as laid out by Michael Polanyi in his theory by the same name. I am editing a first rough draft and keep finding new material and ideas to add into the book. I will be testing these out in some of the post categories. Current plans are to publish the book using Amazons “CreateSpace” self publishing arm. This is all a new and somewhat bewildering experience.
A key problem I have is that no audience exists for the book. Nobody knows to be interested and the absence of Polanyi’s thought within the field of education leads to a sense of “who cares” and “why bother”. I have just hit upon an idea to apply the tacit theory of knowledge to current controversies in education for which there are many. Critics slam educators for many reasons including a concern that teachers are not content oriented enough. Educational theory offered in colleges of education appear to stress social, “feel good”, theoretical ideas above the necessary and hard content that makes up “real” learning. Professional educators slam back at the critics for promoting old “drill and kill” tactics certain to deluge reluctant students with unpleasant stultifying, fact-based, cramming. Polanyi offers a common ground for these disparate views. Understanding the tacit theory of knowledge can lead to an engagement between intellectual foes. We might find a way for both sides to come together. My first rough draft now needs significant rewriting. The adventure continues on a new path.
I have enjoyed surfing around websites such as Newton’s and Area9 where highly sophisticated computers are solving Benjamin Blooms “two sigma” problem. Back in the mid-nineteen eighties he led efforts to compare regular classroom instruction (lecture and summative testing) to mastery techniques and other specific learning modalities. He concluded that the master/apprentice relationship (completely personalized tutoring) was measurably superior to other educational practices. The problem then became one of expense. Schools cannot afford to hire teachers for each student. He asked for studies combining classroom instruction with combinations of other techniques to sneak up on the superiority of one-on-one instruction. The new adaptive, computerized learning systems are moving dramatically in that direction.
The theory of tacit knowledge fits right in and offers theoretical support to these new learning systems. Check out some of the key features of tacit learning. One is the need for feedback to the student. After identifying some specific error in the conceptual mental makeup of the learner (deduced automatically by the program), the computer can assign the right kind of instructional experience to get the student passed their error in thinking. Tacit knowledge warns us that misconceptions are a severe barrier to forming the desired “tacit integration” and adaptive learning systems are well suited to overcoming those kinds of barriers. The self-paced nature of adaptive learning meets another requirement for formation of tacit knowledge which is the need for incubation time. The mind does not automatically form tacit integration’s on the schedule of a school system but when self-pacing is factored in that incubation time is allowed. I will be exploring how these adaptive learning programs aid in the formation of tacit knowledge further.
Welcome to TacitKnowledge.org
Blogging about Michael Polanyi’s tacit theory of knowledge and applications to current problems in education. For an introductory, silent power point presentation look under “ABOUT”