Tacit (silent) knowledge (Polanyi,
1958) and implicit learning (see
[ed.] 1997) have in common the idea of not knowing what
you do know or have learned. "Tacit knowledge"
has been all but hi-jacked by management gurus, who use it to
refer to the stock of expertise within an organization which
is not written down or even formally expressed, but may nevertheless
be essential to its effective operation.
This is a seriously big issue
in large organizations in particular: I have to draw the line
somewhere on this site, but see the work of Nomamura, and Senger.
Originally, Polanyi's interest was in the kind of knowledge
which we routinely use and take for granted, such as the ability
to recognize the face of a friend: it is irreducible to explicit
propositional knowledge and cannot be articulated. It cannot
therefore be taught, although of course there is obvious evidence
that it can be learned or acquired. It may therefore (and
here I wander away from the formal theory) be associated
with Gestalt understanding, and procedurally
— in the form of "know-how" — with a "knack"
for doing something.
All that one can do to "teach" such knowledge
is to provide opportunities for people to learn it, perhaps
through exposure to examples: there is nevertheless a qualitative
leap between individual examples of either propositional knowledge
or practical skill, and the ability to integrate them into something
which is "more than the sum of its parts". The distinction
is similar to that between
Learning I and Learning II. Ideas of
learning similarly suggest that it is most effectively "picked
up" in real world situations, and that attempts to reduce
it to standard teachable forms are in danger of distorting or
destroying it (Becker,
If tacit knowledge is about the content of what
is learned, implicit learning is about the process, and it remains
a contentious debate in psychology. A typical experiment in
the field is to expose subjects to strings of letters which
are governed by orderly rules (or a "grammar"), such
as DEFKLM and JKLPQR, and others which are not: the subjects
are not expected to try to articulate the rules. The subjects
are later shown further sets of letters and asked to say which
are "grammatical" and which not: they tend to be able
to distinguish between them without knowing quite how they do
it (Reber, 1967). This is taken
as evidence that they have "unconsciously" learned
a rule: not only can they not specify the rule, but they do
not even know that they have learned a rule.
This is perhaps not surprising: it applies after all to
all the forms of non-human learning which have ever been studied.
But is it just a matter of picking up individual "tricks"
or may more complex and coherent learning be taking place unconsciously?
My impression in reading the literature is that much of the
research is limited by its methodology: the tendency of subjects
to try to find ways to explain or rationalise the discovery
that they have learned something, when they don't know how it
happened, is likely for ever to undermine attempts to find interesting
However, in learning in the professions in
particular, the process of acquiring the "know-how"
of the mature practitioner is still little understood, and its
relationship with formal training remains problematic. Berry
(1997) reports that in one of her experiments:
"It was found that
in both cases, practice significantly improved ability to
control the tasks, but had no effect on ability to answer
post-task, written questions. In contrast, verbal instructions
about the best way to control the tasks had no significant
effect on control performance, although they did make people
significantly better at answering the questions. [...] these
basic findings have been replicated and extended in a number
of follow-on studies [...] (Berry 1997:2)
It is still not clear where this area of
research is leading, but it may well be particularly important
for educational practice in the future. The quotation certainly
poses some interesting questions about skill development (in
teaching, for example), and the relevance or otherwise of the
ability to talk about it!
See also the
of competence" model.
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