Debate Magazine

Tacit Learning

By Stevemiranda

I’m reading a powerhouse book called A New Culture of Learning, by USC professors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It’s serving as a reminder why PSCS founder Andy Smallman is such a crazy genius.

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“Explicit knowledge,” the authors write, “lends itself well to the process of teaching—that is, transferring knowledge from one person to another. You teach and I learn. But tacit knowledge, which grows through personal experience and experimentation, is not transferrable—you can’t teach it to me, though I can still learn it. The reason for this difference is that learning tacit knowledge happens not only in the brain but also in the body, through our senses. It is an experiential process as well as a cognitive one. It is not about being taught knowledge; it is about absorbing it.”

The authors offer an example of a parent warning a child not to touch a flame because it is hot. Through that message, the child gained explicit knowledge. But when a child gets burned, she learns things that simply cannot be explained. For example, the authors write, “It hurts. It’s unpleasant. What’s more, she learns not only to avoid the match that burned her but also to avoid things that look like that match that burned her, and she starts to make all kinds of connections to other things. That turns out to be the most important point. From that one experience, a finger touching a flame, a person learns countless things.”

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In the fall of 2009, Andy Smallman (who had founded PSCS 15 years earlier) explained to me that the first focus of school should not be limited merely to the transfer of academic content from teacher to student. That misses the point entirely. The first focus of school should be on maintaining an environment in which students feel safe, secure, and part of a caring community. By surrounding students with people of high character and exposing them to interesting academic, intellectual, and social opportunities, the school is creating rich opportunities for tacit learning. That’s when students start making meaningful connections.

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One more excerpt from A New Culture of Learning:

“Because our minds, bodies, and senses are always learning, we pick up vast amounts of tacit knowledge just by going about our everyday activities—unlike learning through formal education, which takes place during specified, focused, brief periods of time. Our understanding and knowledge, therefore, are shaped to a far greater degree by the tacit than they ever could be by the explicit, especially in a world of constant change.”

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