What is tacit knowing? As I pointed out in my last blog post, it’s ”knowing more than we can tell.” One of the best examples comes from oral language. We all learned to speak based on tacit learning experiences. How is it that we can effortlessly put one word right after the other without breaking a sweat? And what an effort it would be to try to explain that process to someone! No one taught us how to speak (at least I hope not!). No one sat us down at the age of two and said ”Now here are a bunch of words that you’re going to need to say quite frequently for the rest of your life: ‘the’ ‘an’ ‘and’ ‘but’ ”to’ ‘he’ ‘she’ now try to say them one at a time very clearly to me.” Imagine how confusing and dysfunctional that would be!
Instead, we learned to talk by listening to the conversations of those around us and by practicing those sounds, putting them together in different ways, improvising, riffing, trying them out in social situations and noticing the reactions from others. In other words, we learned to speak by speaking. Sounds pretty sensible, doesn’t it?
But that’s not how we learn in school. In school, practically all the focus is placed on explicit knowing and learning, not on tacit learning. Teachers teach reading by giving sequential lessons in phonics (e.g. ”say ‘sh’ everyone, and now combine ‘sh’ with ‘ee’ to make, what? yes Susan? no that’s not right, Billy? yes that’s right, ‘she’). In writing, teachers teach the rules of grammar (e.g. ”Bobby, what is a gerund? No, that’s not correct, ”Susan? yes, a gerund is a form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun, in English ending in -ing, not like ‘learning” because that’s a participle, but ”flying” would work”). In math, teachers teach algorithms, (”now class, an algorithm for multiplication is simply to add the number over and over again. Any questions?”).
These subjects would be taught with tacit knowing in a very different way. Students would learn reading by being read to, reading, and talking about what they read. All the knowledge of phonics sounds, reading comprehension, and other ”splinter skills” would be learned within the context of the whole reading experience itself. Students would learn writing by writing. Students would learn math by diving right into an everyday problem that has one or more mathematical problems and solutions connected to it.
In other words, tacit learning is learning by doing. That’s the reason why most people who take a foreign language in high school never learn it, because so much of it involves explicit instruction of verb forms, vocabulary words, grammar rules, and the like. But pop a person into a culture where only that language is spoken for a few months or years, and through tacit learning the student will master that language.
Naturally many educators object to this way of characterizing the learning process. They defend explicit learning. For example, there’s been a whole lot of news in the education media lately about how ”research says” that beginning readers need formal systematic sequential lessons in phonics. How do they come to this conclusion? Through the test scores of those who have and have not had this kind of explicit instruction (test results are higher in those groups who had the formal phonics lessons).
But, and here’s a crucial point to keep in mind, the tests themselves are based on explicit instruction and essentially test explicit learning, not tacit learning. The test itself looks like the lessons that prepared them for the test, so naturally those kids in the test-prep groups will do better on the tests than those who haven’t had test-prep background even though these non-test prep kids may be better ”tacit” readers. Employing tests like this is like having a corrupt judge ”uphold” the rule of law. The very structure itself is flawed.
On the other hand, I’ve always felt that the best way to assess reading proficiency is by videotaping a student at the beginning of the year reading a book they select, and then having them engage in a conversation with a teacher or student about the reading material. Then repeat the same video format at the end of the year (or at any interval after the initial video), and compare videos.
In other words, don’t assess reading by having students answer ”reading comprehension” questions and fulfilling other ”skill-based” competencies, but by listening to them read and talk about what they read. It sounds so simple, and it is, but the field of education is so clogged up with pedagogical nonsense and silly concepts, that this plain common sense way of measuring reading progress goes virtually unrecognized.
Imagine how it would threaten the power structure that subsists upon making reading as complicated as possible, in other words: reading specialists, learning disability specialists, formal reading programs created by large corporations, the reading test industry, and so on. A curriculum based on tacit knowing and learning would put all these parties out of business. And what would we be left with? A nation of readers. A nation of learners.
For more information about optimal learning methods and strategies, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
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