Should teachers be told how to teach by those who’ve never been teachers themselves?

Carl Hendrick

In his 1958 magnum opus “Personal Knowledge,’ Michael Polanyi defines ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification and that can only be gleaned through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As he so beautifully puts it, “we can know more than we can tell.”

For Polanyi, explicit knowledge is hugely important in becoming proficient at anything but without the tacit dimension of knowing how to use and apply that knowledge, one can only arrive an an abstract and approximate appreciation of it:

“Textbooks of diagnostics teach the medical student the several symptoms of different diseases, but this knowledge is useless, unless the student has learnt to apply it at the bedside.  The identification of the species to which an animal or plant belongs, resembles the task of diagnosing a disease; it too can be learnt only by practicing it under a teacher’s guidance.”

M. Polanyi

Teaching a group of children (as opposed to adults) over an extended period of time is one of those highly specialised domains where tacit knowledge is perhaps more of a prerequisite than others. It involves a million subtle nuances that are often invisible to the untrained eye, and as Polanyi reminds us, are often invisible to the teacher themselves. Knowing what will work last period on a Friday, knowing how one particular student will respond to a particular kind of feedback, knowing how to phrase that question just right to a particular kind of class who are struggling, knowing when students need to read in silence or have an animated discussion, knowing how to pitch a tricky concept at just the right point in the term or knowing how to deal with a 12 year old who has recently been bereaved and still get them through the year are all forms of tacit knowledge that are difficult to truly understand unless experienced firsthand.

On top of that, knowing how to assimilate all those elements and navigate the demands of an ever changing curriculum, parental engagement, marking and assessment and the undulating rhythms of the school year are all forms of tacit knowledge that are difficult to even define by its very best practitioners, never mind codify and teach to someone else.

And yet it’s difficult to think of another profession that is so dictated to by people without any of this knowledge. Surprisingly, some academics in education departments who train teachers are without any experience of teaching children themselves. Of course research and the kind of rarefied knowledge it creates is very useful to inform the teaching profession, indeed many of the developments in cognitive psychology for example are yielding many highly applicable findings in terms of the science of learning, but to directly train teachers about the day to day complexities of children in a classroom without any experience of those complexities is another story. It’s like someone doing just a driving theory test but then never actually learning to drive themselves yet becoming an instructor and telling people how to drive based on a theory of driving.

Beyond teacher training, there are now an increasing number of voices advising teachers how to teach who have little or no experience of teaching children. Some education consultants are paid significantly more than the teachers they are training and yet do so without any tacit knowledge of the classroom other than their own as a pupil decades ago. Encircling education is a humming industry of corporate enterprise insisting for example, that there is a mental health crisis in our schools that urgently needs costly intervention, that kids need to be taught only that which they are interested in or that business leaders should determine what’s on the curriculum as opposed to schools.

Indeed one of the main growth areas of education consultancy is the nebulous techno-world of 21st century entrepreneurialism. Now there are very good reasons why technology can and should be adopted into classroom practice but we need actual teachers with tacit knowledge of the classroom to explore this, not someone who simply brands themselves an ‘edupreneur,’ ‘disruptor,’ ‘thought leader’ or whose only qualification for standing in front of teachers seems to be merely having done a TEDx talk. (It would seem trite surely, for someone with no experience whatsoever in the operating theatre to come into hospitals and lecture qualified surgeons on how to perform “21st century surgery” for example.)

There are of course many instances in which schools can benefit from wider perspectives and experiences that are just as valid forms of tacit knowledge in themselves. In terms of school governance and policy for example, there is a lot to be learned from wider experience. After all, teachers do not have the kinds of tacit knowledge needed to run large scale operations or nationwide initiatives, but in terms of what happens in the classroom, approaching it purely from a speculative, theoretical perspective can be dangerously misleading. As Daisy Christodolou has pointed out, a lack of tacit knowledge can represent real problems in the area of assessment.

There is a lot of talk of teachers “claiming their profession,” but if teachers are to become truly empowered and take control of their own practice then they need to form more robust networks to share their tacit knowledge in meaningful ways that directly improve student outcomes and their own professional development, and that have the collective authority to contest bogus assertions and to evaluate and assimilate other useful forms of knowledge, both explicit and tacit.

There is of course also a wider debate about what constitutes a “teacher” but directly experiencing the many failures and hard-won successes of teaching children (as opposed to adults) in the classroom and being a stable part of their lives and a wider school community over many years is a rare form of knowledge that’s too often undervalued. In the end, this hard earned tacit knowledge becomes very much a lived experience for teachers, and one that is in some ways, “based on a knowledge which we cannot tell.”

I shall suggest, on the contrary, that all communication relies, to a noticeable extent on evoking knowledge that we cannot tell, and that all our knowledge of mental processes, like feelings or conscious intellectual activities, is based on a knowledge which we cannot tell.

M. Polanyi




  • Polanyi, M, (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.
  • Polanyi, Michael. “The Tacit Dimension”. Doubleday & Co, 1966. Reprinted Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass, 1983. Chapter 1: “Tacit Knowing”.



  1. Physics tutor

    On bogus assertions:
    Every university tutor I’ve worked with on 3 different modes of ITT (trad PGCE and employment-based) has had considerable teaching experience in schools. The narrative that the people who teach teachers have not been teachers is bogus. It’s possible there was some truth in this before about 1978, when there was greater emphasis on academic knowledge about the field of education (the ‘foundation disciplines’ of philosophy, psychology, sociology & history of education), rather than material about teaching, but there is very little of that in teacher training courses today.
    Other than that there is much to agree with here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. gjw1973

    Interesting thoughts, Carl. And I like the Polanyi links. However, whilst I agree with the general premise, might there not be a case for arguing that ‘aspects’ of teaching are ripe for being informed by the input of others who haven’t taught. I’d be an advocate of drawing on a wide range of influences, but hopefully in an informed way.

    For example, for some teachers help with presentation skills would help, for others it might be project management, for others some sort of tech input would help. I agree that we’re unlikely to find people from outside the profession to be able to provide a worthwhile overview, but they can certainly provide helpful insights.

    I’m a Master in charge of Cricket – and would draw parallels with that world. Coaching units across sport rely on people who haven’t necessarily played – and may only have a limited role within an organisation – strength and conditioning, fielding, psychology and so on. So why should teaching, and training teachers (and I mean that in the sense of CPD) be any different?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carl Hendrick

      Thank you. I certainly agree that in sport, outside knowledge is very useful, look at Mourinho for example. But although he didn’t play the game, he spent many years working alongside top coaches like Bobby Robson at Barca for example, picking up vital knowledge that you could never learn from a book or training course. This is a very different thing that the self-appointed expert who has no experience whatsoever other than a theoretical one.


  3. Donald Clark

    As long as teachers then refrain from telling people how to run businesses – hold on that’s busines studies teachers, or write software – hold on that’s computer science teachers, or do science – hold on…..


    • Physics Tutor

      That raises some interesting questions:
      Should someone who has never taught, say, maths be allowed to comment on maths teaching? School managers and non-specialist inspectors do this every day. And how far would you go with that? Should a teacher of your subject who has not taught in the specific context of the school you work in be allowed to tell you how to teach?
      Would it be better if, for example, science teachers had worked as scientists before teaching science to children?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pedro

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Although making this to strict could damage education too, Carl does have a point. The best paragraph is this one imho:

    Indeed one of the main growth areas of education consultancy is the nebulous techno-world of 21st century entrepreneurialism. Now there are very good reasons why technology can and should be adopted into classroom practice but we need actual teachers with tacit knowledge of the classroom to explore this, not someone who simply brands themselves an ‘edupreneur,’ ‘disruptor,’ ‘thought leader’ or whose only qualification for standing in front of teachers seems to be merely having done a TEDx talk. (It would seem trite surely, for someone with no experience whatsoever in the operating theatre to come into hospitals and lecture qualified surgeons on how to perform “21st century surgery” for example.)


  5. mmiweb

    I just wanted to comment on the ITE arena rather than the wider consultancy issues.

    Like “Physics Tutor” I have worked across a number of ITE organisations including Teach First, HEIs, SCITTs and GTPs and there were almost no people directly involved with teacher education who did not have substantive teaching experience (often at many levels in the classroom and management) – but again are we setting up a dichotomy:

    “University based ITE an awful bunch of ivory-tower academics who know nothing about the real life of the classroom and are totally out of date (rather a mirror on the argument of those who cannot do, teach – which I assume you would reject?) as opposed to School based ITE who are wonderful bunch who really get it and will craft the next generation of teacher imbued with wonderful practice”

    or maybe we could flip that,

    “University based ITE a wonderful academics and expert practitioners steeped in research and deep understanding about pedagogy as opposed to School based ITE who are an awful bunch of parochial practitioners who just want to make clones of themselves.”

    Both of these are rather crude parodies and perhaps what we want is the half-way house of access to academics both those who are ex-practitioners and researchers in pedagogy and also other who have expertise they can share from related disciplines, access to bodies of learning and also access to current classroom expert practitioners who can situate this wider knowledge and understanding.

    Having said I was commenting on the ITE arena it would be nice if this collaboration could extend on and beyond the initial training period.


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  7. Colin Welch

    I enjoyed another thought-provoking and thoughtful post, Carl!

    In terms of tacit knowledge, however, I don’t believe that most of what we know is tacit. I think, in fact, that much of what we learn as teachers is, actually, quite clear and articulable. The problem is that few people in power want to hear what we have to say. As a teacher of 23 years, I feel quite ignored, and whenever I speak up about teaching practice and learning, our leadership gets quite uncomfortable. I once led an after-school collaboration group on direct instruction. People from the school board office, particularly the curriculum department, were almost apoplectic, and they let me know about it on social media. I was Satan’s seed.

    When it comes down to it, what I have to say is not “innovative”. I refuse to accept the paradigm of constant change and innovation, particularly since it’s usually a variation of Romanticism. My pedagogy is based upon the refinement and deepening of good teaching practice, and much of that practice, in my opinion, has remained stable for centuries. And that is what I offer to new teachers if they’re willing to listen.

    Of course, this is not what the “movers and shakers” want to hear (or offer) as they ascend the hierarchy. Refinement of existing teaching practice doesn’t get anyone into the school board and out of the classroom. It’s definitely not sexy, and it definitely cannot be packaged within the confines of “constant change and innovation”. It also doesn’t give them power over the rest of us; indeed, it reverses the locus of control and places knowledge and its power squarely back in the hands of front line practitioners.

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. xiousgeonz

    There’s a critical difference between getting advice and information from somebody about project management or technology, and having The Latest Consultant arrive with The Innovation We Are All Adopting and teachers have to toe that line. Friend of mine was told she had to do amazing and innovating things to modify her course… which would have removed elements required for accreditation.
    I don’t think it’s a question of ‘people who haven’t taught shouldn’t contribute” — it’s that the tacit knowledge of teachers should be respected.


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