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.”
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.
- 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”.