The Rise of Informal Knowledge and the Teacher’s Evolving Role

By William H. Zaggle

It may be that great learning is not a result of great teaching, but that great teachers are simply justified in taking some credit for it. I have heard so much about how good teachers inspire or engage students. And so much money is being spent on trying to define effective teaching attributes and somehow transfer them to teachers who are missing them. But the concept of teaching is actually a bit elusive. In his 1966 book The Tacit Dimension, the Hungarian philosopher-chemist Michael Polanyi introduced the idea of informal knowledge, or knowledge that could not be formally taught. He called it “tacit knowledge.”

Formal knowledge is basically the same for everyone, whereas informal knowledge is unique for each of us. Most experts today seem to think that this informal knowledge is the larger part of a person’s knowledge base, typically built from years of collecting experience, insight, and intuition. It may be that this informal knowledge is now becoming the primary focus of the learning process over the more traditional formal knowledge.

Certainly teachers once thought it their job to deliver the formal and more teachable knowledge to students who would then go out into the world and use it to build their own personal informal and less teachable knowledge. Indeed our traditional classrooms were designed to deliver the same formal knowledge to the entire class at the same time. Now we seem to think it is important to redefine teaching as either an art or a science or both, and somehow explicitly measure and quantify it.

Yet the art of teaching is most likely a tacit skill, one learned by collecting experience, insight, and intuition over many years. There is little evidence that increasing teachers’ base knowledge of methodology makes them more effective, or that removing technology or other tools from them actually makes them less effective. It is as if we can easily measure a person’s ability to balance standing on a ball, but still know that only practice and failure and experience and practice and some successes followed by more practice can ultimately make him or her better at it. Interestingly, there are robots now that can balance on a ball very skillfully.

So has technology, such as the internet, taken over the science of teaching? Made formal knowledge delivery engaging and inspiring? Certainly the vast amount of knowledge available on the internet is alluring, fascinating, captivating, and engaging to the point of addiction. It has quickly put formal knowledge from nearly everyone, nearly everywhere. Academics call this phenomenon distributed cognition. Young minds are already wiring quickly to deal with the “critical consumption” or, more simply, taking on the BS detection once performed by textbook authors or qualified consolidators. If the web has been, or will soon be, the inspiration and engagement, the content provider and the world repository of formal knowledge, then what of informal knowledge?

Lev Vygotsky’s constructivism theories predated the ideas of formal and informal knowledge. However, I believe that all of the newly claimed effective teachers will somehow, by whatever means required, be able to teach students how to develop informal internal knowledge constructs. It would be as though every learning task is teaching them to improve their balance on a ball, and not simply learn the area of a circle, unless that fact was somehow required to learn how to balance. I believe this cumulative cognitive process is fundamental to the idea of personalized learning.

I also believe that technology and a connected world has or will soon become more than adept at delivering on any required formal knowledge, engagement or inspiration that might be required. It will also become sufficiently adept at the majority of communication, collaboration and coordination functions. Just like many other aspects of our life, many of the things we once had a job doing are now being done by technology. Certainly education is no different and no more immune to the evolution.

Within education, informal knowledge development is rising to take over from the age of formal knowledge delivery. The new skills required of teachers as informal knowledge development comes into focus will be directing and delivering the experience while measuring levels of insight and intuition from that experience. These skills require the teacher’s own experience, insight and intuition, and something that technology continues to struggle with — keeping students on task and progressing. The experience will need to somehow cause learning to happen through failures and successes, and the results must be monitored to determine whether a student’s ready for the next level. These are things great teachers have always done and a bit of tacit knowledge skill that many teachers are still going to need to develop.

One Response

  1. This article posits an interesting dichotomy, if indeed it’s truly dichotomous. Possibly, this split between formal and informal (or tacit) knowledge is more of a spectrum. On the other hand, I see something akin to it in science education. Other fields are likely to see this divide as well.

    Many science courses teach the concepts of science, memorizable bits of information such as vocabulary words, formulas, findings,and procedures. We teach students Newton’s three laws of motion in a form to be memorized and provide equations and definitions to support these laws.

    Yet, science remains a way of thinking rather than a compendium of thoughts. I have read that this mode of thought is not intuitive but must be trained through practice. As the article suggests, the learning must involve failure. In my own experience, memorable learning takes place in failures, especially if you persist and eventually achieve success.

    Many science teachers believe that they’ve provided the necessary training when they send their students into the science lab to perform experiments. Then, they take great pains to ensure that every student succeeds in performing the experiments. Their efforts may include telling students what to expect as the result of their experiments and writing careful, explicit directions on performing the experiments. In so doing, they are converting potential valuable learning experiences into “verification” labs and “cookbook” labs that do not deliver on their promise. They’ve been destroyed by good intentions.

    I find it hard to blame these teachers because they’re just doing as they’ve been taught to do. Yet, somehow they should have enough life and teaching experience to know better. Does their lack of tacit knowledge regarding teaching mean that they are not allowing their students to develop their own tacit knowledge of science? Because they’ve been taught only the formal part of science and have not seen how to teach the other part, they only know how to carry on with teaching that part.

    In the early 20th century, John Dewey encountered a similar situation in science education. Two strong movements had developed among science educators. One held to the idea that lab work is necessary and that it should be quantitative labs that emphasize the detailed work of recording every last bit of information for later analysis. The other was concerned with relevance and found these labs to irrelevant, preferring to show students how science related to their everyday life with stories and demonstrations. Dewey managed to espouse a philosophy of learning that fused these concepts.

    In the early 21st century, the National Research Council revisited some of these ideas when it took on the task of understanding the role of the science lab in learning science. Their published work, available for free download, is called “America’s Lab Report, Investigations in High School Science” (ALR). What they found shocked many thoughtful science educators. In the first place, no consistent or generally acknowledged definition of a science lab existed anywhere in the literature. For over a century, people have been discussing science labs without really knowing whether they were all talking about the same thing.

    Furthermore, they found that the typical high school lab experience was “poor.” They sought to remedy these lacks by proposing a definition of science lab experience and by setting up seven goals for them plus four more goals for integration into science courses. Here is their definition.

    “Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

    As laudatory as these ALR goals are, this discussion of formal and informal learning implies that a piece has been left out. Simply put, we may not be able to convert our science classes into places of real science learning just by setting up some goals and insisting on meeting them. Goals, after all, are formal, memorizable lists. Unless science educators themselves understand science, have that tacit knowledge, they may fail to impart this same knowledge to their students.

    This concept goes against what many are doing these days. Must a science teacher understand science in order to teach it well? Cannot such a teacher merely follow procedures and seek explicit goals to succeed? While I don’t believe that these questions have been answered with certainty, I lean toward the side that says that science teachers must understand science to teach it well.

    You can have the best textbooks, the best designed labs, and the best intentions and still fail to impart the crucial tacit knowledge of science: the special way of thinking (scientific thinking skills), the concept of what science really is all about (the nature of science), and an appreciation for what scientists do (the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work). Generally speaking, you cannot memorize this knowledge, you must experience it. That’s why science labs are so important in learning science and why science teachers must understand science to teach it well.

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