The Importance of Tacit Knowledge in Science Educators

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: This article was first published as a comment to William Zaggle’s “The Rise of Informal Knowledge and the Teacher’s Evolving Role.” -Editor]

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 learned how to teach the other part, they only know how to carry on with teaching the formal.

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 quantitative labs too irrelevant, preferring to show students how science relates 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 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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