Tacit Expertise vs. Explicit Knowledge

wireIf you asked my students, they would probably tell you that my classroom has been a seriously miserable place over the past week.

We are currently grinding through a unit on ecosystems – and while studying the natural world should be interesting and exciting, our required curriculum is loaded with trivia.  Students are expected to know the parts of flowers and their role in the reproduction of plants.  That means my kids are wrestling to remember terms that most adults have long forgotten – anthers, stamens, stigmas, styles, pistils and filaments.  They are also expected to know the fundamentals of photosynthesis, cellular respiration and transpiration – as well as the differences between geo-, photo-, hydro- and thigmotropism.

And that’s only a small part of our unit.

We will tackle food chains next, memorizing terms like producer and consumer and decomposer.  We will talk about the difference between the brown and green food web and the role that both play in sustaining life on earth.  Students will be expected to know the unique biotic and abiotic factors that influence life in biomes ranging from the grasslands to the tundra and taiga.

I am just as miserable as my students are.  I try not show it in class, but breathing life into what amounts to nothing more than a stale study of vocabulary is exhausting.  My professional low point was bribing students with extra credit if they could come up with a REALLY FUN way to remember the difference between xylem and phloem.  The result:  Two different groups of kids working on raps and choreographing dance moves, channeling their inner-Psys all while committing to memory the difference between terms that they are bound to forget before the end of the month.

I’m disappointed in myself because I broke one of my own professional promises by using technology in a cheap attempt to sweeten an otherwise boring lesson.  “If your video is a good one, we can post it to YouTube!” I caught myself saying, as if posting videos to YouTube automatically made the lesson more meaningful.  Worse yet, I’m disappointed in myself because I know full well that lessons encouraging kids to memorize basic facts that no one really cares about is crappy teaching in action.  I’ve fallen into a trap that Will Richardson – inspired by the work of John Seely Brown – detailed in a recent column here on Educating Modern Learners.  I’m prioritizing explicit knowledge over tacit expertise in my classroom – and that’s an instructional mistake:

“What that means, in essence, is that memorizing knowledge that has been codified over time is increasingly an irrelevant effort in a moment where the half-life of that knowledge is getting shorter by the day. An emphasis on texts and facts in school, that stuff that has been made explicit over time, will not serve students as well as developing their ability to tap into the tacit expertise that individuals accrue in their day to day dealings in the actual world, not the past. That means an emphasis not on standard curriculum as much as it means building literacy in connecting, creating, and curating within the global networks and communities that we now have access to online.”

Will’s point is that spending time trying to define a standard curriculum – trying to explicitly identify isolated bits of knowledge that are essential for students to master – is nothing short of a Sisyphean task in a world where explicit knowledge multiplies exponentially and becomes easier to access every single day. How can I defend my decision to have kids memorize the meanings of terms that anyone with an Internet connected device – which is just about everyone in the developed world – can look up in an instant?  Access has changed everything for the modern learner – except for the kind of instruction that they are receiving in our schools.

So how do we turn our schools into places where tacit expertise is valued above explicit knowledge?

Here are three suggestions:

Start by changing YOUR vocabulary:  Have you ever thought about the words that we use to describe education?  The kids in our classrooms are “students” instead of “learners.”  They come to school “to receive” an education – and the teacher’s role is to “deliver” lessons.  Our goal is to ensure that every child “masters the required curriculum.”  Those words and phrases inadvertently reinforce traditional notions of teaching and learning.  Students are great at mastering explicit knowledge delivered by teachers.  Learners, on the other hand, actively create and imagine and participate in their own education.  So eliminate passive language from your vocabulary.  Doing so will send the message to everyone that you value something other than explicit knowledge.

Stop spending cash on digital tools that turn kids into passive recipients of content:  In a preview of the 2015 K-12 Horizon Report – an annual look at the latest trends in technology and learning – Stephen Noonoo of eSchool News highlights adapted learning technologies as a trend worth watching.  Here’s why that’s frightening:  Defined as “online platforms that adjust to individual students’ needs as they learn,” adapted learning technologies do little more than help schools to deliver explicit knowledge more efficiently and more effectively.  If you believe that explicit knowledge needs to play a smaller role modern classrooms, then investing in technologies that turn kids into passive recipients of content is a waste of everything from cold hard cash to political and social capital because they, too, reinforce traditional notions of teaching and learning.

Educate the parents in your community about the differences between explicit knowledge and tacit expertise:  Whenever I speak to groups of parents, I ask them the same question:  What do YOU want your child to learn in my classroom.  Their answers are always the same.  They want their children to “learn how to learn” or to “develop curiosity in a topic.”  They want their children to “develop persistence” or to “discover their own interests” or to “think critically.”  In twenty years in education, I’ve never had parents tell me that they wanted their child to “know the difference between xylem and phloem” or “properly label the pistil, stamen, pendicule and sepals on a diagram of a plant.”

That’s interesting, isn’t it?  Whether they know it or not, parents value tacit expertise over explicit knowledge.  But here’s the hitch:  Few realize that current accountability models for public schools prioritize explicit knowledge simply because testing explicit knowledge is quick and easy.  Testing tacit expertise is not.  Parents need to know that.  Let’s educate our communities and turn them into powerful allies who are ready to advocate for policies and practices that reward schools for teaching the right things.

I’m not saying any of this will be easy, y’all.  But I am convinced that if we take steps to change both our vocabulary and our digital purchases – and if we start educating our parents about the differences between explicit knowledge and tacit expertise – we might just be able to start moving our schools from a culture of knowing to a culture of doing.  That’s a shift that every student deserves.

Image credit: Apprenticeshipsmedia

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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