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

The following article was posted by William H. Zaggle in ETC Journal under a CreativeCommons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

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.

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