"What is the experience giving you?"
July 13, 2021 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Let's assume you'd like to get better at a skill. What role does learning tacit knowledge play in growing your expertise? "Tacit knowledge is ‘knowledge that cannot be captured through words alone’. A series of blog posts by Cedric Chin summarizes education research and "explores how expertise is tacit, why the research around extracting tacit knowledge is more important than the literature on deliberate practice, and how to go about acquiring tacit knowledge in the pursuit of skill acquisition" - including a summary of an approach for eliciting tacit knowledge from experts. Some really interesting anecdotes here about Toyota, judo, bike-riding, recognizing tennis serves, and more.
posted by brainwane (32 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
It's been a definite factor for me when learning a musical instrument, probably something like 30-40% of the process. Of course there are concepts such as music theory/history and song structure that need to be conveyed through words and written music. But listening to an accomplished musician play a piece of music also gives me tons of information about tone, playing styles and rhythms, interpretation, etc. that would be difficult or impossible to get otherwise.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:41 AM on July 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

Wow, this all looks FASCINATING, and I can't wait to really dig into all of it.

I'm so glad to learn people are studying this and trying to find better ways for us to share the things we've learned.

This is really great - so much food for thought, and so much to learn here.

Thank you so much for posting this, brainwane!
posted by kristi at 11:51 AM on July 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Need more time to read the article but yes- I have so much tacit work knowledge gained over 10+ years. That's what my salary goes for, I think. It's all the stuff that allows me to gauge fairly instantly what root cause exists for a particular issue. If I "work" for 5 minutes and fix your issue, did you overpay me? Nope. Because someone without my knowledge might not have been able to fix it at all; or would have taken WAY longer.

In those 5 minutes I'm mentally scouring acres of mind-space to shake out the solution. Could I ever articulate all that stored info? Never. It's like Sherlock in his mind palace. It's the accumulation of so many things. Am I hoarding it on purpose for job security etc.? Nope. There is just so much layered knowledge that factors into it. To train someone else to "be me" would require them to have had my experiences, and that is very unlikely. This is the blessing and the curse of an aging IT workforce IMO.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:54 AM on July 13, 2021 [28 favorites]

oh man the part about YouTube is so true and yet that doesn't even cover it for things that involve smell or touch, namely cooking. I am still a much better cook because of YouTube but I can't acquire a skilled baker's sense of how much a dough has developed during proofing just by watching them poke at a blob of dough on screen, but if they narrate their poking with "you're looking for it to spring back like this and smell like this," that really does at least point you to the thing you need to pay attention to, which is half the battle.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:03 PM on July 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is the blessing and the curse of an aging IT workforce IMO.

I've been fortunate to work with (and be) people in this group. The best way I've heard the troubleshooting pathway explained was by a co-worker who said something like "it works this way because it has to work this way or it wouldn't work at all," with 'it' being the complicated application+networking fabrics we were tasked to manage. Sort of a gut-level immediate understanding of where the failure had to be, given the pattern of alerts and their arrival times relative to each other.
posted by jquinby at 12:05 PM on July 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

Really interesting. It reminds me of a related point a friend made about the difference between systemic learning and procedural learning. Procedural learning is memorizing a recipe. Systemic learning is understanding how eggs and milk and flour and heat make a cake. But it's not the same thing, since tacit knowledge as described here is too full of special cases to be reduced to a system. Lots to think about.
posted by adamrice at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Wow! Very interesting. Just started with the “summary” link. Learning a lot already. Thanks for posting. :-)
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:31 PM on July 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Really just kind of poking around at random on breaks, but the post defining types of tacit knowledge talks about relational tacit knowledge, which Chin says could, in theory, be made explicit, but one barrier is that "It is incredibly time consuming or costly to explicate."

Based on my own experience, I would soften that quite a bit: it is more time-consuming or costly to explicate (or learn) than the recipient chooses to expend. And this is not a criticism of the recipient - it's just an observation, one that acknowledges and values that everyone has finite amounts of time and money, and very often everyone's happy to leave the expertise inside the person who has it.

I work on websites for a living, and I have a long-standing policy that I am entirely happy to explain any process to a client, and give them step-by-step instructions; and I am equally happy to just do the thing and fix the problem. Very often, the people paying me don't have the time to learn all the ins and outs of what I'm doing, and understand why it works the way it does; they just want it fixed. And that's fine.

Like a whole lot of people with expertise (and I would argue that ALL of us have expertise of one kind or another), I am happy to share it, and I also understand when it's not something others can readily use. But I do wish there were good ways to preserve that expertise, so people could call on it when they DO have the need for it. Youtube is a FANTASTIC example of this - it's an unimaginable boon to be able to call up a stranger's expertise when it suits me, when I'm ready to take in some of what they've learned.

It would be great if we could, as a society, codify ways to preserve and share expertise, and make that part of who we are and how we choose to live.
posted by kristi at 12:52 PM on July 13, 2021 [11 favorites]

The classic joke is about the old engineer who retires from the factory. A year later, the production line starts breaking down, running irregularly, everything is going haywire. The workers can't figure out what's wrong with the line; the new engineer can't figure it out. Finally, they get ahold of the old engineer and bring her in out of retirement. She walks onto the factory floor and tells them to start the line running again. After about 10 minutes, she walks over to an obscure part of the production line, pulls out a piece of chalk and puts an X on some component. "Change that out and it'll work again."

They do, and it does, and then the management receives a bill for $25,000 from the old engineer. Incensed, they demand she provide more documentation and itemize the invoice fully. The invoice says:

One chalk mark... $1
Knowing where to put it... $24,999

And it gets paid in full.
posted by Superilla at 1:37 PM on July 13, 2021 [21 favorites]

Seconding kristi's point about the value of YouTube. A few years back, I had to repair the windshield wiper motor on a Mercedes. I was getting nowhere removing the clips that held the plastic shielding, and it took a YT video to show me that you really need to house on those suckers. A couple hours and sufficient blood sacrifice from my knuckles later and the job was done.
posted by whuppy at 1:47 PM on July 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

This series hits home. I'm an enthusiastic learner who is constantly disappointed by how useless book learning is when it's time to actually swing the damn hammer.
posted by whuppy at 1:52 PM on July 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

The classic joke is about the old engineer ...
One chalk mark... $1
Knowing where to put it... $24,999

This is not a joke. It's based on a true story about Charles Steinmetz.

posted by cron at 2:13 PM on July 13, 2021 [20 favorites]

I map out workflows and diagnose complex systems failures in my software job -- that's relational tacit knowledge made explicit. Test-driven approaches store more. information about intent alongside the the codebase, with the right and wrong behaviours of the system for people working with the code -- but it's not part of the working production system or app that people download and use. And ”100% test coverage" is only said and never done.

We try to map out and constrain the workflows so that users learn the system well, something games have established better with reward-driven ways to train users in the machinery of the game. I've joked about how our tested workflows can't idiot-proof programs against "nature making a better idiot" so we don't really constrain the paths people can take or reflect all the ways people imagine our systems could work. And that "imagine the ways the system could work" is the accumulated expertise needed to imagine also how the system might fail.
posted by k3ninho at 2:43 PM on July 13, 2021

I love this old piece about institutional memory and reverse knowledge smuggling which I interpret as organizationl tacit knowledge:
My job now was to smuggle these documents back into the company. I would be happy to just hand them over. But that doesn't make any sense to the company. The company officially has these documents (digitally managed!), and officially I don't. In reality, the situation is the reverse, but who wants to hear that? God knows what official process would let me fix that.

No, the documents need to be brought back in to where they 'already were' unofficially. Physical copies are made and added to the local group library. Eventually they'll probably work their way into the digital document management system, the next time someone canvasses and notices some documents with no inventory control tags. I hope they aren't lost this time, because I won't be around in another 30 years to smuggle them back in again.

Oh, and as an external consultant, I'm not allowed to know some of the trade secrets in the documents. The internal side of the team needs to handle the sensitive process information, and be careful about how that information crosses boundaries when talking to the external consultants. Unfortunately, the internal team doesn't know what the secrets are, while I do. I even invented a few of them, and have my name on some related patents. Nonetheless, I need to smuggle these trade secrets back into the company, so that the internal side can handle them. They just have to make sure they don't accidentally repeat them back to me.
posted by migurski at 3:09 PM on July 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm being super blunt here, but I think the author is full of b.s. There's no such thing as "tacit knowledge" the way they are theorizing it. I have several objections to such a theory, but the most importantly what this is trying to obscure is the reality that learning and education are highly socially privileged activities. We don't need a complex theory positing the existence of "knowledge that we can't put into words" or "motor coordination! or cultural norms!" as tacit knowledge (so, is innate language capacity of Homo sapiens also an example of tacit knowledge?). That's just knowledge and/or information, existing as words, or not.

By making this pseudoscientifically vague theory it lets them put forward this movement, which will make book authors and consultants money. But the real issues around the privileges/gatekeeping of learning and education are social and political. The scientism obscures this.
posted by polymodus at 3:18 PM on July 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

polymodus, I'm a little unclear; which parts of the series did you read before coming to this conclusion? Also, I am curious what approaches you've used when you've tried to learn or teach things that are a little harder to explain verbally, including informal/domestic skills that have somatic elements (such as a child teaching another child to ride a bicycle). Even if you don't like the framing around "tacit knowledge" perhaps we can still have a useful conversation swapping tips about how we learn and teach stuff!
posted by brainwane at 5:55 PM on July 13, 2021 [8 favorites]

The name Michael Polanyi -- or, if you prefer, Polányi Mihály -- comes to mind for some reason.
posted by y2karl at 6:46 PM on July 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

How, if at all, is tacit knowledge different than what in the medical and psychotherapy fields is called clinical knowledge/clinical judgment/clinical expertise? I've only really read and skimmed through the first two blog posts in the series, but this feels like someone who's kind of rediscovering the wheel in his own field and calling it something else. I mean, he even gives an example of a doctor detailing their clinical decision making, I mean tacit knowledge process for conducting an appendectomy! Also, I think polymodus is on to something.
posted by flamk at 8:04 PM on July 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

An important step learning a new physical skill, dance, skating, judo, tennis, etc, is "gawking". Not studying, or listening to a coach, or analyzing but just looking. And as much as videos are fantastic and I hit youtube a lot, watching in reasonably close proximity a competent practitioner in whichever field can be worth a thousand videos.
posted by sammyo at 8:52 PM on July 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I was teaching, I was struck by the fact that it was HARD for me to teach things that I had a lot of "tacit knowledge" about -- although I would have said, "came naturally" to me -- but I think both are true. But it was easy for me to teach things that I fucking struggled to learn, because I had a much clearer understanding of the learning process and the points at which it was easy to fail. I saw a similar thing reflected in a lot of my colleagues. I taught philosophy, and most people who teach philosophy do so because they innately "got it" at 18-22 and have always been INTO THAT. But colleges require survey courses, so you have to teach a LOT of students who definitely do NOT "get it" (and often given zero shits about it). It was interesting to watch my hugely talented philosophy colleagues struggle teaching, precisely because they had not struggled learning and therefore did not understand where students were failing. Whereas for me -- and I recognize this is a hyperspecific distinction but for me it was a huge one! -- theology always came easily and I just "got" it, I understood intuitively how all the pieces fit together and grew from textual interpretation and so on, but when I was in college I thought philosophy was SO FUCKING STUPID AND POINTLESS, and learning enough of it to pass my survey courses was a heavy lift. And then in grad school, I understood how much I NEEDED to learn it to understand theology better (because of their close relation), but it was so HARD, especially compared to how easy and pleasant theology was to master. I was knocking theodicy classes out of the park and whining in philosophy classes "BUT PLATO IS BORRRRRRING!" (Well, Plato's fine. HUME is boring. DIRELY boring.)

When I was teaching, I was the only person in my department who didn't have a Ph.D. in philosophy, and the only one who came to philosophy later than undergrad. But more of my students passed the department-wide 101 exam than anyone else's (we were a community college and to get state college credit they had to do a standard exam), by a WIDE margin. And sitting in on colleagues' classes, I gradually realized it was because I understood my students' failure states because I HAD BEEN THROUGH THEM, whereas my colleagues who just GOT philosophy from the time they were 15 or 18 or 20 struggled to understand where students were failing, because to them it was intuitive and they couldn't grasp the failures in reasoning.

If you look back at my commenting history on MeFi, you'll see that I'm very good at answering questions about theology, but I'm UTTER SHIT at organizing my answers, because it's so intuitive to me and I have so much knowledge and so many caveats that I struggle to boil it down to coherence.

Anyway. I think it takes an extraordinary person to be able to teach something they're brilliant at really well to beginners. I think a lot of people can teach to intermediate or expert students, and a lot of people can teach things they're not great at to beginners. But teaching something you're amazing at to a beginner is SO HARD, precisely because you probably mastered it relatively easily, and it's really hard to remember all the steps that went into gaining all that expertise. I always think of music teachers for elementary school students, who are often SUCH talented musicians, who can not only put up with absolutely shitty off-key beginner playing (so painful!) but who can teach the beginning steps to mastery. Which is a legit hard thing to teach when you HAVE mastery! (But I guess one of the points of the posts is, music is one of those things with a pretty good pedagogy behind it.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:43 PM on July 13, 2021 [18 favorites]

flamk, part 3 covers what Chin calls the three kinds of tacit knowledge - relational, somatic, and collective - and talks about how and why they're different, and how and why those types of knowledge can be acquired. I think his description of collective knowledge and his points in "Wrapping Up" on that page are really interesting, and enlightening to me.

He does a lot of summarizing others' writings, which I appreciate - I don't know when I'll have time to go read all this stuff, but it's really nice to have the pointers - especially to Collins' Tacit and Explicit Knowledge, which looks a little dense for my lunch break reading but seems to have some pretty intriguing ideas.
posted by kristi at 9:47 PM on July 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I totally understand the difference between somatic tacit knowledge in your link, kristi, and traditional practice and repetition. Because how you gain a lot of that somatic tacit knowledge is by practice and repetition and learning to feel in your body when a task has been done correctly or incorrectly.

I took watercolor painting about a year ago, it will be a year later this month, and when I began I had not picked up a paintbrush since Junior high School art class where I was acknowledged as very very bad. But working through tutorials as best I could and having the nice lady on the YouTube tutorials explain to me what I supposed to trying to be doing started with me making facsimiles of something like art, and then gradually as I practice doing what she told me to do gaining some skill and understanding how to mix colors how to pick up water on my brush how to spread water on the paper and make sure I was getting the right amounts of water and pigment and so on. And I'm starting to gain a certain amount of this tacit somatic knowledge where I can sort of tell when I get my brush wet and it has too much water or it has too much pigment and I'm going to need to knock some of that off before I can paint or it's going to puddle in weird ways.

Like it definitely helps to have a teacher saying if this is what's happening you're using too much water, but a lot of the intuitive learning I'm getting is from practicing and experimenting and realizing that when my brush feels like this or when I pick up my colors like that the problem is on the brush and I need to correct that before I can paint and get the effect I want.

But it feels very much like practice and repetition leading to these tacit skills about how to load my brush with paint, and how to lay the paint onto the paper, by trying and failing a whole lot of times.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:39 PM on July 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Eyebrows, it's probably very helpful that painting is an activity that often provides visceral, immediate feedback or at least gross indications of errors and mishaps. I think that learning solely by personal experience is much more difficult in pursuits where feedback is difficult to come by, especially for novices who haven't yet learned to recognize signs and symptoms of errors. Helping novices recognize and diagnose mistakes is incredibly important and sometimes overlooked or undervalued.

The author of these blog posts and magazine articles is entitled to his opinions but I don't place much weight on his opinions and judgments compared to the psychologists and others who conducted the experiments and wrote the books and articles that he is trying to summarize and sometimes critique.
posted by ElKevbo at 11:07 PM on July 13, 2021

>When I was teaching, I was the only person in my department who didn't have a Ph.D. in philosophy, and the only one who came to philosophy later than undergrad. But more of my students passed the department-wide 101 exam than anyone else's (we were a community college and to get state college credit they had to do a standard exam), by a WIDE margin. And sitting in on colleagues' classes, I gradually realized it was because I understood my students' failure states because I HAD BEEN THROUGH THEM, whereas my colleagues who just GOT philosophy from the time they were 15 or 18 or 20 struggled to understand where students were failing...
Thank you, Eyebrows, that's a useful contrast. What nobody's said on this thread -- and I fear it's because we're uncommonly-linked by this internet and don't always state our overlapping shared interests -- is COMMON SENSE.

How much knowledge does one cohort assume is common sense and struggle to impart to those that follow them or come from other lived experiences? If we're aiming for those intersections of overlapping shared interest, then being able to see past 'blind spots' of my habitual assumptions of what's common or sensible is a practice and discipline so highly important in bringing people together.
posted by k3ninho at 1:10 AM on July 14, 2021

I taught philosophy, and most people who teach philosophy do so because they innately "got it" at 18-22 and have always been INTO THAT. But colleges require survey courses, so you have to teach a LOT of students who definitely do NOT "get it" (and often given zero shits about it).

I'm sure that is a challenge. I had an online acquaintance who was going back for a BA, and he was very excited about taking a philosophy course. I talked to him about it for a while, and I felt I had to tell him that Philosophy 101 was going to be very different from what he had in mind, which was, more or less, a survey course in the kind of stuff that philosophy professors call "wisdom literature".
posted by thelonius at 2:27 AM on July 14, 2021

I'm putting in a good word for Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner, which is about a combination of lowering anxiety and deliberate practice. It's specifically about jazz piano, but has more general application.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:23 AM on July 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

Polymodus, I don't follow your comment. I see that you are not convinced by the notion of 'tacit knowledge.' But I don't see the connection with the argument that learning and education are socially privileged.

The author's point about learning to ride a bike seems to capture this. He suggests the best way to teach this is through a series of exercises that isolate aspects of the experience in a way that is easy for a beginner to safely practice while accumulating the complete set of techniques you need for the whole task of finally riding a bike. I think his point here is that you can do this without ever rendering the experience of bike riding into words, and that the attempt to render it into words would fail anyway.

Maybe you think this is BS scientism, and perhaps it is. But, I don't see how that makes it somehow related to issues of privilege and gatekeeping in education. You don't need to get into Harvard to get access to bike riding.
posted by cron at 6:06 AM on July 14, 2021

I taught my daughter to ride a bike last week. She already knew how to ride with training wheels and she isn't that into bikes so she's 8 and not like 5 or younger where relatively difficult verbal and balance concepts are tough to manage. While she was doing the pedaling, verbal instructions like 'look where you want to go, not at your pedals' and 'pedal faster to get more balance and control' and 'if you get scared push on your brakes to stop' are pretty good at teaching someone how to ride a bike, and they are basically the same words ski instructors used to teach me to ski, wakeboard, and snowboard.

Also, pushing backwards on the pedals to stop your bike via the brake is not intuitive, so that's words too.

But how would I even know if my words or her experience was the primary driver? I mean, it took her less than 30 minutes to learn to ride on her own, so I'd like to think my words were useful....

I also use Youtube a lot - in the past year alone, I used it to code an HTML5 music player (the base was awesome but I needed to do a lot more to make it workable), replace the defroster in my fridge, replace the door sensor in my microwave, replace the door handle on my stupid car, and to make a choux pastry dough. Youtube is great not because you get to hear people's inner monologue but because they skip so many steps in the verbal instructions, you can backup and see what they are doing. I don't think that is indicative of tacit knowledge but rather that random people who videoed a task are not teachers.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:39 AM on July 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this post, it looks like a great series of articles. I only read the YouTube post, and it immediately struck a chord with me because that's the way I became good at playing Squash. A few years ago, some friends got together and decided to start playing squash. I had never played before, but since I was generally decent at any given sport, I wasn't too fussed. But on the court, the first day, I was left exhausted and demoralised by how hard I found it. There was not time to acquire all these squash skills, and then I remembered that story (maybe linked here on MeFi) of this Kenyan javelin athlete who learnt his skills by watching Youtube videos of professional athletes. So, I immersed myself in squash videos, watching tutorials and pro games, always squeezing in a few videos before I went to play. After 6 months or so of this, I'd reached a point where I was constantly beating almost everyone else in the squash circle.
posted by dhruva at 9:46 AM on July 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Some fundamental assumptions I have about this topic, and about some opportunities and difficulties more generally when talking about learning and teaching:

It can be hard to accurately remember the experience of not having a skill once you have advanced sufficiently in it (this is per the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition) - not just that you once were a novice, but what your mental models were, what perceptual gaps you have since fixed, and other details.

Different people, learning different topics in different environments with different motivations, resources, different configurations of interpersonal support, different levels of time commitment available, at different underlying levels of maturity and self-efficacy/locus of control and and metacognition and skill in related domains and so on, will have different experiences of the process of learning (some will not even notice that we are learning at all!) and different memories/assessments of what worked. In some cases this will reflect genuinely different learning/teaching approaches; in some cases people will use different words to describe the same experience, or will have divergent conscious memories of the same basic experience.

Different people also TEACH in very different contexts; me coaching a friend through how to break down an overwhelming task list via videocall is different from a chess teacher demonstrating things on YouTube, or a Public Service Announcement on the radio about how to notice if someone's having a stroke, or a mentor letting their mentee shadow them at work for a day, or me blogging about how to use a particular PyPI feature, or a volunteer language tutor meeting a 5th grader once a week in a noisy afterschool room. And, again, different teachers will have different memories of what worked, as in the previous point.

Curiosity and the desire for competence and mastery exist in lots of domains - in institutional settings like school and work, but also in hobbies, sex, relationship skills, domestic skills such as cooking and repair, self-improvement, art, etc.

Researchers have learned some things about how learning works, and it is possible to read that research, or practitioner-aimed summaries of it, to learn ideas that can help us learn - and teach each other - better.

Some human cultures valorize learning/practice/study; some cultures (including some of the ones that valorize learning) are scornful of theory and research in pedagogy/androgogy, educational psychology, and related fields.

We have all learned things and we have probably - at least informally - taught other people things, and we can all usefully share experiences as long as we allow for potential confusion along the way.
posted by brainwane at 10:33 AM on July 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

I followed the recognizing tennis serves link, because it sounded a lot like this table tennis app, developed by the (possibly not coincidentally Australian) player William Henzell. In it, you are trying to recognize whether a serve is coming to your forehand or your backhand. I could not do better than random, but better players do fairly well.
posted by MtDewd at 1:44 PM on July 14, 2021

I saved those blog posts until I had the time to give them the focused attention they clearly deserved. Now that I've read them, I wanted to say, Brainwane, thanks for sharing them.

Chin acknowledges that he is a lay person summarizing other people's work, but he's an excellent summarizer, and I found it fascinating.

Although Chin is skeptical about Anders Ericsson, I think these posts are an excellent companion to Ericsson's Peak, which is a book that changed how I look at the world and which I recommend to pretty much everybody.
posted by yankeefog at 9:43 AM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

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