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Tacit Knowledge, Computational Thinking, and 1:1

I’ve just finished reading A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in which the authors describe two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that is “easily identified, articulated, transferred, and testable.” In essence, it’s what school is all about. But there is also knowledge that we have about how things work or what we know about a situation that we often cannot put into words. This they refer to as tacit knowledge (based on work by Michael Polanyi in The Tacit Dimension)– it is part and product of our experiences, but rarely articulated and never really assessed.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that doesn’t (or rarely) changes. Schools were based on transmitting this knowledge because much of it was deemed important, there’s lots of it and schools provided the time and place to pass it on, and, importantly, other means of being exposed to this knowledge were once very limited. Schools gave all children the opportunity to be exposed to what was considered the essential knowledge to be a productive participant in society.

In the 21st century, a time of constant and rapid change, the authors argue, the focus is on tacit knowledge. It’s learning by doing, experiencing, not by listening to someone or reading about how to do something. Unlike explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge is not transferrable. It’s something that comes from each of us and our experiences in the world, through actions, our senses, our physical interactions. It is, as Thomas and Seely Brown state, “not about being taught knowledge; it is about absorbing it” through our mind, our bodies, our senses.

What does that mean about schools as they currently exist? First, no one is saying schools should not still transmit explicit knowledge. But, they also need to provide ample time and opportunity to develop tacit knowledge. 1:1 exponentially expands these opportunities, letting children experiment and explore and develop tacit knowledge, but only if they are given the opportunities that digital technologies make abundantly available – exploring their questions and not just answering yours, creating and not just consuming.

Thinking about the opportunities 1:1 helps make possible, I began to consider some other work I’m doing- preparing an article about computational thinking. Computational thinking is a new approach to how we view and understand our world. It is also becoming one of the most important shifts in thinking of the 21st century.

Computers have freed us from the onerous and sometimes impossible task of running long, complex calculations, the type often required in research, so that researchers now more easily can focus on the big ideas and patterns that emerge. In thinking as a computer scientist, researchers become aware of behaviors and reactions that can be captured in algorithms or can be analyzed within an algorithmic framework.

Computational thinking now gives them a different framework for visualizing and analyzing – a whole new perspective. To rephrase a common idiom, “Until you have a screwdriver, everything looks like a nail.”

Computational thinking develops a variety of skills (logic, creativity, algorithmic thinking), involves the use of scientific methodologies, and helps develop both inventiveness and innovative thinking. It has roots in mathematics, engineering, technology, and science, and in the synthesis of ideas from all these fields, has created a way of thinking that is only just beginning to generate enormous changes and benefits.

Just using computers does not necessarily lead to the development of computational thinking. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google, while all great applications, do not require or involve the same skills. Computational thinking is a learned approach and there’s no better way to learn it than through programming. Programming employs all the components of computational thinking and the tacit knowledge gained through the experience of tackling programming challenges can provide a framework not only for computer science, but for any field from natural and health sciences, to the social sciences and humanities.

So, here we have an important, essential and very truly 21st century “skill”- computational thinking - that is best learned through experience, interactions, actively doing. One that can only develop in a technologically rich environment – a 1:1 environment. It allows students who learn to express themselves through programming (and who have the time to gain this knowledge) to not only answer questions but generate new ones as they begin to view these challenges through the lens of the tacit knowledge intrinsic to computational thinking.

If the only reason to have 1:1 was to provide students with the opportunity to play within this computationally rich environment long enough to develop both the explicit and tacit knowledge inherent in activities such as programming, this would be reason enough.

Another book to check out – Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson
July 13th, 2011 @ 5:35PM

Thanks for your thoughts on this issue Susan. In Australia we are currently being introduced to a national curriculum. It seems inexplicable to me as we move well into the 21st century that such a document demands we teach explicitly in the core learning areas. There are vague referrals to cross-curricular integration; but as you can imagine, such a national administrative undertaking is dominating the educational horizon for the short to mid term as I see it. Tacit knowledge is the product all great teachers seek to create in their lessons.Tacit knowledge is what must endure in a great school. A national curriculum focuses on content templates and assessment profiles; and that assessment is of explicit knowledge. Technology is still being employed as an add-on where teaching practices of the past are accelerated or amplified to some extent, at the expense of individual learning by our students. It is a disappointingly low horizon to aspire too.
It is the connections between the learning areas and the understanding of the exquisite principles at their heart that defines intelligence surely. The demonstrations of these understandings need to be what is assessed; this can only be done in an educational environment which is designed to sustain innovation and welcome individual creativity from both teacher and student. Our technology platforms, in such a dynamic school, can then be challenged to operate somewhere near capacity for each student and teacher. The challenge is to have the subject fortresses which dominate the middle and senior schools understand the inadequacy of such a model. Elizabeth Coleman from Bennington University has written much inspiring information on this problem at a university level; but it translates superbly to a national educational landscape about to be locked into a moribund, one dimensional educational template where the classroom focus remains on the destination instead of the journey ,and, explanations dominate in lieu of experiences.

The nature of creating learning situations where tacit knowledge is valued for its capacity to construct each students unique intelligence is surely what Sir Ken Robinson alludes to when talking about his definition of intelligence. But such exciting thinking needs to be translated into schools and from there we can continue the revolution! Our 1:1 platforms have no peer when our students are asked (allowed) to construct their own demonstrations of their understanding.

with thanks

Michael Valentine
Hale School

Perth Australia
Posted By: Justina Spencer on July 19th, 2011 @ 10:10AM