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7 Teaching Tacit Skills

Abraham Maslow proposed that there were four stages of learning. The final one may correspond with the tacit. He identified (1) unconscious incompetence (lack of all recognition), (2) conscious incompetence, (recognition of some deficit), (3) conscious competence (an ability to do something with concentration and effort), and (4) unconscious competence (where something is so habitual that a skill can be performed effortlessly). The problem is that the person in possession of that highest level of skill may not be able to teach that skill. Instructions on this level may only make sense to those who already know. Guidance from those at the highest level needs to survive in memory or in some other form until the student has reached that level. That may be why a teacher's remark, made many years before, suddenly has increased meaning. In Maslow's fourth stage, when skills appear to be innate, choice disappears.

" We are often told that in this theory Socrates ignored the will, but that is in part a misconception. The aim is not to choose the right but to become the sort of person who cannot choose the wrong and who no longer has any choice in the matter."


If you watch the moving hand of a child you can see that the motions are not random. The impression is that in these patterns there is a system at work that is not the same as what we find in adults. In young children the verbal world has not completely subsumed all the other ways of thinking. As language skills grow these unique children's patterns are replaced by more precise equivalents to those used by the adult —the movements of the hands develop a closer relationship with verbal statements. In most adults, gestures might be simultaneous with the spoken words, but they are more likely to be out-of-sync, occurring either just before or just after the utterance. The shapes that adult hands make are sometimes imitative, sometimes vectors of action. Particularly interesting is when the hand gestures form little sculptures that capture the relational content, but not the subject matter of the speaker.

'[The] hand's essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp...Every motion of the hand in every one of its works carries itself through the elements of thinking, every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element..."

— Martin Heidegger: What Calls for Thinking

Every action absorbs and releases a cluster of interactions with the world. The hand breathes in and expels its individual contexts. The hand's grasp does exceed its reach. By alternately accepting and releasing, the hand enacts its receptivity. The hand penetrates thought.


Soapstone artisan Duilo Ferreira Bretas, Ouro Preto, BrazilSculptor Wade Saunders, Paris, France


Recent research has shown that teaching is more likely to benefit students whose gestures differ from their speech. One suggested explanation is that children whose gestures were at odds with what their words were saying were the ones who most benefitted from teaching. It may be that they were suggesting new strategies with their hands that had not previously been expressed in words. Another discovery is that asking children to gesture while they asked or answered mathematical questions caused them to answer more questions correctly. Teaching children to perform gestures tailored to a lesson, like pantomiming a correct strategy, can make learning last.

"Hand gestures not only enhance our ability to articulate thoughts, they also may boost thinking itself. Psychologists at the University of Chicago found that children who were encouraged to gesture while explaining how they approached a math problem became more receptive afterwards to instructions on how to solve other numeric brainteasers. Conveying an unspoken idea with gestures, the scientists said, prompted new problem solving strategies that readied kids to learn."

Scientific American Mind, Feb/March 2008 p 11

The tacit may also play a role in preparing the mind to learn. The realm of the unspoken is much broader than touch alone, even if touch is often not far away. Some things that are unspoken facilitate coherence and others lead to increased fragmentation.

For the most part the unspoken is in service to a larger function. The shadow of the unspoken is the unspeakable. The patron saint of the unspeakable must be Actaeon, who as his story is related in the Greek Myths, could see but was never able to speak about what he saw. What Actaeon inadvertently witnessed was forbidden. Complicity or intention was irrelevant; consequences were inevitable.

Michel Polanyi comments in The Tacit Dimension that in all approaches to knowledge we need to start from the fact that 'we can know more than we can tell'. This pre-logical phase of knowing was for him 'tacit knowledge'. For Polanyi this was extensive.

He stressed that all communication, everything we know about mental processes or feelings, all of our relationships to conscious intellectual activities, are based on a knowledge, which we cannot tell. A particularly interesting assertion is that activating this knowledge requires a conviction that there is something there to be discovered. It is materialised by commitment. Everything Tacit gives credence to the belief in an unseen world.


Tamil Nadu granite carver in the Senthil Workshop, Peenya, India.Soapstone quarry owner Paulo Giovani da Silva, Mata Dos palmito, Brazil


It is almost certain that continuing scientific research, in particular in neurology, will enhance the understanding of the tacit. There are insights to be gained from kinesis and proprioception. Research is being done into micro-expressions, the thousand fleeting expressions unseen by most people that occur every second. Current animal studies show that many animals know what is going on in their environment at a different level than just what they can just see. It feels as if we may be in a situation today not unlike the world that existed just before telescopes and microscopes began to open up unseen worlds. We may soon be able to cross thresholds that we didn't know were there. Gesture suggests ways of communicating, or even setting the stage for later communication or learning. Touch proposes ways of seeing what cannot be seen, and of talking about things that cannot be talked about. Skills show how tacit illumination can exist within action.

The situation today reminds me of the insights of Zorba the Greek: "Ah if I could dance all that you've just said — then I would understand."

Joel Fisher

Newcastle/ Paris/ Vermont


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