Learning What Can’t Be Taught

The example most people think of for learning is school. However, I’d like to argue that many of the features of learning in school are the exception, not the rule.

One example of this is that learning in school is almost always based on a standardized curriculum that teaches a heavily codified set of facts, concepts and skills. This is a necessity for the formal education process— it’s very difficult to train teachers and almost impossible to create uniform outcomes without articulating exactly what they need to teach.

However, the ubiquity of this style of education can create the illusion that most learning we want to do is of this type. Looking more deeply, it’s obvious to me that many of the things we’d really like to learn are not easily codified and so they’re not amenable to mass education.

How Did People Learn Before Schooling?

Interestingly, our stereotype of how learning works—standardized lectures, curricula and readings—is a much more recent invention. For the vast majority of human history there was no writing, reading and probably no dedicated teachers.

Instead people learned by copying. They found prestigious people and emulated their behavior.

Often this emulation was beneficial, even when both the model and the learner had no idea what the underlying mechanisms were for its usefulness. As Joseph Henrich documents, South American tribes avoided the scourge of niacin deficiency, common in Europe at the time, by cooking their corn with a bit of ash. This was a tradition passed down over time, probably the result of imitating healthier tribe’s eating rituals, but nobody knew the reason why it worked.

It seems this kind of learning was the dominant form of learning in premodern societies, which can help to make sense of how effectively people were able to live and survive in environments, even when their individual beliefs about the nature of the world seem almost absurd to us today.

Formal education came much more recently, but its prevalence now can create the impression that learning is mainly an activity of remembering things from books or understanding key, predefined concepts. However this wasn’t true for the majority of our history, and it probably isn’t even true today—we still learn most of what matters through some variation of the cultural learning protocol used in hunter-gatherer tribes.

What Can’t Be Taught?

Instead of equating learning with what is commonly taught in schools, I prefer to think of formal education as being the tip of an iceberg sitting on a far larger amount of tacit learning. This is knowledge and skills that we can’t articulate easily, but still make up useful knowledge for doing things.

I also think an inability to notice how large and predominant this tacit knowledge is can lead to a lot of frustration from students. They learn a lot in schools, but then go to work and find that they can barely do anything, and need to learn a completely new set of skills and knowledge to be effective.

Many of these same students then look back and think their education was a waste of time. In reality, it probably was as good as it could have been. The problem was simply that a lot of the knowledge and skills they needed to learn couldn’t be taught directly.

How Do You Learn What Can’t Be Taught?

I’ve thought a lot about how you learn this kind of tacit knowledge. Unlike learning from a formal curriculum, or a well-defined skill, there’s a number of problems with learning in this way:

  1. You might not recognize the skill or knowledge others possess. The environment is noisy so it can be hard to distinguish those with skill from those with luck, innate talent or other advantages.
  2. You might not even know how to describe what it is you need to learn, even if you can recognize it in others. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain exactly what makes Steve Jobs an excellent entrepreneur or Warren Buffet a great investor, and they’re far from isolated examples.
  3. Because there’s no books you can read or classes you can take, even if you correctly identify which skills you need to improve, it’s not clear how you do that.

These barriers mean that, unlike learning history, calculus or accounting, much of what makes learning tacit knowledge difficult isn’t even a problem for most learning tasks.

How do you get around this? I think the answer is to see what has already worked in our species for millions of years—finding prestigious examples and copying them. This may seem unglamorous, but it’s the mechanism by which you’ve already learned most of your tacit knowledge and how most of humanity has learned since the dawn of history.

Find people who have the skills you want to learn, observe them closely and copy their approach.

One of the major bottlenecks in this process is access to good models to emulate. Therefore, anything you can do to expose yourself to skilled individuals will accelerate your learning. In this sense, networking and mentor-relationship building can be seen as a core learning skill.

Another challenge is that much of the tacit knowledge that these models possess, even they won’t be able to articulate. Just as the tribespeople who mixed the ash and corn together didn’t know about niacin, many of the successful behaviors of models are learned unconsciously and can’t be easily justified by giving reasons.

This means that asking successful people what to do is less effective than watching what successful people do. Ask, and you’ll get a confabulated rationale for their behavior. Watch, and you’ll see their knowledge in practice.

Ultimately, I think most of what we need to learn to be effective in the world, even in highly technical, codified domains such as law or engineering, is in the realm of this kind of tacit knowledge that can’t be taught. Learning well in the world must deal with this fact. It doesn’t matter how good you are at reading books if the knowledge and skills you need can’t be found there.

  • Azim Anderson

    I’m an electronic musician and this is really useful advice – I guess I did it without realizing a lot of the time. Lecturer’s couldn’t always articulate what they did, so instead I copied their process and worked out how it worked that way. Come to think of it there are so many ways to put this information into practice – thanks for another great article Scott! 🙂

  • Nate

    My experience is from hobby-competitive gaming- starcraft, heroes of the storm, where most of the knowledge is tacit and results are measurable because of the ranking system. Around the top 30% to top 5% ELO rankings it becomes very hard to advance efficiently by copying, ime

    I find that copying pays significantly diminishing returns past a
    certain point, and at that point I tend to get a little stuck. What do you do at that point?

    This writer explained the situation better than I probably can, scroll down to “Reliance on Routines/Shifting Focus to People” under “The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition”

    http://www.liquiddota.com/forum/dota-2-general/486310-climbing-the-ladder-part-1

    Progress slows to a crawl after you reach a certain point, ime, and I don’t know how to speed it up

  • Nate

    My experience is from hobby-competitive gaming- starcraft, heroes of the storm, where most of the knowledge is tacit and results are measurable because of the ranking system. Around the top 30% to top 5% ELO rankings it becomes very hard to advance efficiently by copying, ime

    I find that copying pays significantly diminishing returns past a
    certain point, and at that point I tend to get a little stuck. What do you do at that point?

    This writer explained the situation better than I probably can, scroll down to “Reliance on Routines/Shifting Focus to People” under “The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition”

    http://www.liquiddota.com/foru

    Progress slows to a crawl after you reach a certain point, ime, and I don’t know how to speed it up

  • Jeff

    I find that this idea relates to the “you are the five people you surround yourself with.” Because you start subsconsciously emulating the people you spend time with, through this sort of tacit knowledge.

  • Jeff

    I find that this idea relates to the “you are the five people you surround yourself with.” Because you start subsconsciously emulating the people you spend time with, through this sort of tacit knowledge.

  • Ethan

    Love this man, that article about tribespeople beating niacin deficiency with blind adherence to tradition was brilliant.

    What do you think of Bruce Lee’s sentiment about NOT trying to copy successful people- the suggestion that each individual has a unique path to success and that trying to emulate the greats might hinder, not help? Do you see any truth in that? Any way around it?

  • Ethan

    Love this man, that article about tribespeople beating niacin deficiency with blind adherence to tradition was brilliant.

    What do you think of Bruce Lee’s sentiment about NOT trying to copy successful people- the suggestion that each individual has a unique path to success and that trying to emulate the greats might hinder, not help? Do you see any truth in that? Any way around it?

  • Lena Levin

    I think the way around it is the difference between learning and doing your own work. Emulating the greats is a good advice for the former, not for the latter.

  • Lena Levin

    I think the way around it is the difference between learning and doing your own work. Emulating the greats is a good advice for the former, not for the latter.

  • John

    Wow! Brilliant article!

  • John

    Wow! Brilliant article!

  • Qunfeng Wang

    That might because Bruce Lee has already been on a high level. He just find his own way to success. Before that, he learned a lot from Ye Wen and other masters. He even improves his steps from dancing.

  • Qunfeng Wang

    That might because Bruce Lee has already been on a high level. He just find his own way to success. Before that, he learned a lot from Ye Wen and other masters. He even improves his steps from dancing.

  • I think tacit knowledge can be taught. There just needs to be an incentive to do so. Traditional education has a lot of inertia, but there are plenty of fields in which, after getting a traditional education, practitioners go through an apprenticeship period where they learn by watching and doing. I’m thinking of mechanics, electricians, and plumbers, but also doctors.

    Other fields are finding that the free market is stepping in to supplement deficiencies in traditional college programs. I work in software development, where programming boot camps are becoming a viable alternative to a CS degree for people who don’t have the time or interest to study math and CS theory along with their programming languages.

  • Duncan Smith

    I think tacit knowledge can be taught. There just needs to be an incentive to do so. Traditional education has a lot of inertia, but there are plenty of fields in which, after getting a traditional education, practitioners go through an apprenticeship period where they learn by watching and doing. I’m thinking of mechanics, electricians, and plumbers, but also doctors.

    Other fields are finding that the free market is stepping in to supplement deficiencies in traditional college programs. I work in software development, where programming boot camps are becoming a viable alternative to a CS degree for people who don’t have the time or interest to study math and CS theory along with their programming languages.

  • Missease

    interesting

  • Missease

    interesting

  • Hongbo Shi

    Scott. Your blog has been shared and introduced in a Chinese social media- wechat. I guess you will be very famous soon

  • Hongbo Shi

    Scott. Your blog has been shared and introduced in a Chinese social media- wechat. I guess you will be very famous soon

  • Kenn Costales

    Based on what have mentors have told me, you can use the “ShuHaRi” model figure out how you can get to the next stage. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuhari

    In Dota 2’s case, I think the next stage in your progress involves a lot of scenario planning (and scenario practice) where your scrimmage partners do a specific set of actions and you’ll need to figure out how to manage it.

  • Kenn Costales

    Based on what have mentors have told me, you can use the “ShuHaRi” model figure out how you can get to the next stage. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

    In Dota 2’s case, I think the next stage in your progress involves a lot of scenario planning (and scenario practice) where your scrimmage partners do a specific set of actions and you’ll need to figure out how to manage it.

  • Srikant Mahapatra

    Kind of misleading. Programming bootcamps are not an alternative to a CS degree; computer science is not just programming. It’s a science just like Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Programming is just a tool to implement certain CS concepts. These programming bootcamps may teach you how to code, but they aren’t teaching you computer science. There are a lot of topics that are NOT taught in programming bootcamps such as computer organization and architecture, operating systems, theory of computation, computer networks, security engineering, discrete math, etc. which are all covered in a typical CS degree. Besides, without studying math and CS theory, you can’t expect to become a GREAT programmer.

  • Srikant Mahapatra

    Kind of misleading. Programming bootcamps are not an alternative to a CS degree; computer science is not just programming. It’s a science just like Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Programming is just a tool to implement certain CS concepts. These programming bootcamps may teach you how to code, but they aren’t teaching you computer science. There are a lot of topics that are NOT taught in programming bootcamps such as computer organization and architecture, operating systems, theory of computation, computer networks, security engineering, discrete math, etc. which are all covered in a typical CS degree. Besides, without studying math and CS theory, you can’t expect to become a GREAT programmer.

  • Programming is too useful to restrict it to people with CS degrees. Someone with a degree in biology, or astronomy, or economics may run into a problem that they could solve if only they had working knowledge of a programming language. That’s why it’s good to have an alternative to the CS degree. To put it another way: not every programmer needs to be a great programmer. Sometimes they just need to be a good enough programmer.

  • Duncan Smith

    Programming is too useful to restrict it to people with CS degrees. Someone with a degree in biology, or astronomy, or economics may run into a problem that they could solve if only they had working knowledge of a programming language. That’s why it’s good to have an alternative to the CS degree. To put it another way: not every programmer needs to be a great programmer. Sometimes they just need to be a good enough programmer.

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