- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

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 [1], 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.