Monday, March 31, 2014

Learning How to Do Something and Tacit Knowledge

In order to learn how to do something, do you actually have to do it? Can you learn something by simply reading about it?

The answer is, quite simply, no.

If you went and read several dozen grammar books, would that make you a good writer? Absolutely not. You will learn the rules, but in such a way that you will know what the critic means when he points out that you are missing a gerund. But you still failed to include your gerund.

Could you learn to code by only reading books about code, but not actually coding? No, you have to actually try your hand at it, to find out how things in fact interact. You can learn a great deal of conscious knowledge by reading, but in order to gain tacit knowledge, you have to actually do it.

This is true of everything you learn. What you hear in a class, what you hear from a teacher, what you read in your textbook, what you read in a writing handbook, those are all ways we consciously learn. Yet, the tacit knowledge that comes with experience and expertise can only be derived from doing the thing, and doing it often, and doing it well.

For example, I read a great deal of poetry -- mostly formalist verse -- before I tried my hand at writing formal poetry. My earliest attempts at writing in a regular rhythm were failures. As I wrote more and more poems with regular rhythms, it became easier and easier to do so. Now I can write in a regular rhythm without even thinking about it. I had to develop how I understood how to write that way. It did not come with instruction per se, and it did not come with reading formalist verse. No, it came with practice. Now, the other elements are necessary; however, they are hardly sufficient.

If you want your employees to learn how to write well, you have to provide them with good instruction, but you even more importantly have to provide them with time to write.

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