Knowing how to know

Image: Jonny Lindner

How do you know what you know? Epistemology is the “theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.” Knowing and acquiring knowledge is critical to success, perhaps even more so in today’s technology- and information-centric world. The opportunity to gain knowledge has been touted as a significant benefit of the “Information Age.”

There are four “kinds of knowledge” listed under the entry for “epistemology” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  They are described very briefly below. Within the context of the thinking, knowledge and wisdom continuum, “knowing how”—also known as practical or tacit knowledge—is my primary interest.

Four types of knowledge:
Knowing by Acquaintance refers to knowing a person through interaction with them.

Knowledge-That is used in reference to a “fact or truth.” Examples offered include 2 + 2 = 4 or knowledge that gravity exists.

Knowledge-Wh encompasses knowing whether, who, why and what. For example:
“knowing whether it is 2 p.m.; knowing who is due to visit; knowing why a visit is needed; knowing what the visit is meant to accomplish; knowing how that outcome is best accomplished; and so forth.”

Knowledge-How refers to skills or abilities. For example “knowing how to do something: knowing how to read the time on a clock, knowing how to call a friend, knowing how to cook a particular meal, and so forth.” Knowing-how is also called practical knowledge, informal knowledge or tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge: knowing how
Tacit knowledge is complex and often invisible to the individual “knowledge holder” without deliberate and focussed effort. Sternberg et al. (p. 107) describe three elements of tacit knowledge. “These features of tacit knowledge relate to the conditions under which it is acquired, its cognitive structure, and the conditions of its use. First, tacit knowledge generally is acquired on one’s own with little support from the environment (e.g., through personal experience rather than through instruction). Second, tacit knowledge is viewed as procedural in nature. It is associated with particular uses in particular situations or classes of situations. Third, because it generally is acquired through one’s own experiences, tacit knowledge has practical value to the individual.” (Sternberg et al. p. 107)

Tacit or practical knowledge—knowing how—is essential in more situations than we realize. We can read about “bicycle physics” but actually riding a bike (a classic example of tacit knowledge) requires practical trial and error. Reading “how to ride a bike” cannot eliminate the need for experimentation and scraped knees. As researcher Stephen Cain writes, “While riding and balancing a bicycle can seem simple and effortless, the actual control process used by a human rider is still somewhat of a mystery.”

Practical knowledge for students and new employees is often fostered through service learning placements, internships, practica, apprenticeship programs or “on-the-job training.” Applying new skills and knowledge in real life with the guidance of a mentor or experienced co-worker enhances confidence, interpersonal skills and practical knowledge.

Practical knowledge includes “knowing where to start” or “how to fix it” and is the glue that holds a situation together when the unexpected occurs. It can predict potential problems, create in-the-moment solutions, manage the consequences and prepare for the next time. We all have vast reservoirs of tacit or practical knowledge beyond our awareness. Practical knowledge is a result of and applicable to all aspects of life—work or personal.

Practical knowledge plays an important role in the thinking, knowledge, wisdom continuum. The term “tacit knowledge” is attributed to Michael Polanyi. Writing in 1967, he described tacit knowledge as “knowing more than we can tell.” Polanyi contended that “pre-logical” knowing incorporates intuitive, sensory, conceptual and imagery input.  Examples of tacit knowledge include riding a bicycle as noted above, learning a new language, facial recognition, humour, innovation, leadership, reading body language, intuition, emotional intelligence and successful selling.

Practical/tacit knowledge is developed by living—engaging in activities, relationships, events, work, school, community etc. Increasing our awareness of practical knowledge can enhance our confidence and capacity. Self-awareness, listening, observing, curiosity, and questioning can help us recognize our own practical/tacit knowledge. Similarly, an attitude of curiosity and a desire to learn when interacting with others can help us benefit from their practical knowledge. Practical/tacit knowledge is elusive and yet extraordinarily valuable. Future posts will explore practical knowledge in detail, including strategies for accessing and applying it.

The only source of knowledge is experience.
—Albert Einstein









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