Implicit and Experiential Learning.

I want to try to pursue a theme I touched on as comments to the post on accountability, simpler timetabling etc.

That is that there is a beneficial kind of learning that we could call implicit or contextual. I have struggled to try to define what I mean by this, but I think the most recognisable way to explain the kind of learning I am here concerned with is that it is the education received by the comfortably well off, with books in their homes and trips to theatres and galleries etc. It is the kind of learning extra to ‘class learning objectives’ or ‘desired outcomes’. It is often found in the anecdotal, the details or the artistic. It acknowledges that far more is learnt implicitly and through experiences than explicitly through a classroom learning objective. I gave an example in previous comments of implicit learning. When I first started learning History at school, I already had a sense of historical time periods. I had learnt this implicitly through stories and art. When learning about the medieval period, for example, I had a decent sense that we would be talking about those things associated with Knights in Armour, not Cowboys. Much implicit learning is learnt through experiences. By experiences I mean explicitly learning other than in a formal classroom setting. For example, I remember clearly as an eleven year old in a music lesson listening to music to identify the instruments, I gained a considerable advantage because I had been to concerts and could remember seeing and hearing musicians playing. To recognize the importance of this kind of learning is not to deny the importance of a focused lesson, but to attempt to multiply opportunities to learn implicitly and to learn experientially.

Let me try to explain what I mean by this. I once observed a fantastic year 6 lesson on the Second World War. The teacher had constructed a narrative about a German soldier. I watched one installment of this story, in which the soldier was, I think, returning on leave from
France. The teacher dressed in an old German army greatcoat to tell the story. It was delivered mostly orally with great attention to detail and description. (Incidentally, this episode included the discovery of a new character, the soldier’s girlfriend – for the 10 and 11 year olds a remarkably subtle and appropriate introduction to relationships.) The additions to the oral story-telling were period music, a film clip and several props. Noticeable in their absence were explicit lesson objectives, vocabulary lists etc. With the episode concluded pupils were asked to write a letter home from the soldier. The quality of the detail of many pupils’ letters was outstanding, with accurate references to period details and appropriate use of relatively technical vocabulary that hadn’t been specifically explained. This, I think, is illustrative of the kind of implicit, contextual, often (although perhaps not really in this case) experiential, learning that I am advocating.

Practically this kind of learning requires a number of things. Illustration and art are fundamental for the providing of context. If learning about the Tsunami’s effects in
Thailand, illustrations can implicitly reveal the vegetation or architecture. Illustrated timelines should probably be an essential feature in almost every classroom. Great works of art can offer starters and ‘hooks’ to all manner of subjects. As can music. More fundamentally, there must be a culture both in and out of the classroom that values knowledge and open-mindedness. Music played in class can be more trouble than it’s worth when anything composed before 1990 is met with unanimous derision as ‘classical sh*t’. School trips, as I have mentioned in previous comments, must be ‘normalised’ to remove the distorting hysteria. Teachers must be excellent. They must be ready sometimes to go off-topic, on a tangent, to discuss and debate, preferably with reference books and Wikipedia to hand.

This is not impossible fantasy. It requires actively attempting to ‘multiply everything’. That is provide as much to stimulate implicit learning as possible. It would be helped by more potential in schools for cross-curricular work. It certainly requires more school trips, although normalised into the curriculum perhaps they wouldn’t even be called ‘trips’ but ‘out of school lessons’! It requires solid basics.
Reading, writing, numeracy, research skills take on their proper function when they are instinctive tools not difficulties in their own right as learning problems. It requires a strong culture of valuing knowledge that can be achieved in schools. Despite evidence to the contrary in many state schools it is of course possible to create an environment in which pupils ‘work hard and be nice’. (This is one of the mottos of the KIPP schools I visited in Washington DC and
New York City, models, in many ways, of creating a positive school culture).

I would like to pursue a number of concepts that, I think, link to this kind of implicit and experiential learning. I think there are links to coaching as an important teaching technique. In that through coaching, the trial-error-correction process, a teacher is uniquely able to respond to the individuality of implictl learning. There are links also to the need for teachers accountable not only to externally administered national exams, but, in their responsibility for a small number of pupils, to the pupils themselves, parents, the school and their colleagues. Whilst standardised tests may fail to take into account, or impede, this kind of implicit learning, it can nevertheless be accountable. In this respect there are links to the need for smaller schools, a unit size of, say, 200-300 being able to offer accountability without standardisation. I think the importance of ‘experiences’ might make for an interesting basis to think about introducing certain rites of passage into a school curriculum. Certain experiences might be considered part of a particular progression and so become elements of a graduation or rite of passage. There may also be links between implict and experiential learning and the benefits of an apprenticeship or work based education.

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2 thoughts on “Implicit and Experiential Learning.”

  1. I think we’ve spoken about this before but I definitely agree with you that “sharing an objective” is not essential to a good lesson. Apart from sitting uneasily with the idea that teachers are meant to meet the learning needs of every pupil, is doesn’t recognise the gap between STATING something and SHOWING it. We can teach by SHOWING many things at once, we cannot state much and there probably isn’t much that is taught by statement. As I remember our conversation, I was mainly concerned about teaching values, which I think is where it becomes clearest that we’re better off not trying to articulate the moral of any story. Otherwise we’re in danger of saying something very trite.

    It’s much harder to establish what’s been shown rather than what’s been stated, and the pressure to tick boxes explains much of the obsession to STATE THINGS CLEARLY. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any effort to assess what has been taught, just that we need to acknowledge that this relies on a judgement.

    I think SHOWING something has a lot to do with context but I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to get at just now.

  2. You’re absolutely right. I remember getting in all kinds of tangles trying to ‘state’ what my various learning objectives were going to be. When there are many in a lesson, it can be more trouble than it’s worth trying to lay them all out at the start. One reason for this is that you, of course, often need the whole lesson for pupils to know what the objectives actually mean. Is there any point saying we are going to learn how to analyse sources before pupils know what either analysis or a source is?

    Having said that, I’m not against well structured lessons and some lesson objective rationalistaion can be useful and effective. Its just that sometimes learning is a story in which you benefit from not knowing exactly how it will turn out. And, to continue the metaphor, we often learn a lot from the subplots and asides that have little to do with the central narrative – sometimes these are the most vivid aspects and the ones we remember.

    Similarly the ‘moral of a story’ can be desperately difficult to ‘state’. I rambled for 20 mins to one year 8 class, trying to state a lesson we’d learnt from some disruptive behaviour, before one pupil asked ‘Sir what ARE you going on about?’ The moral was confused by the attempt to state it, and was infact far better served by the action of dealing with the disruption – without the unnecessary postscript!

    I’d like to pursue your point about context because it leads me to a problem. I agree that behaviour and values education rely on context and that to draw out values to obviously can seem trite. But the KIPP schools I saw had phenomenally successful behavioural policies and their corridors were plastered with posters about climbing mountains, working hard and being nice… surely trite, but certainly effective. Perhaps the point is that all of this was backed up by action, so that constantly and implicitly these trite truisms were being illustrated and so given context. Ultimately, if you don’t over intellectualise it, ‘work hard and be nice’ is a bloody good motto!

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