It is frequent to find in the literature distinctions between a learning process dominated by actions and a learning process driven by theoretical rules. Here we will explore some factors concerning what is learnt consciously and unconsciously through experience when a person is dealing with practical matters.
In the first place, the acquisition of knowledge is an indirect consequence of the involvement of a person in a practical situation, that in some cases implies manipulating a device or exercising the control over an organized entity in order to obtain a satisfactory effect. The epistemological approaches to this type of operations assume that basically they take place by following trial and error procedures, reinforcing particular responses and getting rid of useless choices. Consequently, this type of knowledge has a significant personal component, depends on the context, and is created dynamically. But it is hard to transfer, takes time and is not easy to predict. That is why it is not considered valuable.
In the second place, the learning process and the solution of problems are the result of the application of principles, laws, algorithms, instructions… In this case learning consists in retaining rules and explicit codified information that we share and find in documents.
We can even identify more external factors that in principle do not belong to the epistemological realm, but that, in fact, lead practitioners’ actions as well. Professions for example are regulated by government or other bodies and institutional norms, standards, and restrictions. Whether these rules should be considered epistemological too, as some authors would defend, is a matter of discussion.
Summing up, the different features of the two dimensions mentioned above, with the addition of other elements, can be represented as follows:
Among the many examples that may illustrate the actions taking place in the situations mentioned above, here we will focus on the practices regarding the human-machine interactions, in particular in educational contexts. In this case, the reception in learning institutions of standardized collections of apparatus with teaching purposes initiates a new phase in the life of these type of objects (see on this blog Educational technology and Culture of technology in secondary education). Then is when the “appropriation/transformation” process begin, which consists in a series of actions taken by a person who is only equipped with a handful of guidelines. A part of this information comes from catalogues and textbooks, and another part comes from a probable (not sure) general visual instruction with demonstrative apparatus and measuring instruments received in the past at the high school or/and at the university.
When the educator receives the device it starts a hands on inspection together with a careful observation of an object –sometimes really expensive- supplied with many accessories. Some operations of this phase, which demand extreme caution, consist of setting the artefact in an ample space, checking its parts and adjustments, and in certain cases doing sensitive calibration. Later on, if the artefact is properly associated with a particular physics experience, the teacher starts a sequence of trials in order to master the various responses of the mechanism. After a time devoted to know the reactions of the artefact, he/she chooses which ones correspond to the desired outcome according to the classroom lessons and intentions. So the decision about whether the machine or the equipment has done its job effectively depends entirely on the experimenter.
But the practices that lead to the proper result are not a regular sequence of actions, a kind of a fixed routine. As Wittgenstein put it, “rules of action do not contain the rules for their application” (Collins 2010, 2). When somebody receives an instruction like don’t walk so close to people in the street, the segment “so close” could be interpreted, without betraying its meaning, in different ways depending on the circumstances. Therefore, the information present in manuals used by educators pertained to the part of “rules of action” while the uncertain reality represented by the “rules of application” –the practical details of how actually the mechanism works- has to be revealed in a process where body, brain and emotions are compromised.
Obviously, documents offering accounts of these hidden and not formalized processes are scarce. In order to access to the tacit knowledge, researchers use indirect procedures, like the replication of historical experiments method or the examination of personal notes and sketches jotted down by professionals. We can also rely on descriptions about how artisans and musicians interact with their respective tools, such as the narratives provided by Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman. The author refers to these practices as follows:
In music, the ear works in concert with the fingertip to probe. Put rather dryly, the musician touches the string in different ways, hears a variety of effects, then searches for the means to repeat and reproduce the tone he or she wants. In reality, this can be a difficult and agonizing struggle to answer the questions “What exactly did I do? How can I do it again?” Instead of the fingertip acting as a mere servant, this kind of touching moves back ward from sensation to procedure. This principle here is reasoning backward from consequence to cause (Sennett 2008, 157).
The use of the scalpel in anatomical dissection is another example of the intrinsic complexity associated with the acquisition of practical skills and knowledge. According to Sennett,
What was hard to show to others, at first, was how to handle the scalpel to replicate the motion. In 1543, knowledge of muscular action was too primitive for the master to explain that the muscles controlling the fourth and fifth fingers have to be contracted in order to steady the thumb and first finger in lifting the vein with the flat side of the scalpel; as in all craftwork, understanding of what one was doing appeared only slowly, after the fact of doing it. Three generations elapsed before this procedure bedded in, to become common knowledge by the late 1600s (Sennett 2008, 199).
Focusing on teaching artefacts, educators’ notes devoted to the preparation of lessons reveal various personal indications of what they consider relevant about the specific use and applications of mechanisms and equipment. Some of these clues are not present in textbooks and instructions for the execution of structured demonstrations. A part of this missing information is concerned with slight disagreements between the expectations and the results. These inconsistencies are important because they might be occasions for the experimenter to examine more closely the facts, and to propose small changes as well as contributions and improvements. The history of the Atwood’s machine, invented by the English mathematician George Atwood in 1784 to verify the Newtonian laws of accelerated motion, illustrates the way an artefact undergoes some minor modifications in order to overcome particular material problems, in particular when it was used as a demonstration tool in physics cabinets and classrooms along the 19th and 20th centuries (see Schaffer in Bud & Warner 1998, 38).
The learning process originated in the personal interaction with the material examined; the difficulties faced in these situations; the interpretation of faults and mistakes as sources of a new perspective or strategy; and the solutions provided by reflection in action procedures (a version of a trial and error practices) are basic matters of the theoretical contributions made by John Dewey in his exploration of the scope of experience. Particularly interesting in this sense is his book How We Think (1910). In the presentation of “The Analysis of a Complete Act of Thought” the author states that:
In this chapter we shall make an analysis of the process of thinking into its steps or elementary constituents, basing the analysis upon descriptions of a number of extremely simple, but genuine, cases of reflective experience (Part Two: Logical Considerations. Chapter Six. The Analysis of a Complete Act of Thought, p. 68).
Below we reproduce a part of one of these cases, which are taken from the class papers of the students.
In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat or by decrease of pressure, or by both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. […] (70-71).
In the conclusion of the chapter, Dewey says:
The disciplined, or logically trained, mind -the aim of the educative process- is the mind able to judge how far each of these steps needs to be carried in any particular situation. No cast-iron rules can be laid down. Each case has to be dealt with as it arises, on the basis of its importance and of the context in which it occurs. To take too much pains in one case is as foolish as illogical as to take too little in another. At one extreme, almost any conclusion that insures prompt and unified action may be better than any long delayed conclusion; while at the other, decision may have to be postponed for a long period perhaps for a life time. The trained mind is the one that best grasps the degree of observation, forming of ideas, reasoning, and experimental testing required in any special case, and that profits the most, in future thinking, by mistakes made in the past. What is important is that the mind should be sensitive to problems and skilled in methods of attack and solution (p.78).
The approach represents an effort to uncover the logic under the process of thinking when a person deals with a particular situation. But we have to remember, as it was already pointed out, that in our decisions a significant part is reserved to tacit knowledge that we are not able to make explicit and put down in a formal sequence.
What has been said regarding practical knowledge and the interpretation of the “rules of action” can be complemented with the readings of different books: Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, 1958; Ravetz’ Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, 1979, and Sennett’s The Craftsman, 2008, among many others, and the ideas exposed on this blog concerning the term “Visual thinking” (see the entry on this blog).
References and further readings
BUD, Robert & WARNER, Deborah Jean (eds.) (1998), Instruments of Science. An Historical Encyclopedia, New York & London, The Science Museum.
COLLINS, Harry (2010), Tacit and Explicit Knowledge, Chicago, University of Chicago Press (for further reading).
DEWEY, John (1910), How We Think, Boston.
DREYFUS, Stuart E. (2004), “The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition”, Bulletin of Science Technology & Society, 2004 24: 177, available here (added following the suggestion of a kind reader).
ESCRICHE, Tomás (1934), Elementos de física, Barcelona.
FELIÚ, Bartolomé (1883), Curso de física experimental y aplicada, Barcelona.
HEERING, Peter & Wittje, Roland (eds.) (2011), Learning by Doing, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag.
HUGHES, Thomas P. (1977), “Edison’s method”, in Pickett W. B. (ed.), Technology at the Turning Point, San Francisco, San Francisco Press Inc., 5-22 (for further reading).
KLEIBER, J and ESTALELLA, J. (1928, 4th ed.), Compendio de Física y Química.
PINCH, Trevor. “Cooking up science: Tacit Knowledge, Science Experiments and Food Recipies, in https://syntheticzero.net/2013/06/05/trevor-pinch-cooking-up-science-tacit-knowledge-science-experiments-and-food-recipes/
RAVETZ, Jerome (1979), Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers.
RICO y SINOBAS, Manuel and Santisteban, Mariano (1865), Manual de Física y Química, Madrid.
SENNETT, Richard (2008), The Craftsman, New Haven, Yale University Press.
SHAPIRO, Harvey (2010), “John Dewey’s Reception in “Schönian” Reflective Practice”, Philosophy of Education, 311-319 (available at https://ojs.education.illinois.edu/index.php/pes/article/view/3049)