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Elaborating skills and tacit knowledge

When considering the characteristics of tacit knowledge, it is natural to examine them in relation to the concept of skills. Contrary to Polanyi and Rolf, Niiniluoto (1996) perceives that skills are a pre-stage of knowledge. As a philosopher, Niiniluoto presents a restricted and more traditional understanding of knowledge. According to him, skills are often learnt in the process of trial and error or through imitation or modelling in master-apprentice relationships where learning does not happen according to explicit and rules-governed practices (cf. Rolf, 1995, p. 116). In this sense, a good example of learning skills is learning languages: language, grammar, and vocabulary are learnt in everyday practices in ways that learners are not able to explain how they are actually learning. Here, the learners’ knowledge of grammar can be understood as tacit because they can act according to its rules but they are not able to formulate and explicate them. In that kind of case tacit knowledge is often nonverbal. This is in contrast with formal and propositional knowledge where things are expressed in declarative sentences.

Argyris and Schön (1974) have been interested in expert action and the concept of skill is central in their analyses. However, instead of using the concept of skill, they describe expert actions through espoused theories and theories-in-use. Understanding that practice and expertise are embedded in the language, and action of a community is one of their central tenets (Argyris, Putnam, & McLain Smith, 1985). Theories-in-use are those that can be inferred from tacit knowledge emerging in expert action, while espoused theories are those that experts claim to follow and utilise when describing and justifying their actions. They view skills as dimensions of ability through which it is possible to behave effectively in various situations. Experts learn skills mostly through imitating, e.g., they learn to act in line with new theories of action. They underline that learning does not proceed from espoused theories to theories-in-use. The argument of Argyris, Putnam, and Smith (1985) is that implicit is central in investigations of expert theories of action. Espoused and public reflection is undertaken in the interest of learning and bringing the two theories closer in line for greater effectiveness in practice. We should also remember that experts learn through feedback and critical remarks related to their actions which often do not rely on espoused theories (Argyris & Schön, 1974). Overall, we can conclude that both

Niiniluoto, and Argyris and Schön analyse the concept of skill from different viewpoints but they all claim that action can contribute to skills development without verbalisation.

With his view on skilful expertise, Eraut (1994, pp. 111—112) is in line with the previously mentioned authors and he sees skills as routinized and complex series of actions that experts perform almost automatically. Through routinization the experts become less aware of their actions and experience growing difficulties to explain and explicate their actions after they have been completed. Eraut identifies skills as leamt actions that initially were explicit, but have slowly become routinized. This stance, in line with Niiniluoto (1996) and Argyris and Schön (1974), brings skills to the forefront of experts’ professional actions and underlines tacit knowledge as an essential part of expert practice.

Competencies and tacit knowledge

The discussions of tacit expert knowledge and skilful expert action are often bundled with notions of professional know-how and competence. This underlies the idea that individual expert competence is always relational and connected to the professional community that they represent. Especially since the 1980s, various professions such as lawyers, physicians, and even teachers have actively claimed expert status and used this status to structure professional competence standards both in the US and Europe (Eraut, 1994; Hager, 1993; Pantic & Wubbels, 2012; Toom, 2017). However, the concept of professional competence dates back to older professions’ traditions through which professional excellence and qualifications have been defined (Polanyi, 1958, 1966). Ryle’s (1949) well-known classification of two kinds of knowledges — knowing how and knowing that — can be usefill when elaborating the ways in which abilities, skills, and knowledge are connected to expertise. The latter, knowing that, states that knowing something can be expressed by mainly propositional claims. Ryle as well as Polanyi and Rolf did not favor this intellectual myth and instead, emphasized that knowing how requires some prior and implicit consideration of knowledge or abilities that cannot be stated verbally (cf. Niiniluoto, 1996, pp. 52-53). This viewpoint implies that both knowledges are to some extent dependent: knowing how consists of both skills and knowledge disposition (Small, 2017). It is also interesting to note that until recently Ryle’s distinction could be straightforwardly deployed in a variety of contexts — but this is no longer true: for example, Stanley and Williamson (2001) started to challenge Ryle’s arguments for the distinction and proposed that knowing how is (contra Ryle) a species of knowing that (see Bengson & Moffett, 2011).

The ability to solve challenging situations is also emphasised in competencies, which are often seen as a cognitive capacity to perform professional actions. However, competencies not only call for knowledge and skills, they also require appropriate attitudes, strategic thinking, and awareness of one’s own actions (Westera, 2001, p. 80). For example, a teacher’s decision-making during classroom ineraction or a researcher’s decision-making during an in-depth interview both require immediate action competencies to combine cognitive knowledge with skills and attitudes. Competencies require more than relevant knowledge and skills to provide qualified expert actions. Besides conscious and purposeful decision-making, expert competencies also require a disposition to act, as well as abilities to explain and justify the taken or intended actions (Eraut, 1994, p. 179; Korthagen, 2004, pp. 80-81; Westera, 2001, pp. 75-59). In order to make a clearer distinction between outcome behaviors and competencies, it is important to view competencies, in line with tacit knowledge, as integrated entities comprising knowledge, skills, and attitudes. As such, competencies are potential for behaviour, not just the behaviour itself (Toom, 2017).

Ways to explicate tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge and its ambiguities have been the subject of critical remarks. Especially explication of tacit knowledge which has been a key theme due to general epistemological demand for anything called knowledge (Rolf, 1995, p. 31). Polanyi’s (1966) response that tacit knowledge mainly emerges in immediate action situations, and therefore cannot be accurately explicated, draws the line between the two contesting approaches. Polanyi was well aware of this demand and claimed that not even modem developed ways of communication and articulation could justify the statement that at the moment “we knew more than we could then tell” (Polanyi, 1966, p. 5). When elaborating the explication of experts’ tacit knowledge van Manen (1995, p. 45) speaks of active consciousness which experts rely on action, and Molander (1992) emphasises confidence in expert action in specific moments. This particular consciousness is intertwined with expert practical skills that are embedded in practices and, personal ways of doing things, and therefore it is difficult to explicate (van Manen, 1995, pp. 45-46). This kind of practical expertise is also called silent knowledge (Molander, 1992, pp. 11—12) due to its intractiblity when it comes to explication and critical scrutiny.

As noted, explication of tacit knowledge is related to the ways we define knowledge, and to the ways we want, and are able to, elaborate knowledge practices in action. When tacit knowledge is defined as unstated structures and beliefs underlying a person’s action, it becomes difficult to explicate. However, defining and understanding tacit knowledge as a process of knowing, similar to competence or know-how opens up new possibilities to search for explications and explanations for it (Toom, 2012).

Perspectives on argumentation of tacit knowledge

In line with explication, argumentation is a key theme as well if tacit knowledge is investigated as knowledge, and it has also confused researchers (Fenstennacher, 1994; Orton, 1993; Rolf, 1995; van Manen, 1995). The demand for argumentation is related to the customary ways of seeing knowledge as a well-argumented and justified true belief to gain certainty (Niiniluoto, 1996, p. 49). This kind of demand for argumentation means that all expert knowledge should be available in verbal statements and shoud be characterised in intellectual terms (Rolf, 1995, pp. 33—34).

This would only limit expert knowledge on occasions where decisions could be based on well-grounded and explicit arguments. Polanyi (1958, 1966), however, defines knowledge from a broader perspective and without the need for such a strict argumentation. In a similar manner, Rosiek (2002, pp. 135—137) claims that knowledge can also be given its status through practical arguments.

Regarding the argumentation and practical knowledge, Fenstermacher (1994) presents a more demanding view and notes that the concept of knowledge is often too tempting and it has often been used too loosely. He points out that knowledge is more than everyday beließ and opinions, and expert knowledge can involve thoughts and actions which are beyond tacit-bound beliefs or opinions (Fensterma-cher, 1994, pp. 33-34). This can be done with the help of practical reasoning where the provision of arguments is intended to support valid and meaningful actions. This provision of reasons, when done well, can make action sensible both for the actor and for the observer. As Fenstermacher (1994) concludes, such reasoning can show that a behaviour is “the reasonable thing to do, the obvious thing to do, or the only thing one could do under the circumstances” (p. 47). The argumentation intends to support the needed epistemic value of practical knowledge claims. However, as Fenstermacher (1994) reminds, caution is required because the argumentation of tacit knowledge is not possible because it is only partially anchored in human consciousness. Therefore, concrete actions are needed for tacit knowledge to emerge and make it available for argumentation.

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