Monday, 25 August 2014

The significance of Eraut’s ‘Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’ for researching professional development in higher education.

Michale Eraut is University of Sussex and SCEPTrE Senior Research Fellow, University of Surrey. Here is a photograph of him. I don’t know how recent it is. 

The article ‘Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’ by Michale Eraut (British Journal of Educational Psychology (2000), 70, 113–136) is not a very recent article, but it presents very significant views for the Structure, Culture and Agency project. It would be a disservice to oversimplify this article in order to summarise it here. For this reason I am rather providing the author’s own abstract:

Background. This paper explores the conceptual and methodological problems arising from several empirical investigations of professional education and learning in the workplace.
Aims. 1. To clarify the multiple meanings accorded to terms such as ‘nonformal learning’, ‘implicit learning’ and ‘tacit knowledge’, their theoretical assumptions and the range of phenomena to which they refer. 2. To discuss their implications for professional practice.
Method. A largely theoretical analysis of issues and phenomena arising from empirical investigations.
Analysis. The author’s typology of non-formal learning distinguishes between implicit learning, reactive on-the-spot learning and deliberative learning. The significance of the last is commonly overemphasised. The problematic nature of tacit knowledge is discussed with respect to both detecting it and representing it. Three types of tacit knowledge are discussed: tacit understanding of people and situations, routinised actions and the tacit rules that underpin intuitive decision-making. They come together when professional performance involves sequences of routinised action punctuated by rapid intuitive decisions based on tacit understanding of the situation. Four types of process are involved – reading the situation, making decisions, overt activity and metacognition – and three modes of cognition – intuitive, analytic and deliberative. The balance between these modes depends on time, experience and complexity. Where rapid action dominates, periods of deliberation are needed to maintain critical control. Finally the role of both formal and informal social knowledge is discussed; and it is argued that situated learning often leads not to local conformity but to greater individual variation as people’s careers take them through a series of different contexts. This abstract necessarily simplifies a more complex analysis in the paper itself.

This paper is so important for researching professional development for several reasons:
1. It sets out very well the role of the immediate environment for learning and professional development, and why the immediate work context is so important
2. It explains why an individual learns both from formal programmes and informal settings, thus that both are important and require attention in strategies to enhance professional development
3. At a more theoretical level, the article discusses the value of ‘deliberative’ or more overt, explicit learning, as well as the value of more tacit learning. There is a tendency sometimes to emphasise the value of theory and explicit learning and criticize the role of non-formal or experiential learning, and vice versa, to overemphasize informal learning. A particularly deleterious outcome of the latter, is the statement, heard often in universities, that academics do not need to be trained to teach, as they have been doing it all these years. I find this polarization of views particularly unhelpful, and don’t believe that it advances our understanding of how academics learn to teach.

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