Friday 3 November 2023

Tacit is the word

In the run up to retirement 3 years and 4 weeks ago, I was quite insufferable about how I was boarding the ice-flow to make my desk available for a younger, fitter, hungrier teacher who would be a more attainable / realistic role model for young [female] scientists. The standard [tired]  response to my posturing was to ask "what about your experience? isn't that valuable?" It is, of course, because in doing the same old, same old, for many years, you get better at doing it. Up to a point, Lord Copper: teaching is only partly about content / syllabus / curriculum but also about the process and the delivery. Enthusiasm for / in / about the process is more inspirational than the stuff taught.

And it's probably true that this meta-curriculum a) cannot be assessed b) cannot be described even if it c) can be reproduced. Good teaching involves a lot of perceptual learning: stuff that the teacher internalises by feedback but might have difficulty incorporating in a lesson plan. This was one of the annoying fatuities of having to work in place that was sold on documentation and paper trails. If I wanted to claim mileage for driving off campus on company business, I had to secure prior appro from my Head of Department; who needed the appro of the Head of School; who needed to send the paperwork up two further layers of bureaucracy. Having completed the off-site work, I had to [✓] complete [✓] another [✓] form [✓] and send it up the same trail.

To start a new course required a mire of forms itemizing Learning Outcomes [LO] and Assessment Methods [AM] and Deliverables [D?]. The forms and applications had to be scrutinized by officials and committees of officials. It was no wonder that so many of my colleagues were still teaching the same old tried-tested-boring labs year after year. The prime LO here for students? B o o o r r r i n g!

I'm not sure where that-all came from! Sorry. What I really wanted to flag was another sort of Tacit Knowledge inspired by this article Chicken Sexing for coders which treats of embedded knowledge that you build up over years on the job. You know what's crap even if it takes a lot more effort to demonstrate why something won't work.

"Near the end of my internship, we found that we had too much work to do and too few engineers to do it with, so I was asked to code a set of API endpoints on my own. I completed my task and asked a senior engineer to look at my code — he walked over, glanced at my controller file, and said “Oh, that’s not good, this would be a problem later. Structure it this way. It was less than a few seconds at most, scrolling through the hundred or so lines I’d written". 

I saw the same thing occurring at every lab meeting I attended when I was close to the cutting edge of science. [Before I settled down to teaching farmer's daughters and pharmacy technicians the rudiments of biology and maths]. At those lab meetings, some youngster would present their latest research, often at a loss to explain why things were not going well. The Gaffer would suggest new directions; (2 or 3 years) older lab-members might chime in with technical detail and Presenter would be able to go forward a bit less bowed. It might be years since The Gaffer had put on a lab-coat in anger but the tech details were usually less important than the approach, the mindset and the crap-detector.

Yesterday I had another encounter with tacit knowledge / embedded experience. Dau.II may have left home again but there are still elements of hungry chick in our relationship. While occupying the sofa, she had an insatiable appetite for Knockroti the pastiche of chapatti which I've slapping on the stove for the last 20 years:

These used to be how I would use up any bits of bread dough which were surplus to the weight required to make a 800g or 1200g loaf-pan loaf. Years ago, I promoted an old cast-iron fry-pan for this sole purpose. Because, I only used it for off-cuts, I didn't really get the process embedded in muscle-memory. I can remember making a big fuss when the two crusts were separated by steam power and the chup puffed up "Fußball!" I'd cry auf Deutsch out and turn to my family for approval. 

We're going up to Dublin today and yesterday I was requested and required to make as many K'roti as I had patience for, because m'chicks had almost emptied their freezer of chupplies. On it! You can see the first 8 Fußballen of the batch. It's rare now to fail in the desired separation of the two crusts . . . because some barely conscious part of my 'mind' knows the ingredients, temp, timing to achieve this aim.

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