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Implicit Versus Explicit Learning

by Dr. Renee Fuller

When I was a youngster, Latin wasnít taught until 7th grade. The explanation —children donít understand the required grammar before early adolescence. And you have to understand grammar in order to learn Latin. Of course, with French it was different. Some schools actually taught conversational French in 1st grade.

Years later, after getting my Ph.D. in physiological psychology and another decade of research with children, I realized the wisdom of these choices. By that time, I had used the Gesell findings and the later work of Piaget, which describe how children donít fully understand the intricate rules of language until they reach adolescence. What makes these findings so surprising is that by adolescence children have talked our ears off for more than a decade. From age two on, children know how to play the language game, but have little awareness of the rules of that game. They present us with a fascinating example of explicit versus implicit knowledge. Although following the grammatical rules of language, they are unaware of their existence, or even why incorrect grammar "feels funny." In other words, children have an implicit understanding of grammar but almost no explicit knowledge.

My teachers predated the work of Piaget, though they might have known of the earlier work at the Gesell Institute, which describes how grammatical rules are finally grasped in adolescence. More likely, however, their knowledge was acquired through the experience of generations of teachers. And so their attitude was that when young minds are ready to be taught grammar, these language intricacies could be presented as an exciting revelation. Which is why in 7th grade we were shown, much to our surprise, that we had actually been following rules while we were talking. We learned how to diagram sentences, which became something of a game, similar to crossword puzzles.

The introduction of Latin at the same time, taught us that all the worldsí languages have four major parts of speech: Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Of course, we also learned that languages can differ. How there are languages where the prepositions are indicated by noun endings rather than as separate words. And that there are languages with a real oddity Ė their nouns and even their adjectives are male or female, as though they were alive, like people or dogs.

Although as young adolescents we were able to master grammatical rules without too much trouble, learning the application of Latin grammar (the explicit approach) was hard work. Learning conversational French (the implicit approach) had been so much easier. After six years of Latin, translation was still a laborious task and conversational Latin was out of the question. But French, which we had learned implicitly, without our being taught the rules, flowed easily in both oral and written form. Without knowing it at the time, I had experienced the difference between implicit versus explicit learning. And implicit learning was so much easier than explicit learning.

Decades later, the difference between implicit and explicit learning was highlighted for me by the unexpected success of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system. The system demonstrates how the reading and language game is played without ever requiring the memorization of rules. Instead of being asked to learn reading principles by rote, a phonic pattern is presented and then shown in lists of words that are immediately used in goofy science fiction adventures. This process is repeated again and again, allowing the brain to draw the implicit conclusions about the phonic patterns involved. The unexpected successes in teaching not just reading, but writing and even spelling, to dyslexic and very low IQ students, demonstrated the possibilities and effectiveness of implicit teaching and learning.

In many ways the concept of implicit learning seems like a contradiction. How can you learn something when you donít know what it is you are learning? The answer is that the human brain is a most extraordinary pattern detector. When presented with a scenario, it doesnít have to be given all of the components in order to figure out what to do. In fact, if given all of the components, the brain often has great difficulty in combining these parts to make a whole. Itís like being given all of the pieces of a puzzle without knowing the picture the pieces are supposed to make. On the other hand, when a child sees a game being played, it takes little time before s/he is a participant. However, knowing how to play the game is not the same as being able to put into words, to verbalize, what s/he knows how to do. Although the brain is acting on an implicit knowledge of the rules of the game, there may be little or no awareness what these rules are. Of course, the brain can make mistakes. Sometimes it draws wrong conclusions.

But much of the time by watching a game being played, we can correctly determine the rules. However, when you ask, for example, one of our youngsters who is a marvelously proficient baseball player "What are the rules of baseball?" the answer can be hilarious. From the response youíd have no idea of the level of his/her expertise. Although the youngster may have considerable implicit knowledge, s/he has little explicit knowledge.

Itís not just children who tend to succeed with an implicit presentation and fail with an explicit one. The same can happen to adults. Adults, like myself, who have recently moved to another state requiring the written part of the driverís test, have experienced this to our embarrassment. I still donít know the correct answer to "How many feet are required for a car to come to a full stop after going 50 miles per hour?" Of course, I know the answer implicitly. If I didnít, I wouldnít still be around.

It is this iffy relationship between book knowledge (explicit knowledge) and knowing how the job is done (implicit knowledge), that is the basis of much grumbling about the various aptitude tests Ė from the law exams to the police exams, to the licensing exams for doctors and psychologists. The tests assume a one-to-one relationship between verbal (explicit) and implicit knowledge, a relationship that is frequently far from real. Knowing the specifications of a job (explicit knowledge) and being able to do the job (implicit knowledge) are not the same. We have all seen cases of the brilliant test-taker who is a disaster in the real world.

Every mechanic, every technology guru, every doctor, lawyer and all of the other experts know the difference between hands-on experience and book-learning. Knowing the rules doesnít necessarily mean you know how to do the job. Thereís a big difference between being able to spout the rules of the game and being able to play the game. Any of us who have called a support hotline for appliance or computer dealers have experienced the difficulty these "experts" have in communicating verbally what they presumably know how to do. The translation of implicit knowledge to its explicit form requires considerable practice as well as expertise in its own right.

It is not just that it is easier for us to learn most things implicitly rather than explicitly, it is easier for us to remember them. Explicit learning, especially the memorization of rules, slips out of our minds with surprising speed. But once you actually know how to do something, it tends to come back even after years of neglect. Which is why when we teach chemistry, cooking, mechanics, astronomy and even ethics, with the hands-on approach they are remembered. Further, it is easier to apply the knowledge acquired via the hands-on (implicit) route. Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, can be fed (taught) to a computer, and the machine can then draw inferences that are beyond the capacity of the human brain. That is because computers are rule machines. We humans, however, are something very different.

So if your youngster, or for that matter, you yourself, donít seem to "get it" after being taught the rules, donít despair. You and your youngster are just being clever humans rather than a computer. Since we are humans, the thing to do is to structure what has to be learned in such a way that implicit learning can take place. The method I found worked most effectively was to show the necessary components and immediately thereafter demonstrate how the components make a whole scenario. By doing so, the components will make sense, and the scenario that was built with them can be used to create even bigger scenarios.

Dr. Fuller created the successful Ball-Stick-Bird reading program to help those who had difficulty learning to read with more traditional methods and materials. She has had overwhelming success with it in a variety of settings.

Her website is:

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