The knowledge and innovation age, already upon us, presents new challenges and opportunities for language teachers and learners. The purpose of this essay is to apply key concepts from the field of knowledge and innovation management to the domain of language teaching and learning. New definitions of knowledge are needed to keep the field of applied linguistics current in a climate of globalization, rapid change, and continuous innovation.
The goal of this essay is to establish a new definition of knowledge that moves beyond the current accepted definition that is tied to performance and competence. New roles for teachers and learners and knowledge and innovation workers/learners are defined. Finally, a teaching and research agenda that draws on the potential of tacit knowledge is endorsed.
Defining Knowledge and Innovation
In the field of TESOL, much talk is made of linguistic and cultural knowledge. While care has been taken to define elements of language (e.g. Crystal, 1997) and culture (Atkinson, 1999), the term knowledge has been left undefined. A brief survey of introductory linguistics texts illustrates this point. For example, An Introduction to Language by Fromkin and Rodman (1998) begins Chapter 1 with a discussion of “Linguistic Knowledge.” Included in this section are the topics “knowledge of the sound system,” “knowledge of words,” “knowledge of sentences and nonsentences” (pp. 4-11). While each of these areas is subsequently defined according to linguistic principles, knowledge itself remains undefined. Similarly, The Language Files, another introductory linguistic textbook begins an early chapter/file with the question, “what do we know when we know a language” (Cipollone, N., Hartman Keiser, S., & Vasishth, S., 1998, p. 8). This time, linguistic knowledge includes “phonetics,” “phonology,” “morphology,” “syntax,” “semantics,” “pragmatics,” and “styles of speech” (pp. 8-10). Again, these headings provide the structural outline for several chapters/files that follow; none of these includes the nature or knowledge or what it means to know. In these introductory contexts, knowledge is often described to be actual tangible units that are discrete and well-defined.
Following from the categorization of knowledge as units of linguistic study is the notion of performance and competence. These concepts are the central set of concepts behind both communicative language teaching and Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar . Consider these definitions of competence and performance from Brown’s (2000) introductory text on language teaching:
“Competence refers to one’s underlying knowledge of a system, event or fact. It is the nonobservable ability to do something, to perform something” (p. 30).
“Performance is the overtly observable and concrete manifestation or realization of competence. It is the actual doing of something” (p. 30)
In making the connection between the linguistic and applied linguistic, Brown (2000) concludes, “In reference to language, competence is one’s underlying knowledge of the system of a language—its rules of grammar, its vocabulary, all the pieces of a language and how those pieces fit together. Performance is actual production (speaking, writing) or the comprehension (listening, speaking) of linguistic events” (p. 31).
Expanding on these concepts, O’Grady., Archibald, Aronoff, & Rees-Miller (2001) include a discussion of linguistic knowledge in their chapter on second language acquisition. Again, they align knowledge with competence, which, in their model can be broken down into several categories and subcategories as follows:
A. Strategic competence
B. Language competence
a. Grammatical competence
b. Textual competence
2. rhetorical organization
2. Pragmatic competence
a. Illocutionary competence
1. functional abilities
b. Sociolinguistic competence
3. cultural references (O’Grady, Archibald,
Aronoff, and Rees-Miller, 2001, p. 454)
Each of these areas, according to O’Grady, Archibald, Aronoff, and Rees-Miller are the “target areas to be acquired” (p. 454) by the second language learner. In the process of acquisition, the learner is building her or his knowledge of the language through the development of these competencies according to the theory.
Thus, in both theoretical and applied linguistics, knowledge is placed on the competency side of the divide between performance and competence. Theorists and language teachers alike may agree, however, that knowledge is not necessarily exclusive to competence; rather, such a divide indicates that a language learner might have some familiarity with the system of language but not be able to produce the language, and vice versa.
However, this divide between performance and competence does, in fact, put knowledge erroneously on one side of the issue. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a person must have some knowledge of a language in order to be able to produce any amount of language at all. The bigger issue, though, is that linguistics and applied linguistics, in defining central concepts, have neglected to define knowledge itself. This is important because the societies in which we teach and learn languages are increasingly becoming knowledge and innovation societies. As such, our understanding of knowledge itself has changed. The implications for language teachers and learners suggest that performance and competence alone may not be salient enough to support our decisions in the current and future realities.
The Knowledge and Innovation Era
The knowledge and innovation era is upon us. The knowledge and innovation era can be characterized by increased globalization and exchange of information and services. As Harkins (2003) explains:
We are entering the knowledge era. The knowledge era recognizes
that change is rapid; that the primary job of people is to exchange
information and services; and that because of technology, people can
know what is happening in most places throughout the world. The
Knowledge Era also recognizes that to be effective workers and
citizens, everyone needs to productively use “resources, interpersonal
skills, information, systems, technology, basic skills, thinking skills
and personal qualities” [1991 SCANS report]. Employing these
competencies will bring added value—shaping and increasing the
impact of information—to our societies and industries (p. 29).
As Figure 1 below illustrates, the Knowledge Era follows historically from the Information Age. In this paper, I combine the Knowledge Era with the Innovation Age because our society is currently experiencing both as we transition to the Innovation Age.
Era Name Approximate
Time Period Characteristics of
Labor Characteristics of
Pre-agriculture Began about 3 million
years ago Hunting and gathering Basic survival
Agriculture 13,000 -200 years ago Farming Skills needed to produce food and other goods
Industrial 200 years ago-
World War II Semi-automated
Machine labor Basic reading, writing, and math (3Rs)
Information Post World War II- 1990s Expansion of goods and services with automation Not keeping up with new approaches
Knowledge 1990s to present (2003) Bringing added value –shaping and increasing the impact of information Focus on the timely and successful application of information; personal leadership
Innovation The present (2003) and beyond Continuously adapting knowledge to meet the emerging needs of society Focus on the timely and successful application of information; personal leadership; adaptive technology
Figure 1 Adapted from Harkins (2003), pp. 30-31
Defining Knowledge and Innovation
A glance backward to the information age can be useful in considering definitions of data, information, knowledge, and innovation. While data was differentiated from information and knowledge, few distinction have been made between knowledge and information. Figure 2 below includes knowledge and innovation key words and definitions. In keeping with the applied linguistic nature of this paper, I give linguistic examples to illustrate each term.
Term Definition Linguistic Example
Data Raw, decontextualized information Words, words, words
(Standing alone, without a context)
Information Data that has been put into context and codified Words put together in predictable ways (Ex: exchanged hellos in passing)
Includes repetition of already created knowledge
Knowledge Information applied appropriately and successfully in context to make new information (adapted from Harkins, 2003) Words used to make (new) meaning in context
Innovation Continuously adapting knowledge and information to meet the emerging needs of society (adapted from Harkins, 2003) Words used to respond continuously and creatively to changes in context
Pidgeons and Creoles
Invention of new words
Figure 2 Key Knowledge words, definitions, and examples
It is important to note that information and knowledge are often erroneously interchanged. Information has been codified while knowledge is in an emerging state. Once knowledge has been shared and agreed upon, it is no longer knowledge, but information. Similarly, while the invention of a new word is itself an act of innovation, the use of this word in context becomes knowledge production and eventually, the word becomes vocabulary (information). This transitory nature of knowledge and innovation reflects the current pace of society.
Tacit and Explicit Knowledge
A further consideration of knowledge that has salience for language teaching and learning is the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge. As Von Krogh, Ichijo, and Nonaka (2000) explain,
knowledge is both explicit and tacit. Some knowledge can be put on
paper, formulated in sentences, or captured in drawings. . . .Yet, other
kinds of knowledge are tied to the senses, skills in bodily
movement, individual perception, physical experiences, rules of
thumb, and tuition. Such tacit knowledge is often very difficult to
describe to others (p. 6).
Explicit knowledge can be considered accessible and relatively easy to codify. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is more difficult to grasp. Blair (2002) suggests two types of tacit knowledge: “that which has not been expressed but is potentially expressible, and that which is not expressible” (p. 1025). In terms of language, much of what we know about language is, in fact, tacit. Theoretical linguistics is the process of uncovering tacit knowledge of language. When that knowledge is made accessible, it becomes explicit knowledge about language that can be conveyed to others. Ultimately, such linguistic knowledge becomes codified information, and includes our current theories of vocabulary, syntax, morphology, phonology, and rhetorical organization, among other components.
Of course, language teachers know that much of language is, in fact, tacit and therefore difficult to transmit to students. In departments of applied linguistics, it goes without saying that while every native speaker has tacit knowledge of language, language teachers themselves know that not every native speaker of a language can teach that language. Furthermore, some tacit aspects of language are difficult for even experienced teachers to convey to students. Elements of sociolinguistics and pragmatics are often tacit, and even when they are made explicit, there are limitations to their usefulness. Consider cultural elements of communication styles, such as direct and indirect styles, for example. While a learner may be taught that U.S. Americans are often direct communicators, there are many contexts in which the direct style is not appropriate. Knowing when to be direct and when to be indirect is the type of tacit knowledge a native speaker possesses. Such tacit knowledge can be difficult to teach, and may even be avoided in many language learning contexts.
Performance and Competence in the Knowledge and Innovation Age
Returning to the theory of performance and competence, it is observable that the definition of knowledge as ”information applied appropriately and successfully in context” is different from the use of knowledge in connection to the competence side of communicative language teaching. The definition of knowledge put forth by this paper, including both tacit and explicit knowledge, includes both the performance and competence dimensions. Figure 3 below suggests possible relationships between the sets of terms in the context of language teaching and learning. To begin, both explicit competence and explicit performance include items that, while are emerging knowledge for the individual learner, can also be easily codified as information. Tacit competence and tacit performance require more effort to ascertain, on both the part of the learner and teacher. While these elements can also be codified, they can also be harder to describe or are idiosyncratic.
Knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, morphology, phonology, rhetorical organization, cultural references
Knowledge of exceptions to the rules, illocutionary force, dialects, registers, cultural references
Knowledge of speaking/writing conventions, discourse styles, L1
Knowledge of context, cultural references, humor, appropriateness
Figure 3 The relationship between tacit/explicit and performance/competence
“Cultural references” are included in three of the four blocks: explicit competence, tacit competence, and tacit performance. This is because while some cultural knowledge/information is explicit (e.g., foods, flags, festivals), other cultural knowledge is tacit (e.g. values, attitudes, and beliefs) and these tacit elements of culture can be both acquired as competence and/or acted on as performance.
Limitations of the Current Paradigm
While in the current context, knowledge and innovation is central to language teaching and learning, much actual language teaching remains firmly rooted in information dissemination. This is because what is primarily taught in language classrooms can be considered explicit language knowledge, which is easily codified and therefore, taught. However, language teaching in the knowledge and innovation age must not neglect the hidden dimension of language knowledge: tacit knowledge.
In order to incorporate the development of knowledge in language teaching and learning, language teaching theories and methodologies must account for the tacit dimensions of language knowledge, both tacit competence and tacit performance. Language teaching that does so recognizes that language teachers are knowledge and innovation workers and that language learners are knowledge and innovation learners.
Language Teachers are Knowledge and Innovation Workers
A knowledge worker can be defined as “a man or woman who applies to productive work ideas, concepts, and information rather than manual skill or brawn.” (Peter Drucker, cited in Harkins, 2003). Clearly, language teachers work with people, ideas, concepts and information, and are, therefore, knowledge workers. Furthermore, language teachers are knowledge and innovation workers because language teaching requires taking information (elements of language) and adapt it appropriately in the classroom context to the benefit of our learners. To do so requires understanding of the learners themselves, the learning environment, the learners’ need for the language, and the actual elements of the language itself.
Such a conceptualization moves beyond competence and performance. While a knowledge and innovation teacher addresses the notions of competence and performance, she does so in recognition of the needs of her students AND with the belief that knowledge and innovation are essential components of both competence and performance. This means that language learners must have some degree of competency in order to use the language and that innovation is both a strategy and an end-result. Language learning requires innovation; in a language-use setting, if we do not have the needed vocabulary or grammar, we must invent it. As language learners develop competency in the target language, innovation takes the form of communicating new ideas in the target language. A teacher, then, guides the learners through a timely and appropriate process of learning the language. At the same time, the language teacher serves as a leader and a model for successful knowledge and innovation integration.
Language Learners are Knowledge and Innovation Learners
A knowledge and innovation learner is a man or a woman who learns to develop greater capacity in his or her self to apply ideas, concepts, and information creatively and appropriately. Language learners are knowledge and innovation learners because language is a necessary component of communication in a society marked by increased globalization. While the notion of language learners as knowledge and innovation learners took shape with the communicative method: students want and need to use the target language in a communicative context, language learning in the knowledge and innovation age must adapt to changes in the learning environment. Knowledge and innovation learners are different from other learners in three primary ways—their relationship to technology, their personal individualism, and their ability to manage change (adapted from Harkins, 2003).
Knowledge and innovation learners are developing technological proficiencies. They are able to use software, telecommunications, and the internet with ease to access information. Language teaching must account for and adapt to the use of technology—move from Computer Assisted Language Learning to Technology Based Language Learning.
Knowledge and innovation learners are highly individualistic. Language learners have a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and motivations. While English for Specific Purposes plays a large role in providing appropriate content in a wide variety of contexts, knowledge and innovation language learners may, in fact, require individualized programs of study as they creatively and enthusiastically approach the second language classroom.
Knowledge and innovation learners are constantly managing change. The current rate of change requires learners to always be mindful of the future. Knowledge and innovation learners are developing comfort in managing change; they are proficient at developing virtual selves (Harkins and Fiala, 2003)—understandings and engagement with aspects of the self in the past, present, and future. Knowledge and innovation learners are goal-oriented, but they are also pragmatic and therefore willing and able to modify goals as the context necessitates. Knowledge and innovation learners require flexibility and creativity as they begin the process of learning another language.
Implications for Teaching
Much current language teaching focuses solely on the explicit elements of language; language teaching in the knowledge and innovation age must incorporate these elements alongside tacit aspects of language as well. Because tacit knowledge is based on intuition, perception, and experience, as well as other elusive qualities, the challenge and opportunity for language teachers is to embrace the ambiguity.
Language teachers must also acknowledge the growing role of technology in the second language classroom. Software, telecommunication, and the Internet strongly influence teaching methods. Students can get instant translation via the Internet, communicate in real-time with native speakers in chat rooms or through distance-learning, and use software to simulate real language use contexts. While some of these technologies are still emerging, the reality for language teachers is that many explicit competencies (e.g. vocabulary, grammar, etc) may be available to students instantaneously through software or other technological means in the very near future. If the language classroom is not a location for developing this knowledge, how can the language classroom become a site of tacit language knowledge exploration and development? This is the primary question that language teachers must be asking themselves.
Another important issue language teachers must face is the highly individualistic nature of their knowledge and innovation learners. “Teaching to the center” will no longer be an effective strategy (if it ever was). While peer mentoring in the spirit of Vygotsky may be useful in some situations, other language learning environments may require multiple approaches to the multi-level, multicultural, multi-motivated classrooms (which may not be classrooms at all, but tv or computer screens accessed across the globe). Language teachers must be themselves knowledge workers to teach in such a multivariable and changing environment: they must be able to use information appropriately, timely, and successfully in order to facilitate the learning process for their students. Teachers must enable their students to become knowledge creators.
Implications for Research
In order for language teachers to be good knowledge and innovation workers, linguistic and applied linguistic research must develop the theoretical foundation supporting teacher practices. To do this, researchers must take a knowledge and innovation-oriented approach to linguistic knowledge. While research in the fields of explicit competence and explicit performance continue to be useful and necessary, much more dedication to uncovering the tacit knowledge of language, both competence and performance-based, is critical. Research exploring the cultural dimensions of tacit knowledge is emerging (e.g. Lazaraton, 2003; Cox, 2001; Holme, 2002; and Kramsch, 2002, among others). Such research can assist language teachers in making appropriate pedagogical choices to best enable the development of tacit language knowledge by their language learners.
The formulation of knowledge as an enabling practice moves beyond the current theoretical and applied linguistic postulation of knowledge in relation to linguistic competence and separate from linguistic performance. Understanding knowledge, instead, as “information applied appropriately and successfully in context to make new information” (Harkins, 2003) brings knowledge to all dimensions of performance and competence, expanding these terms into explicit competence, explicit performance, tacit competence, and tacit performance. Addressing these four elements in both linguistic research and applied linguistic practice will result in best practices for language learning in the knowledge and innovation age. Such practices will enable language learners to become knowledge and innovation learners (and ultimately, workers) who will be successful (and innovative) users of languages in a context marked by increased globalization and rapid change.
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