The ability to play the game versus knowing the rules of the game

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © Renée Fuller, 1999

     When I was a youngster, Latin wasn't taught until 7th grade. The explanation - children don't 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 first grade.

     Years later, after getting my Ph.D. in physiological psychology and devoting another decade in research with children, I realized the wisdom of these choices. By that time I had used the Gesell and Piaget data which show that youngsters don't 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. With considerable expertise they follow the rules of grammar, although unaware of the existence of the rules, or even why incorrect grammar "feels funny."


Phrased in psychological terminology, children have an implicit understanding of grammar but almost no explicit knowledge. They present us with a fascinating example of explicit versus implicit knowledge.

     My teachers predated the work of Piaget, though they may 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 can 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 cross word puzzles.

     The introduction of Latin at the same time taught us that all the worlds' 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 - their nouns and even their adjectives are male or female, as though they were alive like people or our dogs. Although as young adolescents we were able to master the grammatical rules without too much trouble, learning the application of Latin grammar (after having been taught that language explicitly) was hard work. Learning conversational French (after having been taught French implicitly) had been so much easier. After six years of Latin, translation was still a laborious task for us, 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 versus 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 phonics by rules and rote, the student is merely shown a phonic pattern and a list of similar words. These similar words are then immediately used in goofy science fiction adventures.
This process is repeated for each phonic pattern in subsequent books, allowing the brain to draw implicit conclusions about reading and spelling. The unexpected success of this method in teaching not just reading, but writing and even spelling to dyslexic and even 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 don't know the rules of what you are learning? The answer is that the human brain is a most extraordinary pattern detector.


When presented with a scenario, the brain doesn't have to be given all the components (i.e. the rules) in order to figure out what to do. In fact, if given all the components, the brain often has great difficulty in combining these parts to make a whole. It's like being given all the pieces of a puzzle without knowing the picture the pieces are supposed to make.

     For example, when a child sees a new game being played he/she frequently becomes an almost immediate participant. However, knowing how to play the game is not the same as being able to put into words, to verbalize, what she/he knows how to do. Although the brain can act on implicit knowledge, there may be little or no conscious awareness of the rules it is following. 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 play by its 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 you'd have no idea of the level of her/his expertise. Although the youngster may have considerable implicit knowledge, he/she has little explicit knowledge.

     It's 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 driver's test, have experienced this to our embarrassment. I still don't 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 didn't, I wouldn't 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 - from the law exams to the police exams, to the licensing exams for doctors and psychologists.

     The tests imply 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 the other experts know the difference between hands on experience and book learning. Knowing the rules doesn't necessarily mean you know how to do the job. There's a big difference between being able to spout the rules of the game and being able to play the game. As we have all experienced when calling a support hot line for appliances or computers, these "experts" have considerable difficulty 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 instead of explicitly, it is easier for us to remember them. Explicit learning, especially the application of memorized rules, slips out of our minds with surprising speed. But once you actually know how to do something it tends to come back to you even after years of neglect. Which is why when we teach chemistry, cooking, mechanics, astronomy and even ethics via a hands-on approach they are remembered. Further, it is easier to apply the knowledge acquired through the hands-on (implicit) route.


Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, can be fed (taught) to computers, 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, don't seem to "get it" after being taught the rules, don't despair. You and your youngster are just being clever humans rather than computers. Since we are humans, what works for us is to structure what has to be learned in such a way that implicit learning can take place. I have found that the most effective technique is to present the essential components of a task, and immediately thereafter show how these components make an interesting whole. That way the components make sense, making it easy for the brain to build the whole. Our human brain can then combine these wholes (i.e. stories of skills) as constituents for even more advanced accomplishments. That is how we humans create stories or skills that are beyond the cleverest computers.

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© 1999 Renée Fuller
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