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The Tacit Knowledge of Productive Scholars in Education


by Megan Tschannen-Moran & Nancy Nestor-Baker - 2004

This study investigates the tacit knowledge of prolific educational scholars. These scholars were motivated by a clear set of values that led them to make research a priority in the midst of competing demands and to persist through the more tedious or arduous parts of the research process. The participants learned to manage not only their time but also their emotions when coping with the pressures of academic life, the criticism inherent in the peer review process, and the politics of organizational life. They formed collaborative networks for both emotional support and intellectual challenge. By making these knowledge structures more explicit, others may benefit from the thinking behind these scholars' success to improve scholarship in the field.

The quality and usefulness of research in education is under increased public scrutiny and critique, with the emphasis in the No Child Left Behind legislation on scientifically based research and the restructuring within the U.S. Department of Education to create the Institute of Education Sciences. These critiques are not new (e.g., Bridges, 1982; Erickson, 1979; Griffiths, 1959), yet they have taken on added urgency as the stakes have been raised in terms of both credibility and funding for research. One reason education scholars have struggled to gain respect is that they must cope with what Labaree (1998) called a ‘‘lesser form of knowledge’’ as a soft, applied field. Labaree contrasts education with other fields, such as the natural sciences, where research findings are verifiable, definitive, and cumulative. In education, as in other soft fields, it is difficult to build consensus on important problems, to concentrate research efforts, or to accumulate knowledge. The difficulty arises in part because findings are always subject to critique by others who hold different interpretive frameworks. Yet, as an applied field, there is pressure to provide practical solutions to pressing problems.


One dimension of fostering higher quality research in education is to examine the researchers themselves. What is it about high caliber researchers that sets them apart? Conducting research and publishing the results is strenuous, intense work. What gives some people the drive to put forth that effort year after year? What motivates or enables some people to continue posing new questions and confronting new challenges? This study uses a tacit knowledge framework to provide the conceptual lens through which to consider what makes productive scholars excel.


The importance of high-quality research to the vitality of the field of education cannot be overstated, particularly in this era of accountability. Greater understanding of the tacit knowledge of productive researchers provides a window into the thinking of some of the most successful scholars. It could lead to strategies that could be adopted by others as well as recommendations on the preparation of future researchers. It may help us as a field to structure environments that nurture high-quality research projects that meet the dual standards of rigor and relevance.




BACKGROUND


This study is an outgrowth of the work conducted by the Task Force on Research and Inquiry by Division A of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The Productive Scholars subcommittee identified prolific scholars in the field, through a three-stage process, to explore factors that contributed to their productivity. First, committee members generated a frequency count of authors who had published articles and books in leading educational journals and publishing houses over a 10-year period. The committee then asked a panel of experts to refine the list. Based on their recommendations the committee selected a final sample of 50 productive scholars. The current study taps a sample of the productive scholars identified in the earlier study (Tschannen-Moran, Firestone, Hoy, & Johnson, 2000) and focuses on developing a better understanding of the tacit knowledge of these scholars. The committee identified the 16 scholars to be interviewed, with an eye toward capitalizing on the gender diversity of the sample, to tap the small amount of racial and ethnic diversity, and to capture, to some extent, scholars at different points in their careers.


The productive scholars had acquired an appreciation of the aesthetics of research as well as the skills and motivation to engage in sustained prolific scholarly output over the course of their careers. The earlier survey phase of this project found that this sample of productive scholars in education shared many of the characteristics and experiences identified in earlier studies of prolific scholars in other fields (Tschannen-Moran et al., 2000). Many of the productive scholars had the opportunity to learn research skills during graduate school by working closely with an experienced researcher or mentor as a research assistant or during their early career as a member of a research team (Blackburn & Havighurst, 1979; Hunter & Kuh, 1987; Reskin, 1977, 1979). During these experiences, they were socialized into the scholarly lifestyle and learned to value research (Pease, 1967; Reskin, 1979). They also developed an ability to find problems, design and conduct a study, write up the results, and undergo the refereeing process (Hogan, 1981; Hunter & Kuh, 1987; Kuh & McCarthy, 1980; Long, 1987; Zuckerman, 1977). Mentoring or sponsorship by an established scholar seemed to be important, not only during graduate school but also the early years in the field, a period during which academics develop attitudes and habits that often influence subsequent research and publication activity (Braxton, 1983; Cameron & Blackburn, 1981; Clark & Corcoran, 1986; Fulton & Trow, 1974; Hunter & Kuh, 1987). During these experiences, a combination of explicit and tacit knowledge developed around the complex task of conducting and publishing research. Our interest was in the development of those tacit knowledge structures that supported scholarly success. While previous studies examined the aspirations, orientations, and supports of highly productive scholars, none that we could find examined their tacit knowledge.




THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge so thoroughly grounded in experience that it cannot be fully expressed (Horvath et al., 1999). Tacit knowledge is procedural in structure, relevant to goal attainment, and frequently acquired with minimal help from others. Tacit knowledge allows a person to know when to adapt to the environment, when to shape the environment, and when to select a new one (Horvath et al., 1994).


Polanyi’s (1966) philosophical treatise on personal knowing laid the theoretical foundation for studies of tacit knowledge. Polanyi argued that tacit knowing accounts ‘‘for a valid knowledge of the problem, for the individual’s capacity to pursue it, guided by his sense of approaching its solution, and for a valid anticipation of the yet indeterminate implications of the discovery arrived at in the end’’ (p. 24). In his view, all knowledge has tacit dimensions. Perhaps in part for theoretical ease some theorists place tacit and explicit knowledge in discrete categories (Leonard & Sensiper, 1998). Polanyi, however, subscribed to a messier view, wherein knowledge exists on a continuum from utterly tacit and inaccessible to totally explicit and accessible.


As a concept, tacit knowledge suffers from a multitude of definitions, sometimes falling into the we-know-it-when-we-see-it category. For our purposes, tacit in tacit knowledge incorporates more than the dictionary definition of tacit and includes in its parameters informally generated knowledge, impressionistic knowledge, and metacognition. In this view, tacit assumes a broader meaning, applying to the context of knowledge generation, the transfer and automatization of that knowledge and the seemingly instinctive choice of application strategies.


Tacit knowledge manifests as practical intelligence (Wagner & Sternberg, 1985, 1986), common sense (Sternberg, 1985) or street smarts (Horvath et al., 1994). These practical abilities are used successfully to navigate everyday life. They include interpersonal and supervisory skills, self-knowledge, insight into the actions and behaviors that lead to goal achievement, and the ability to solve practical problems and to shape environments that impede success (Sternberg, 1985). In short, ‘‘practical intelligence . . . involves the ability to grasp, understand, and solve real-life problems in the everyday jungle of life . . . you can’t be successful if you lack practical intelligence’’ (Sternberg, in Miele, 1995).


Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) maintain that tacit knowledge─ the invisible knowledge hidden behind intelligent action─ is highly developed in experts. However, while tacit knowledge increases with job experience, it is not a direct function of that experience. The amount of experience one has matters less than what is done with that experience to acquire knowledge, to solve the complex problems of practice, and to achieve goals (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995; Nestor-Baker, 2004; Wagner, 1987). There are those with long years of service who do not evidence high levels of expertise, and those with shorter tenure who clearly have gleaned greater insight from their experiences.


Lave and Wenger’s (1991) discussion of learning as social practice gives rise to consideration of tacit knowledge acquisition and application as a function of participation in communities of practice. ‘‘Whenever people engage . . . in doing things in which their ongoing activities are interdependent, learning is part of their changing participation in changing practices’’ (p. 150). In this light, tacit knowledge generation shapes and is shaped by individuals’ roles within their communities of practice. Consideration of the tacit knowledge of highly productive scholars is enhanced by awareness of the communities of practice within which they operate (Lave, 1996).


The context of tacit knowledge can be considered as local, referring to a focus on short-term, more immediate goals, or as global, referring to long- term goals and focusing on the way in which the current situation fits into a larger framework (Wagner, 1987). Intelligent performance consists of ‘‘responding appropriately in terms of one’s long-range and short-range goals, given the actual facts of the situation as one discovers them’’ (Neisser, 1976, p. 137). Highly productive scholars have been astute observers of their contexts with an eye toward gaining expertise to accomplish their goals.




METHODOLOGY


The methodology of this study differs from many others in the manner in which the data is coded and analyzed. The technique has been adapted from the work of scholars who investigate tacit knowledge and is designed to capture the implicit goals and practical intelligence of participants (Horvath et al., 1994; Nestor-Baker & Hoy, 2001).



DATA SOURCES


Each of the 16 prolific scholars was interviewed in a face-to-face, semi-structured interview that lasted between 45 and 90 minutes. Participants were asked to talk about incidents in their professional lives that shaped their understanding and practice of scholarship, to recall specific situations and to identify elements that they considered critical to success or failure. The interviewees were encouraged to consider such issues as the barriers they faced, the way they did or did not surmount those barriers, and the impact of their decisions on later actions. This post-hoc interview method allowed for deeper probing and greater access to the covert thought processes behind proceduralized behaviors. Because scholars with more typical publishing records were not included in the sample, we are not able to draw comparisons between the tacit knowledge structures of prolific and more typical scholars.



CODING OF TACIT KNOWLEDGE


Two research assistants, trained by the primary researchers, assisted in coding the data. The tacit knowledge embedded in the interview transcripts was found by attending to the procedural, goal-oriented characteristics of tacit knowledge. The coders attempted to avoid declarative knowledge, or maxims, and to focus on procedural knowledge. Instances that pointed to tacit knowledge were coded as ‘‘if-then-because’’ statements, with the ‘‘if ’’ portion representing the antecedent condition(s), the ‘‘then’’ portion representing the action(s) growing from the antecedent condition, and the ‘‘because’’ statement explaining the reason for the action (Horvath et al., 1994). This coding process was used to reduce the impact of coder biases and emotional reactions. It exerts a discipline that focuses on distilling the essential components of procedural tacit knowledge. Developed by Horvath et al. (1994), the process complements Leithwood and Steinbach’s (1995) discussion of solution processes. Solution processes can be seen as the mental blueprints that provide guidelines for action.


The if-then-because scenarios attempt to clarify the tacit procedural solution processes used by the prolific scholars and serve to highlight goal differences, even in cases where the procedural action is similar. The structural requirements of the if-then-because data coding is helpful when working with a concept such as tacit knowledge, which exists across a broad continuum from totally implicit to utterly explicit and incorporates individual and social cognition and psychology. Without such a coding structure, it becomes easy to get lost in a morass of differing interpretations, levels of explicitness, and coder emotions and understandings.


It is important to keep in mind that the comments of the scholars and the if-then-because scenarios created from those comments serve as indicators of embedded tacit knowledge (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999); they are pointers toward that knowledge rather than strict representations of it. If-then-because wordings did not appear in the interviews but rather were identified from the scholars’ comments. For example, one scholar made the following comments:


If you’re going to be reasonably successful I think [politics] becomes a necessary thing–unless you’re one of those one half of one percent that has it all. So what that means is I have to get along with people, I have to support people, I have to join other coalitions, I have to get people to join my coalitions. I was to the point where I had a choice and the choice was, do I want to play the game, and capture the ideas I’m interested in and build support. But as a full professor . . . I always have the option to say ‘‘To Hell with it. I’m just going to do my work and do what I like to do.’’ That’s a nice insurance policy there. And most people don’t have that. To get there, I don’t think I ever compromised any of my basic principles, but you have to make compromises. You have to negotiate things, you have to get along with people, you have to engage in coalition building of your own, coalition building with the others. I was always amazed . . . almost as soon as I got tenure. . . . I had people coming to me and saying we need your support here. And I’d say me, why me? They’d say, you’re an opinion leader in this school . . . if this thing’s gonna fly, you need to join. . . . If it was reasonable and not too far afield, I’d go for it. You know, when you join one of those coalitions, if you need some support, there’s the reciprocity─ and when I need something─ that’s part of this game. It’s not like I didn’t play it, I did. I was reasonably successful at it, not always. But the times I wasn’t successful there was─ or at least I tell myself there was─ some principle or overriding value that I had that I wouldn’t compromise. There are times like that─ they want your support for something you just can’t do.


Tacit knowledge from this section of the interview was described this way:


IF you want to gain political support,


THEN coalesce a group of supporters to form a coalition,


BECAUSE it is necessary to build support for your ideas to move them forward.


And


IF building coalitions,


THEN realize the give and take nature of the game but don’t compromise your beliefs when asked for reciprocal support,


BECAUSE in the end you must stay true to your values.


In another example, one of the productive scholars discussed his early years in the professoriate:


My first job [as an assistant professor], I was only 26 years old. And I really looked young. And by the time I moved to [a second institution] I was only 29 years old. And, back in those days, the professorship in educational administration was run by a bunch of good old boys. And you had to learn how to accommodate to that on the one hand, and on the other hand move forward with your own research and scholarship. So, that was kind of a tricky thing. I was hired up there by one of these good old boys. . . . I was one of these young guys, young rebels, that was . . . theoretical, research-oriented, and at the time, everyone was looking for those. . . . But when I got there, . . . I found out that it was the thing to do, but the old boys didn’t really believe you had much to offer. And, so there you are, you’re confronted with this, you don’t have tenure, you’ve been rollin’ along on the fast track, and you get confronted with these good old boys. And they hired two young people. . . . And, I can remember vividly, when I first met the [other hire], he was older than me, by about 10 years, a typical kind of New York type, smooth kind of guy, and I met him and I thought, ‘‘My, I’m really in fast company, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this.’’ And so I just took my time and figured out the lay of the land and continued doing my agenda to do research and to do scholarship. . . . Being young, I had to have a legitimacy. I didn’t have the legitimacy of being a good old boy, so I needed a different source of legitimacy. The legitimacy that I choose was to know stuff that was useful, to know how to do things, to have a kind of solid knowledge base, that other people didn’t have and so that was part of my overall strategy. You have to be flexible enough in it. You can’t be too defensive about who you are . . . and this [other newly hired] hotshot, he had more trouble than I did. The reason he had more trouble than I did is he wasn’t as flexible. He was also, when it’s all said and done, he was a lot less confident. He seemed to be very confident on the surface, but in reality he was a lot less confident. And the reason he was a lot less confident is he didn’t know that much. He hadn’t put in the time, he hadn’t studied the stuff. He was really articulate and he would use that to mask his real weakness. So when we would get in a faculty meeting, some of the good old boys would start criticizing the young whipper-snappers, he would get all bent out of shape and I would laugh. Where that comes from I don’t know.


Tacit knowledge pointers from these recollections were coded this way:


IF you have confidence in yourself and don’t threaten your colleagues


THEN you will be respected and be able to respect other people who have different research agendas,


BECAUSE what will save you is being flexible and knowing who you are.


And


IF working within an environment where you are not part of the established network,


THEN know when to contribute and when to remain silent,


BECAUSE people will respect you more and take you more seriously.


And


IF faced with political decisions,


THEN don’t be stymied by unhealthy norms,


BECAUSE you must keep working without roughing the waters to move forward professionally.


Data coding was a two-step process. In the first step, the two research assistants independently read the interviews and formulated independent codes. Because of the implicit nature of tacit knowledge, however, a second tier was added to the coding process. After independently deriving the codes, the assistants and the two primary researchers convened to consider the instances of tacit knowledge. Providing an avenue for checking the assistants’ understanding of the scholars’ comments, interrater reliability of the independent codings was calculated using agreement on presence at a specific point in text rather than on exact phrasing (Boyatzis, 1998). Be- cause tacit knowledge may not be clearly verbalized, exact wording by the raters of the tacit knowledge was not expected. Rather, agreement was based on whether the raters agreed that tacit knowledge was present in specific portions of the interviews. Across the independently coded interviews, without adjustments for any issues of clarification, an interrater reliability of 64% was achieved. The second phase of coding consisted of group discussion of the tacit knowledge areas and refinement of the coded statements.


Tacit knowledge has an implicit richness that may be implied through interviewee comments. Because of this richness, the areas of tacit knowledge delineated through the coding process may have multiple interpretations or foci. This multidimensionality underscores the importance of using multiple coders, providing multiple levels of coding, and distilling the pertinent passages into if-then-because statements.


The data coding resulted in identification of areas where tacit knowledge was found in the interviews. Through the coding process, 244 areas of tacit knowledge were identified from the interviews, resulting in 431 if-then-because tacit knowledge items. While the coders agreed on the presence of tacit knowledge in particular passages, the wording used by the coders in the if-then-because statements often differed because of coder interpretation of the interviewee’s comments. Therefore, the additional level of re- finement provided by the sorting of the coded data resulted in a clearer pinpointing of the nuances in the coded areas.



SORTING OF DATA


A two-level sort of the if-then-because items was conducted by the two primary researchers. Each researcher performed an independent sort of the items and categorized them. Acting independently, the sorters arrived at a number of similar categories, such as collaboration, political skills, organizational contexts, research-to-practice, and self-knowledge. The primary researchers then used the independent sortings to perform a consensus sort on the categories. In this step, the independently selected categories were compared for overlap, consistency, and inconsistency. The consensus sort resulted in the categories listed in Table 1. Using the independent sort as a first step provided a better sample of the available sort criteria than a sort performed by consensus alone. The categories, the na- ture of the items of which they are composed, and the frequency of those items provide a platform for consideration of the tacit knowledge content used by the highly productive scholars. The results reveal patterns of




Table 1. Tacit knowledge categories and dispersal of tacit knowledge items across categories.


Category

# of Coded Items (with duplications)

% of Total Coded Items*

# of Scholars Represented

Collaboration and Social Support

62

14.4

16

Coping with Competing Demands

61

14.2

14

Navigating Institutional Context

56

13

12

Political Skills to Gain Access to Resources and Power

49

11.4

13

Setting a Research Agenda

45

10.4

14

Research to Practice Connections

44

10.2

12

Connecting to Your Passion/ Knowing Yourself/ Satisfaction

35

8.1

12

Perseverance in Overcoming Obstacles/ Self-Efficacy/ Confidence

23

5.3

14

Writing Skills/ Writing Process

19

4.4

9

Publishing and Coping with Peer Review

17

3.9

8

Setting Goals/ Maintaining Focus

16

3.7

5

Standards of Rigor

14

3.2

6

Total areas where tacit knowledge was found: 244

Total tacit knowledge items found in those 244 areas: 431*

Total tacit knowledge items including duplicate categorizations: 441




similarity across scholars, as well as distinctive themes unique to individual scholars.




RESULTS


The results of the data analysis reveal rich reservoirs of tacit knowledge that have made these scholars so successful. Salient points from each category and representative samples of interview data are outlined later. Illustrative passages from the interviews are provided; however, in the interests of brevity, these passages tend to be shorter, more explicit examples of scholar knowledge rather than more implicit examples extending across multiple paragraphs.



COLLABORATION AND SOCIAL SUPPORT


Collaboration and social support, representing slightly more than 14% of the total tacit knowledge text units, involves the creation and maintenance of social networks within the academic context. All 16 scholars discussed collaborating in some way, though these partnerships differed. From graduate school cohorts to mentorships to like-minded colleague groups, networks were dictated by need and personal desire.


These successful scholars were able to create partnerships that provide social support as well as professional challenge and stimulation. One participant commented: ‘‘Finding people who stimulate you and who are exciting to work with, who stretch your mind [is important]. . . . If they make me think, then I try and figure out a research project to do with them.’’ As young scholars, many of the participants intentionally sought out relationships with others who had skills that they lacked, and had continued this practice throughout their careers. These prolific scholars did not limit themselves to the local context but were oriented toward the broader field beyond their own institution.


If you look at my vitae, a lot of my stuff is collaborative work. But very little of it is with the collaboration of somebody who is at my own institution. . . . I couldn’t work just by myself; I wouldn’t find that as enjoyable. . . . I need it but I don’t need to find it in my department.


The scholars were selective as to the people they included in their networks. They looked for people with similar interests and compatible personalities. The interviewees pointed out the need for collaborators to have similar work ethics and the skills to resolve the conflicts that emerged, such as the order of the authors’ names on manuscripts or differences of opinion over methods or interpretations. Some intentionally sought out people who would challenge them.


I just look for people who are really capable and good at what they do, from whom I get a sense of real integrity. The other stuff I figure I can work out. You know, if they’re gruff, or look down their nose, I don’t have a problem with that as long as they’re up front and as a consequence, I’ve never borne the brunt of the sort of the impatience . . .[or] really harshly critical treatment . . . even though some of these people have that reputation. . . . People who are kind of challenging. . . I’m kind of drawn to that . . . because I know they’ll push me. . . . They’re not lazy, so they won’t be lazy about pushing me.


Collaboration sometimes meant having access to opportunities that might otherwise have been missed. One scholar described the early years of an ongoing relationship that resulted in far-reaching opportunities for personal and professional growth.


He didn’t have to involve a novice colleague [like me]. He didn’t have to share the opportunity. He chose to, and I’m grateful that he did. I think we both enjoyed the fact that he did. . . . We were very good together, we were very synergistic. It would have been a much smaller scale project and I think probably not as well done if one or the other of us had done it. That we did it together allowed it to be more extensive in scope and more robust.


And there were times that the collaborative relationships moved the scholars to take on more than they might have alone and then to see the process through.


What those relationships do is they create opportunities that you might not have had yourself. They sometimes extend your work in ways that you might not have thought about yourself. And they sometimes push you to do a little bit more than you might have done otherwise. Your network . . . is a source of motivation; it’s a source of standards for you. If you’re going to write something that’s part of a larger piece for colleagues whom you really admire, there’s no question about doing your best work. They are probably the people whose judgment you value more than anybody else’s.


Several participants said that they did their best work in these contexts because they did not want to disappoint someone they admired. They were careful to make sure that they brought valuable skills to these partnerships and to share the workload because failure to do so would mean they would not be invited to collaborate again in the future. These partnerships often lasted over many years, providing emotional and academic support, as well as creative synergy.


Several of the productive scholars talked about the role that friendly competition played in their motivation. Sometimes the competition was within their department and sometimes it was within their network of colleagues beyond their university that resulted in satisfying relationships and improved performance. One scholar stayed in touch with her cohort from graduate school throughout her career. This turned into an important source of both support and motivation.


It’s been a very supportive group and when you’re real new, at least I did, I felt like I don’t want to share my writing with experienced people because ‘‘What will they think of me?’’ And I don’t want to take up their time. There are all those insecurities about not doing that. Having this cohort that’s in the same place you are─ we were all brand new assistant professors. Maybe it’s an unusual cohort, but they were just a very highly motivated group.


Competitiveness emerged within that group, spurring the participants to higher levels of performance.


One final attribute that scholars looked for in a collaborator was generosity. A reputation of graciousness seemed to be attached to many of the leading scholars in the field: ‘‘The people that I’ve enjoyed working with most have a huge generosity of spirit around their research. They are always willing to give an idea away because they know they’re going to have another one.’’

Whether as sounding boards, collaborators, friendly competitors, or emotional supports, the networks created and sustained by these productive scholars appear to have a prominent place in the structure of their careers and the development of their productivity.



COPING WITH COMPETING DEMANDS


Coping with Competing Demands comprised slightly more than 14% of the tacit knowledge items and contained tacit knowledge items from 14 of the16 productive scholars. The tacit knowledge items in this category related to finding constructive ways of coping with the competing demands of the professoriate. The interview data showed that the job demands placed on professors in this field are intense and that professors need strategies to cope with these demands. Repeatedly, the scholars pointed out the need to be clear about one’s values and to be true to oneself. This helped the scholars prioritize competing demands, both personal and professional. One strategy used by several scholars was to sharpen their particular focus into an area of expertise.


I came to recognize that you can be more productive and you can be less stressed if you have a harmonious life. I read a number of studies that pointed to the fact that people who were expert on a particular topic experienced dramatically less stress than generalists. So I thought, ‘‘OK, I’ll try that one out!’’ That’s when I began to do two things in my career that I had not done previously. The first one was basically to look at my research as a program that would last for a period of six or seven years, in which I would try to become really expert on that topic. And I did find that my stress level went down. That was reinforced by the fact that I would try to bring my teaching and my research together.


The strategy of capitalizing on the ways that teaching, research, and service can interact was frequently mentioned by the scholars.


There is a symbiotic relationship between your scholarship and your teaching. One of the reasons I like to teach is because I get great ideas from my students as I teach. . . . In the context of the classroom, they ask questions and what that does is trigger your own thinking and it makes you ask yourself interesting questions.


Not only can teaching and research support one another, service can work hand-in-hand with both. One scholar was careful to define just what kind of service was appropriate.


Teaching, research, and service can be complimentary. I do a better job of teaching when I’m engaged in scholarship because I’m more alive. My mind is working better. Ideas that happen when you’re teaching can shape and catalyze research. . . . And one of the ways you serve is to provide solid information on important issues. . . . I think as long as your service is closely tethered to research, then you have a unique opportunity to provide public service. . . . Colleges of education have forgotten that their primary contribution is in disciplined inquiry and the use of disciplined inquiry to prepare people for educated roles. We are not the Bureau of School Services; we are not Dial 1-800 Expert! . . . Colleges of education have misguided notions of what it means to be relevant, about what the basis of our relevance would be. We’re confusing a whole lot of busy activity with meaningful commitment to educational reform.


Learning to maintain a calm demeanor in the midst of competing demands is an area of tacit knowledge that has taken several of the scholars most of their careers to master. Yet, once they were able to clarify their priorities, their lives became less stressful.


In that quest to get that reputation and that visibility, there’s a great danger that people will lose sight of the things that really matter, and that they are being driven by external rather than by internal forces. For most of my life, I articulated for myself a very clear set of priorities against which I judge and respond to every request. Some people refer to me as Dr. No. But my priorities are basically my family first, and my teaching and my students are second, my research and publication are third, and my own health and well-being are fourth. And so when people are faced with invitations and decisions, . . . they tend to look at only one side of the equation, what they give rather than what they will give up. Every choice is a moral act whether you think of it as one or not. You have to [ask] ‘‘What am I sacrificing when I make this choice?’’


For one scholar, it took a significant health crisis to distill her priorities. But the gift of the aftermath of that shock was a greater sense of centeredness and peace.


There are so many distractions and pressures to pull you off, and there’s a sense of a sort of panic and everything is a crisis. One of the things . . . I’ve gotten better at, is not jumping so hard, so fast. Letting all of that sort of be treated as a noise. And you know what, the institution is still there. The sun still comes up. All that noise, the frenetic panic, doesn’t have to be so crazy.


These scholars recognized that the role of a professor is a complex one. It takes a clear set of priorities to be able to manage the various demands. They had learned that, ‘‘if you don’t watch it, you can really do yourself in. If you do not learn how to say no to some people, you will not be here to say yes to anybody.’’



NAVIGATING INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXT


With 13% of the tacit knowledge items from 12 of the 16 scholars, Navigating Institutional Contexts deals with the scholars’ abilities to move successfully through the demands inherent in being part of an academic institution. The development of these skills began early in the scholars’ professional lives.


The productive scholars had learned to cope with the expectations and norms of their universities and to prioritize their time. Sometimes there were norms in their institutional settings that were counter to their development as a scholar.


One of the things that was very clear here is that the institution communicated a lot of ways that scholarship was not a collective commodity, that scholarship was a selfish act, that you’re doing your work for you so that you can advance, you can have stature, and you can have prestige as opposed to people are doing collective good when they are involved in scholarship. Obviously nobody came out and said it in the form that I’m describing, but that was clearly the message.


Several interviewees commented on negative environments they suffered as young scholars. They used those situations, however, to develop their knowledge bases and prepare for different opportunities.


The first place that I taught was a horrendous institution. The quality was very poor. The support for being collegial or any kind of support for research was zero. Ostensibly they thought that that was very high priority because at that time they were under review by the state education department for the productivity of their faculty. But there was nothing to support that. . . . It had some dysfunctional dynamics and politics. . . . I nonetheless learned a lot. And it helped shape what I believe and don’t believe. It forced me to understand what it was that I really stood for and believed.


Tacit knowledge involves the capacity to select, adapt, and change one’s environment. Finding a fit between personal goals and the goals and norms of the scholars’ institutions was an important area of tacit knowledge. At times this required scholars to recognize that they needed to find their way to another setting. Those who left places where there was a negative climate or just a bad fit were glad to find themselves in more suitable environments. Even in a case where the departure was not voluntary, the scholar involved came to feel grateful for that event. Several commented that if they had stayed at their first institution, they would not have remained in the field. Not all of the scholars had negative first experiences. There were several who look back at their initial experiences, and the learning that occurred there, with gratitude. Navigating institutional contexts involves more than just the reconciliation of negative organizational fit issues. It also involves understanding and acting within the norms of academic life.



POLITICAL SKILLS TO GAIN ACCESS TO RESOURCES AND POWER


Knowing how to negotiate the politics at their universities and in the field in general was an important area of tacit knowledge for these scholars. Thirteen of the 16 scholars demonstrated tacit knowledge in this area, with tacit knowledge items in this category accounting for 11.4% of the total.


Some scholars found that it was important to identify the people who had power and to cultivate positive relationships with those people to generate resources or to maintain positive relationships. One scholar spoke of the effective use of information in building relationships.


When we got to the end, I knew that we wanted to try to share what we were finding with people in state government. . . . I had talked about doing press release conferences and [my colleague] said, ‘‘No. If you want to influence people, you need to figure out who the right people to talk to are.’’ We made an appointment with someone in the Department of Education─ so she kind of modeled the idea of setting up appointments, giving them a briefing. . . . And we’re having a much more positive relationship with the Department of Education, knowing that if we’re going to put a briefing out, we’d better talk to them first, so they know its coming and can be prepared if they start getting calls.


When examined strategically, the give and take and wins and losses that occur in the political context provide lessons on balancing emotions.


I see people who get so wound up in themselves─ their political work is a reflection of themselves as human beings. So that even if they perceive themselves as having won political contests─ the fact that they get so wrapped up in them that they think their self is on the line─ that troubles me. Because I see them twisting you know─ I see them emotionally getting all wrung out about it. It’s not a matter of a failure of them as a human being.


If political skills create such feelings, could these successful, productive individuals remove themselves from the need to be involved in politics? One scholar commented:


If you are so dang good, you are above reproach, everything you do is a national kind of thing, breakthroughs and stuff, you can be Switzerland. . . . But very few of us are like that. . . . You have to have a compass. You have to know what you stand for and where you’re going and some general principles. . . . You talk to people. You seek out people that you think are first going to agree with your position, and you size up how much support there is. You form a coalition. . . . If you’re going to be reasonably successful, I think [playing politics] becomes a necessary thing.


The generation and use of political skills appears regularly in the interviewee’s comments, suggesting that political understanding and high levels of productivity are not incompatible. Though some frustrations appeared, overall these scholars have seen the possibilities of the effective use of politics within the organizational context, have internalized the necessities of resource generation, and have honed the capacity to manage their emotions around these conflicts.



SETTING A RESEARCH AGENDA


Setting a Research Agenda was represented in the interviews of 14 of the productive scholars, and accounts for slightly more than 10% of the total tacit knowledge items culled from the interviews. While most professors are motivated to make a contribution or to make a difference, some hope to make this difference through their teaching and through the contributions of their students. The prolific scholars seemed to want to make this contribution through research and writing.


Rather than switching from topic to topic with each project, many participants found it productive to carve out a research agenda that could last up to a decade or more. In describing how a research problem might emerge, one scholar elaborated on this process:


Usually it’s a kind of a slowly emerging set of questions, or things that I have put aside. I couldn’t put a question to it but some kind of vague but nonetheless insistent kind of annoyance, irritation that I just couldn’t articulate. And then in a conversation, listening to someone, it would connect up. That is the mystery of how these things happen. It is both so exciting and mysterious. Sometimes these emerge into actual projects that I can get funding for. They produce what are really puzzles that I think I want to try to work out. Because I work out these answers through the writing. That’s what gives so much satisfaction and excitement to the process is that I think I have a puzzle and a question and I start writing on it. I outline it and I start writing and it doesn’t end up the way I started. That’s the beauty of it!


The mysteriousness of the outcome is what engaged the imagination of several scholars.


Whenever I tackle one of these projects, I never have any sense of where it’s going to end up. Whether it’s going to end up on the floor or whether it’s going to end up in print. . . . But when I’m passionate about something and I’m intellectually curious about something and I think that I’m breaking new ground, then I say, I’m bound to enjoy the journey!


For many of the scholars, there was an abiding sense of adventure, curiosity, and fun in the research process.


This is fun! This is a kick! This is really interesting. There’s a fire in it. You’ve got a hold of something and you can’t let it go until you get the riddle work done. If I can’t understand, I don’t know how to influence. If I can’t wrap my head around it, then I’m not quite sure how to get my heart into it. So I have to be able to have some sense of what’s happening and how I can think about things in order to figure out what I can do about them. So part of that fun and animation relates to the whole notion of human agency. It’s tough and there are a lot of constraints and there are a lot of external pressures and it isn’t easy, but there’s human agency. It’s the only way I know to hold on to some hope.


The interviews suggest that creating a successful research agenda requires an understanding of the interplay of personal passion with internal and external pressure. Sustaining the progress of that agenda requires an ability to remain focused and to avoid being pulled off course by others.



RESEARCH TO PRACTICE CONNECTIONS


These influential scholars are distinctive for their ability to meet the dual standards of rigor and relevance. This is exemplified by the tacit knowledge related to connecting research and practice. This category holds just over 10% of the total tacit knowledge items and was evident in the comments of

12 of the 16 productive scholars.


Meeting the standard of relevance required effort and was valued highly. Participants were quick to note that as an applied field education cannot afford to become disconnected from the practice of schools. Several of these scholars kept their research grounded in the field by forming structures through which they could interact on a regular basis with practitioners.


I have a network of school people that I stay in contact with, sometimes informally, sometimes on a project basis. For the last 10 or 12 years I’ve convened with some combination of principals and superintendents every six weeks for a half-day at the university. The reason for us coming together changes over the years but it’s relatively informal. . . . We meet and I give them the papers I’m writing to read and we talk about them. . . . There’s a lot to be learned from listening to how it looks from their point of view. That’s a part of a motivation. I don’t want to wait until I’m dead and gone before there are any effects. I would like to see some impact. . . . I know that whatever I write will get seriously attended to by at least 15 or so people. And of the 15, probably half of them will actually do something very significant in their school as a consequence. If it doesn’t work, they’ll tell me about it.


Another strategy that some of the scholars used to keep their work relevant to practitioners was to write to practitioner audiences by publishing in practitioner journals. Some noted that the discourse in scholarly journals can be inaccessible to practitioners, and they felt an obligation to interpret their work for this audience. Two of the scholars also mentioned writing articles for the opinion and editorial sections of newspapers to bring current topics in education before mass audiences.



CONNECTING TO YOUR PASSION/SATISFACTION


Most of these prolific scholars were motivated to work hard by a clear set of underlying values. Tacit knowledge items related to personal passion/ satisfaction account for approximately eight percent of the tacit knowledge items. Twelve of the scholars contributed items to this category. For some of the scholars, passion and satisfaction meant wanting to make schools a better place for children and having a profound concern for the fate of children in failing schools. One participant said, ‘‘That was part of our reason for wanting to make a difference, was that kids shouldn’t be left at the mercy of such inadequate schools and inadequately prepared educators.’’ Another scholar framed her research as an act of civic engagement: ‘‘I see research as a form that one can do social justice. All of my research is focused on questions that I think would be helpful if we had the answers to moving us forward as I think about social justice.’’


A clarity of vision helped these scholars to connect with others who had similar interests. Many were enlivened by the pursuit of intellectual ideas. This focus helped sustain their motivation through the parts of the process that were tedious or just plain hard work.


I know who I am. I know what I want to do. Through interpersonal skills, I’ve been able to attract really, really bright people who are interested in the same thing, that are interested in intellectual ideas. Scholarship and research really has two faces. One face is the creative face where you come up with new ideas. The other face is kind of the routine face where you push those ideas forward and you do the kind of routine steps that are necessary to test your ideas empirically and systematically. Some people do one and not the other─ I try to do both.


Above all, most participants communicated a great deal of enjoyment in their work. Many saw it as a privilege to be paid to read and think. Intellectual curiosity motivated these scholars.


So for me being a professor is like a full-time hobby for which I get paid. As far as I’m concerned what they pay me to do is to learn. So if you don’t have high intrinsic motivation, a high level of curiosity, and love of learning─ I can’t imagine that you could be a productive scholar. All the colleagues I have who are highly productive just don’t look at it as work.


This category is summed up effectively by the words of one of the participating scholars:


I can’t think of a better job on the planet, short of playing shortstop for the Yankees. This is as good as it gets, I think. It’s a great line of work. Great people, great opportunities. To actually try to do something, to have to use your mind. Ideas are important!



PERSERVERING IN OVERCOMING OBSTACLES


Slightly more than 5% of the tacit knowledge items culled from the productive scholars interviews were categorized as Persevering in Overcoming Obstacles. Items falling into this category appeared in the comments of 14 of the 16 scholars.


One scholar had the confidence early in his career to acknowledge his deficits in the area of research. He had the tacit knowledge that allowed him to approach senior colleagues and to engage them, whereas his peers did not find ways to tap into the resources at their disposal.


I felt that I had a very strong substantive and theoretical background from [my graduate training]. But I had a very weak methodological background. So I decided that during the first few years of my career─ I made a conscious decision─ what I need to do is to acquire some methodological expertise. Fill in the gaps. So what will I do? I’ll learn by doing and so what I did was construct different research problems using different research designs and different methodologies. And then I would go seek out the faculty, sit down and talk with them, and say ‘‘Now here’s what I’m planning on doing, how would you think about this?’’ And they were always willing to spend time with me. . . . All of those resources were there for everybody; I was the only one who tapped them. . . . So I think one of the things that I learned was to recognize what my limitations were, and then to figure out how I could have an in-service program tailor-made to myself by tapping the resources and the expertise of the senior faculty.


Many of the scholars came into this field after successful careers at another level of education. It was humbling to have to start all over as novices. Experiences in early career made a difference to the sense of efficacy that these scholars had for research. The scholars’ interviews repeatedly showed sheer, dogged pursuit of what is necessary for productivity. Perseverance, focus, and dedication connected to maintain a clear research agenda and the willingness to write and rewrite until an appropriate level of clarity was achieved.



THE WRITING PROCESS


Learning to write well was part of these scholars’ success. Though representing only 4.4% of the total items, tacit knowledge related to this category appeared in the comments of over half of the participating scholars, underscoring the role that writing skill plays in productivity. Some scholars enjoyed the writing process, while others found it more painful. One scholar admitted a distinct distaste for the writing process.


I hate to write. So even though I publish, it isn’t that I enjoy writing. I think writing is very hard and I don’t enjoy it. It’s hard work. If I had my choice with the way I would formulate my ideas and share them with the world, it would all be oral. I think I do my best analysis in some kind of conversation. That’s what I like. But that isn’t what’s rewarded and so I, of course, write.


Another derived a sense of satisfaction in the process of writing, even though it didn’t necessarily come easy:


I love writing. I love doing research and I love getting paid to read, to think and to write. The act of writing is not something that intimidates me. Although I may not be that terrific at it, I enjoy it. It’s not a painful process. Now at times it’s hard of course, it’s not all one smooth ride or pleasant. But overall it’s something that I enjoy and I get a great deal of satisfaction from.


Most of the participants acknowledged that the writing process was hard work that required setting aside uninterrupted time to be successful. Finding time for writing was a challenge. For some it meant there were certain days of the week when they did not go into the office. Others set aside a certain time of day, such as early morning or late at night, for writing. For some scholars, the rhythms of research and writing meant collecting data and literature during the academic year but reserving time in the summer where they could think more deeply and write.


When I’m on duty teaching . . . I cannot do what I would call serious research and particularly the writing. Serious book writing I do when I’m not on duty or when I take a sabbatical. . . . I can do editing of manuscripts while I’m teaching, but I can’t do the creative part, the actual first draft writing.


Though there were some differences in the way the productive scholars addressed the need, it seemed clear that setting a disciplined schedule of writing proved to be among the areas of tacit knowledge to which many of the scholars in part attributed their success.



PUBLISHING AND COPING WITH PEER REVIEW


Several participants commented on how much they had come to value the process of peer review in improving their work. Their comments resulted in tacit knowledge items accounting for just under 5% of the tacit knowledge items. Strategies were mentioned for coping with the sting of reading a negative review, such as putting the piece away for a few days or weeks before addressing the concerns mentioned in the review. As they had moved through their careers, some said the amount of time they needed to let a piece ‘‘rest’’ after reading a review had shortened.


That is a way you promote scholarship, but you have to do it in a way where everybody is willing to manage their emotional reactions at having their work criticized. Sometimes you close the door, put it in the bottom drawer of your desk and pout for a day. Just make sure you know how long you intend to pout before you pull it out and try and respond.


Over the course of their careers, most of the productive scholars had come to value the process of criticism in improving their work. Peer review is a part of academic life. The productive scholars have selected ways to deal rationally with the emotional ramifications of criticism, thus placing the process of peer review in an appropriately manageable context.



SETTING GOALS/MAINTAINING FOCUS


Items specifically connected to setting goals and maintaining focus surfaced in approximately one third of the interviews and accounted for nearly 4% of the tacit knowledge items. Despite their enjoyment of the research process, the participants sometimes needed to exercise force of will to find the time to make it happen.


The really critical thing is learning how to carve out time to focus on your own work. Whether it’s reading stuff you need to read, time to write, or time to think. Thinking as you read, thinking as you write. Creating intellectual space. That’s the toughest.


Repeated mention was made of the use of the rhythms of conference proposal deadlines such as AERA to design projects and then to use the external deadline to get them done. By submitting proposals on work in its early stages, the prolific scholars created an urgency to bring the work to completion. One of the scholars pointed out that focusing becomes a habit through the process of socialization in academe:


Everyone thinks once you get tenure things will be so much better. What they don’t understand is that once they have held a gun to your head for 7 years, they don’t have to hold it anymore. They’ve taught you how to hold the gun yourself!



STANDARDS OF RIGOR


The final category, Standards of Rigor, accounts for approximately 3% of the tacit knowledge items culled from the interviews. Those who reached a high level of success sought to learn and meet the standards of excellence demanded of scholarly work. They did that with the conviction that the work was important. The productive scholars have spent their careers engaged in rigorous efforts to find the tools and articulate the arguments necessary to advance the field of education. Although this commitment sometimes meant working long hours or asking the assistance of others to overcome deficiencies in some of the requisite skills to meet high standards, they were willing to do what was necessary to do work that was considered to be of high quality. They seemed to embody the adage ‘‘if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’’




IMPLICATIONS


The study participants had learned to manage not only their time but also their emotions when coping with the pressures of academic life, the criticism inherent in the peer review process, and the politics of organizational life. Their comments indicated high levels of self-knowledge and self-regulation. They also had developed a high level of self-efficacy, a confidence in their ability to be successful that allowed them to sustain grueling work schedules. Many of the scholars acknowledged that they had been fortunate in the opportunities that had come their way, and they had capitalized on those opportunities through hard work, persistence, and dedication.


The productive scholars were motivated to work hard by a clear set of underlying values, by concern for the fate of children in failing schools, and by the desire to make school a better place for all children. These values motivated them to exercise the will necessary to make time for research in the midst of competing demands and to persist through the more tedious or arduous parts of the research process. One of the encouraging findings of this study is that ‘‘nice guys’’ don’t finish last. The scholars’ motivation was fueled by an enjoyment of working cooperatively with others. The best scholars were marked by a generosity of spirit. They attracted others to join them in their pursuits and inspired others to greater productivity. Most of all, they had a highly developed sense of curiosity and had learned to enjoy the uncertainty of where an intellectual pursuit might lead.


Tacit understandings are at once individual and social, comprised of changing degrees of transparency and fluid levels of importance. The contexts in which we find ourselves and which we construct rely upon and, in turn, are relied upon by our tacit knowledge. Success, individually and organizationally, depends on the appropriate internalization and application of the tacit knowledge built through experience, observation, and socialization (Nestor-Baker, 2004). Because of its importance, those who are and who would become scholars have the potential to benefit from the creation of pathways to assist in their development of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge will grow. The question becomes, how will it grow and to what ends?


It is not enough to place a graduate student in an internship or to match a junior scholar with an experienced mentor. While informal transfer of tacit knowledge may occur, hopefully will occur, additional strategies for the transfer and development of effective tacit knowledge are needed. Supports such as small group involvement, verbalized reflection, structured recall techniques used to elicit mentor knowledge, analysis of the meaning of cultural artifacts, and problem-based scenario creation and analysis can all be used to provide developing scholars with access to the tacit knowledge they will need. However, while we may have the means of developing more effective transmission and development strategies, we must also remember that procedural tacit knowledge is goal oriented; thus, those participating in the development of scholars need to perceive a relationship between that development and their own goals.


The participants’ development as productive scholars and the implications inherent for those who follow in their footsteps provides a satisfying realization of the words of Lave and Wenger (1991): ‘‘Who you are becoming shapes crucially and fundamentally what you know. . . . Knowing is a relation among communities of practice, participation in practice, and the generation of identities as part of becoming part of ongoing practice’’ (p. 157).


The prolific scholars who participated in this study have given us clues to the tacit knowledge structures that make for success. By making this knowledge more explicit, others may be able to apply these concepts. Tacit knowledge is not just what we know; it is also a foundation for the likelihood of success we will achieve in reaching our goals and in enhancing our knowledge, whether it be implicit or explicit. Tacit knowledge is also practical. As such, it is fitting to consider the utility of this concept as it relates to the preparation of academics. If other scholars in the field of education can learn from the tacit knowledge of these productive scholars, it is likely that our research will improve by becoming more rigorous and relevant to the task of improving schools.


The authors wish to thank the Spencer Foundation for their support for the data collection phase in this project. They also are grateful to William Firestone, Wayne Hoy, and Susan Moore Johnson who guided the initial phase of the Productive Scholars Study.




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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 7, 2004, p. 1484-1511
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11581, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:04:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Megan Tschannen-Moran
    College of William and Mary
    E-mail Author
    MEGAN TSCHANNEN-MORAN an assistant professor in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the College of William and Mary. Her research interests include the social psychology of schools, including trust, self-efficacy beliefs, and collaboration. She has published reviews on both trust and teachers' efficacy beliefs in the Review of Educational Research as well as a recent article on constructive controversy in the Teachers College Record.
  • Nancy Nestor-Baker
    The Ohio State University
    NANCY NESTOR-BAKER is director of the P12 Project at Ohio State University. Her research interests include individual and organizational tacit knowledge, teacher effectiveness, and cross-institutional collaboration. Her publications on tacit knowledge have appeared in the Journal of Educational Administration and Educational Administration Quarterly
 
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