Learning What Is Untaught

This post was originally published on the Tagoras blog. I co-founded Tagoras, and, through a combination of independent research and strategic consulting, we help organizations maximize the reach, revenue, and impact of their educational offerings. Although this piece was written for an audience interested in adult learning, I thought Tony Hoagland’s take on implication would interest poets too.



"Volcano" is copyright (c) 2006 Tony Hisgett and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A poet and a lifelong learner, I attended a two-day workshop in May where poet-teachers Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar introduced me to Tony Hoagland’s five powers of poetry. Hoagland classifies implication as poetry’s fifth power:

A good writer does not say everything. When Jane Hirschfield says, “It is foolish / to let a young redwood / grow next to a house,” we become true participants in the poem, by hearing what is unsaid. Understatement, inference, innuendo, and suggestion are crucial skills of implication. When Amichai says, “A photo of a volcano on the wall makes people feel safe,” we understand that to study what is said and what is unsaid, and how, is not unimportant.

Implication is how good poets invite the reader into the poem, let her add and infer from her own experiences.

Some Assembly Required

Dan Ariely coined the term “IKEA effect” for the phenomenon—observed in his research in the field of behavioral economics—that “labor enhances affection for its results.” The Swedish company IKEA sells a lot of some-assembly-required products—and has been very successful at it.

I have a bookshelf from IKEA that’s more than a decade old. I still get a kick of residual satisfaction when I walk past it—the memory of an afternoon spent surrounded by socket-head screws, using the packaged Allen wrench to torque them tight.

We value what we add to—the bookshelf we assemble, the poem that lets us decide how a volcano evokes safety.

From Poetry and Behavioral Economics to Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles addressed the role of experience in the andragogical model outlined in The Adult Learner:

[F]or many kinds of learning, the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves. Hence, the emphasis in adult education is on experiential techniques—techniques that tap into the experience of the learners, such as group discussions, simulation exercises, problem solving activities, case methods, and laboratory methods instead of transmittal techniques.

Hoagland’s implication and Ariely’s IKEA effect are about engagement—engagement that yields richer results. They require the reader or the consumer to do something, to bring her knowledge to bear, just as Knowles argues we must leave space for adult learners to apply their experiences to what they learn.

The Implication for Your Education

Do your education offerings leave room for implication? Do they require some assembly?

If they don’t, see how you can restructure them to require learners to draw on their own rich experiences. Without room for implication, without some assembly required, your education is an unread poem, prefab furniture without personality. If your offerings don’t require anything of the learners, then it’s all too easy for the learners to “put on their dunce hats of dependency” (as Knowles puts it) and tune out.

You can’t teach them everything—you have to leave room for them to learn what is untaught.