What are the educational intangibles in this context? Image: Waterford.org

I’m going to raise a fundamental epistemological issue here about how we know things to be true. This starts off fairly abstractly but like many philosophical issues it has real, practical implications for teaching and learning, and especially in discussions of the benefits of face-to-face teaching and the assessment of ‘soft’ or ‘durable’ skills. Also, this will not be my usual type of post where I come down clearly on one side. Intangibles have both positive and negative aspects for teaching and learning.

What are ‘intangibles’?

Basically what we feel or think to be there, but can’t quite put our finger on it (both realistically and figuratively). Anyone who has been in a long relationship will know what I mean. Recently, over a period of three weeks, I felt something was ‘wrong’ with my wife. There was nothing I could put my finger on, but eventually she told me she had been diagnosed with sciatica, which is very painful. However, she had said nothing to me in the three weeks when the pain had been developing (she is from Yorkshire, where they don’t make a fuss). She had hidden the pain very well from me, but I knew something was wrong – and my instinct was correct. (Good news – sciatica is treatable; bad news – my wife is still suffering).

Intangibles are often associated with long experience or expertise, because they arise due to recognising often very subtle shifts in ‘normal’ patterns of behaviour.

Intangibles in education

The move to emergency remote learning has brought to light the importance of many things that are hard to describe or define, but nevertheless are not only very real, but also very important.

This was brought home to me by a report in yesterday’s Globe and Mail newspaper about the response of children and parents to emergency remote learning, and in particular, being in a live online class alone at home when others in the class were in school in the presence of the teacher. Technically, the child at home was getting exactly the same teaching as the children physically present, but it was clear to the parent that this was just not so. It was a totally different experience which in real terms acted to demotivate the home-based learner. The child expressed that she was ‘missing out.’ (Advice to school boards thinking of making teachers teach in-class and online students simultaneously: DON’T DO IT.’ I have another post coming on this.)

Teachers and instructors as well often feel ‘intangibles’ in many contexts. One in particular is assessing ‘soft’ or ‘durable’ skills such as creativity. It may be hard to define in advance, but as one instructor told me, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ By definition, creating something new that has not been done before is impossible to describe in advance, but it doesn’t make it unreal when it occurs.

Intangibles in face-to-face teaching

In an earlier post, I made the deliberately provocative claim that online learning was logically superior to face-to-face teaching, because the latter was always synchronous, while online learning can be both synchronous and asynchronous. However, in practice, the ‘affordances’ of face-to-face teaching – what can be done well only face-to-face – may still make it more valuable.

However, I also argued that we need to define such benefits in tangible ways, and then ensure that we are actually providing such benefits. The challenge still stands, but at the same time, I want to acknowledge that there may well also be intangibles that are important – things we know to be true, but cannot define or put words to them.

In particular, there are physical, emotional and social factors that have a very important influence on learning. For instance, children who are hungry do not learn easily, but hunger in a particular child is not something that a teacher may directly know about, though again, they may sense something is ‘wrong’ and may then take steps to help the child. This is why empathy is such an important factor in teaching.

Intangibles in online learning

But the same applies also to online learning. For instance, I have participated in asynchronous, online discussions that have been as rich if not richer than most in-class discussions. Even ‘richer’ is not quite correct. The asynchronous discussions were different, in ways I find hard to describe, but which I strongly believe were educationally valuable. Students’ comments were sometimes more thoughtful and better prepared than in a synchronous or face-to-face discussion, but also there was an element to the discussions that were also intangibly different from a face-to-face discussion and had their own value.

Intangibles and objectivism

‘Intangibles’ often result in a clash of epistemologies. Pratt (1998) describes the ‘nurturing’ approach to education as follows:

Learners’ efficacy and self-esteem issues become the ultimate criteria against which learning success is measured, rather than performance-related mastery of a content body.

Although somewhat different, many ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning require empathy, focus on students’ self-esteem, and can drive decision-making, such as qualitative assessment. This does not fit with an objectivist approach to learning, such as tests, quantitative measurement, and evidence-based teaching methods.

Indeed, ‘intangibles’ can lead to bias, unreliability and a lack of explicit criteria in assessment. Knowing but not being able to define something can make the transmission of that knowing very difficult, and thus can lead to confusing or unfocused teaching. ‘Intangibles’ can be used to excuse teachers and instructors from being clear and explicit.

Nevertheless, I believe that we need to respect the ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. They draw on a uniquely human ability to recognise something that it not defined but recognised as important. Intangible knowledge indeed may turn out to be the singularity that separates humans from artificial intelligence. Thus the ability of teachers to recognise important ‘intangibles’ may be the main reason to keep them employed as such in a highly automated future.

Over to you

Once again, I’m exploring areas of uncertainty regarding both face-to-face and online learning. I could be quite wrong about this, so I would like our response to the idea of intangibles in teaching and learning, and whether or not they are important. In particular:

  • what are the intangible benefits of face-to-face teaching? In which contexts?
  • what are the intangible benefits of online learning? In which contexts?
  • to what in teaching would you say ‘I can’t define it but I’ll know it when I see it.’
  • if it’s intangible, is it assessable? If so, how? 

Any other comments also welcome.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here