Understanding different Kinds of Knowledge and what they Signify

Philosophers have long dwelt upon the question of how to arrange “what we know” developing different “taxonomies” of knowledge. Organizing the different types of knowledge makes it possible to to better communicate it, better teach it, better use it, and even better store it in computers for different “intelligent” purposes.

In the context of education each subject will have different types of knowledge that must be mastered by a student – from practical skills of playing a musical instrument, or performing an intricate surgery; to the mental skills of remembering facts and undertaking problem solving; from making logical deductions, to inventing totally new knowledge that could not be deduced from known facts.

Having a taxonomy of knowledge can help educators organize subject material that must be mastered.

1. Tacit knowledge and practical skills

Many subjects have practical skills that must be mastered. This type of knowledge that the student must gain is often labeled by philosophers as “tacit” knowledge. It is “tacit” because it is not easy to express as a fact, or write down in a series of rules. Rather its nature is far more abstract and ingrained in the neurones of the brain. An aspect of this type of knowledge is that once a student has mastered a practical skill it is not easily forgotten – from riding a bicycle, to producing a sound on a musical instrument. Many brains appear hardwired to facilitate the easy acquisition of certain practical skills, and learning-by-doing is virtually the only way of imparting this type of knowledge. You only have to try and give a swimming lesson on dry ground to see how hard it is to teach without actually doing!

2. Factual knowledge and rote learning

Many subjects have a body of knowledge – “facts” – that can be easily expressed and which must be mastered by rote learning. Facts appear in many different disciplines – from the Latin names of the bones in the body, to the meaning of road signs; from the characters of a written language, to the multiplication tables. The main way to acquire such factual knowledge is to memorize the information, using whatever techniques are most suitable – from repetition, to linking in with existing knowledge. While recent trends in education are steering away from rote learning, mastering a body of facts remains important in every profession. The “lookup” facility of computers will never replace a human that can draw upon information that they master. Unfortunately recall of factual knowledge does diminish over time with lack of use, so regular reinforcement is useful.

3. Procedural knowledge and problem solving

Most subjects also require “procedural knowledge” is mastered to effect problem solving in that domain. From working out how to compute percentages and discounts, to the way to transpose music, or make a recipe. These procedures are usually easily expressed in written form, and can be programmed into a computer. While computers are reducing the need to learn procedural knowledge it remains an important part of competency in a domain. Practice combined with regular use facilitates the learning of procedural knowledge for problem solving.

4. Deductive Inferencing

Philosophers also love to reason about different types of reasoning classifying reasoning into twp main types – (i) that which is “deductive” reasoning producing facts that logically follows from another set of facts, and (ii) that which creates new knowledge that could not be logically deduced from existing knowledge (although nomenclature differs as to whether this is “inductive”or “abductive” reasoning). Both types of knowledge are necessary in every field. Adults and children can be easily taught deductive reasoning, or how to make inferences through logical procedures, since this is just a form of procedural knowledge. However, it is harder to teach reasoning that creates new knowledge. This type of reasoning goes beyond the existing set of known facts. It is a “creativity” that we can try to express in procedural rules, but which often defies them, and which researchers in different fields master only after years of working with the known facts and rules of the domain, gaining insight into what might push the boundaries of knowledge in that domain.