Three Kinds of Knowledge

Three Kinds of Knowledge

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I’ve been talking about the “learning styles” philosophy and why it doesn’t make sense. It’s because there are different forms of knowledge, each of which has a different source. Some knowledge does enter our heads through our eyes and ears and fingertips, but the most critical kind of knowledge (which Piaget called “logico-mathematical knowledge”) is built within the brain. The learning styles philosophy mistakenly concerns itself with how facts enter the brain, but this doesn’t matter. What matters is the processing that takes place within the brain.

Piaget identified three kinds of knowledge:

  1. Physical knowledge: These are facts about the features of something. The window is transparent, the crayon is red, the cat is soft, the air is warm and dry today. Physical knowledge resides within the objects themselves and can be discovered by exploring objects and noticing their qualities.
  2. Social knowledge: These are names and conventions, made up by people. My name is Leigh, Christmas is on Dec 25, it is polite to say thank you for a gift. Social knowledge is arbitrary and knowable only by being told or demonstrated by other people.
  3. Logico-mathematical knowledge: This is the creation of relationships. The brain builds neural connections which connect pieces of knowledge to one another to form new knowledge. The tricky part to understand here is that relationships don’t exist in the external world. They often appear to, but this is an illusion. Logico-mathematical knowledge is constructed by each individual, inside his or her own head. It doesnt come from the outside. It cant be seen, heard, felt or told.

Heres the way I try to get this across face-to-face. I hold up a red and a green crayon. Everyone can observe the redness of the red crayon and the greenness of the green, can feel their waxinessthese are examples of physical knowledge.

We call them crayons and adults often get angry when kids use them on the walls. These are facts people have attached to the crayons. These are examples of social knowledge.

There are two crayonsand we are all so used to seeing the twoness we dont realize that twoness doesnt exist in nature, but is in fact a relationship we make inside our heads. But where is the two? Neither of the crayons has two inherent in it, or attached to it. Does the twoness float invisibly in the air between the crayons? What if I add a second red crayon? Now we believe we see threenessunless we decide to think about the twoness of the two red crayons and so we again see twoor perhaps we see the oneness of the single green crayon.

Two is a relationship. A mental construct. Adults and older children make this relationship so easily and so often that it can be an awful struggle to convince them that two isnt a thing found in nature.

But you can’t show someone “two.” You can’t explain “two” or have them touch “two.” To teach the relationship “two,” you need to keep giving your student situations that encourage him to think about “two” and use “two,” until he makes this relationship in his own head for himself.

I’ll say more about logico-mathematical knowledge next time.

The 6 Types Of Knowledge: From A Priori To Procedural

There is so much disagreement over what are, exactly, the different types of knowledge that an agreed upon “master list” simply does not exist. This is because knowledge is purely philosophical debates span centuries, arguments supersede fact and everyone has a different opinion about what is, or is not, knowledge.

What follows is a master list (although, of course, it won’t be agreed upon) of the different types of knowledge and theories of knowledge that are out there.

Capture machine-interpretable knowledge through ontology and semantic techniques | By Tish Chungoora

The Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias is the tendency to listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Through this bias, people tend to favor information that reinforces the things they already think or believe.

  • Only paying attention to information that confirms your beliefs about issues such as gun control and global warming
  • Only following people on social media who share your viewpoints
  • Choosing news sources that present stories that support your views
  • Refusing to listen to the opposing side
  • Not considering all of the facts in a logical and rational manner

There are a few reasons why this happens. One is that only seeking to confirm existing opinions helps limit mental resources we need to use to make decisions. It also helps protect self-esteem by making people feel that their beliefs are accurate.

People on two sides of an issue can listen to the same story and walk away with different interpretations that they feel validates their existing point of view. This is often indicative that the confirmation bias is working to "bias" their opinions.

The problem with this is that it can lead to poor choices, an inability to listen to opposing views, or even contribute to othering people who hold different opinions.

Psychology of knowledge representation

Every cognitive enterprise involves some form of knowledge representation. Humans represent information about the external world and internal mental states, like beliefs and desires, and use this information to meet goals (e.g., classification or problem solving). Unfortunately, researchers do not have direct access to mental representations. Instead, cognitive scientists design experiments and implement computational models to develop theories about the mental representations present during task performance. There are several main types of mental representation and corresponding processes that have been posited: spatial, feature, network, and structured. Each type has a particular structure and a set of processes that are capable of accessing and manipulating information within the representation. The structure and processes determine what information can be used during task performance and what information has not been represented at all. As such, the different types of representation are likely used to solve different kinds of tasks. For example, structured representations are more complex and computationally demanding, but are good at representing relational information. Researchers interested in human psychology would benefit from considering how knowledge is represented in their domain of inquiry. For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.

Conflict of interest: The author has declared no conflicts of interest for this article.

Long-term Memory

Long-term memory (LTM) is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, the storage capacity of LTM has no limits. It encompasses all the things you can remember that happened more than just a few minutes ago to all of the things that you can remember that happened days, weeks, and years ago. In keeping with the computer analogy, the information in your LTM would be like the information you have saved on the hard drive. It isn’t there on your desktop (your short-term memory), but you can pull up this information when you want it, at least most of the time. Not all long-term memories are strong memories. Some memories can only be recalled through prompts. For example, you might easily recall a fact— “What is the capital of the United States?”—or a procedure—“How do you ride a bike?”—but you might struggle to recall the name of the restaurant you had dinner when you were on vacation in France last summer. A prompt, such as that the restaurant was named after its owner, who spoke to you about your shared interest in soccer, may help you recall the name of the restaurant.

Long-term memory is divided into two types: explicit and implicit (Figure 4). Understanding the different types is important because a person’s age or particular types of brain trauma or disorders can leave certain types of LTM intact while having disastrous consequences for other types. Explicit memories are those we consciously try to remember and recall. For example, if you are studying for your chemistry exam, the material you are learning will be part of your explicit memory. (Note: Sometimes, but not always, the terms explicit memory and declarative memory are used interchangeably.)

Implicit memories are memories that are not part of our consciousness. They are memories formed from behaviors. Implicit memory is also called non-declarative memory.

Try It

Figure 4. There are two components of long-term memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory includes episodic and semantic memory. Implicit memory includes procedural memory and things learned through conditioning.

Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory: it stores information about how to do things. It is the memory for skilled actions, such as how to brush your teeth, how to drive a car, how to swim the crawl (freestyle) stroke. If you are learning how to swim freestyle, you practice the stroke: how to move your arms, how to turn your head to alternate breathing from side to side, and how to kick your legs. You would practice this many times until you become good at it. Once you learn how to swim freestyle and your body knows how to move through the water, you will never forget how to swim freestyle, even if you do not swim for a couple of decades. Similarly, if you present an accomplished guitarist with a guitar, even if he has not played in a long time, he will still be able to play quite well.

Explicit memory has to do with the storage of facts and events we personally experienced. Explicit (declarative) memory has two parts: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic means having to do with language and knowledge about language. An example would be the question “what does argumentative mean?” Stored in our semantic memory is knowledge about words, concepts, and language-based knowledge and facts. For example, answers to the following questions are stored in your semantic memory:

  • Who was the first President of the United States?
  • What is democracy?
  • What is the longest river in the world?

Episodic memory is information about events we have personally experienced. The concept of episodic memory was first proposed about 40 years ago (Tulving, 1972). Since then, Tulving and others have looked at scientific evidence and reformulated the theory. Currently, scientists believe that episodic memory is memory about happenings in particular places at particular times, the what, where, and when of an event (Tulving, 2002). It involves recollection of visual imagery as well as the feeling of familiarity (Hassabis & Maguire, 2007).

Everyday Connection: Can You Remember Everything You Ever Did or Said?

Episodic memories are also called autobiographical memories. Let’s quickly test your autobiographical memory. What were you wearing exactly five years ago today? What did you eat for lunch on April 10, 2009? You probably find it difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions. Can you remember every event you have experienced over the course of your life—meals, conversations, clothing choices, weather conditions, and so on? Most likely none of us could even come close to answering these questions however, American actress Marilu Henner, best known for the television show Taxi, can remember. She has an amazing and highly superior autobiographical memory (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Marilu Henner’s super autobiographical memory is known as hyperthymesia. (credit: Mark Richardson)

Very few people can recall events in this way right now, only 12 known individuals have this ability, and only a few have been studied (Parker, Cahill & McGaugh 2006). And although hyperthymesia normally appears in adolescence, two children in the United States appear to have memories from well before their tenth birthdays.

If you’re interested in learning more, watch these Part 1 and Part 2 video clips on superior autobiographical memory from the television news show 60 Minutes.

Watch It

In this video, Hank Green explains several research studies that helped us better understand implicit memories.

Key Theories in Educational Psychology

Although the discipline of educational psychology includes numerous theories, many experts identify five main schools of thought: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, experientialism, and social contextual learning theories. The following overview summarizes these five major theory groups and outlines the key theorists, definition, history, principles, and applications for each.

Key Theorists

Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner

Definition and Background

Behaviorist learning theories first emerged in the late 19th century from the work of Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov. They were popularized during the first half of the 20th century through the work of John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and others.

Behaviorism defines learning as observable behavioral change that occurs in response to environmental stimuli. Positive stimuli &mdash or “rewards” &mdash create positive associations between the reward and a given behavior these associations prompt one to repeat that behavior. Meanwhile, negative stimuli &mdash or “punishments” &mdash discourage the behaviors associated with those stimuli. Through this process of conditioning, people learn to either repeat or avoid behaviors.

Because early behaviorists tried to legitimize psychology as a science, their theories emphasized external, scientifically measurable behavioral changes in response to similarly measurable stimuli.

Although they admit that thought and emotion influence learning, behaviorists either dismiss these factors as phenomena beyond the realm of scientific inquiry (methodological behaviorism) or convert internal factors into behavioral terms (neobehaviorism/radical behaviorism).

Assuming that changes in behavior signify learning, methodological behaviorists see no fundamental difference between human and animal learning processes, and they often conduct comparative research on animals.

Key Principle(s)

Behaviorism relies on the prediction or analysis of behavior based on causal stimuli, while education uses the process of positive and negative reinforcement to encourage or discourage behaviors. This school of thought emphasizes behavior’s learned causes over its biological one therefore, behaviorism deeply values the ability of education to shape individuals.

Behaviorist learning theory distinguishes between classical and operative conditioning. The former involves natural responses to environmental stimuli, while the latter involves the reinforcement of a response to stimuli. Using a process often called “programmatic instruction,” educators use operative conditioning to reinforce positive and correct negative learnings that often accompany classical conditioning.

Behaviorist theories ascribe to a reductionist approach, which dictates that breaking behavior down into parts is the best way to understand it. Other schools of thought critique behaviorism for underemphasizing biological and unconscious factors, denying free will, equating humans with animals, and overlooking internal learning processes or types of learning that occur without reinforcement.


Behaviorism has significantly shaped the disciplines of psychology and education, illuminating major influencing factors in human behavior and learning. In psychology, both behavior modification and behavior therapy owe their origins to behaviorism.

Meanwhile, behaviorist insights underlie many of the teaching methods still used today in homes, classrooms, workplaces, and other contexts. The widespread use of learning objectives, for example, breaks down larger learning goals into a series of specific skills and behaviors desired from a student.

Behaviorism also influences the sequence and methods used during the teaching and learning process. Teachers work toward their desired objectives by using external stimuli, explaining and demonstrating a skill or behavior, and then inviting student practice and providing feedback that reinforces the behaviors or skills they wish students to learn or unlearn.

Key Theorists

Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Robert Mills Gagne, Marriner David Merill, Charles Reigeluth, and Roger Schank.

Definition and Background

Cognitive psychology emerged in the 1950s and became dominant in the 1960s. Departing from the comparative emphasis of behaviorists, cognitivists see human beings as rational creatures quite different from animals. Consequently, cognitive theory explores the complexities of the human mind as it processes information. It views behavior as a result of one’s thoughts.

Using the computer as a metaphor for the human mind, cognitivists see learning as a product of mental faculties and activities, including thought, knowledge, memory, motivation, reflection, and problem-solving. Recasting learning as the acquisition of knowledge and the development of understanding, this approach emphasizes reading and lecture as learning modalities.

Rather than measuring learning based on observable behaviors, cognitivists evaluate learning based on a learner’s demonstration of knowledge and understanding.

Key Principle(s)

Cognitive psychology understands knowledge acquisition schematically and symbolically. It posits learning as the process of changing a learner’s mental model or schematic understanding of knowledge.

In this view, human behavior reflects internal processing of the human mind, rather than simply a conditioned response to external stimuli. Learning involves the integration of information into a stored and usable body of knowledge.

Cognitive psychology derives, in part, from Piaget’s stages of development, which depend on biological factors such as age. Learning capacity and activity change over time as a person moves through life. For example, although older people have accumulated more knowledge, they do not always remain as teachable due to their tendency to adopt a more fixed outlook over time.

Cognitivism emphasizes the importance of an expert in transmitting accurate information, yet sees a learner’s success or failure in absorbing this information as largely dependent upon the learner’s mental capacity, motivation, beliefs, and effort.


The setup of many learning experiences today reflects persistent cognitivist ideas, approaches, and assumptions.

Although many contemporary educational psychologists see cognitivist approaches as outdated, teachers often deliver lectures in front of a classroom and expect students to demonstrate their retention of content through information-oriented tests.

However, teachers’ efforts to balance lectures with activities that encourage mental processing also reflect cognitivist influence. Self-reflection &mdash a widely used cognitivist technique &mdash helps students think about and transform their understanding of the subject at hand.

Key Theorists

John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner

Definition and Background

Constructivism gained notoriety in the 1930s-40s and enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s-80s. This view challenges both the behaviorist notion of the learner as a blank slate and the cognitivist notion of learning as the acquisition of objective information from an expert.

Rather, this school of thought suggests that learners create their own subjective information by interpreting their world and restructuring their thinking. Constructivist theories take a learner-centered approach, in which the teacher serves as a guide &mdash rather than the source of &mdash the student’s learning.

Originating in part from Piaget’s understanding of intellectual growth as occurring through the interaction between old and new knowledge, constructivism views knowledge acquisition as a process of building upon a learner’s previous knowledge.

Key Principle(s)

Constructivists agree that learners create knowledge rather than passively receiving it, and that preexisting knowledge plays a crucial role in their learning. However, two differing strands of constructivism bear mentioning.

Social constructivism &mdash associated with Vygotsky’s emphasis on social context &mdash posits that students learn naturally through a process of discovery. While late 20th century cognitivist theories tend to reduce a learner to a passive receptacle, social constructivism believes learners actively hypothesize about their environment and test these hypotheses through social negotiations.

Cognitive constructivism agrees that learners construct rather than receive information, but it is interested in the cognitive processing involved in knowledge construction.

Following Piaget, cognitive constructivism acknowledges age-based developmental learning stages and articulates learning as an expansion (through assimilation and accommodation processes) of a learner’s experientially informed mental model of their world.


Constructivism influences the lesson plan methodologies employed by many teachers today. For example, constructivist influence shapes the common teaching practice of posing questions or problems and then inviting students to answer and solve them in their own ways.

Constructivism is also evident in popular classroom practices, such as having students create their own questions, welcoming multiple points of view and intelligence styles, and using group work as a collaborative learning tool.

Key Theorists

David A. Kolb and Carl Rogers

Definition and Background

This school of thought emerged in the 1970s out of the influence of the learner-centered and interactive foci of constructivism and social learning theories. Experiential learning theories identify meaningful everyday experience as the most central factor in increasing a learner’s knowledge and understanding, as well as transforming their behavior.

Experientialist theorist Carl Rogers prioritizes experiential approaches to education because they work with humans’ natural desire to learn. Rogers posits that humans are more likely to learn and retain information when they participate actively in the learning process.

Experientialist David A. Kolb identifies four stages in this learning process: experiencing, absorbing and reflecting on experience, conceptualizing experience, and testing concepts in other situations. These are cyclical stages that function as an ongoing feedback loop, which in turn allows learners to improve skills and apply new or recent knowledge.

Key Principle(s)

Rejecting all didactic approaches, experientialism argues that one person cannot effectively impart knowledge directly to another person people must learn for themselves. A teacher can facilitate the learning process by engaging students through an experience, but they cannot control exactly what students learn from that experience.

Experientialists argue that learners become less flexible and receptive when they are afraid as a result, this view encourages teachers to create non-threatening learning environments in which learners can experience and experiment freely.

Contemporary experientialists are interested in how a learner’s engagement and testing of new skills or concepts influences their learning environment, which creates a larger feedback loop that shapes the world in which we live.


The experientialist understanding of the learning process as a dynamic feedback loop often shapes how educators plan their lessons.

By placing an emphasis on activities that prompt effective perception and processing, educators can activate the learner’s prior experience, demonstrate a new skill for the learner, ask the learner to practice the skill, and then invite application of those skills in practical scenarios.

Experientialism also shapes theories of organizational learning, including workplace design and professional training. Such programming often introduces realistic problems or scenarios where professionals practice new skills to generate a constructive solution. Individuals may also work collaboratively and receive feedback from their peers and instructors.

Many schools incorporate experiential education as a formal component in their programs and curricula. In K-12 schools, these experiences often take the form of field trips or projects.

Meanwhile, colleges offer undergraduates internships and study abroad programs, and graduate schools often incorporate practicum experiences that allow students to apply what they have learned in other courses.

Key Theorists

Lev Vygotsky, Albert Bandura, Jean Lave, Rogoff, Etienne Wenger, and Thomas Sergiovanni

Definition and Background

First emerging in the late 20th century, social and contextual learning theories challenge the individual-focused approaches evident in both constructivism and cognitivism. Social and contextual theories are influenced by anthropological and ethnographic research and emphasize the ways environment and social contexts shape one’s learning.

In this view, cognition and learning are understood as interactions between the individual and a situation knowledge is situated in &mdash and a product of &mdash the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used. This led to new metaphors for learning as a “participation” and “social negotiation.”

Social learning theory pays particular attention to social and interactive aspects of learning. Albert Bandura, for example, emphasizes the roles that social observation and modeling play in learning, while Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger posit that learning works best in a community of practice that produces social capital that improves the health of the community and its members.

Key Principle(s)

The situated, relational nature of knowledge and the social, engaged nature of effective learning are the foundational principles of social and contextual learning theories.

Bandura posits a reciprocal determinism between environment, personality, and behavior, arguing that these factors influence one another while also shaping learning situations. Emphasizing learner attention, motivation, and memory, Bandura encourages educators to use natural tendencies toward observation, modeling, and imitation when designing learning situations.

Bandura’s ideas correlate with Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, where the zone of development is only accessible to a learner through interaction with mentors or other more knowledgeable persons.

Lave and Wenger, on the other hand, view the diversity in knowledge levels as the best asset to a community of practice. They believe that learning depends on a group’s effective use of cooperation, trust, understanding, and problem-solving to produce beneficial learning outcomes for the community.

Thomas Sergiovanni seconds this view, arguing that schools and other communities need to shift toward this approach before they can see substantial improvement.


The efforts of today’s teachers to connect students’ new and preexisting knowledge aligns with social and contextual learning. As a result, teachers account for the demographics of their classrooms as much as they do lesson planning.

Social and contextual learning theories also inform educators’ efforts to connect new concepts with direct applications of concepts in specific contexts where a student lives, works, and/or learns.

While educators used to expect learners to make connections on their own, teachers now achieve more successful learning outcomes when they create learning environments that facilitate this process. Many teachers try to incorporate multifaceted, experiential learning environments that assist students in forging meaningful connections between abstract and practical concepts.

A teacher’s effort to explicitly address the importance of lesson material reflects the impact of social and contextual learning theory. Explanations and illustrations of reasons for a lesson typically improve student motivation, helping students visualize or actually practice using this knowledge in practical contexts.

Watch the video: The Three Kinds of Knowledge Knowledge That, Knowledge Of, and Knowledge How (August 2022).