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Four types of knowledge

Originally published 08/07/2007 on my OU blog, during H807.

I’ve been thinking (while on my morning dogwalk) about two knowledge-theory dualisms mentioned in passing by Mayes and de Freitas in their review of learning models, which seem potentially useful conceptual tools in aligning course design with learning outcomes. The binary opposites in question are declarative and procedural knowledge on the one hand, and generic and domain-specific knowledge on the other.

As far as I can work out, declarative knowledge is explicit, conceptual and externalised knowledge of the kind that normally results from academic learning; as opposed to procedural knowledge which is implicit, instrumental, internalised knowledge of the kind we associate with skillful practice of any kind.

Domain-specific knowledge is knowledge of the data, concepts, and language particular to a distinct realm of knowledge such as physics or plumbing; while generic knowledge refers to the general learning abilities which enable people to become successful independent learners – skills like self-confidence, self-discipline, organisation, communication and collaboration skills, critical thinking and reflexivity.

image: grid showing four types of knowledge

Using a concept grid like this one you can position any learning outcome in relation to the two binary axes. So learning to ride a bicycle would be in the procedural / domain-specific quarter, while taking a course in project management would be located in the declarative / generic quadrant.

We can use this knowledge-type taxonomy to illuminate the knowledge theory clusters and learning models reviewed by Mayes and de Freitas. For example, models derived from behaviourist/associative learning theories begin with procedural learning of simple components and build up to declarative knowledge as components are integrated into conceptual systems. Models derived from cognitive/constructivist theories, on the other hand, usually begin with declarative learning of a domain’s broad unifying concepts, and proceed to more procedural forms as learners master domain-specific skills. Both associative and cognitive approaches tend to foreground domain-specific knowledge.

Models based on the learning networks/social practice perspective would seem to work in both directions, sometimes proceeding from the procedural to the declarative (when learning is practice-driven) and sometimes from the declarative to the procedural (when learning is primarily social and reflective in nature). The community of practice approach may also be best suited to providing the kind of learning environment which fosters generic skills such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

I tried my concept grid out on Zinny. “Rough!” she said: I think she thinks it needs a bit more work…


Mayes, T & de Freitas, S, 2004, Review of e-learning theories,frameworks and models: JISC eLearning Models Desk Study, Stage 2, available online in pdf format from (accessed 26/05/2007)

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