Declarative Knowledge Vs. Procedural Knowledge

Noel Perera
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Let’s start with a simple challenge.

Chances are you all live in a house. It may be your own or rented, but you are there everyday or at least frequently. To a certain extent, you are kind of an ‘expert’ on your home. Now, I want you to answer this question.

How many doors are there in your home?

Were you able to give a quick answer, probably within 2 seconds?

You probably didn’t have the answer instantaneously. First you pictured your home on your mind and then wandered through it mentally counting the number of doors.

Now, even being an ‘expert’ on your home, why couldn’t you simply state the number of doors in your own home instantaneously?

Let’s answer this question.

How many letters are there in English Alphabet?

How long it took you to answer that? Did you picture the alphabet and go counting from A to Z? 

Our brain is not a coherently designed and engineered organ. It carries a myriad simultaneous and independent activities. Among these activities, the brain processes information for learning. That information, which is obtained from outside, is transformed into knowledge. This is the knowledge that helps us to name, explain and talk about matters. It is called declarative knowledge

That is the knowledge assisted you to come up with the answer — 26.

Then, what about the first question — the number of doors in your house?

Naming the number of doors in your home requires declarative knowledge. Although you are an ‘expert’ about your home, that knowledge is not available to you in declarative form. Therefore, your expertise was in walking through all areas. This is the type of knowledge that helps us to act and perform tasks. It is called procedural knowledge.  

Most of us can ride a bicycle maintaining our balance. What does our body do exactly to keep the bicycle from falling down? We may come up with answers such as pedaling or holding on to handle bars and so forth, but all we know is — we can do, but not readily explain.

Most expertise develops that way. The majority of what we have learned to do has been acquired that way. Over the time, through trial and error, we have built up the capacity to do so.

Now, here’s where that presents the problem when we train our student a skill. 

Teachers’ expertise is in procedural knowledge. In the classroom, the teacher is expected to transmit the knowledge through explaining, giving examples and by providing contexts. — in declarative form. Then the learner converts that declarative knowledge back into procedural knowledge to meet with their expectation of being able to do the required task. 

Much easier said (declarative) than done (procedural)!

When we are aware of the kind of knowledge our learners need to acquire — declarative or procedural — we can adjust our teaching accordingly. When we need to teach our learners on fact recalling, we can plan activities that they can practice in a declarative manner. More hands on approach can be taken if we want them to acquire do and use types of knowledge — procedural. 

Gaining procedural knowledge eventually allows learners to gain expertise in performing tasks with fluency. However, this fluency remains as long the conditions remain the same. When the conditions change, their automaticity drops.

That is when declarative knowledge comes to play. 

Declarative knowledge helps learners to generalise to new circumstances through explanations. It makes them get adapted to the new requirements. 

Therefore, combination of both types of knowledge — practice and explanation — is important to produce effective outcomes.

Telling Ain’t Training ( 2nd edition) 
by Hrold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keeps

Noel Perera

Author / Trainer

Noel Perera

Noel Perera has helped thousands of English learners, online and offline, during his 12+ years of coaching. His coaching includes wide variety of English language workshops for young adults, adults, teachers and business professionals. Noel Perera is a former IT student, whose IT career was crushed with a passion for English. Finding a new career path as an English language coach was destiny.