The Declarative and Procedural Knowledge Grid – Erik Kondo

Let’s start with some definitions.

Declarative knowledge is cognitive understanding of a subject. You consciously know how something works and you are able to explain your understanding to someone else.

Procedural knowledge means having the ability to do something that is an acquired skill such as riding a bike, skiing, skateboarding, perform surgery, play a sport, dance, and the like.

While we tend to think that these two knowledges are related, they don’t have to be. In other words, they are actually independent of each other. You may be able to do something very well, and yet have no understanding of why you can do it. In fact, you could be completely wrong with your Declarative understanding of how something works, and still be seen as an “expert” due to your high level of performance.

Imagine for example, a world class bicycle racer who thinks that putting powerful earth magnets in his pockets repel the Earth’s core, reducing his effective weight, resulting in increased racing speed. He would be completely (Declaratively) wrong about the actual physics of bicycling, yet he could still (Procedurally) win every race. On the other hand, having the (Declarative) intellectual understanding of how to balance a bicycle doesn’t provide a person the (Procedural) ability to do it.

In addition, the length of time that you have done something Procedurally doesn’t necessarily translate into Declarative knowledge. You could be closed-minded to new information and your hands-on experience would have taught you nothing. Same goes for Declarative knowledge. If your understanding of how something works is based on a flawed premise or tradition, and you are unwilling to evaluate and evolve your thinking, then time spend on the subject is irrelevant to your understanding of it.

Declarative knowledge and Procedure knowledge are two independent variables that make up your understanding of a given subject. Ideally, when they overlap, they signify that someone is an “expert”.

The above Venn diagram is doesn’t take into account that people have varying degrees of Declarative and Procedural knowledge on any given subject ranging from low understanding to high understanding. Hence the need for the more nuanced Knowledge Grid.

The Knowledge Grid allows for four different zone categories. Each category has variation within the category creating a wide range of individual possibilities.

Novice Zone – If you don’t understand much about a subject on a cognitive level, and you can’t perform it physically, then you are a Novice. As you develop your understanding, you progress out of this Zone.

Jock Zone – If you can do something well, but you really don’t understand how or why you are able to do it, then you fall into the Jock Zone. As long as you are not giving other people bad advice or ineffective training, then it really doesn’t matter that you don’t understand how it works.

Professor Zone – If you can explain and teach others the subject matter on a cognitive level, but can’t perform it on a physical basis, then you fit into this zone. For example, you don’t have to be a SCUBA diver to be able to explain the physiological effects of deep diving on the human body. Your information is valuable regardless of whether or not you have personal experience scuba diving.

Expert Zone – In this case, you can “walk the walk” and “talk the talk”. You can both do something well and accurately explain the How and Why of it. Of course, there are varying degrees of expertise. Open-minded Experts are constantly experimenting to see if what they understand on a cognitive level corresponds to their actual experience. And they evolve their understanding as necessary.

Every person at a given point of time will fit somewhere within the Knowledge Grid for any particular subject that is a function of both Declarative and Procedural knowledge. Your Objective Position is where you actually fit in the Knowledge Grid. Your Perceptive Position is where you think you belong. As long as your Perceptive Position is reasonably close to your Objective Position, then you have a realistic perspective of your understanding of the subject matter.

Difficulties arise when someone misjudges their Objective Position. In this case, spread of misinformation usually runs rampant. Classic examples are academics who promote impractical methods for the real world. Skilled athletes who teach what works for them without knowing what will work for their students. And let’s not forget the beginners whose very lack of knowledge on the subject leads them to believe they understand all there is to know about it. Tragically, there are also people who are true experts on a subject, yet feel they are not. They have much to offer but fail to do so because they don’t recognize the true value of their understanding.

The Knowledge Grid is a tool to aid identifying and improving overall understanding of a chosen subject matter.