In a previous post, I set out five different understandings of knowledge. One of them was practical knowledge – knowledge of how to do a particular skill. Practical knowledge is a name applied to the knowledge required to do a particular kind of skill, but it can be reduced to other forms of knowledge.
In order to understand practical knowledge, let’s begin with an example. Suppose that we start with someone who is learning to play the piano. This certainly counts as an example of practical knowledge. At the beginning, the piano player begins by knowing nothing about how to play. At the very beginning, the piano player is given an amount of theoretical knowledge about pianos. This includes such things as where the notes are and how musical notation is properly understood. Now the player knows in one sense and is ignorant in another. Next, the piano player is told how to play the piano. They may observe the teacher playing and listen to the teacher give them advice on how to properly play the piano. This will include such things as how to properly place one’s hands on the keyboard, how hard to hit the keys and which fingers to use when playing. This is factual knowledge. Finally, the piano player is told to practice and improve. By gaining experience playing, one learns. This is experiential knowledge. By the time the piano player has mastered the ability to play particular songs, they have gained some theoretical knowledge, some factual knowledge and some experiential knowledge. There is no need to suppose a further category of practical knowledge to explain the piano player’s knowledge.
There is one further aspect to consider. Suppose we consider the skill of playing a piano to be more than simply playing songs correctly. Those who have achieved a complete mastery of piano playing also display an aspect of creativity. Songs are not intended to be played the exact same way every time. They are intended to played as best fits the situation. There is also an element of originality in playing. So there are two sides to complete mastery an instrument. One side is doing things at the right time, in the right way and in the right circumstances. This is just another name for the virtue of wisdom. It is not an aspect of knowledge, but a perfection of action. The other side is simply creativity itself. Creativity is simply an indirect expression of truth as that truth best fits the circumstances. It is not a special kind of knowledge either.
None of this description requires a distinct kind of knowledge called practical knowledge. So it seems best to understand practical knowledge as that kind of knowledge that is is required in order to do a particular kind of activity well. It is composed of theoretical, factual and experiential knowledge. This knowledge is always aimed at a particular activity. But activity does not make the knowledge one kind of thing. We only know what the knowledge is because we consider what knowledge is required to do the activity. The point of doing the activity is the activity, not the knowledge gained from it. So there is no special reason to suppose that practical knowledge is something different from the other kinds of knowledge. So considered as a kind of thing, there is no such thing as practical knowledge.
Suppose that you're an undergraduate psychology student in a statistics course. You're having a hard time understanding linear correlation and linear regression. You need to have at least a basic understanding of these topics by the end of next week, which is when you take your midterm exam. You know that you learn best when you are presented with auditory information. You decide to ask more questions during class time, ask your study group to discuss these topics in more detail, and turn your class notes into a game of Jeopardy so that you can retain more information. This is an example of using practical thinking.
Practical thinking is defined as considering ways to adapt to your environment, or changing your environment to fit you, so that you are able to pursue a goal. Practical sense is sometimes referred to as street smarts or common sense. Practical thinking is not concerned with gathering additional information or analyzing what you already know in multiple ways. It is concerned with taking the knowledge that you already have and effectively using it to solve problems in the real-world. In other words, practical knowledge is not concerned with gaining new knowledge, but rather using or applying knowledge to guide some action.
If you have good practical thinking skills, you're able to:
- Manage your own thinking process
- Adapt to situations
- Be open to other options
- Have flexibility in the way that you approach problems
- Know how to get along with and talk to others
- Apply knowledge or information that you've previously learned to solve real-world problems
TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE
In a New York Times Op-Ed, David Brooks poses the ultimate higher-ed question: What is a university for?
Brooks separates knowledge into technical knowledge and practical knowledge.
Technical Knowledge enables us to understand a field. These are basics like statistics or fundamentals of biology. You can find it in books. The faculty teaches it. In many cases, a MOOC or a robot could teach it. It’s the mainstay on campus.
Practical Knowledge is about being rather than knowing. It can’t be taught in the classrooms or books. You learn it through experience. You absorb it from your environment. You can pick it up from your communities of practice.
Examples of Practice Knowledge abound in Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Says Brooks,
… tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.
Brooks would have students master Practical Knowledge by leading the band or joining the debate club, something on campus. I think he’s off. Back to his “What is a university?” For most of us, the answer is “Not the best place to master Practical Knowledge for the workplace.”
What if we think of Technical Knowledge as explicit and Practical Knowledge as tacit?
- Technical Knowledge lays bare the intricacies of complicated concepts. It’s the facts. It’s clockwork models and the results they gin out time after time. Technical Knowledge deals with certainties and absolutes. In other words, it’s often theoretical and “not found in nature.”
- Practical Knowledge deals with complex, unpredictable, unruly patterns that emerge in real life. It is nature.
Caveat emptor. This next part is speculation on my part. I’m looking for corroboration.
The world is growing more complex. Outsourcing and automation have eliminated work that is merely complicated. The more interconnections in network, the greater the complexity, and the tendrils of networks everywhere are intertwining at a surreal pace.
Things kicked into high gear in the last twenty years of the twentieth century. Between 1980 and 2000, the value of the publicly traded companies flip-flopped from 80% tangible assets to 80% intangible assets.
This is an astounding change. Think about it. Most of a company’s worth had been in hard assets: plant, equipment, and cash. Two decades later, most of a company’s worth was in relationships, know-how, and secret sauce — things you can’t even see.
Many managers haven’t seen the light yet. Look at their allegiance to accounting measures that have less and less meaning in the real world. They righteously demand “hard numbers.” Those are the numbers that don’t mean to much any more.
As the world becomes more complex, are we not in the midst of another phase change? Might it be that the university heyday when explicit knowledge was king, is giving way to a new world where skills for navigating complexity rule?
If you can’t increase your social intelligence at college, isn’t it time to go somewhere else to get it?
The Times also reported that Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break. Seems that elite MOOC consortium EdX is experimenting with automated essay grading. Skeptics of course came out of the woodwork. Anant Agarwal, the EdX chief, points out that the grading software begins by learning how professors would grade; then it gives students instant grades and an opportunity to improve.
That latter bit — instant feedback and opportunity to resubmit a stronger essay — has lots of promise.
The skeptics are fighting a pitched battle. Traditional grades, having to do only with Technical Knowledge, are not correlated to any measure of success outside of schools. A system can’t do much worse than that.
There’s also the myth of the learnèd professor working away into the wee hours marking papers. I’m sure this happens some places but it wasn’t the way things worked at Harvard Business School when I went there. I have reason to know.
Several of my papers were rejected. These were WACs, Written Assessment of Cases. When I explained my logic to my professors, they said my arguments were brilliant and original. In fact, my ideas were so original that they didn’t appear on the grading checklists given to the Radcliffe students who actually graded the papers. I’m not saying every prof did this nor do I know how it works today, but an automated system might be an improvement. #justsayin
What are some examples of the difference between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge?
“Prac and Theor are best friends. They decide to learn swimming, as they want to go on an expedition.
Theor reads all the books on swimming and understand the basic mechanics of swimming thoroughly; he never goes to the practice sessions.
While Prac joins the swimming classes and goes there everyday after work, and practices it thoroughly. He understands different techniques and also just goes through the above books.
During their journey this happens,
WHO WILL SURVIVE?
Do you have an answer? Congo. You've understood the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge, at least basic difference.”
“He again shouted at me today.
I shall find out what does that mean.
"My husband shouted at me today. Why?"
Reads about 5 pages of search results.
Types her favourite e-commerce website.
Orders relationship dynamics, men psychology related books. About a dozen of them.
Reads them everyday.
She still couldn't figure out how to communicate to him effectively.
Totally distressed, she asks him, "I read so many books to know what can be the source of happiness to a man.
Whatever I have read seems futile, I still don't understand anything about you.
Sorry! But I am asking you directly as a last resort.
You have to forgive me for my ignorance.
Please tell me, what should I do to make you feel comfortable and at ease around me?"
He laughed heartily.
"Remember, first thing you have to do to make me feel comfortable and happy is-
She nodded eagerly
Ask me directly!", he said. "And spend more time with me than the books. You silly lady, I thought you were reading for your psychology exams & didn't disturb you for this long"
Hope this example summed it up.
Note: This is a true story.”
“Theoretical knowledge — teaches the why. It helps you understand why one technique works where another fails. It shows you the whole forest, builds the context, and helps you set strategy. Where self education is concerned theory prepares you to set a direction for your future education. Theory teaches you through the experience of others.
Theoretical knowledge can often lead to a deeper understand of a concept through seeing it in context of a greater whole and understanding the why behind it..
Practical knowledge — helps you acquire the specific techniques that become the tools of your trade. It sits much closer to your actual day-to-day work. There are some things you can only learn through doing and experiencing. Where theory is often taught in the ideal of a vacuum, the practical is learned through the reality of life.
Examples are like : Reading romantic novels is a theoretical knowledge. Starting romance with a girl is a practical knowledge
2. someone who reads a book about how to run a restaurant and someone who learns how to run a restaurant by working in a restaurant have very different kinds of knowledge about how to run a restaurant.”