Pedagogy and the Varieties of Knowledge

Brian Ball | April 5, 2018

In this post, I want to discuss three varieties of knowledge, and then relate them, briefly, to tuition at NCH. In particular, it has been claimed that there are three kinds of knowledge pertinent to higher education:

Foundational knowledge, which is concerned with core content, and involves cross disciplinary knowledge.

Meta-knowledge, which is concerned with how to act in ways involving creativity and innovation, problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. And

Humanistic knowledge, which is concerned with values, and involves ethics, emotional awareness and inter-cultural competence.

For simplicity, I will discuss these varieties of knowledge under the (respective) labels: knowledge that; knowledge how; and knowledge why.

There are deep and important philosophical issues about the relations between the kinds of knowledge mentioned above. For instance, Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) famously held that knowing how to do something, such as ride a bike, swim, or speak French, is not a matter of having so-called ‘propositional’ knowledge that: knowing how to ride a bike, for example, is not a matter of knowing that one ought to incline at a certain angle when rounding a bend at a certain speed (even though this is true); for one can ride a bike around a corner without being able to say what angle one must lean, and one can (e.g. if one is a physicist who has never learned to ride a bike) know what the right angle is without knowing how to ride around the bend. Thus, having the relevant knowledge that, one might think, is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing how. The view that it is is overly intellectualized, according to Ryle: knowing how to do something is instead much more like having a skill, or an ability.

More recently, however, some theorists (e.g. Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson) have defended the ‘intellectualist’ view that knowledge how consists of knowledge that. Key to this view is the recognition that knowing that something is the case need not put one in a position to express that knowledge in language. These theorists also stress that one can (e.g. if one is an elderly sports coach) know how to do something without being able to do it (e.g. due to insufficient strength). And they argue that to have a skill is simply to be disposed to form knowledge that can guide relevant action: for instance, to be skilled at riding a bike is to be disposed to know what angle one needs to incline at when in various circumstances (even though one can’t say what angle that is). One might even conjecture in addition that there are things one knows which underpin this disposition: for instance, and to change the example, if one is skilled at speaking French, this is because one knows the grammar and vocabulary, and is therefore disposed to know what to say in order to express oneself in a variety of circumstances.

We need not resolve these issues here. Suffice it to say that it is important to know how to do things, and important to know that various things are the case. As for knowledge why: let me simply note that in ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ Dylan Thomas records that, amongst the presents received were ‘books that told me everything about the wasp, except why’. It seems this question is a distinct and worthwhile one to ask (as, in effect, Daniel Dennett has also argued, for instance in the third chapter of his 2017 book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back).

At NCH we run what we call the Diploma program for our students, which has three academic components: Critical Reasoning; Science Literacy; and Applied Ethics. (There is also a further professional training component called LAUNCH, of which the College is righty proud, but I will not discuss it further here.)

I want to turn now to issues of pedagogy. At NCH we run what we call the Diploma program for our students, which has three academic components: Critical Reasoning; Science Literacy; and Applied Ethics. (There is also a further professional training component called LAUNCH, of which the College is righty proud, but I will not discuss it further here.) In my view, through its three academic components, the Diploma program develops students’ knowledge of how to tackle intellectual problems, their knowledge that various scientific and intellectual developments have taken place, and their knowledge of why certain actions are valuable, or worthwhile – and it does this (alongside professional training within the Diploma program) as a complement to the specialisms of the major and minor subjects of the degree.

Thus, the College’s program is designed in such a way as to induce the three kinds of knowledge I have been speaking about; but it is also the case that in my personal experience as a tutor both at NCH in recent years, and at Oxford prior to that, I have tried to foster these varieties of knowledge in my students. I should stress that, although I am a philosopher, I don’t teach ethics or other areas of value theory – I mostly focus on how things are, and how they could or could not be, rather than how they should be (in other words, knowledge that rather than knowledge why). Nevertheless, in my pastoral duties as ‘personal tutor’ (a role that provides a point of contact for students with academic staff on both academic and welfare matters) I have encouraged students to reflect on why – i.e. to what end – they are studying what they are studying, what they are hoping to get out of it, what they might do with their newfound knowledge and skills. And when teaching philosophy itself, I have often emphasized that it is important to learn not just the what (i.e. that this is the case, and that that is), but the how – that unless one continues on in academia, no one will care about who said what in which philosophy book (interesting as this may be); but they will care about the know how that our students acquire, and in particular the skills that go with it. (This manifests itself in the earnings trajectory of philosophy graduates: they are often not well paid early in their careers, but by mid-career earn more than some with more ‘practical’ degrees, such as accounting; and this suggests that they take some time to find their way to doing something that makes use of their abilities, but that their employers ultimately recognize and value the skills that they have.)

In short, I as an individual, and (in my view) the College as an institution, agree on the value of the three kinds of knowledge discussed in connection with higher education: knowledge that; knowledge how, and knowledge why.


Brian Ball

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy