There’s a really important difference in kind between knowing that the capitol city of France is Paris and knowing how to ride a bicycle.
The “knowing that” kind of knowledge is sometimes called declarative knowledge. It’s knowledge that you can call up consciously to mind and talk about—knowledge you can declare. It might not be easy to talk about; I would say that a physicist’s model of gravitation under general relativity is declarative, but it might take them a long time to explain it. But you can’t separate this kind of knowing about gravitation from the ability to consciously reflect on and talk about it: I think it’d be fair to say that a physicist with total amnesia doesn’t know general relativity anymore.
I’ll tag the “knowing how” kind of knowledge as “procedural“. What it means to have procedural knowledge is that you can engage in the procedure of using it. E.g., what it means to know how to ride a bike is that when you try to ride a bike, you succeed. I’ll use the word “skill” as a synonym for “procedural knowledge”.
I’m now going to make a string of assertions about these that are unproven but I think are obvious once said.
1. It’s pretty normal for declarative and procedural knowledge to be out of sync.
For instance, most people are actively wrong about how they turn while riding a bike. There’s a common misconception that if you want to turn left, you turn the handlebar to the left. This is exactly backwards: you actually turn the handlebar to the right first.
But you didn’t need to know that to be able to ride a bike. And knowing this probably doesn’t much affect how you’ll cycle in the future. And it probably wouldn’t have helped much for you to know this while learning to ride in the first place.
What mattered, probably, was that you kept getting on the bike until you stopped falling over.
2. Getting them in sync can be very powerful and doesn’t have any obvious downsides (other than opportunity cost).
Another example is the “unbendable arm” in martial arts. I learned this as a matter of “extending ki“: if you let magical life-energy blast out your fingertips, then your arm becomes hard to bend much like it’s hard to bend a hose with water blasting out of it. This is obviously not what’s really happening, but thinking this way often gets people to be able to do it after a few cumulative hours of practice.
But you know what helps better?
Knowing the physics.
Turns out that the unbendable arm is a leverage trick: if you treat the upward pressure on the wrist as a fulcrum and you push your hand down (or rather, raise your elbow a bit), you can redirect that force and the force that’s downward on your elbow into each other. Then you don’t need to be strong relative to how hard your partner is pushing on your elbow; you just need to be strong enough to redirect the forces into each other.
Knowing this, I can teach someone to pretty reliably do the unbendable arm in under ten minutes. No mystical philosophy needed.
This is a case where one can “get on the bike” enough to develop the skill, but knowing how it works can significantly speed up learning and can make the skill more reliable.
In the case of counter-steering a bike, it doesn’t really help in almost any case to know how it works as far as I know. But it certainly doesn’t hurt, and you never know when it might come in handy. For instance, I’m told that people who are learning to ride motorcycles are explicitly taught to counter-steer, which I imagine would be a lot more intuitive to someone who already knew and had experienced that counter-steering is normal.
3. Declarative knowledge is the kind we can easily talk about and share, and so sometimes gets transmitted in place of procedural knowledge.
If an American college were to create a one-credit class on bike-riding, I suspect it’d have a textbook, and lecture time.
Maybe that’s a little unkind. Although I have a lot of unkind things to say about the structure of American colleges….
Because we can talk about declarative knowledge, and can write about it, and can write standardized tests on some of it, there’s a common cultural assumption that this is what knowledge is.
So, sometimes you get these weird effects where, in order to transmit a skill, people will talk about the skill—akin to teaching the physics of riding a bike instead of putting people on bikes.
The same thing happens in a lot of martial arts classes. In most aikido dojos I’ve been to, the instructor will stand in front of everyone and show a move, and then talk for several minutes about nuances of the move. “Now, if he counters like this, then I’d do this other move here, which puts me in a good position because blah blah blah….”
(I’m quite guilty of this too.)
A huge amount of what gets called “education” consists of displaying a bunch of declarative knowledge and expecting students to store that info in a way that can be regurgitated at the right time—even though most of the time, what we’d prefer to transmit, if we knew how, is a set of skills like mathematical reasoning and artistic perception.
We basically know how to transmit skills: you find the analog of putting people on bikes. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to talk about doing that than it is to actually do.
4. Getting procedural knowledge from declarative knowledge is a skill set.
In my opinion, one of the most important skills of learning is being able to convert declarative knowledge into the act of getting on a bike, so to speak.
For instance, up above I gesture at how one might learn the “unbendable arm”. But right now that information is (probably) declarative for you: you know about it, but you (probably) don’t know how to do it. If you want the skill, then you will need to grab a partner and try it.
But notice that that, too, is declarative knowledge. At some point you have to actually go do it, rather than just know that doing it is how you’d convert the declarative knowledge into a skill.
In fact, this entire blog post is a display of declarative knowledge. Which is rather the point: if we want procedural knowledge but we have declarative knowledge, we need to recognize that the two are different and try to convert the latter into the former.
That’s how we develop the skill of extracting skills from declarative knowledge: we get on the bike.
5. Getting accurate declarative knowledge of our skills is also a skill set.
I think it’s a good idea to be able to get declarative and procedural knowledge in sync, and sometimes this means changing your declarative knowledge, as in turning a bike and also with the unbendable arm.
This point is less central to the rest of Turbocharging Training, so I’ll leave the question of how to develop this skill as an exercise to the reader.
Most of what I’m going to be talking about in the rest of the Turbocharging Training model is skill-acquisition. The main take-away from this post, in my mind, is that skills are different from facts about skills—but we often tend to miss that fact, so there’s a skill to noticing the difference.