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Three Kinds of Knowledge

I’ve been talking about the “learning styles” philosophy and why it doesn’t make sense. It’s because there are different forms of knowledge, each of which has a different source. Some knowledge does enter our heads through our eyes and ears and fingertips, but the most critical kind of knowledge (which Piaget called “logico-mathematical knowledge”) is built within the brain. The learning styles philosophy mistakenly concerns itself with how facts enter the brain, but this doesn’t matter. What matters is the processing that takes place within the brain.

Piaget identified three kinds of knowledge:

  1. Physical knowledge: These are facts about the features of something. The window is transparent, the crayon is red, the cat is soft, the air is warm and dry today. Physical knowledge resides within the objects themselves and can be discovered by exploring objects and noticing their qualities.
  2. Social knowledge: These are names and conventions, made up by people. My name is Leigh, Christmas is on Dec 25, it is polite to say thank you for a gift. Social knowledge is arbitrary and knowable only by being told or demonstrated by other people.
  3. Logico-mathematical knowledge: This is the creation of relationships. The brain builds neural connections which connect pieces of knowledge to one another to form new knowledge. The tricky part to understand here  is that relationships don’t exist in the external world. They often appear to, but this is an illusion. Logico-mathematical knowledge is constructed by each individual, inside his or her own head. It doesn’t come from the outside. It can’t be seen, heard, felt or told.

Here’s the way I try to get this across face-to-face. I hold up a red and a green crayon. Everyone can observe the redness of the red crayon and the greenness of the green, can feel their waxiness…these are examples of physical knowledge.

We call them “crayons” and adults often get angry when kids use them on the walls. These are facts people have attached to the crayons. These are examples of social knowledge.

There are “two” crayons…and we are all so used to “seeing” the “twoness” we don’t realize that “twoness” doesn’t exist in nature, but is in fact a relationship we make inside our heads. But where is the “two”? Neither of the crayons has “two” inherent in it, or attached to it. Does the “twoness” float invisibly in the air between the crayons? What if I add a second red crayon? Now we believe we “see” “threeness”…unless we decide to think about the “twoness” of the two red crayons and so we again “see” two…or perhaps we “see” the “oneness” of the single green crayon.

“Two” is a relationship. A mental construct. Adults and older children make this relationship so easily and so often that it can be an awful struggle to convince them that “two” isn’t a thing found in nature.

But you can’t show someone “two.” You can’t explain “two” or have them touch “two.” To teach the relationship “two,” you need to keep giving your student situations that encourage him to think about “two” and use “two,” until he makes this relationship in his own head for himself.

I’ll say more about logico-mathematical knowledge next time.

Three Kinds of Knowledge

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2010). Three Kinds of Knowledge. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Jan 2010
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