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What Are All The Different Types Of Knowledge? (part 1)

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

If you Google the title of this blog post, many other articles will appear which define different types of knowledge that (currently, at least) aren't being talked about in mainstream primary and secondary education. However, there are a number of terms that are used regularly at the moment that don't feature on those lists, and although some articles attempt to define them, they may not do so sufficiently. So, for any school staff out there looking for a glossary of terms, hopefully this will be of some use.

I've chosen terms that have no subject specificity, so you won't find definitions of linguistic or phonic knowledge here. In writing this I've included as much as I can from OfSTED - not because I think they are the final authority on all things knowledge, but because on the whole it is they who are popularising terms. It is also they that most schools have to answer to and I'm aware of the impact of that: most school staff want to be on the right side of them, and therefore want clarity around what they are saying. I've grouped terms into categories to try to make it all a little more palatable!

In this blog post we will look at the big 4 - the ones that crop up most in Ofsted's reviews, and in other discourse around curriculum.

Substantive - established facts

Christine Counsell, who has written the go-to explanation of substantive and disciplinary knowledge in her article 'Taking curriculum seriously', describes substantive knowledge as "the content that teachers teach as established fact".

OfSTED's Science review states that substantive knowledge is "knowledge of the products of science", from which we can extrapolate a more general definition of knowledge of the products of a discipline.

Disciplinary - knowing how we know

In the aforementioned article, Christine Counsell describes disciplinary knowledge as "what pupils learn about how that [substantive] knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised’" (emphasis my own). The writers of OfSTED's Geography review use this very definition themselves.

An example of this, taken from the OfSTED History review would be that "disciplinary knowledge is knowledge of how historians investigate the past, and how they construct historical claims, arguments and accounts."

The History review then borrows from Cuthbert and Standish's 'What Should Schools Teach?' for a further definition: "Broadly, disciplinary knowledge introduces pupils ‘to specialised forms of knowledge, modes of thought and experience, which are the symbolic products of past human endeavours to better know the world and the people within it’."

Disciplinary knowledge is not the same as skills, and it is not having a personal knowledge of how to do something (nor is it, to link it to a National Curriculum subject, the same as Working Scientifically) - see the section below on procedural knowledge for more.

Declarative/Conceptual - knowing that

In the OfSTED Computing review, the writers point out that declarative knowledge is "often referred to as conceptual knowledge in the literature" and that it "consists of facts, rules and principles and the relationships between them. It can be described as ‘knowing that’."

The writers of OfSTED's Music review say that "declarative knowledge refers to facts or information stored in the memory" with the writers of the Maths review adding that it "is static in nature and consists of facts, formulae, concepts, principles and rules. All content in this category can be prefaced with the sentence stem ‘I know that’."

To make a link to the morphology of the word in order to help with memory of its defintion, we can declare the things that we know - we can say it aloud knowing it is true.

It is that case that, as we shall see below, declarative or conceptual knowledge can be either substantive or disciplinary in nature.

Procedural - knowing how to

Procedural knowledge is mentioned in several of the Ofsted reviews, and can be directly linked to what most in education still think of as skills.

Computing: "Procedural knowledge is knowledge of methods or processes that can be performed. It can be described as ‘knowing how’."

PE: "Procedural knowledge can be viewed as the know-how to apply declarative facts... Anderson theorised that all procedural knowledge begins as declarative knowledge and therefore argues that before taking action, you must have acquired a degree of declarative knowledge. (JR Anderson, ‘How can the human mind occur in the physical universe?’ Oxford University Press, 2007)"

Music: "Procedural knowledge is the knowledge exercised in the performance of a task."

Geography: "techincal knowledge and skills."

Maths: "Procedural knowledge is recalled as a sequence of steps. The category includes methods, algorithms and procedures: everything from long division, ways of setting out calculations in workbooks to the familiar step-by-step approaches to solving quadratic equations. All content in this category can be prefaced by the sentence stem ‘I know how’."

From OfSTED's Research Review Series: Computing (

This is the kind of knowledge that is often confused with disciplinary knowledge, and for this reason I have added the word 'to' to my brief definition (above). This confusion comes about because it is possible, as we shall see below, that procedural knowledge can be either substantive or disciplinary.

Disciplinary knowledge is knowing how we know a piece of substantive knowledge, whereas procedural knowledge is knowing how to carry out a procedure (which is still referred to most often as a skill). It might be the case that children gain disciplinary knowledge of a procedure, and then develop procedural knowledge of that same set of actions; for example, they may learn about how a scientist discovered something (disciplinary conceptual knowledge - see below), then carry out the same actions themselves in order to conduct an investigation (disciplinary procedural knowledge - see below).

If you just wanted to know the different between substantive and disciplinary knowledge, and whether or not disciplinary knowledge was synonymous with skills, then you might want to stop reading now! However, if you want to delve deeper into the above terminology, feel free to read on:

Ofsted's Science review goes one step further and categorises conceptual and procedural knowledge as subsets of both substantive and disciplinary knowledge, which, although being helpful distinctions, have the potential to be confusing.

The reason why initially they seem confusing is that by defining substantive and disciplinary knowledge without saying whether it is conceptual or procedural we have oversimplified and ignored necessary distinctions.

Substantive Conceptual - know that

See the section on substantive knowledge earlier in this piece - the definition there is of substantive conceptual knowledge.

Disciplinary Conceptual - know that because

See the section on disciplinary knowledge earlier in this piece - the definition there is of

disciplinary conceptual knowledge.

It helps to think about the fact that everything we teach now, has been discovered at some point in the past (whether recently or longer ago). If it has happened in the past then it is historic - disciplinary conceptual knowledge is about knowing how, in the past, people have found things out.

This is exemplified, although not referred to as disciplinary conceptual knowledge, in OfSTED's History review: "Pupils will learn about historical enquiry most effectively through specific examples of how historians have approached this in particular contexts."

As is evident in the example from the Science review (see below), disciplinary conceptual knowledge also refers to accepted facts about the equipment and processes used to carry out enquiries, investigations, experiments, field studies, and so on.

Substantive Procedural - using know how to represent substantive knowledge

This is the hardest one to define and understand, and the OfSTED reviews don't give us much to go on. It most likely pertains to some subjects more than others, depending on the balance of declarative and procedural, and substantive and disciplinary, knowledge that is being taught. It is almost certainly the case that if you accurately identify the core procedural knowledge relevant to each individual curriculum area, it won't matter too much if you are unsure whether it is substantive procedural knowledge or disciplinary procedural knowledge.

Substantive procedural knowledge could be defined as the knowledge of how to carry out a set of actions in order to arrive at a known outcome, or using the knowledge of a procedure to represent something that the user knows about.

The example given of substantive procedural knowledge in the Science review is of drawing a particle diagram of liquid. The drawing is the (cross-disciplinary) procedural aspect of this type of knowledge, whereas the ensuing drawing (a diagram of liquid particles) is the substantive aspect of this type of knowledge. The person drawing had to know before drawing what a particle diagram of liquid looks like - they weren't drawing to find out or create, they were drawing to represent or replicate existing (substantive conceptual) knowledge.

With substantive procedural knowledge the procedure is a means to a (substantive) end - the process is necessary but it is not the purpose. The purpose of carrying out the process is to either show or reinforce the understanding of a substantive fact (although this fact will still be very much linked to the discipline/subject).

Similar examples in other subjects could be:

  • Mixing colours in art - children know which two colours they need to mix in order to get a third colour and carry out the process of mixing in order to do so.

  • Drawing a volcano diagram in geography - children will already have been taught what a cross section of a volcano looks like, and indeed will have seen an existing labelled diagram. They will use their procedural knowledge of drawing to represent their knowledge of volcanoes.

  • Making a working model of a suspension bridge in DT - children will understand the principles of suspension from having been taught and shown examples. They will use their procedural knowledge of how to work with the chosen construction materials to demonstrate or reinforce their knowledge of how suspension bridges work.

Disciplinary Procedural - knowing how to produce substantive knowledge

As in my example above (in the procedural knowledge section) disciplinary procedural knowledge is when one knows how to carry out a set of actions which has a product (could be facts, could be a painting, could be a performance). In all instances, a certain set of procedures related to the discipline (or subject) will have been carried out. Most procedures will have been developed by pioneers of the discipline, and will simply be replicated by children, even in the more creative subjects, however the outcome or product can be novel to the person carrying out the procedure.

Disciplinary procedural knowledge is not about learning a procedure regardless of outcome - indeed, there is only merit in learning established procedures that do produce an outcome - the process is taught and learned because of its future applications in producing an outcome, an outcome which will be determined by the application of the process.

As pointed out in the History review,"it is through disciplinary methods, approaches and assumptions that pupils are able to construct substantive knowledge of the past."

The word 'construct' refers to children finding things out for themselves by following the procedures relevant to the discipline. So, disciplinary procedural knowledge should eventually lead to the creation of knowledge or outcomes. This discovered knowledge, in subjects that are more concerned with the substantive (as opposed to subjects where creation is emphasised more), will not be entirely novel - the children will have found out for themselves what is already known by following established processes (carrying out the procedures of the discipline), but without knowing beforehand what that substantive knowledge was. However, in subjects such as science and geography, children may find out more novel information, information such as how long it took to dissolve a sugar at different temperatures, or how many daisies and dandelions are in one square metre of the school field. In art, although certain procedures will be followed, children's own preferences and creativity will enable a novel piece of work to be created.

From OfSTED's Research Review Series: Science (

In the next part of this blog series I look at other types of knowledge that are used regularly in discourse around curriculum and that are found in Ofsted's subject reviews. You can read part 2 here:

For a free-to-download summary of this blog post, use the link below:

If you would like Aidan to work with you on the development and delivery of your curriculum in your school, academy, trust or local authority, you can get in touch via or using the contact details on this page.

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