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Four Knowledge Capability Levels


Explanations > Learning > Four Knowledge Capability Levels

Can tell | Can do | Can teach | Can innovate | So what?


Here is a model of four levels of knowledge as defined by what a person can skilfully do. This makes it useful and practical for allocating work and identifying learning needs.

Can tell

There is a fundamental level of knowledge where a person can hold a reasonable conversation about the basics of the subject. They may have gaps in this knowledge but they may well be able to pick up further detail as needed, although the deeper technical detail may well be beyond them without significant further study.

'Can tell' is mostly about 'know what', it is declarative knowledge and requires no real skill others than being able to talk about the subject and maybe use it in a basic way.

In most organizations it is very helpful if everyone has a fair understanding about how the company works and what all the departments do. It is especially important to understand those with whom we interact directly and hence have sensible conversations with them. Likewise, citizens should know basic detail of major laws without needing the skills of a lawyer.

Can do

While 'can tell' is about 'know what', 'can do' is about 'know how'. In fact it more than this, as it not only means the person knows how to do something; it also means that they are able to perform the job to a practical, operational level within a professional context.

Procedural knowledge is a different from of memory and uses the brain differently to knowledge of simple facts. There can be many levels of skill, for example from basic computer usage to complex IT support and programming. Skill can also be both mental and physical. For example a soldier needs both the deep knowledge of practical tactics and the ability to carry heavy loads and accurately fire guns.

There is a big difference between 'can tell' and 'can do', which is the difference between knowledge and skill, theory and practice. Many people, for example, can talk about school teaching and may hold strong opinions about how it should be done, yet they would quickly have problems if they were dropped into a classroom of thirty truculent teenagers.

Can teach

Beyond the skill of doing is a deeper level of knowledge where the person's skill extends not just to how to do the job but also in higher and deeper knowledge around the subject. As teachers know, you have to understand much more than your students need to learn.

There is a saying 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.' This is both wrong and backwards. Teaching is a higher skill that starts from 'can do' and adds human skills of communication and insights into how people think, understand and learn.

Teaching is a virtuous circle, as when you try to explain things to other people then you quickly find out what you don't know and are so prompted to find out more. In this way, the best teachers are also the best learners. And understanding learning is a key skill for all teachers.

Can innovate

Talking, doing and teaching are all based in the current set of knowledge. So who extends the knowledge set with new learning and thinking? Who keeps it up to date so it is continuously relevant and useful? This is the role of the innovator.

Innovation is not just fluffy, airy-fairy playing with wild ideas (although this can have its place). Innovation includes monitoring external environments for changing forces, reading papers for new thinking and discoveries, doing original research, attending conferences to listen to experts, and building coherent extensions to canons of knowledge. It also means trying out things, deliberately experimenting to find what really works rather than announcing blind opinion.

Those who can innovate are not always allowed to do so, and may not be listened to when they do. Those who know things and especially those who know a lot are invested in the status quo. Anything new is viewed with suspicion and fear, yet they know (and teachers in particular) that they have to keep learning in order to stay current. Innovators hence are often allowed space at the edges of society, keeping them at arm's length from daily affairs but having them close enough so they can help with new understanding.

To innovate well requires both a good understanding of the current knowledge set and also a healthy skepticism with a readiness to challenge even the most sacred tenets. The innovator seeks to prove, disprove and improve. They are the source of new knowledge and the champions of change.

So what?

Use these levels in planning learning and appointing people to different job roles. Beware of those who aspire to a higher level when their capability is actually lower.

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