Conditionalizing Knowledge

Knowing when, where, and why to use specific knowledge, also called the conditionalization of knowledge, saves time and energy that can be further applied to problem solving. It’s helpful to think of conditionalized knowledge in terms of “If…, then…” conditional statements in language or, even more appropriately, coding. For example, “If problem X relates to Y, then apply/recall Z.” An expert would identify the relation to Y much easier than a novice thanks to hours of experience having led to deeper understanding. As a result, Z ,the necessary information for a solution, would be recalled much more accurately. This knowledge, having been catalogued and conditionalized in an expert, would have been given “a specification of the contexts in which it is useful (Simon, 1980; Glaser, 1992)” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 43). The novice on the other hand, spends more energy searching for the applicable information, perhaps through trial and error. Not only are the chances of a novice finding Z, the correct information, less likely, but even if successful, he would have much less brain power left for the actual problem solving to follow.

Other related traits of an expert over a novice are fluency and automaticity, which refer to the ease with which learners recognize patterns in order to choose and perform sub-processes involved in work. With fluency it is more likely that learners will perform with less wasted effort, which reserves energy for analysing the problem at hand. Fluency and automaticity also give greater certainty to one’s actions and decrease discouragement before even getting into the problem. Teachers can help students build fluency by regularly recalling and linking associated information into new contexts and thus better conditionalizing the knowledge.

It is crucial that school’s embed the process of conditionalizing knowledge throughout a curriculum. Project based learning (PBL) provides wonderful context for the conditionalization of knowledge and cross-curriculum coordination between teachers aids in the reinforcement of similar principles to increase fluency. However, if I had to generalize about the effectiveness of those curricula that test chapter by chapter through textbooks, only to end with a final assessment far in the future, I’d say many students could get by without conditionalizing knowledge. Rather, they could pass using the non-conditionalized or inert knowledge (Whitehead, 1929) of each chapter until the test (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 43). Such knowledge would likely be forgotten shortly after, and that would be a shame.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (2000). How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience, and School Expanded Edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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