Leading like a Teacher III: Knowledge organization

July 10, 2018

This is the third article in our Leading as a Teacher series where we explore how concepts about teaching and how people learn can make you a more effective leader.

In this article we discuss the second learning principle discussed by Susan Amborse e.l. in the book How Learning Works and how to apply it with your team at work. The main learning principle is: How people organize knowledge affects their learning.

Knowledge can be organized in ways that either do or do not facilitate learning, performance and retention. The grouping and order of information can greatly help learners. This is a key concept for leaders to understand. So much of your team's performance depends on their understanding of concepts, strategies, models and how-to's: how to sell, how to support a customer, fix equipment, develop a promotion campaign, write quality code and so forth.


The organization of knowledge not only enhances learning, but how it's organized in someones brain also affects performance and the ability to solve problems. Furthermore, this learning principle can also be applied to your team's ability to quickly find and access just-in-time information they need to do their job - often a major challenge in organizations (see a new approach to organizing team information).

You want to organize the knowledge in a way that makes it easiest to understand, apply and remember, especially for developing deep understanding of a multifaceted, complex domain. The organization is the associations and connections made between knowledge pieces and overarching concepts that make it easy to understand and remember. Expert knowledge is 'conditionalized' - it includes a specification of the context in which it is useful (Simon, 1980). Knowledge that is not conditionalized is often 'inert' because it's not activated even though it is relevant (Whitehead, 1992).

If it goes into the brain one way, it tends to want to come the same way out - and only that way. Experts however, have well established knowledge structures helping them retrieve and combine knowledge in very flexible ways, adaptive to the context they are in. Effective leaders know how to 'package' information that is easily remembered and fits into a larger picture or model. Think of it as a hatstand - the structure you can hang the knowledge on. The fact that expert knowledge is organized around important ideas or concepts suggests that teaching should also be organized in ways that lead to conceptual understanding (Bransford et al., 2000).

Use Tasks & Context

The usefulness of knowledge organization depends on the tasks it needs to support. It's all about the context the knowledge applies to. Therefore, when you are thinking about how to best organize the knowledge for your team, you want to think first about the tasks they need to perform using the knowledge, and then decide how to structure the knowledge.

For example, the product knowledge a sales team needs in the selling process, should be organized differently than for your customer service rep or marketing writer. When you want your team to follow programming best practices, you want to organize the various best practices in logical 'chunks' or categories that help remember and apply the knowledge. Ambrose e.l. calls it an advanced organizer: a set of principles or propositions that provide a cognitive structure to guide the incorporation of new information.


This works even better when the principles or organization is already familiar. The more you build on accurate prior knowledge, the better the learning (see Leading as Teacher II). For example,  'Do you remember when we did X?......this is just like how we did that....'.

So, analyze tasks to understand what information and knowledge is needed and how to best organize it.

Use Expert Knowledge

The difference between an expert and a novice, is that experts have a far more developed organization of knowledge. Experts have many more connections between knowledge pieces, giving them many alternative organizations to tab into. New information gets more easily integrated, and the right knowledge more easily retrieved.

If you are an expert in your field, use it to break down information in logical ways that make it easy for team members to follow.

Use Chunking & Hatstands

Research shows that when you organize information pieces in coherent chunks - people can remember much larger amounts of information. Also, the stronger the 'hatstand'- a model, hierarchy or metaphor - the easier it is to understand and apply the knowledge when on the job. So get smart about how you explain things to your team.

Use Contrasting and Boundary Cases

By using examples that are similar but differ in critical ways, you can help learners develop more nuanced and sophisticated knowledge organizations.

For instance, how to sell to one customer segment may be different than selling to another. Helping sales people understand how they are different, will offer a different way to organize their knowledge of customers, leading to better problem solving and more accurate knowledge retrieval.

Use self-organization

Give team members tools to enable them to self-organize information and knowledge

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