usable and useful (?)

Hi folks,

At the conference, I mentioned a distinction that I thought could be useful to us between usable and useful knowledge. I said I would pass on the reference. Well, I had come across it in Wikely & Muschamp (2004) and I have since followed up their acknowledgement of Baker (2003).  In so doing, however, I have discovered that what I thought the distinction to be is not what was intended. Nor am I sure that Baker’s usage is altogether coherent in its own right. I still think it could be a useful distinction. Ho hum. Bon voyage.


Baker, E. 2003. From Usable to Useful Assessment Knowledge: A Design Problem. CSE Report 612. Keynote presentation at the 2003 International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, Sydney, Australia.

Wikely, F. & Muschamp, Y. 2004. Pedagogical implications of working with doctoral students at distance. Distance Education 25/1: 125-142.



  • Hi Achilleas,
    I certainly see knowledge as subjective. I’m not sure what the relationship is that you see between ‘objective’ and ‘inter-subjective.’ I don’t see the latter as a step on the way to the former, as your ‘at least’ seems to imply. Looking at that list again, after a break of a few weeks, I’m tempted to risk the following. Let’s number them:
    1.useless; 2.useful; 3.usable;; 5.used

    The aim of teacher education is to raise awareness such that more of 1 is discerned to be 2; more of 2 is discerned to be 3; more of 3 becomes realised as 4; more of 4 becomes available to expand 5; and an expanded 5 helps transform more of 1 into 2. One overall effect might be to increase coherence between espoused theory and theory-in-practice.
    Goodness me. I think I’ll leave that alone for a while, too!

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Interesting. It seems to me that this entire typology is predicated on the premise that knowledge is subjective: comprehensibility, relevance etc. only make sense with reference to particular individuals and specific points in time. On the other hand, I would think that constructs such as ‘practice’ and ‘theory-in-action’ are (more) objective, or at very least inter-subjective. In the context of teacher education, ‘practice’ is given shape through social interaction. Similarly, ‘theory in action’ seems to be mediated by the actions of others, shared affordances and constraints. I have no idea how this might be useable, but I hope it’s at least useful.

  • Well, now then, OK. I’m not going to engage explicitly with the sources already acknowledged. If I ever go full-on with this, I shall have to point out where, why and how I differ, but in the meantime . . . . .

    To begin with, information must be comprehensible; otherwise we don’t need to trouble ourselves with talking about knowledge. I suggest we might then usefully (!?) distinguish between:

    useless knowledge: information, possibly true, but for which we see no relevance;
    useful knowledge: information that seems plausible and potentially usable;
    usable knowledge: information that we can immediately put into effect;
    (knowledge-in-use: the interactive frontline of experiential learning;)
    used knowledge: our tried and trusted experiential knowledge base.

    It seems inevitable to me that people have already done this work, and a lot more elegantly, in philosophy if nowhere else. I am wondering, though, if there might be interesting interactions for teacher education with the discourse of theory/practice and/or with that of espoused theory/theory-in-action.



  • Magda Rostron

    This reminds me of our conversation two weeks ago in Manchester about my students’ approach to the readings I gave them in connection with a writing topic – they thought the readings were “useless” because they did not explicitly deal with the topic. Julian made that distinction then… Given that it is so usable and useful, I’ve used it myself in a recent lunchtime discussion with a colleague but credited Julian with its authorship 🙂

    Still, as Magdalena said, it’s quite legitimate to re-interpret another person’s idea or phrase thus possibly giving it an entirely new meaning, significance and, well, origin or “secondary origin”, so to speak, if only in terms of mutual academic dependencies, borrowings and inspirations…


  • Magdalena De Stefani

    Very interesting discussion. I suppose it is a legitimate move to re-interpret the author’s distinction in a way that makes more sense 🙂 Her idea of the ‘usable’ as ‘potentially useful’ in fact makes me think of the ‘useful in theory’ line, which we know does not make much sense, as EPP2 very well states…

  • Richard Fay

    ….. besides indeed.

    Unrelatedly, I have a half-memory of a term along the lines of ‘sticky discourse’, i.e. (in my half-memory) neologisms that have staying power …. e.g. although ‘ethnic cleansing’ by any other name had existed long before the war in Bosnia, the term (in my half-memory) ‘stuck’ then … I must check it out ….

  • Julian Edge

    Yes, and I fear that my probably scandalous imputation of incoherence to the good professor may arise from the struggle I had in working back from my interpretation of the secondary source to her original usage. In brief, by ‘usable,’ she means knowledge that reaches us in a comprehensible form and therefore has the potential to be ‘useful,’ should we choose to act on it. My response to that is to say that if something reaches me in a form that I do not comprehend, what would be the point of referring to it as ‘knowledge’ at all? This may lead back to arguments about Popper and ‘objective knowledge,’ of which I have such happy memories, but that was in another country, and besides . . .

  • Richard Fay

    I used to hate it when that happened – when we give (for whatever reason) a meaning to a distinction that we attibute to someone else and then discover this is not (exactly) the meaning in the original – but now it kind of makes me smile – we use the resources we encounter as much for our purposes as anything else when we speak, no? 🙂