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Teaching With the Curse of Knowledge

Why don’t the best athletes make the best coaches?

Why wouldn’t an expert physicist be a good middle school science teacher?

Part of the answer to these questions has to do with what’s called the “curse of knowledge”.

The Curse

The curse of knowledge is the cognitive bias which makes it extremely difficult to think about something you already know well from the perspective of someone who has yet to learn it.

Why does this happen? The authors of the book Make It Stick explain that when your expertise in a subject grows, your understanding and mental model of that subject becomes complex. Once this happens, the beginning steps you learned long ago fade into memory.

This makes it difficult for college professors to teach calculus that they learned many years ago It makes it hard for preschool teachers to explain vowel sounds that they learned when they were five years old.

Origins of the Curse

In 1990 a study was crafted where participants tapped out the rhythm to one of a selection of 20 famous songs. The other participant listened and attempted to guess the tune. The tappers thought their rendition would be guessed about 50% of the time, but in reality it nearly always failed. The tapper hears the full song in his or her head, but the listener can’t and the tapping does little to help.

This was the first study to find what would later be called the curse of knowledge (cue spooky music).

If you’ve ever played charades, you’ve probably experienced something similar to this. You know that you’re doing an excellent silent impression of a duck, but somehow your teammates are unable to guess your given phrase.

Just like in the tapping game, your knowledge of the answer to the charades phrase “curses” you and hinders your ability to make others understand.

Once you have learned something, especially as you move towards mastery, it is difficult to think about and teach the basic components that make up that bit of knowledge.

Why Does This Happen?

In fact, part of the problem might be that experts and novices use entirely different parts of their brain when they are faced with a problem. Ironically, beginners tend to use much more of their brain than experts, and as novices improve, their brain activation changes.

Beginners are not yet using their brains as efficiently as experts can. Think of all the neurons firing and making connections when children are first learning to walk or ride a bike. Meanwhile, adults can walk while eating, drinking, talking and texting. Things become so efficient that our brain is free to handle other tasks.

Elementary, My Dear Watson

The curse of knowledge might be part of why many people think teaching (especially the elementary grades) is a simple task.

We’ve all heard that uncle say, “how hard could it be to teach reading? I’ve been a great reader my entire life.”

As adults, we forget the years we spent struggling through new and difficult skills to get to the point we are now. As teachers we must balance a mastery of the content with knowledge of the basic elements that comprise it.

Break The Curse

This might all sound like pretty bad news, but as millennia of successful teaching might indicate, the curse of knowledge can be overcome.

Here are a couple things I try to keep in mind when looking to break the curse.

Peer Learning

Sometimes, the person who knows the best way to approach a problem isn't the teacher.

Partners and group work help students by allowing them to explain concepts to one another in terms the expert might not use.

In his notes on the book Show Your Work, Derek Sivers summarizes:
“Two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten.”

Assessment

The school system already has a built-in mechanism to help break the curse. With assessment, teachers are able to better understand what students currently know so we can build from there.

This prevents us from assuming what students know and makes it clear what the student already understands and what he/she still needs to learn.

Empathize

If you can, think back to how it was for you to learn the topic. Don’t assume that what is easy for you is easy for your students.

Too many times during my student teaching I foolishly thought to myself “this will be an easy lesson” before teaching a topic that I have always excelled in. Often these would be the least effective lessons, ending with my students looking up at me, clearly confused.

I failed to empathize with them and because of that I did not simplify the topic to their needs. I now make sure to give every topic its proper attention, no matter how rudimentary I find it to be. I go out of my way to confirm that I’m not overlooking a basic component that I might have consolidated into memory a long time ago.

Going Forward

The curse of knowledge has obvious ramifications for teaching, but it’s important to remember in many facets of life. When you know to look for it you’ll find it in everything from politics to business presentations. Understanding how other people think and learn is an important skill we could all improve upon.

Does the curse of knowledge feel like something you've battled with before? What ways have you seen it in your life?

Alexander Trost

Alexander Trost

A 2nd Grade Teacher turned programmer. I solve problems and automate tasks with code so teachers can focus more on the kids and less on the rest.

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