The Curse of Knowledge

I just finished reading “Made to Stick,” by Chip and Dan Heath. Awesome book, by the way.

One concept they discussed kind of “stuck” with me (inside joke for all readers of the book). They called it “The curse of knowledge.”

Epic sounding, huh?

In short, the curse of knowledge is the situation where your deep knowledge of a concept makes it difficult to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who doesn’t already know the concept. This has repercussions in instructional design. Often times the teacher describes a concept in lofty platitudes and generalizations that make great sense to them but are impossible for the new learner to grasp.

Enough lofty platitudes, lets talk about an example.

The curse of knowledge can be demonstrated with a simple game called the tapping game. In the tapping game, one person takes a coin and taps out a song, while another person listens. The goal of the listener is to guess what song the tapper is tapping. Easy enough, right? Wrong.

Invariably, the game always plays out the same. The tapper taps their songs with the confidence that the listener will be able to easily guess them. Then, they are surprised to learn how often the listener guesses incorrectly, or is unable to guess at all. “What? I was playing “The Star Spangled Banner…. where did you get “Happy Birthday to You?” (try tapping out both these songs and you’ll see how difficult the game can be). Holly and I played the game and she was able to guess two out of five songs.

The game is hard but it doesn’t seem hard to the tapper. The tapper has the knowledge, and with the knowledge the tapper has the curse that comes with it. It’s the curse of not knowing what it is like to hear the taps without having the song in their head.

This has an interesting take-away. Knowledge alone doesn’t qualify someone as an effective teacher. That explains why studies that have shown that College professors with PhD’s are no better teachers than professors with Master’s degrees (very surprising, especially since these studies were probably performed by PhD holders). No, a good teacher, rather, needs to know how to overcome the curse of knowledge.

How is it overcome? Deliberate teaching at the level of the learner. Holly has an education degree and one of the points they really stress in her studies is the value of assessment. Assessments help teachers learn what their students know before they start teaching. An assessment doesn’t need to be long, or grueling like a 3 hour exam. It can be simple.

Last week at work, I was asked to train an employee on how to use some complex software. The first thing I did before we even got into the software was ask, “tell me what you know about this software.” In less than a minute, I was able to get an idea of their level of understanding, so I could teach based on the knowledge they already had. From my experience, that short, one-minute assessment can make a big difference in how effective my training goes.

This is related to the concept of “the sticky platform” which I’ve talked about before. If you can stick new knowledge to knowledge that somebody already has, then they are more likely to learn and remember it. The only way to do this is to overcome the blindness of your own knowledge and take the time to assess the knowledge of your learners.

But there I go again, back into lofty platitudes. See how difficult it can be?

At the end of the day, everybody loves and appreciates good training. I’ve really enjoyed the jobs I’ve had where I’ve done a lot of training. But good training always means recognizing that your knowledge is a curse. You have to do your best to see things from the learner’s perspective.