Coping with the Curse of Knowledge (and Yes, You May Have It Too)

Having never viewed myself as an expert and periodically believed I’m an imposter just waiting to be found out, I went a long time without worrying about the so-called curse of knowledge. I couldn’t possibly know too much math and chemistry, the content I teach. I associated the curse of knowledge with the difficulties experts have in bringing their extensive knowledge of the content “down” to the level of students in their introductory courses. In my nonexpert world, when concepts seemed easy to me, I assumed they were easy for everyone. I freely admitted and reminded my students that I had “done this many times.” But I also held fast to the belief that if they simply did the work, it would be easy for them as well.

Thus, I found myself quite astonished when I experienced a simple demonstration of the curse of knowledge. It happened during a talk I attended back in March by Dan Heath, the author of several books, including Made to Stick. He split the large room into two groups: one side would hold their ears while the other was given a well-known melody to which they’d clap the rhythm. The other side would then guess the tune. Next round, the roles would be reversed.

First round, I was on the side assigned to listen. The clapping from the other side was completely unintelligible and did not spark a bit of recognition. All the guesses from our side were incorrect (it turned out to be “Y.M.C.A.,” much to my surprise). I chalked it up to a poor presentation from the other side.

Then it was our turn. We were given “The Star-Spangled Banner” to clap out. Very easy, I thought, and we managed to do it amazingly well, with a precise and coordinated rendition that made it obviously recognizable. To my complete surprise, not a single person on the other side got it. All their guesses, like ours in the previous round, were incorrect.

The clarity of the illustration struck me. I had just experienced total incomprehension when presented with something simple and obvious to others. And I’d experienced knowing something simple, presenting it clearly, and others’ having no idea what to make of it. I had the curse: my knowledge had created a bias. If the curse could manifest this easily, this automatically, then what was happening in my class sessions—indeed, across the entire course?

I had to face a new realization: essentially, I am inherently biased in my presentation because I know the material. I had the curse of knowledge all along, even though I didn’t know it. What should I do? It’s impossible and completely inappropriate to teach from a point of ignorance, so how does a teacher overcome the effect of this curse and provide effective instruction? First, I decided to simply accept that although what I know seems easy and obvious, it is not, and I must stop making assumptions about what appears to be easy and clear. Rather, I need to actively cultivate a perspective of not knowing. To achieve this perspective, I’ve settled on three strategies: (1) knowing my subject as thoroughly as possible, (2) being open to two-way communication with my students, and (3) embracing a patient form of empathy.

It seems counterintuitive to suggest acquiring even more subject knowledge, but the key is what that knowledge produces: a thorough understanding that enables explanation of concepts in plain language. As for open communication with students, it’s what allows a teacher to remain grounded, able to accurately ascertain how much understanding is actually occurring. This communication can take many forms, including surveys, class exit questions, and formative assessment activities. I’ve been using all of these, and they have routinely opened my eyes to the holes in my assumptions. To counteract my continuing susceptibility to my knowledge bias, I’m providing more opportunities for probing, open feedback. I’m working to listen while keeping my mind open. My goal with empathy is to go even deeper, to work harder to discover how it feels to not know something and to always be patient with those who are struggling to understand. I’m also trying to be patient with myself as I work on making these changes.

Our job as teachers is to discover the best ways to increase others’ knowledge. An awareness of not knowing, whatever level or subject we teach, is essential to maximizing others’ efforts to learn. Discovering what I did not know about the curse of knowledge has changed the way I teach.

Nancy Schorschinsky teaches chemistry at Penn State Schuylkill.

2 Responses

  1. What a superb article Nancy. Thank you for taking the time. I was privileged to begin my teaching career as a high school mathematics teacher. I remember my first placement in my teaching degree where I spent hours preparing my “fantastic” lesson. I presented my material with creativity and “clarity”, and then set the students to work doing exercises.

  2. (cont) Within 5 minutes I discovered that half the students didn’t have a clue what I had been saying. One reason we don’t realise that we have the “curse of knowledge” is that we don’t take the time to discover what our students are and are not understanding from what we say.

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Having never viewed myself as an expert and periodically believed I’m an imposter just waiting to be found out, I went a long time without worrying about the so-called curse of knowledge. I couldn’t possibly know too much math and chemistry, the content I teach. I associated the curse of knowledge with the difficulties experts have in bringing their extensive knowledge of the content “down” to the level of students in their introductory courses. In my nonexpert world, when concepts seemed easy to me, I assumed they were easy for everyone. I freely admitted and reminded my students that I had “done this many times.” But I also held fast to the belief that if they simply did the work, it would be easy for them as well.

Thus, I found myself quite astonished when I experienced a simple demonstration of the curse of knowledge. It happened during a talk I attended back in March by Dan Heath, the author of several books, including Made to Stick. He split the large room into two groups: one side would hold their ears while the other was given a well-known melody to which they’d clap the rhythm. The other side would then guess the tune. Next round, the roles would be reversed.

First round, I was on the side assigned to listen. The clapping from the other side was completely unintelligible and did not spark a bit of recognition. All the guesses from our side were incorrect (it turned out to be “Y.M.C.A.,” much to my surprise). I chalked it up to a poor presentation from the other side.

Then it was our turn. We were given “The Star-Spangled Banner” to clap out. Very easy, I thought, and we managed to do it amazingly well, with a precise and coordinated rendition that made it obviously recognizable. To my complete surprise, not a single person on the other side got it. All their guesses, like ours in the previous round, were incorrect.

The clarity of the illustration struck me. I had just experienced total incomprehension when presented with something simple and obvious to others. And I’d experienced knowing something simple, presenting it clearly, and others’ having no idea what to make of it. I had the curse: my knowledge had created a bias. If the curse could manifest this easily, this automatically, then what was happening in my class sessions—indeed, across the entire course?

I had to face a new realization: essentially, I am inherently biased in my presentation because I know the material. I had the curse of knowledge all along, even though I didn’t know it. What should I do? It’s impossible and completely inappropriate to teach from a point of ignorance, so how does a teacher overcome the effect of this curse and provide effective instruction? First, I decided to simply accept that although what I know seems easy and obvious, it is not, and I must stop making assumptions about what appears to be easy and clear. Rather, I need to actively cultivate a perspective of not knowing. To achieve this perspective, I’ve settled on three strategies: (1) knowing my subject as thoroughly as possible, (2) being open to two-way communication with my students, and (3) embracing a patient form of empathy.

It seems counterintuitive to suggest acquiring even more subject knowledge, but the key is what that knowledge produces: a thorough understanding that enables explanation of concepts in plain language. As for open communication with students, it’s what allows a teacher to remain grounded, able to accurately ascertain how much understanding is actually occurring. This communication can take many forms, including surveys, class exit questions, and formative assessment activities. I’ve been using all of these, and they have routinely opened my eyes to the holes in my assumptions. To counteract my continuing susceptibility to my knowledge bias, I’m providing more opportunities for probing, open feedback. I’m working to listen while keeping my mind open. My goal with empathy is to go even deeper, to work harder to discover how it feels to not know something and to always be patient with those who are struggling to understand. I’m also trying to be patient with myself as I work on making these changes.

Our job as teachers is to discover the best ways to increase others’ knowledge. An awareness of not knowing, whatever level or subject we teach, is essential to maximizing others’ efforts to learn. Discovering what I did not know about the curse of knowledge has changed the way I teach.

Nancy Schorschinsky teaches chemistry at Penn State Schuylkill.