Teaching, Learning, and the “Curse of Knowledge”


HarrisbIn the early 1990s, a PhD candidate named Elizabeth Newton described a phenomenon that would later be described as the “curse of knowledge.” Newton paired participants and asked one person to tap out commonly known tunes using their fingers. The second person was tasked with identifying the tune based on the first person’s tapping. Newton’s experiments showed that the “tappers” and the “listeners” had a difficult time communicating. Listeners got the right tune about 3 percent of the time. In fact, the tappers were often frustrated that their partners couldn’t identify the tune.

This “curse of knowledge” highlights a problem for all educators: once you know something, it is difficult to imagine not knowing it. The tappers had full knowledge of the tune as it was playing in their mind, but their partners only heard random finger tapping. Likewise, when we know something deeply, when we’ve literally spent thousands of hours thinking about and teaching a concept, it can be a challenge to communicate with those who don’t know the concept as deeply.

In their hugely popular book, Made to Stick (2008), authors Chip and Dan Heath use the idea of a curse of knowledge to describe why some ideas fail to be memorable. They point out that, “Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it. And that, in turn, makes it harder for you to communicate to a novice.” Research from neuroscience also provides insight into the disconnect between experts and novices. Using brain imaging technology, researchers have studied reaction times and brain processes of amateur and expert chess players. The findings support what Newton found in her research—those who know something deeply (like the expert chess players) think differently about the content than do amateurs (National Research Council, 2000).

So, as educators, how do we overcome this curse? First, do your best to remember what it was like to first learn the concept you are attempting to teach. Then,

  • Simplify explanations and use concrete models, physical demonstrations, and images to explain concepts.
  • Read body language—The nonverbal communication of your students is usually an indicator of their understanding of a concept.
  • Use stories, analogies, and metaphors to connect the concept directly to students’ current experiences.
  • Ask students to expand, clarify, and give examples. Students should communicate their understanding of a concept in partner discussions, in writing, in visual formats such as nonlinguistic representations, and through physical actions.

Finally, one of the most important self-reflection questions for educators should be, How do we respond to students that don’t “get it”? What support structures, activities, or opportunities do we provide for students that don’t comprehend what seems so obvious to us?

Post submitted by Bryan Harris, director of professional development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education. More information can be found at http://www.bryan-harris.com.