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.


  1. I am teaching first grade again for the first time in 15 years. I have several students that don’t get it or it just doesn’t stick. I try to think and search for ways to help them get it. I like to tell stories about my life and share them with the students. If I have cute ways to remember something I always share it. I am learning new things about this “job” everyday and sometimes I have to be reminded or the other teachers need to say it a different way. So, I can see that I must say and do everything in many different ways for my students to get it, too.l

    • I have a student who started out the year saying “I can’t” quite a bit. I have to remind him that he can, all he has to do is try. He is trying now and is making improvement and being more confident in himself. Also, I agree with helping kids that don’t “get I”t by making connections to their experiences or I share my experiences to help them to make connections. Sometimes having another student or someone besides myself to explain things another way helps.

  2. When teaching routines for programs, I have students that don’t get steps and have a hard time getting it. I use the words, If you can say it, You can do it! That helps students get it.

  3. First, do your best to remember what it was like to first learn the concept you are attempting to teach. This is hard to do sometimes. When I hear my husband work with Harrison I hear this said several times to him. Why don’t you know this and why haven’t you already been taught that? We forget all to often.

  4. I totally agree with the point about using stories, metaphors, and analogies so students can make connections. Images and stories stick, concepts get muddled.

  5. I found myself in this situation last year after changing from teaching 1st grade to third grade. Some of the concepts were new to me so I needed to understand them before teaching them. I got a real feel for what the students were experiencing. Concrete examples, stories, and analogies make it easier to understand.

    • Truly, it is not fun to be the one or ones who just don’t “get it”. You want to help them and trying different ways I think is the key. Many times I like to make it personal with stories. Children begin to make connections and by their stories and ways of trying to understand and explain helps clarify it for others.

  6. I never let my kids say I don’t get it. We break it down step by step to find the piece they don’t understand. I try to ask them, Do you understand this part? And so on until I can get to the piece that’s not connecting. I connect a lot of what they learn to past and future experiences.

  7. It’s true that if we don’t understand something, it’s much more difficult to explain what we don’t understand. Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
    As educators we must first, make sure we understand the concepts we teach. So there is a degree of major preparation when we are struggling with a concept.
    We also need to think about a variety of approaches to teach concepts. We need to cover each area – kinesthetic; visual; tactile, etc. to teach these concepts. Students are very diverse in the way that they learn and those needs need to be thoughtfully considered and addressed.

  8. I feel this article correlates with our focus of integrating fine arts. It touches on reading body language, physical demonstrations and having “Students communicate their understanding of a concept in partner discussions, in writing, in visual formats such as nonlinguistic representations, and through physical actions.” Its what Caldwell does!

  9. The Curse of Knowledge is a true statement. Just because you know i doesn’t mean you can teach it.
    I teach math and science, and when I have a student that doesn’t get it, I instruct them to stop me at the point of confusion. I rephrase with visuals and act out the problem for the student. At times, another student can break things down for another student in a way that the student gets it. Communication between the teacher and students is crucial. We as teachers do an awesome job recognizing body language that indicates confusion. We incorporate fine arts, which is a great motivator and gives the reluctant student a way to respond.

  10. This article reflects what “good teaching” is all about. Sometimes during the lesson components, time constraints pressure teachers to want to move on and not address the students who really do not “get it”. It is imperative that all modalities are used during a lesson and that the appropriate background knowledge is set in place. At the end of the day, I like to reflect on how my lesson was successful and ways that it can be improved: that is based on student performance and engagement.

  11. When a child is telling you over and over that they can’t do something I try to build their confidence about something so they feel like there is something they CAN do. Feeling like they can be successful usually will cause them to try harder. I also believe that it is how you respond to them not understanding something. Just your tone of voice and choice of words matters to a child. If they feel tension they will give up on you and continue not to try.

  12. Definitely we have to go all the way down to their level and try to communicate with the students, reach them and start building their knowledge up. It took me a lot of effort to finally understand why my students couldn’t understand some concepts that for me were always easy and sometimes obvious, but for them it wasn’t, then I overheard a student telling his peer how to solve a problem, there I realized how his brain was working, so I decided to change my view and start trying to see the new concepts through their eyes, asking them what they see, what they know about the concept, then I can really start connecting and teach. I found this four rules very helpful, using simple explanations, their examples and helping them make their connections and ask the students to tell another peer and discuss what they understood, observing body language.

  13. I always tell my kids that we can do it if we try. I tell them it’s like the Little Train That Could. He had to work on going up the hill but he didn’t give up. We always say “I think I can I think I can”.

  14. It is so frustrating when you know the concept and you keep teaching in various ways and it doesn’t find its way into your target student(s). I know communication is the key but what do you do when you have done all you can? You can definitely tell when a student isn’t “getting it” by watching the body language. I do have them draw pictures, write about it, tell a partner, give examples and non examples – then tell why they don’t work. It is a curse!!! But the dedicated will keep trying and hopefully succeed. Michael Jordan did!!!

  15. It is especially difficult to get the message across with math concepts. I know what the end results should be and sometimes there are many steps and processes that have to be learned to be efficient in a certain area. A student will do well in working with fraction concepts if they know their multiplication facts, divisibility rules, and common factors. All of these have to be taught separately in order to compare, add and subtract fractions. I have to take baby steps to get to the end.

  16. The skills we teach in kindergarten are so basic to an adult, that sometimes I think I do forget that these skills are so foreign to those children! I get frustrated when they don’t get it. This article was a good reminder to step back and try to remember how it is to learn something new. Then, it is important to try a variety of ways to teach that skill.

  17. I find that students can get frustrated really quickly with a new skill, such as using a compass to make circles, and they want to quit. I always remind them that we all begin at the beginning. Even Michael Jordan had to be told “this is a basketball” when he began. I also remind them that if they already knew everything then they wouldn’t need me to teach them and that I wouldn’t have a job and I’d have to come live with them. This lightens the mood and they relax. Then I can approach the task from another direction.

  18. This is a great reminder for the classroom. I think that taking the time to build background knowledge, talk with partners, act it out, etc. may cause us to move more slowly through concepts, but will build a deeper understanding for the children. This is encouraging because sometimes I feel like we don’t move quickly enough when we are doing all of these things, but I think that the results are worth it in the end.

  19. This article just reiterates how important it is to build background knowledge by sharing our experiences as well as allowing our students share as well.

  20. What caught my attention in this article was the last self-reflection question: “What support structures, activities, or opportunities do we provide for students that don’t comprehend what seems so obvious to us?” The key word here to me was “opportunities.” Besides providing good instruction in a variety of ways including our experiences and a persistence to help them succeed, I think the opportunities that we can provide for our children are quite important. Our life experiences are often quite different than theirs. Therefore, the challenge for me is to understand from where they come and to find ways to expose them to different opportunities where they can experience things in order to make connections in their lives.

  21. I believe that the curse of knowledge is one I have to try to overcome everyday. Teaching elementary grades, it is easy to forget how foreign and challenging new content can be to my students. I have to really plan out how to break it down and model so that they can begin to see all the parts come together! I also need to remember this idea when I begin to get frustrated that they “just don’t get it”! Maybe there is another approach that will make it click.

  22. A teacher not only needs to understand what is to be taught but also how to communicate that knowledge. It is important to understand the student’s culture as this can influence the learning gap that may need to be addressed before understanding takes place. Knowing the student’s learning style is also crucial. When teaching a new concept it’s important to establish “the background knowledge” enhancing it with visuals and connections from other subjects, contents or experiences.

  23. This is a good reminder to slow down and check for understanding. Sometimes, especially with kindergarten, I think some concepts are so easy. They “should” get it by now. In reality, it’s just that I can’t remember not knowing it. Slowing down and monitoring understanding one-on-one is essential!

  24. It is so easy to think they should get it. I really liked the part about nonverbal communication (body language) being a good indicator. Sometimes we get so caught up in getting the lesson finished that we forget to watch the students. Some students just need to hear the concept taught a LOT of different ways. I love the feeling when they finally get it and can teach someone else.


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