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How to Avoid the “Curse of Knowledge” as You Teach

Scientist is teaching with 'the curse of knowledge'

Have you ever noticed that when you know a lot about a subject, it can actually be harder to teach someone else about it?

This is a common problem, and it’s called the curse of knowledge. The curse refers to the idea that the more you know about a subject, the harder it can be to transfer that knowledge to someone who has limited knowledge of the subject.1

For instance, a brilliant physicist who studies atomic collisions may have a difficult time trying to explain basic atoms and molecules to a high school student.

Here’s an example that might hit closer to home …

Your Aunt Sally knows how to bake the perfect pie crust. In fact, she’s done it so often she doesn’t even need a recipe. She just does it by feel. If you ask her to teach you, she’ll probably say something like, “Just keep adding water until it feels right” or “Knead the dough until it’s the perfect consistency.”

Not very helpful, is it?

pie baking and the curse of knowledge

As delicious as Aunt Sally’s pies are, she’s suffering from the curse of knowledge. Her knowledge may help her make a great pie, but it has become a curse to the process of teaching you to make a great pie. Sadly, if she can’t learn to overcome the curse of knowledge, the art of the perfect pie crust may never move beyond Aunt Sally’s kitchen.

But the curse of knowledge isn’t just Aunt Sally’s problem. It may be your problem as well.

Why It’s Critical to Defeat the Curse of Knowledge

As you know, teaching your child to read and spell is one of the most important jobs you will ever do. But if you don’t overcome the curse of knowledge, you may encounter all kinds of obstacles:

  • You may find it hard to have patience with your child, often wondering, “Why aren’t you getting this?
  • You may underestimate the difficulties your child is having.
  • You might expect your child to make larger leaps in understanding than she is capable of.
  • You might be tempted to skip lessons because they seem too easy, without realizing that the skipped lessons contain information that is necessary for complete understanding.
Puzzle pieces

The curse of knowledge can affect your effectiveness as a teacher by causing you to forget that your child doesn’t have the benefit of the knowledge that you possess.

Imagine that your child is trying to fit the pieces of a big puzzle together without the benefit of the picture on the front of the puzzle box. He doesn’t know what the end result is supposed to look like. He doesn’t know how to fit the pieces together. Without the guidance of someone who has the big picture in mind, your child can struggle and become frustrated.

5 Ways to Move Beyond the Curse of Knowledge

Just understanding that the curse of knowledge exists is an important first step! It helps you recognize potential problems before they actually become problems. Here are five important tips to help you avoid the pitfalls created by the curse of knowledge.

  1. Empathize with your child. Remember that learning can be hard work! Be encouraging during the teaching/learning process.
  2. Don’t assume. Always try to keep in mind the many things your child doesn’t know, being careful not to assume your child knows something automatically.
  3. Take things as slowly as you need to. Don’t try to teach too much new information in a short period of time. Respect your child’s funnel.
  4. Break down tasks. Teach each skill separately, and then combine the new skill with previously learned skills.
  5. Take an inventory of every skill that needs to be taught. Address all areas of need so that there will be no gaps in your child’s understanding of the subject.

Of course, this is all more easily said than done!

But that’s where comprehensive programs such as All About Reading and All About Spelling come in. They eliminate the effect that the curse of knowledge may have on your instruction. Since everything is carefully laid out, you won’t have to reach back into the dark recesses of your brain to remember what it took to become a good reader. You won’t have to figure out how to help your child put all those random puzzle pieces together. The programs do that for you. You can just sit back and enjoy the process with your child.

Has the curse of knowledge ever affected your teaching?

___________________________________
1Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House.

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Josie

says:

Thank you for this information. This is an eye opener and encouragement for me. I often go faster through a lesson and get frustrated when students don’t grasp the concept I am teaching them.
Thank you for sharing these ideas. I have learnt something about patience and the children’s pace of learning here.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this blog post will be helpful for you, Josie!

Laura Bahena

says:

I can definitely relate to the frustration felt when my struggling child doesn’t understand the spelling rules. I just have to understand that her brain is still developing and I must have patience and teach her with love and care.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Such great insight, Laura! Thank you.

Emily B

says:

This is why I love the scripted lessons in AAR. By following it fairly closely I have definitely found gaps in my child’s knowledge that I would have skipped- assumed she knew. This program lags such a great foundation.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing this, Emily! It’s wonderful to hear that All About Reading is helping you lay a solid foundation for learning for your child!

Jessica

says:

Since both of my children learn differently one of the things I like to do is show them and then together we break each thing down step by step so they are involved in their own learning process and I tailor the lesson to how they will learn best. For example, when I was teaching them to cross stitch I started with gathering my materials, threading the needle, then doing a few stitches. I then asked them what steps I went through and we wrote it down as a list. Once the list was written I then asked them how they thought was the best way for them to learn each step. We went step by step with this as one step might be learned better a different way than a previous way. Sometimes we added steps to clarify something, and sometimes we took steps away. This not only helped them learn it better, it gave them confidence because they were in charge of how they learned.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

What a great approach to teaching and learning, Jessica! I loved what you shared here! Thank you.

Albatina

says:

this is so true. I love this article

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Albatina.

Carol B

says:

Thank you for this article. I love tip #3. I’m often tempted to go faster through a lesson. It’s good to be reminded to slow down and be mindful of our kid’s “funnel”.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Carol,
Yes, moving at the student’s pace is so important. Moving too slowly is much better than moving too quickly.

Brittany

says:

I totally agree with this- reading is obviously second nature to me so it’s easy to become frustrated when a child doesn’t grasp the concept easily! But AAR helps break it down Into the simple steps to teach a child.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Brittany!

Licia

says:

The curse afflicts me all the time. From both sides- as the teacher and as the learner (I’m twice-gifted, which means really good at learning some things (like academics) and completely lost learning other things (like trying to actually use something).

But I found that these 5 tips really do help. Thank you for laying them out so neatly.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so pleased to hear that these tips are helpful, Licia! Thank you.

Tara Johnson

says:

Thank you for the great info throughout this site. As terrified as I have been of failing my grandchildren homeschooling, the more I have learned on how to best teach them, and realize the alternative would be to send them back to school with the same curriculum that wasn’t working and destroyed their confidence and desire to learn.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

That is an excellent way to look at it, Tara. However, you show that you are clearly very concerned about doing well for your grandchildren, and that is the most important thing!

Crystal Greer

says:

This is an excellent reminder for me to be mindful of how she’s learning and to slow down and enjoy the process of learning with her. I love the look in her eyes when she finally understands something she’d been struggling with!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I agree, Crystal! Seeing the moment understanding happens is such a sweet reward for teaching!

Dej

says:

Thank you!

Dawn c

says:

Interesting article…

Heather

says:

Since I don’t have knowledge I don’t have issues with teaching…I have issues in understanding the teaching guides…the more complicated a guide the more confused I get. Post it notes are my friend, hightlighting what to say or use the post it to word it more naturally for me. Reasons marh u see works well for me, the lesson on dvd..im learning to teach…

Jane

says:

I’m so glad to have read this! By all means I am not a “know-it-all” but all the tips in this blog definitely will help me with my type-A personality (at times). I’m reading to learn how to talk/speak in front of a small group again. The last time I had to public speak was over 4 years so now having to learn to speak and be elaborate on different subjects almost makes me anxious and maybe it’s because I don’t know a lot on the subjects and how to teach them. So… this will be a learning curve for me… for all of us.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful for you, Jane. But if you ever need more help or have questions, we’re there for you! We can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 715-477-1976.

Paula

says:

So insightful. Thank you.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Paula. Thank you.

Heather Ferguson

says:

Thank you for this!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Heather!

Janelle

says:

This has affected my teaching before, but I am learning to adjust. I’m so thankful that we started using AAR last year. It helped my 8 year old (now 9) to become more confident in her reading. We finished level 1 last year and got through a few lessons of level 2. Various things that happened this summer caused us to not review like I wanted to this summer. I notice that she is not feeling as confident as she was at the end of last year, so this week I decided to do a review of level 1. Right now, I am having her read through a stack of the cards – a bunch each day. I was thinking of reviewing some of the stories too – just to build her confidence back up. Do you suggest anything else? She tires from reading after a while. I know reading is hard for her right now, so I just continue to encourage her.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Janelle,
Reviewing after a long break is always important, but often not fun. So, try to find ways to make it more enjoyable!

First, keep it to just 20 minutes a day. When students are fatigued, they simply do not learn or retain nearly as well. Short, but consistent work will provide the best progress.

Then, reviewing all the Word Cards from AAR 1 is a good idea, but make it fun! Our 10 Great Ways to Review Spelling Word Cards blog post will give a lot of really enjoyable review ideas that leave children asking if they can do even more!

And if that isn’t enough, here are some more ideas:

– Our Fun with Emojis activity can be used with Word Cards.

– Flip the card is a fun, easy-to-set-up game. Read a Word Card and try to throw it into a hat or box. Vary the distance to increase or decrease the difficulty!

– One mom shared with us, “I tape cards all around our fence and have the boys kick a ball towards them. Whichever card they hit, they have to read. We have also adapted this for hockey and basketball. Anything to keep the boys moving!” I’ve done something similar with “snowballs” (wadded up paper) for indoor play too.

– Play Word Card Slapjack: Designate one word as the “jack” and then deal out a stack of cards to two players. Play as you would Slapjack, slapping the “jack” as it comes up. Play several times, changing the “jack” card each time.

And, if you need even more ideas, let me know! We have lots of them and are constantly hearing of new ones from those creative people doing All About Reading.

Rereading the AAR 1 stories, particularly ones from the last quarter or so of the level, will be helpful as well.

Also, review the phonograms. Our How to Teach Phonograms blog post has a few fun review games you can print to make the review super fun! Focus on the first 32 phonograms, the letters of the alphabet plus TH, SH, CH, CK, NK, and NG.

Then, restart AAR 2 from Lesson 1, since you were only a few lessons into it anyway. Lesson 1, as you know, reviews concepts from AAR 1 too.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you need additional ideas or have other concerns.

Once you feel she is ready, restart AAR 2 from the beginning. The first lesson, as you know, also includes review of the Level 1 topics.

Janelle

says:

Thank you so much for the encouragement and ideas. I appreciate the support.

Anna

says:

A timely reminder as we jump back into a new homeschool year!

Caroline Pope

says:

Thank you for the info!

AMBER MURRAY

says:

Awesome insight!

Hillary H

says:

Very informative

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Hillary.

Andrea D

says:

I wonder how often this has been the case – there are times I recognize it, but it leaves me quivering how many times I may have opted not to be as thorough in a topic because I thought it was understood but I actually left a kiddo without the solid base he/she needed to keep going steadily!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thankfully, we can always teach something again (and again) if needed! The curse of knowledge can be a problem, but recognizing the issue goes a long way to avoiding it.

Sherry

says:

Thank you this really is helpful. This is my first time to home teach. I appreciate your helpful messages. They help me immensely in teaching my great granddaughter.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so glad you found this really helpful, Sherry! If you need anything as you teach your great grandchild, please just ask.

Betsy

says:

Excellent topic! I knew exactly what you were talking about. Teddy started with Izzy and because I was the caregiver grandmother we got to read over and over almost everyday. Finally I would put Izzy on the tripod next to the art table so Teddy could talk to him while I made lunch. That was eight year ago. Now Teddy much prefers talking to grown ups because they have more “inherent” knowledge and understand what he is talking about. Plus, as a grown up. They are less likely to walk away if he is trying to explain something. HAHAHA! The best thing to slow him down was having a little sister. While she didn’t live up to the hype earlier on, now at 5 she will be read to and will let him teach her stuff. I remember once when she was just walking we went to the zoo. A bird crossed the path in front of us and Tommie squealed in delight. Teddy proceeded to explain something to her as she watched the bird. He jumped up and and announced that he couldn’t wait to be a teacher. Now he thinks that kids his age are too thick to learn anything. So, at ten we are having to teach Teddy to understand that while he would like to absorb any kids book about American history other kids are playing games and could care less. It doesn’t make them less. But grandmother will talk any topic with him. Tommie is such an anti-mimic that she refuses to copy anyone do anything. But she will watch and then just do, like she has always been able to do. She does puzzles by shape, not by picture. She cannot teach me how she does it so I just watch. When I asked if she was ready to try the piano she said that was Teddy’s thing so she couldn’t. While longer to talk and learn numbers and letters I can see that its not a Matter of not knowing, it more a case of not wanting to perform for others. Now at the end of pre-K she has jumped the broom so to speak and Knows what every thing is, even if she could recognize what letter or number she was looking at. Now she is is solidly in the pre-reading group. I think because Teddy is the “performer” the adults didn’t understand what was going on with Tommie. She is different. Each kid is. They have their own “thing”. We cant give it to them sometimes we have to get out of the way. Just pay attention and offer help where we can. Thanks for letting me run on. I always discover something when I read the newsletter. Oh, by the way Teddy took piano so he could learn to read music so he could play the bagpipe, which he is learning to do now. Yes, I am the one who takes him to lessons. It’s granny’s fault.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing your observations on your grandchildren, Betsy! Yes, each child is so unique and it’s such a blessing to be able to watch them grow and learn.

Bee

says:

This is exactly what I needed to be reminded of today – thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re so welcome, Bee! I’m very glad this was timely for you.

Sally Javier

says:

Excellent information!

Marilee Cannia

says:

Great advice! Thank you for sharing this – I really helps to be reminded of this. My grandchildren have made amazing progress this year but on a daily basis it’s easy to lose sight. AAR is wonderful reading program!

Christine Danielewicz

says:

Do you think this is why there are so many students in schools who are reading below “grade level”?
The curriculum keeps moving them along regardless of whether or not they have fully grasped the material. Teachers feel pressured to keep going in order to get kids ready for end-of-the-year testing.
As an English language development specialist, I always want to take time during class to thoroughly discuss vocabulary and concepts with my international students so that they really know them. We often cover a fraction of what they have to do for their regular classes. I don’t want to hold them back, but I don’t want them to constantly have to rush through a packet of reading or spelling material or projects for science or social studies without really understanding what they are reading and writing about. Sometimes I feel it’s better to cover less so that we can learn more.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great thoughts, Christine. It is so important to teach children where they are at until they master the material. I do think the curse of knowledge can play a part in students not having success with learning, but I know that the issue is far more complex than that as well.

Kory

says:

Great advice!

Josie Gonzalez

says:

This has been very helpful. I will have to put this in a place where I can see it daily. It is true once you become a good reader, we tend to forget the why. All about reading helps me teach my children the why behind being a good reader. Thank you for this post.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Josie.