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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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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.

Kathleen Salter

says:

Very good advice, especially working with struggling learners.

Heather Stone

says:

I think the curse of knowledge is one of the major intimidators for homeschool parents. The other one is fear of not knowing enough. I struggle with both.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I understand, Heather, and have known both fears. It works out, though!

Crissi Padrick

says:

I didn’t know there was an actual term for this phenomenon! I have witnessed this happen in many areas of my life and also projected it on others as well. Thanks for opening my eyes to see how to get past the curse of knowledge.

Dawn Monzu

says:

Before I decided to homeschool my children, I had a hard time helping my son do any of his homework. However, once I made the commitment to teach them at home, I made up my mind to approach him in his own way of learning. His way is different than his sister’s way was. That changed everything and helped out so much!

Jenny

says:

Wonderful information. I had never looked at it that way before.

Joy

says:

This was very helpful for me – thank you

Paula V.

says:

This is very good to be aware of, thank you! Sometimes when I’m doing tasks, or making decisions, I “think out loud” so my children can be aware of the steps that aren’t usually obvious; like the missing ladder rungs on another of your blog posts.

Lorri

says:

Thank you for this post!

Sierra

says:

What great information you share with us.

Dana

says:

Thank you for this post and suggestions in it.

Crystal

says:

I have this problem especially with teaching math and spelling. Both come easy to me. So, sometimes I find myself rushing through a lesson. I need to remember to watch for cues from my children.

Mannu Vadivel Srinivasan

says:

I completely agree with the issue of ‘curse of knowledge’. This I frequently come across when I want to teach my children Tamil, my mother tongue or Mathematics. I train hundreds of social studies teachers every year but I could not work with my did on social studies course that is he is doing.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes, the curse of knowledge can be a difficulty in teaching, Mannu. I have seen it to be worse with those that find a certain subject easy. It seems those that struggled to learn a subject, like someone that found math hard, will have less trouble with the curse of knowledge.

Jennie

says:

Thank you for this. I too suffer from the curse of knowledge.

AnnMarie

says:

Ha- I love this! I definitely tend to skip around when I think lessons seem easy. A good reminder to slow. I also love the picture of respecting your child’s funnel. So good!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’ve done the same at times, AnnMarie, and more than once it surprised me that my students had trouble with what I thought was so easy. Everyone learns differently.

Kate

says:

Interesting article. Thanks for the reminder to see knowledge from the child/ students perspective.

Vicki V. Lucas

says:

Great tips! Thanks

Rena

says:

I find myself struggling with this at times. Thank you for sharing these tips!

Catharina Gillam

says:

Oh man… I struggle with this! It’s helpful to know that I’m not alone and that I don’t struggle with this because I’m a bad mom/teacher. Thank you for the concrete steps to combat the “Curse of Knowledge.” I’m especially going to work on being mindful of the “funnel” as I tend to always think that “more is better!”

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Catharina,
You are definitely not alone with this problem! Even after years of teaching, I still find myself staring into what I call, “the question look” on young faces. As soon as I see that certain, “I don’t get it” look, I know to immediately back up!

Shalonda W

says:

I am thankful for great curriculum like AAS that had helped me with this issue.

AJ Eubanks

says:

This was truly convicting. I had a moment with my son today as I could tell he was waiting for me to get frustrated. I gently told him we would work through it together and that I was not frustrated with him, I just want to help him the best way I can.

Homeschooling is hard. But it’s a humbling experience! It’s hard to see it where they are coming from when you know they are only struggling “under pressure”. I definitely need to do a better job of this daily. Thank you for those 5 steps!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Homeschool IS hard and humbling, AJ! I often feel that I am learning right along with my children, although what I learn isn’t always the same thing that they learn. Have grace with yourself as well as with your student.

april

says:

I love that step one is empathy. Thankful for the reminder to encourage first, teach second

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

April,
Yes. Empathy should probably be the first step of any undertaking with children, or any people really!

Brenda Planalp

says:

I love the “respect your child’s funnel ” suggestion!