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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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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!

N.E.G.

says:

Extremely helpful! Thank you!

rebecca truppi

says:

Very helpful post. Thanks for sharing!

Maja

says:

Great tips!

Laura DP

says:

Very good article. It’s important to reflect on our communication skills as educators. This is true with some of the language we use to communicate as well as the knowledge we are trying to transmit. I will occasionally catch myself using idiom or a phrase that is not familiar to my students and realizing I have to explain in a more straightforward way. Thankfully, because two of my own children are on the autism spectrum, I am used to using more concrete and literal language in order to communicate ideas.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing this, Laura. Very helpful.

EuGina

says:

I never realized this until now! It all makes sense. Now I am at least more aware of this ‘ curse of knowledge’ and I can help myself work on this.

Morgan

says:

I enjoyed reading this post about the curse of knowledge. I feel that I will be able to apply some of what I learned into my preschool classroom.

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