Teaching Strategies

The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About

A side shot of a young female teacher in glasses and a green shirt looking out of a window.

Knowledge is a curse. Knowing things isn't bad itself, but it causes unhealthy assumptions -- such as forgetting how hard it was to learn those things in the first place. It's called the Curse of Knowledge.

In this post, we'll identify how the Curse of Knowledge affects educators. Then we'll outline seven ways to alleviate the curse. The ultimate goal is to improve instruction.

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge has been variously described in articles by Chip and Dan Heath, Carmen Nobel, and Steven Pinker, and also in books such as The Sense of Style and Made to Stick. It has been applied to a variety of domains: child development, economics, and technology are just a few.

All of the resources describe the same phenomena -- that a strong base of content knowledge makes us blind to the lengthy process of acquiring it. This curse has implications for all teachers:

  •     We do not remember what it is like to not know what we are trying to teach.
  •     We cannot relive the difficult and lengthy process that learning our content originally took.

As a result, we end up assuming that our lesson's content is easy, clear, and straightforward. We assume that connections are apparent and will be made effortlessly. Assumptions are the root cause of poor instruction. And acknowledgment is the first step to recovery.

Lifting the Curse

Here are seven ways to make learning easier for your students.

1. Emotion

Barbara Fredrickson, a champion in the field of positive psychology, has studied the effects of mild positive emotions on desired cognitive traits like attentiveness and ability to creatively solve problems. In what she coined the broaden-and-build theory, Fredrickson found that pleasant and mild emotional arousal before experiencing content leads to greater retention. A quick joke or humorous movie can serve as the positive emotional stimulant. So learning is easier and the Curse of Knowledge is potentially circumnavigated when injecting a bit of emotion into your lesson.

2. Multi-Sensory Lessons

Though Howard Gardner's influential work states that we each have a preferred learning modality, new research highlights the fact that effective lessons need not be unisensory (only kinesthetic, only auditory, etc.) but multi-sensory. Multi-sensory experiences activate and ignite more of the brain, leading to greater retention. So use a multisensory approach in your lessons to make learning easier.

3. Spacing

Blocked practice is ancient and is no longer considered best practice. An example of blocked practice is cramming. Though it feels like learning, blocked practice results in learning that is shallow, and the connections quickly fade. The preferred alternative is the opposite of blocked practice: spaced practice.

Exposing yourself to content and requiring your brain to recall previously learned concepts at spaced intervals (hours, days, weeks, or months) makes the content sticky and results in deeper retention with solid neural connections. As spaced practice is the way that you learned the content you teach, it makes sense to employ the same technique with your students. So thinking of your content as a cycle that is frequently revisited makes learning easier for your students while helping alleviate the curse.

For more information on spacing content, check out Make It Stick or 3 Things Experts Say Make A Perfect Study Session.

4. Narratives

Everyone loves a great story because our ancestral past was full of them. Stories were the dominant medium to transmit information. They rely on our innate narcissistic self to be effective learning tools -- we enjoy stories because we immediately inject ourselves into the story, considering our own actions and behavior when placed in the situations being described. This is how we mentally make connections, and if students are listening to a story interlaced with content, they're more likely to connect with the ideas. So connecting with content through a story is at the heart of learning and can help alleviate the stress associated with the Curse of Knowledge.

5. Analogies and Examples

An analogy is a comparison of different things that are governed by the same underlying principles. If understanding a process is what we're after, looking at the result of the process proves informative. An analogy compares two unlike things by investigating a similar process that produces both. Said differently, an analogy highlights a connection, and forming connections is at the core of learning.

Whereas an analogy compares similar processes that result in different products, an example highlights different processes that result in similar products. Copious use of examples forces the brain to scan its knowledge inventory, making desirable connections as it scans. So learning is easier when analogies and examples are used to facilitate mental connections.

6. Novelty

New challenges ignite the risk-reward dopamine system in our brains. Novel activities are interesting because dopamine makes us feel accomplished after succeeding. Something that is novel is interesting, and something interesting is learned more easily because it is attended to. So emphasis on the new and exciting aspects of your content could trip the risk-reward system and facilitate learning.

7. Teach Facts

Conceptual knowledge in the form of facts is the scaffolding for the synthesis of new ideas. In other words, you cannot make new ideas with out having old ideas. Disseminating facts as the only means to educate your students is wrong and not encouraged. However, awareness that background knowledge is important to the creation of new ideas is vital for improving instruction. Prior knowledge acts as anchors for new incoming stimuli. When reflecting on the ability of analogies and examples to facilitate connections, it is important to remember that the connections need to be made to already existing knowledge. So providing your students with background knowledge is a prerequisite in forming connections and can make their learning easier.

Making It Easier

The Curse of Knowledge places all of our students at a disadvantage. As educators, it's not enough to simply recognize that we are unable to remember the struggle of learning. We need to act. By incorporating facts, highlighting novelty, liberally utilizing examples and analogies, cycling our content, telling content-related stories, making our lesson multi-sensory, and harnessing the power of emotion, we can make learning easier for our students.