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The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About

Christopher Reddy

The change to improve instruction starts with relevant resources. I write to hold myself accountable for what I learn.
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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.

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Christopher Reddy

The change to improve instruction starts with relevant resources. I write to hold myself accountable for what I learn.

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mike's picture

Oh please give me the curse of knowledge! I can adjust my lessons accordingly. :)

Marie Ugorek's picture

I ran into this when working with a teacher who planned art activities that were WAY above the level of the children we were teaching. She had worked for years with upper-middle class preschoolers, most of that time in mixed-age (birth-elementary) home daycare. I had worked mostly with very-low income preschoolers in 3-5-year-old classroom with volunteer work with infants through upper elementary. We were teaching a class of mostly-low-middle-income 2-year-olds. She suggested a "simple project" of making pictures of apple trees involving painting in one color with hands, letting it dry, painting in another color with sponges, letting it dry, coloring a strip of paper with crayons, and gluing the paper strip to the painted paper. She was floored by how different the execution and results were from what she expected--I had to break it down by which pieces of knowledge the children needed to have obtained to do the project--

The basic structure of an apple tree (leaves on top, trunk vertically on the bottom. Paint on your hands transfers to things you touch. Paint on a sponge transfers to what you touch. Paint on your hands can be washed off easily. Paint on some other surfaces is harder to wash off. If there is not enough paint on the sponge, dip it in the paint cup. Paint that is not dry will mix with paints of another color to make a third color. Once this occurs, you can't separate the paint into its original colors. I can make paper look different by putting paint on it. Glue is sticky. Glue that gets on your fingers can easily be washed off. Glue that gets on other surfaces might be harder to wash off. Glue only sticks papers together if it is BETWEEN the layers of paper. To color on a piece of paper with some control, hold the paper onto the table with one hand and move the crayon on the paper with the other hand. If you want the crayon to leave a mark on the paper, you must both press down on the crayon AND move it around--at the same time. To get the glue between layers of paper, either put the glue on the large piece of paper then place the smaller piece of paper on top of the glue--not just anywhere on the paper, but on top of the glue. Or, you can flip the small piece of paper over, put glue on the back, and flip it over again to stick it to the larger paper. Once glue dries, you can't move the pieces you have glued without ripping them. Crayon is not erasable. Paint is not erasable. Crayons, paint, glue, and paper, are not food; don't eat them. Crayons, paint, glue, and paper are not fashion accessories; don't put them on your body.

My co-teacher had been dealing with children whose families had time and education enough to have covered the basics of arts and crafts with their kids--or at least with their older siblings and friends--so they had come into her classroom KNOWING these things. So she had assumed ALL kids that age did, while I had spent enough time around children who didn't know these things at age 4 that I was able to see the complexity. When I am planning lessons or training volunteers, now, I try to use this incident as a reminder to ask myself, "What basic knowledge and skills do my students need to complete this activity?" "What knowledge base do my student have?" "To what extend is the process of learning the basic knowledge likely to distract from my students' ability to learn the skills and knowledge which is the goal of the activity." "To what extent can students with greater skills/knowledge support those with a gap in their skills/knowledge during this activity?" "What activities can/must be done prior to the desired activity to enable my students to successfully complete and benefit from the activity I am considering?" "Is it possible to adjust this activity to better fit my students' skill/knowledge set?"

John R Schuh's picture

One thing not brought up in the article is the amount of misconceptions and falsehoods that kinds bring to your classroom, or at least what I considered to be such. If the students were emotionally attached to the source of this idea, he/she was not open to discussion. You have to respect that, and not expect him or her to be open. Prejudice is a strong thing, and once established his hard to break. New or contrary ideas are resisted. Formulae committed to heart are usually preferred to an understanding of how the formula came to be. this is especially of students in math classes. Not that the task is beyond even the average student.It is that few teachers have any real grasp of the fundaments of their subject. This is especially true of elementary teachers.

O.A. Muhammad's picture

This is good stuff using it will enhance our presentation. Master teachers are already using most of these proven modalities.

tommcd's picture

We have subject matter experts a plenty. What is very rare are transfer agents. This is a direct result of 20th century pedagogy

DanYHKim's picture

I just completed my first semester as a classroom instructor (part time, temporary Chemistry at a community college). What a strange experience! I learned a few things about myself, and I am afraid that I was ineffective for the students.

Part of the problem was certainly a 'curse of knowledge'. Things that I was able to pick up when I learned Chemistry were almost insurmountable obstacles for my students. I had been interested in science since childhood, and my parents gifted us with many resources, including prioritizing nature and science shows on TV, subscribing to Time-Life books, going to the library, etc. My students, on the other hand, had not been immersed either in science or even in learning as children.
I found myself having to simultaneously teach Chemistry, Learning and basic math at the same time: a juggling act that was beyond my ability. This was coupled with my characteristic tendency to distance myself from people (that's why I got into science in the first place), and my growing frustration and anger with the students. It was a disaster.
I will probably decline to teach again at this level, as I am a poor fit for this kind of work.

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