How can knowledge be a curse? The term is used by psychologists to refer to the human condition wherein once we know something, or how to do something, it is impossible to re-experience what it was like to be ignorant of it. The result is that we tend to overestimate how common the knowledge is that we now possess, or how easy it is to be able to perform the activity we now know how to do. This curse of knowledge tends to leave us assuming learners know particular things that we now consider basic yet the learners have yet to grasp. Learner may be confused by our instruction, which leaves out important information assumed to be “common knowledge,” and we may be frustrated by the learner’s apparent inability to perform at a level we assume to be appropriate.
To circumvent the curse of knowledge you could develop the habit of asking learners what they know about the topic or ability at hand, before providing instruction or guidance that is based on the response. Be sure to ask the question openly: “Describe for me what you know about X,” rather than, “Do you know about X?” The latter is likely to elicit a “yes” response, either out of a sense of performance pressure or because the learner does not recognize what they don’t know about X.
Another approach to address the curse of knowledge is to consistently start your teaching or demonstrating at a bit lower level than you naturally would. If it seems to you that your starting point is a bit too basic, you likely are starting at an appropriate place. If it turns out to be a bit below the actual knowledge or ability of the learner, the worst case may be simply that the learner feels somewhat reassured in their recognition of a baseline level of competence. What might you do a little differently now that you’re aware of the curse of knowledge?
Michael Wiederman is a professor and the Director of Leadership and Professional Development and the Co-Director of Family Medicine Faculty Development Fellowship in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
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