Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Curse of Knowledge and Knowledge Rankism in the Classroom

curse of knowledge
The "curse of knowledge" describes an unfortunate side-effect of acquiring knowledge and expertise: your ability to teach others about what you know is hindered by your inability to remember what it was like not to possess that knowledge.

In fact, it is nearly impossible for the expert to imagine the mindset of a beginner. Which is why horrible teachers and communicators abound.

A person in possession of full knowledge of a subject sees the entire landscape of his understanding. But he can rarely pass on that understanding in a consistently effective way using simple, jargon-free language that anticipates the inevitable problems that beginners will experience.

The curse of knowledge can afflict individuals and entire organizations. How else to explain multi-billion dollar corporations that release user manuals that are poorly written and rammed full of assumptions? Poor documentation for products costs companies countless millions of dollars in customer support every year and results in customers seeing those products in a negative light. When a customer looks at a user manual that is confusing, he immediately assumes that the product is confusing as well.

The Tune is Already Playing in Your Head

In the book Made to Stick, the authors describe a psychology experiment that perfectly illustrates the curse of knowledge. In the experiment, participants were assigned as either "tappers" or "listeners." The tappers were given a list of well-known songs and asked to tap out the song on the edge of a table using only their fingers.

The listeners were asked to guess what songs were being tapped. The tappers predicted that the listeners would easily be able to name the songs that were being tapped. But in most cases, not surprisingly, the listeners couldn't correctly indicate what songs were being tapped.

This demonstrates another important characteristic of the curse of knowledge: we overestimate our ability to pass on information in an effective way. We gloss over ideas we think are simplistic but really aren't. We want to get to what we feel is the meat of the subject—that which actually interests us most, as relative experts—long after we have mastered the basics which are still a mystery to beginners.

So this experiment is a perfect example of the curse of knowledge and highlights its two main features: 1) we can't empathize with beginners when we are experts, and 2) we assume that our expertise in a subject somehow imbues us with an innate ability to teach others about that subject.

The experiment also provides a perfect tag line that sums up the curse of knowledge and can be a strong reminder of it when you are in a teaching situation: remember that the tune is already playing in your head.

The Curse of Knowledge Has a Sister

Inherent in the curse of knowledge is another closely related concept: rankism. The list of things that humans use to compare themselves favourably to others is exhaustive: income, appearance, education level, choice of products, which sports team they support, musical tastes and on and on.

In fact, I challenge you to go through a single day with this idea in mind and marvel at just how many utterances contain some form of rankism. It's inescapable. And I don't mean to suggest that this is some sinister habit—though often it can be in its most extreme form.

Having knowledge that others don't have is one of the  most common ways that people use to elevate themselves. Am I suggesting that a teacher in the classroom can actually feel a sense of superiority over his students for understanding material that his students can't instantly grasp? Yes, absolutely!

I do believe that this "knowledge rankism" negatively affects many teachers. In one of the most cringe-worthy spectacles I have ever witnessed, a young woman conducting a teaching demonstration unloaded on one of her fellow classmates (he was one of the "students" for the purpose of the demonstration) for daring not to instantly understand a point she was trying to make. She eventually raised her voice and said, "how can you not understand this?"

Usually it not as brazen as that, but knowledge rankism in the classroom can take other forms. Many times it will come to the surface in body language or facial expressions that say, "how can you be so stupid?" Often, teachers favour students who pick up on new information faster. Recognizing different levels of students is normal, and better students can help to facilitate learning for weaker students. But when this two-tiered treatment is obvious to students, it can be toxic.

Extreme Knowledge Rankism

If there is some kind of viscerally positive feeling that people get from having one up on others through superior knowledge, does this suggest that a teacher would try to maintain that state of affairs by sabotaging the learning process? No—regardless of how this often subconscious behaviour affects a teacher, to take things to such an extreme would suggest a psychopath or at least someone who doesn't want to remain a teacher much longer.

Of course, the best teachers, whether or not they are conscious of these notions, instinctively engage in just the opposite kinds of behaviour.

How to Avoid the Curse of Knowledge

One way to avoid the curse of knowledge and knowledge rankism in the classroom is to give the appropriate amount of time to all topics, even ones you may have previously classified as "easy" or "simple." In fact, avoid designators like that altogether.

When a student hears that something is easy but subsequently has trouble with it, her confidence can be negatively affected. She sees others catching on quickly and starts to question her own learning ability. If this happens to her often enough, the mere mention of a supposedly simple idea can make her brace for the worst.

The curse of knowledge and knowledge rankism can combine to create a frustrating and unproductive situation in the classroom. Being aware of them can help you to analyze your actions while teaching, better structure your lessons, and empathize with students.

More About the Curse of Knowledge

I also write about the curse of knowledge here.


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