I’ve written about the Curse of Knowledge before and think it’s one of the most dangerous traps in teaching:
Once you know something, it’s impossible to remember what it’s like not to know it.
I experienced the Curse of Knowledge as a learner recently when Mary and I took an infant safety class as we prepared for our child to be born. The nurse running the class, who was kind and funny and knowledgeable and certainly cared about infants, fell into the trap of assuming we understood things just because she understood them.
Here’s what makes The Curse really insidious: learners will not raise their hands and say, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” No one wants to look like they’re stupid, so no one asks. Then the teacher assumes that, since no one asked, everyone must get it.
It’s a nasty cycle.
Instead: Assume That People Don’t Know
The nurse spoke about several sleeping devices, but didn’t describe them, show photos, or check if we were familiar with them. For instance, she said:
“Nowadays, everyone is using Rock and Plays, but the problem with those is…”.
I had no idea what a Rock and Play was, so I couldn’t understand any of the problems she was describing. Mary wasn’t sure either.
We looked the term up on our phones. The people seated behind us noticed this and asked to see what we found. So obviously they didn’t know what a Rock and Play was either.
All of this happened while the nurse was talking about the pros and cons of Rock and Plays!
Now, is it possible that none of the parents-to-be in the room knew were familiar with Rock and Plays? We will never know because the teacher didn’t check for understanding and no one raised their hand to admit they didn’t know something.
As a teacher, it’s safer to assume that no one knows and then check that assumption. Make learners prove they know. Don’t guess. Don’t assume.
Phrase The Question Carefully
But the way we phrase a check-for-understanding is critical.
A classic mistake would be to phrase it like this:
“Does everyone know what [name of thing] is?”
This makes it seem like everyone should all already know. Remember, no student (even a grownup student) wants to look stupid, so everyone will just stare back. Then the teacher gets a false sense of the room: “Ah, no one said anything so they must all know it.”
Instead, ask it this way:
“Raise your hand if you know exactly what [name of thing] is.”
People are much more comfortable not raising their hands. And if you do know, it’s a chance to proudly show that you know. As a teacher, you’ll get a better sense of what people know and don’t know.
Better yet, ask for fingers: “We’re going to discuss [name of thing]. Show me one through five fingers: five if you’re an expert on this, one finger (no not that finger, Billy) if you have no idea what it even is. Three means you’re in the middle.”
Check The Directions
These checks for understanding are especially important when we give multi-step directions!
When the nurse told us to get into a group to complete a task, the first thing we said in our group was: “Wait, what are we supposed to do?” I think this happens all the time in classrooms (it definitely did in my classroom).
The nurse did not check that we understood the directions. Instead, she assumed that because she understood her directions, we understood the directions. We have to remember that just because we said it, doesn’t mean they learned it.
Instead! Give the directions and then say to Billy: “Billy, can you summarize what we’re going to do in our groups?” Thank him. Then ask another student the same question. Ask one more. Seriously. Then ask your whole class to tell their partner the first step we’re going to do. Maybe they can say it in a robot voice or a whisper voice.
This sounds ridiculous, but it will clear up so much confusion and save you so much time. No more re-explaining, no more half-correct work. It’ll take time up-front, but save you time throughout the day.
This works with homework directions also! Reserve ten minutes at the end of the day to make absolutely certain that everyone completely understands their assignments. I was amazed at how taking this extra time improved my students’ homework return rate. Why didn’t Billy bring his homework back? Well, it turns out he never wrote it down. Or he wrote only half of it down. And I never checked. 🤦♂️
We must check for understanding more often than we think we should. Remember, since we already know it, it naturally seems kinda obvious. That’s The Curse!
But Why Didn’t You Ask!?
Somewhere, someone is crying, “But why didn’t you ask for help? You must be responsible for your own learning!”
We cannot blame students for bad teaching. It’s the teacher’s job to be vigilant, to monitor what students know and don’t know. I mean, I sat in a room of adults who voluntarily attended (and paid for) a class to help keep their babies alive, and no one was brave enough to stop the teacher and clarify the confusing points.
Our attitudes, as teachers, cannot be, “Come ask me if you need help.” Your kids who most need the help will be the least likely to ask. It’s scary to ask the teacher to re-explain, even as a grown-up.
What She Did Right
Rather than waiting for all of our students to come to us when they’re confused (because they won’t), we must seek them out pre-emptively. We must actively hunt for confusion and stomp it out.
And that’s exactly what the nurse did when we learned infant CPR. Not only did she explain how to do it, but she also demonstrated it on a doll. Then we then watched a video. Then we all partnered up.
- Every person performed CPR on the doll.
- Every person watched their partner perform CPR.
- We repeated this twice.
- The nurse came around and gave feedback to every person in the class.
No one could possibly have gotten out of that experience without understanding CPR. The teacher made sure of it. This experience was powerful and memorable. I walked away feeling confident that I knew how to perform CPR.
Why didn’t she do that for the rest of the class? My hunch? The CPR section was carefully planned out with other hospital staff while the rest of the course was improvised.
Let’s not improvise our lessons. That is fertile ground for The Curse of Knowledge to take over!