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. The nurse running the class, who was kind and knowledgeable and 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.
Assume People Don’t Know
The nurse spoke about several sleeping devices, but didn’t describe them, show photos, or ask us if we were familiar with them. For instance, she said:
“Nowadays, everyone is using Rock and Plays, but the problem with those is…”.
Now, I had no idea what a Rock and Play was, so I couldn’t grasp the problems she was describing. Mary wasn’t sure either. We looked it up on our phones. The people behind us asked to see the photo we found (so 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.
Is it possible that none of the parents-to-be in the room knew what a Rock and Play was? 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.
It’s safer to assume that no one knows, and then check that assumption. Make learners prove they know, not volunteer that they don’t know.
Phrase The Question Carefully
A classic mistake would be to ask: “Does everyone know what [name of thing] is?” Remember, as a student, no one wants to look stupid, so everyone just stares 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. 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 in [the thing], one finger (no not that finger, Billy) if you have no idea what it even is. Three means you’re in the middle.” You’ll get much more useful feedback about where your learners are at.
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).
Instead! Give the directions and then ask Billy: “Billy, can you summarize what we’re going to do in our groups.” Thank him and ask another student. Ask one more. Then tell the whole class, “Raise your hands if you know EXACTLY what to do in your groups.” This stitch in time will save you nine.
It 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.
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 not clarifying bad teaching. It’s our job to be vigilant, to monitor what our 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 we still weren’t brave enough to stop the teacher and clarify every confusing point.
Our attitudes cannot be: “Come ask me if you need help.” Your kids who most the need help will be the least likely to ask. It’s scary to ask the teacher to re-explain every lesson.
I once heard a secondary math teacher proudly trumpet that he only helps kids who ask for help, since that’s what “the real world” is like. What a horrible attitude.
What She Did Right
Rather than waiting for students to come to us when they’re confused (because they won’t), we must seek them out. We must actively hunt for confusion and stomp it out.
That’s exactly what the nurse did when we learned infant CPR. Not only did she explain how to to do it, she demonstrated it on a doll. We also watched a video on it. Then we 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 student.
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? I’d imagine that the CPR section was carefully planned out with other hospital staff, while the rest was improvised.
Let’s not improvise our lessons.
How do you battle The Curse of Knowledge and check for understanding with your students? Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or @IanAByrd.
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