The Curse of Knowledge - Paper Planes Class. Illustration by Fidel Fernando.

The Curse of Knowledge

Do you ever feel that what you know is already known by everyone else? As though whatever you could say would be to state the obvious?

You may be afflicted by The Curse of Knowledge.

Believe it or not, there was a time when you were not able to multiply two numbers together, or drive a car, or be able to pronounce the word ‘sesquipedalian’ without stammering. Do you remember what that was like? Do you really?

This gift of being able to empathise accurately with your noob self is — in my humble and possibly naive opinion — extraordinarily difficult. If you had this gift (or probably more precisely, skill), then the task of teaching would be so much easier.

For example, as a web developer person/guy/bipede, I know a little bit about web development. A few years ago, I was showing someone a simple website I’d built and they were genuinely impressed. “You built that? Wow!”

I didn’t immediately understand the reaction. To me, it was akin to showing your colleague a simple Word document you’d typed up and getting a sincere “You made that? Wow!” reaction.

It was simply not something I’d considered as difficult or impressive.

Upon reflection, I had been affected by The Curse. Not everyone knows how HTTP works, or what Heroku does. All this info is embedded in my mushy brain software, but it’s hard to consistently recall that not everyone knows what I know.

Perhaps this is why peer-based learning is effective in many circumstances. If you’re a student being taught by a senile professor whose examples reference 80s pop culture, then the example with Drake lyrics that your friend shared might be more useful to your learning.

Whenever I’m teaching or explaining something, I try to remind myself about the context and to look at things from their point of view — they may not know what you know! So remember to break down any assumptions!

To help avoid The Curse, I look for acronyms (e.g. would a new undergrad student know what HDR means?) and also to teach through analogies (although, analogies don’t always work perfectly). Another tip is to know your audience better — so find out more about what they already know!

What are your strategies for dealing with The Curse of Knowledge?

Feature illustration by Fidel Fernando

4 thoughts on “The Curse of Knowledge”

  1. Good post Arun. I think a key starting point is defining terms or even common words. Some times we use a certain word assuming people know its context/meaning, but its understood completely differently! ( hope you know what i mean! :P)

    1. Totally. Otherwise you’ll get scenarios like one person thinking HDR mean “High Dynamic Range” and another “Higher Degree Research”!

    1. Thanks Alana 🙂 You’re right — it’s particularly true with kids. I’ve heard stories of kids asking why the save button has a strange icon (a floppy disk), why phones make that funny noise when you take photos (the sound of a shutter closing), or why physical books don’t turn pages when you swipe across the front cover as they do on an iPad!

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