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Frustrated at Teaching or Being Taught Something at Work?

Perhaps you're a victim of the curse of knowledge.

Key points

  • The curse of knowledge refers to the innate assumption that others know things, or how to do things, that come easily for us now.
  • The curse of knowledge may leave both teachers and learners frustrated over a disconnect during their interactions.
  • Awareness of the curse of knowledge affords us the opportunity to be intentional in working around it.

Have you ever been frustrated when trying to teach someone something, or when someone is trying to teach you? Perhaps it was most noticeable when you were needing to be taught something at work, or you were helping someone new. Perhaps you were having an IT problem and being guided through the steps to resolve it. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s likely that you were a victim of the curse of knowledge.

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 or unable to do 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 teachers assuming learners know things that the teacher now considers basic, common knowledge yet the learner has yet to grasp. Going back to our example of help from someone in IT, because those folks are relative experts on the systems they’re helping us with, we are often left feeling lost or stupid for not being able to follow instructions that seem so simple to them (and they may be feeling frustrated with us).

What can we do about it?

To circumvent the curse of knowledge, you could develop the habit of starting with 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.

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 about when you are on the learning end of the interaction? Hopefully, knowing about the curse of knowledge provides you permission to slow down the process and ask specific questions. And, rather than listen or watch and assume you learned something, insist on trying it yourself when the other person is present to provide guidance as needed.

What might you do a little differently now that you’re aware of the curse of knowledge? At the very least, you now can teach others about the phenomenon, regardless of whether you are teaching or being taught.

More from Michael W Wiederman Ph.D.
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