12 August 2014

On the Curse of Knowledge

"It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They're all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it's hard to imagine what it's like not to know something that you do know."
(Steven Pinker, 9 June 2014)
In some measure, the curse of knowledge is the dark side of threshold concepts. Not of course that all knowledge comes into that category by any means, but TCs are where people get stuck, and hence where the curse of knowledge is most potent.

One respect in which knowledge can be troublesome, according to Perkins (2006), emerges when it is irreversible; once you know how to read (any given script, of course) it is impossible not to read. And correspondingly difficult to imagine what it is like to be unable to read. (It is a salutory exercise to take a piece of writing in an unfamiliar script such as cyrillic or arabic, together with a crib sheet, and just to try and sound it out—never mind the sense.)

And of course the curse of knowledge is especially problematic for teachers, because they need to see the world to a certain extent through their students' eyes, and to understand their ignorance. It's generally considered to be bad practice—and of course it is—but we have all at some time or another had to teach something we are not very familiar with. In its most extreme form it is a matter of keeping one chapter ahead of the students in the textbook. And just sometimes it works remarkably well, because you can recall yesterday when you too were wrestling with where to put what in double-entry book-keeping...

In my very early days in further education, I remember a conversation in the canteen when an older colleague posed the question whether it was possible to know your subject too well to be able to teach it effectively.  And of course it is. Willingham (see here) points out that the expert does not learn or use their knowledge in the same way as the novice—that is one reason why it does not make sense to teach "thinking skills" in the absence of a knowledge base on which to exercise them.

But it is our job to get alongside the novice and first to understand how he sees the world, in order to alter that understanding. And that is where knowledge is a curse.

Or a handicap*. We expect and encourage students to overcome their handicaps; without getting too airy-fairy about this, we can learn through overcoming our own.

See also: Wieman C (2007) "The “Curse of Knowledge,” or Why Intuition About Teaching Often Fails" APS News November 2007 (Volume 16, Number 10)

Perkins D. (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, pp.33-47. London; Routledge

* PC alert!  The current rhetoric deprecates "handicap", but here it is the best term I can think of. Think of it in respect of sport, and racing in particular.

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