The curse of knowledge is the name given to a cognitive bias which causes people to unknowingly assume that others know what they know. This bias can make it difficult for experts to communicate with others who know less about their field.
In teaching contexts, it is sometimes cited as a reason why the most knowledgeable experts in a field often make worse teachers than those who are merely competent.
I’ve heard this argument made a lot in reference to teaching computer programming. For another example, see Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times, “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach”.
Using Albert Einstein as an example of a expert who was a dismal teacher, Grant advises learners to seek teachers who have learned a topic recently, and ones who struggled before mastering a skill, rather than those with natural talent for it.
The article cites some really interesting research about what happens when former business school professors take over businesses, and I like the suggestion about creating separate tenure tracks at universities for teachers and researchers. Where it goes wrong is by treating the curse of knowledge like an insurmountable obstacle. It advises learners to seek non-expert teachers, but offers no advice for how teachers can overcome the curse of knowledge.
Experts can be great teachers
In my own experience, I have witnessed software engineers with much more experience than me teaching programming and thought I could do a better job, even when I was a mere year out from graduating from my code bootcamp. I also taught an introductory Elixir workshop and got great feedback from the attendees, despite being a beginner at Elixir myself. So I agree that non-experts can teach well, and often teach better than some experts do. However, I do not think it’s inevitable at all.
I’ve seen plenty of expert engineers who are wonderful teachers. What they had in common was that they had a true passion for teaching and had put serious time into developing their teaching skills, whereas the engineers who were less successful at teaching had not. They did not recognize that good teaching requires more than just knowing the subject matter.
Similarly, what made my Elixir workshop a success wasn’t the fact that I was a beginner, but the fact that I taught ESL for four years before I became a software developer. I learned to deliberately think about what my students do know, what I want them to know, and how to bridge the gap between the two, a skill which helped me teach Elixir despite my lack of expertise. If I were an expert at Elixir programming, it still would have been a good workshop (in fact, it would have been better), because those things would have still been true.
It’s about interest
I like the way Philip Sadler, director of the Science Education department at Harvard University, put it, as quoted in an article about why it’s important for teachers to know and understand their students’ misconceptions:
Teachers who find their kids’ ideas fascinating are just better teachers than teachers who find the subject matter fascinating.
I like this explanation because it’s about teachers’ interest, not their ability. The experts who fail at teaching fail not because they are experts, but because they are uninterested in how people learn and haven’t put in the effort to develop their teaching. They are focused on the subject matter itself, not the best way to make it comprehensible to the students. Non-experts have an advantage because, having learned the subject more recently, they have more empathy for the learners’ perspective, giving them an instinct for explaining concepts in a beginner-friendly way.
Experts may not have the same instinct, but they can still be excellent teachers, as long as they are interested in their learners’ perspective. They can and should be fascinated by the subject matter, but while they are in the classroom, they should be more fascinated by their learners’ ideas.
In the Times article, Grant wrote this about the star professors he encountered as an undergrad at Harvard:
It wasn’t that they didn’t care about teaching. It was that they knew too much about their subject, and had mastered it too long ago, to relate to my ignorance about it.
Of course they cared about learning in the sense that they wanted their students to succeed, but from Grant’s description it sounds like they were more fascinated by their own ideas than those of their students. The problem wasn’t their expertise, it was their interest.
Don’t call it a curse
The problem with the phrase “the curse of knowledge” is that the word curse makes it sound inevitable. It’s unfair to those experts who work hard to be great teachers, and it’s a cop-out for the ones who don’t bother.
Knowledge is not a curse. It’s more like a hurdle–an obstacle that takes extra effort to get over, but one that we should expert our teachers to be able to overcome.
Educators love to talk about developing a “growth mindset” in students. How about adopting a growth mindset for our professors, in regard to their teaching skills? The best teacher is an expert who has carefully honed their teaching skills. Instead of advising students to seek out non-expert teachers, we should be finding ways to help more experts get past the hurdle of their own knowledge.