I recently picked up “Made To Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. The book explores why and how certain ideas “stick” and others don’t. One of the obstacles they cite to creating simple, sticky messages is the Curse of Knowledge: “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it…. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”
I vaguely remember being a non-dancer (it was about a decade ago). I have this faint memory of watching people dancing in a swing class and thinking, “Wow, that’s awesome! I wish I could do that!” but I had no idea what exactly they were doing. I remember too the first time I watched top dancers and could actually identify what they were dancing: a whip variation, a tuck variation, etc. My perspective would never be the same again.
Oftentimes during my dance career I have taken pause – either out of frustration with my own dancing or the scene as a whole – and tried to recall why it is I started doing this crazy dance thing in the first place. I wanted to have fun, to express music with my body, and my objective with each dance was simply to make the follower smile. Ah, those were the days. Of course, with time, my knowledge changed, and with it, my perspective and my objectives. Nothing wrong with that – it’s part of the natural learning curve and evolution of any dancer – but now I have the Curse of Knowledge.
I’ve seen many teachers – usually fantastic dancers who don’t teach regularly but others too – who teach well beyond the level of comprehension of their students: a symptom of the Curse of Knowledge. They are so knowledgeable that they fail to see things from a beginner’s perspective, and they don’t speak in a manner appropriate for beginners. They assume their students have the same knowledge and understanding of the dance that they do and they miss the simple, basic points that the students need to hear and learn most.
We all have the Curse of Knowledge – and the curse cannot be undone: I cannot unlearn something I’ve already learned. Can you remember what it was like to be a beginner? What were your perceptions? What was difficult for you to understand? What do you think are the key ideas and messages teachers should be focusing on for beginners?
Teachers, are you really looking at your lessons from the perspective of your students? Do you get trapped by the Curse of Knowledge? (Don’t we all, sometimes?) How can you reshape your lessons to focus on just one or two simple, key messages in each class?