The Curse of Knowledge

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?

One comment

  1. All I know is what I did to try and prevent this exact scenario (forgetting what it's like to be a beginner). I developed my own syllabi, including "teacher notes" to remind me of some of the things I was interested in finding out along my own journey. I did this not because I was trying to make a name for myself, but because I don't want to reinvent the wheel and I can't keep it all in my head any more. LOL Also because I am ME — I have my own strengths and weaknesses … and I am not a champion or the end all — I even kept notes on who I learned a pattern from, to give credit, as well as a memory trigger. Teaching from my strengths is much more successful than teaching from a position of weakness. I also go to every basics lesson (as a student) I possibly can; to learn how others are saying the same things and also to watch how the students absorb that information. I take away with me the things that brought joy to the students and it gets plugged right into my "teacher notes." I posted my syllabi (right now 11 syllabi consisting of 6 lessons each and growing) on my wall and when a class begins (either private or group) I refer to it – mentally preparing myself what the lesson plan is going to be for that hour.And LOTS of repetition. MOVEMENT, not just talking about moving. Because face it, most of the students are NOT going to go home and practice like a champion gearing up for a competition. Usually two or three patterns and one or two techniques are the focus for one hour at the most. And have your syllabi build upon and revisit over and over those same topics. Ad nauseum. LOLMy very first qualifying statement in the very first lesson/hour I teach anyone: I will tell you EVERYTHING you need to know in this first hour and then we will help you remember and do each of them every time you come back! LOL

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