The Curse of Knowledge in the Classroom

Image by Nick Youngson

A few months ago I had an interesting experience. I participated in a “learning walk” with some other administrators from my school district. The idea of the learning walks is that we choose a specific instructional topic, pick a subject, and then go visit, as a group, several classes in that subject. For this learning walk, we visited four math classrooms at the middle school, focusing on the teachers’ use of questioning and discussion techniques.

Two of the four classes looked like just about every traditional math class I’ve ever visited: the teacher was at the front of the room, asking all of the questions, moving the class together through problems as a group. The third class was more interactive. The students had just finished a simple activity, and then the teacher led them through some bigger thinking — the essential question of the lesson — together as a group.

The fourth class was different. Students were working in groups and were participating in real dialogue with one another. They had also just completed an activity, but instead of bringing it together as a whole class, the teacher directed them to work in small groups to discuss the bigger picture. While they did this, the teacher circulated from group to group, monitoring understanding by asking questions, checking in with kids, and helping as necessary. While the teacher assisted some groups through leading questions, there was a clear expectation that kids would talk, work together, and learn together.

It was heartening to see this kind of questioning and discussion in a math classroom, and I was encouraged to see one of the teachers employing such student-centered teaching and learning. I was pleased to see real conversation (and some literacy practice) in a math classroom. But what really struck me about the entire experience was that the two classes that were more student-centered and activity-based were both our “regular” math classes. The other two classes were our honors classes. Yes, the groups that you’d think would be best able to work together without teacher instruction — the honors kids — were the ones doing the least of it.

But the next bit that was interesting was that only two of the administrators noticed that the honors classes were not student-centered. The two administrators with math experience listened to us and recognized that that it was true that the honors classes were more teacher-centered, but they were almost defensive about it, justifying why it was that way (they’re following the lesson from the book, that’s the way this unit is organized, they did interactive activities yesterday, and so forth).

Image from Wikimedia Commons

And this brings me to the Curse of Knowledge. There are some good sources that define what the Curse of Knowledge is (here or here, for example), so I won’t go into too much detail here except to say that when people suffer from the curse of knowledge, they know the material so well that they can’t see how other people can’t understand it or approach it.

I can see how this Curse of Knowledge may have affected the teachers’ approaches to instruction, but right now I’m thinking about our administrators with math backgrounds. Their knowledge of the math curriculum, while usually a benefit when observing a math class, was here a detriment. They only saw teachers implementing a curriculum and were unable to see that the teacher’s role is still to think about the lesson and the students and plan instruction that connects the students to the lesson. The teacher needs to allow students time to process and practice. Through these experiences the teacher can monitor individual understanding and adapt the lesson as necessary. The other administrators did not have this math background, and were better able to recognize how students may or may not understand the content, perhaps because they didn’t understand the content themselves.

When teaching an honors-level course, it’s easy to be encouraged by how quickly the students pick up on what you’re teaching. It’s easy to move quickly through content because they can move quickly. It’s also easy to think of all the students as a homogeneous group that all move at the same speed. All of these misunderstandings make it tempting to stand in front of the class and move through content quickly. But when the teachers don’t check in with individual students to check understanding, or when they don’t allow students time to discuss and process what they’re doing, they’re shortchanging their students. It’s not about just getting through the content. It’s not okay to say they had discussion time yesterday.

I recognize that we were in each class for only 5–10 minutes. I recognize that we may have just missed excellent discussion and collaborative learning. I recognize that not every minute will be well-developed opportunities for questioning and discussion. But I believe that all students need time every day to process what they are learning. Teachers need to allow that processing time and should use that time to assess who understands what and how to proceed.

For me, the most important lesson I learn from reading about the Curse of Knowledge is that we assume people know or understand more than they do because we know so much. A math teacher can talk forever about math, all the while assuming that her students are following her. But until we stop talking and ask students to process their learning, until we clearly and explicitly check for understanding, we’ll consistently overestimate how effective our teaching has been. As I continue to observe classes, I’m interested to see if this pattern of doing this more often with lower-level classes holds out. Anecdotally, I can say that I’m much more likely to see student-centered approaches, processing time, and formative assessment in the younger grades.