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Do You Suffer From the Curse of Knowledge?

Many thought leaders mistakenly believe that they are effective teachers of their content. This belief begins with a simple assumption: “Because I understand a topic, I can teach it.”

But the skills that make a thought leader expert can work against them when they become a teacher. It’s called the “Curse of Knowledge.” The more you know about a subject, the harder it becomes to envision a beginner’s needs and questions. You assume that what’s obvious to you is also obvious to others. You create a learning experience that makes perfect sense to you, but will bewilder your audience.

Over the course of my career, many thought leaders have asked me to review their courses. They generally ask, “How can I make this more effective?” I’ve found that thought leaders fall into several common design traps caused by the Curse of Knowledge:

  • Content Out-of-Order: Content is arranged in a way that makes total sense to an expert but is confusing to a learner.
  • Missing Steps: Experts are often blind to intermediate steps, because they become instinctive. Learners sense a gap and become frustrated. They can’t see what’s missing.
  • High Bar of Entry: Experts assume that learners already know more than they do. If the initial hurdle of learning is too high, learners quickly give up, saying “It’s not worth my effort.”
  • Not Enough Practice Time: Experts often vastly underestimate the amount of practice learners need to develop basic skills. Learners lose interest when they can’t practice.

The Curse of Knowledge occurs because you, as an expert, have internalized so many basic principles and ways of thinking that you can skip over steps without noticing them. You’ve forgotten what it would be like to be consciously incompetent.

The Curse of Knowledge has existed as long as the art of teaching. Many thought leaders routinely fall into these traps because they haven’t been trained in the science of learning. Whether you call it “pedagogy” (as academics do) or “instructional design” (as HR professionals do), developing expertise in the transfer of knowledge is a skill which must be mastered.

Surprisingly, this Curse of Knowledge even impacts people who have been trained in pedagogy. I’ve seen curricula from top-tier MBA faculty which offers incredibly insightful content but fails to transfer knowledge and skills effectively. It’s hard to step outside of your head and look at your work through fresh eyes.

How do you teach your ideas more effectively? Here are four tips to make your learning content more accessible to learners:

  • Slow Down: Map your ideas and processes out. Look carefully for hidden assumptions.
  • Get an Expert Opinion: Find someone who is an expert in pedagogy and/or instructional design to review your teaching methods and course design.
  • Interview Prospective Learners: Make sure you understand what they already know, as well as what they don’t already know.
  • Prototype: Run pilot testing and get user feedback. Revise! Revise! Revise!

You cannot ever fully eliminate the Curse of Knowledge, but you can train yourself to become aware of it and counteract its most harmful effects. These four techniques, taken from the world of instructional design, will help you see some of the invisible gaps which make it hard for learners to understand your content.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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