Combating the curse of knowledge

Roopa Vinayak Ram

The curse of knowledge!! You might wonder how knowledge can be a curse! Can knowledge ever be a bitter pill to swallow? Especially for a teacher! Yes, you read it right, it is a persistent challenge, which we as teachers always face albeit unknowingly.

What exactly is this? How does it affect our effectiveness as teachers? What can be done to combat this curse? I know these are the questions that are playing in your mind. Let me break this down for you.

What exactly is the curse of knowledge?

It is a type of cognitive bias which might make it difficult for an expert to teach beginners in a certain subject because the expert most often comes with the presumption that concepts which are clear to him, will be clear to the beginners too. This is a blind spot that most teachers suffer from, but we fail to diagnose it and often end up blaming the students for not putting in the required effort.

Having this blind spot implies that what you already know cannot be “unknown” or “unlearned.” It becomes more difficult to communicate the fundamentals to someone who lacks your level of expertise after you become an expert in a particular field.

Teachers frequently fall victim to this blind spot. For example, an accounting teacher who is proficient in her subject thinks that the concepts of debit and credit are so simple that she is unable to put herself in the position of the novice learner who is having a hard time with the concepts.

The more we know about a subject, the harder it becomes to transfer the knowledge that we have to someone who is just starting out.

Although having solid subject knowledge is essential for effective teaching, subject knowledge alone is not sufficient. Knowing what students already ‘know’ and ‘do not know’, and how to build on what they already know, is the most crucial ability that every teacher must possess.

Some educators possess a wealth of industry as well as subject knowledge. However, teaching includes more than just imparting knowledge to students; it also involves the ability to transmit that knowledge to them in a way that they can understand and progress further.

Now that we have understood what exactly this curse is, let us take the next step and examine how it affects our effectiveness as teachers and how to bypass this curse and out-manoeuver it so that the interests of our students are always protected.

How does it affect our effectiveness as teachers?

Imagine a student (who you have been teaching for a considerable amount of time), coming back to you saying that he has not understood a single word of what you spoke in the classroom! How do you deal with this situation? Your immediate reaction would be, ‘’OMG, I taught this guy for two hours and now he comes to me saying he didn’t understand a single word! What in the world was he doing in my class? Daydreaming?”  Or we might also come to a conclusion that the student has limitations and may not be cut out for the subject that is being taught. It is easy for us to write off a student without realizing that all along he made a good attempt to learn the subject but couldn’t due to our cognitive bias.

If the issue goes unaddressed, demotivated students and their struggles with the subject will become the order of the day. Prolonged student struggles can lead to frustration and they might stop attending your classes and this is a nightmare for teachers as once a student gets into this mode, it is hard for him to make a comeback unless there is some serious work put in by both teachers as well as students.

Such a misunderstanding of concepts can make the students lose interest in the subject and once this disinterest sets in, it is hard to shake it off! It is a no-brainer that dealing with learner disinterest and demotivation can be tough not just for students but for teachers too.

Crossing the chasm

As the saying goes, “the first step to solving any problem is recognizing there is one” Likewise, acknowledging that there is such a problem will help teachers manage their classes effectively. It aids in identifying possible issues before they materialize. Denials and excuses will not work here because some day or other, it is us the students will come back to for re-teaching.

Let us now look at the ways of combating this curse.

Put yourself in the shoes of your student: Feel for them. Recall your days as a student and the struggle that you went through to learn the concept.

No presumptions and prejudices: Don’t make assumptions. Never presume that your student already knows something; always strive to bear in mind the many things they don’t understand. If there is something which they have not understood in spite of your best efforts, give them some time to learn it on their own or from their friends. However, make sure to check with them about the progress they made. If you feel that they are not taking any steps to understand the concept, assign a buddy to the student and ask the buddy to help him.

Chunk the concepts: Teach new concepts as gently as you need to. Avoid attempting to teach too much new material in a brief period of time. Keep your student’s strengths and weaknesses in mind before you decide on the chunk size.

Keep asking for feedback: When you genuinely make an effort to get feedback from students about your teaching and its effectiveness, most often, you get the correct answer. Students often appreciate your genuineness and put forth their perspectives and challenges.

Embrace your students’ imperfection: Get past the idea that just because you are interested in your subject, your students will be as well. Share opportunities to be curious instead!

Amp up your storytelling skills: Use stories to personalize and make content more approachable for students. Stories and analogies can make for great learning tools.

This is an issue that very much exists in the field of teaching without even teachers realizing its presence, a teacher trap that has made deep inroads in our mindset. It’s time that we combat it for the benefit of our students.

The author, committed to creating productive learning environment in schools, is an accounts teacher at National Academy For Learning, Bengaluru. She can be reached at

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