The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ & foundational knowledge in teaching


It is important that we, as teachers, don’t forget what we already know and what our students don’t know. The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ cognitive bias means that we have a (comparatively) in depth knowledge on a topic compared to those we’re speaking to. Whilst good subject knowledge is necessary to be a good teacher it isn’t sufficient. One of the most important skills of a teacher is knowing what students know and don’t know and how to build upon that.

I love Efrat Furst’s visuals to help explain the issues here….

Used with kind permission from Efrat

This diagram shows how our ‘knowledge’ builds to mastery levels. As subject teachers we have subject specific knowledge that we have built up (and continue to build) over time. Some teachers are incredibly knowledgeable in their field. But teaching isn’t about just telling students what we know; it’s the skill of being able to share with students what we know in a way that they can access.

I think the ‘curse of knowledge’ follows when our level of competence becomes unconscious. We forget that we have gone through this process ourselves to create our complex and in-depth schema. And the issue is, our knowledge has become so connected and embedded (the large triangles) that we find it difficult to unpick (back to the smaller triangles) in order to teach the small components of knowledge to those at the start of this process.

I know how this feels when talking to people whose knowledge of religion/teaching far outweighs mine. My brain tries hard to pick up any clues to link back to what I already know to pin the new information that they are telling me. However if there is too much information or I didn’t find a relevant peg to connect the new information to, that’s it, I’m lost! And I’m generally a motivated person.

Imagine you are a student that isn’t motivated and you ‘don’t like’ a subject. If a teacher doesn’t build up foundational knowledge and dives straight in with a complex concept you will be lost within seconds.

So what can we as teachers do to overcome this?


We need to gauge the literacy of the students we teach and work to develop their vocabulary. The range of vocabulary our students have also act as ‘pegs’; they need a certain level of vocabulary to be able to access new knowledge. This includes all tiers of vocabulary. Without a student’s basic knowledge of vocabulary, the explanations that we give will have to be simplified and possibly therefore reduced in content. Developing rich and varied vocabulary is therefore key. Oxford University Press have done some research on this and have produced a free set of resources for primary and secondary which include subject specific guides for reducing the ‘word gap’. See here to access these..

Explicit linking to prior knowledge

Whenever we begin to teach new content we need to work out how it connects to prior knowledge and explicitly make the links for the students. Thinking about foundational prior knowledge needed for a topic is a good exercise to undertake; ‘what do you already know that means that you understand this?’ The more complex the concept the more foundational knowledge needed. This is particularly useful for trainee teachers. I’ve worked with highly intelligent trainees who struggle to understand why students don’t ‘get’ what they’ve taught them. Most of the time it’s because they have the ‘curse of knowledge’.

Back to Efrat’s great illustrations….

“Learning something new with and without relevant prior knowledge”

(First GIF ever, learning something new here; HT @Hubertjer for the inspiration)

Originally tweeted by Efrat Furst (@EfratFurst) on March 18, 2021.

This is a good way of showing how, even when we’ve identified what it is that we want students to know (represented by a small triangle) if we don’t set the foundations for them to peg it to they don’t connect correctly. The skill of a teacher is to pitch things so that students can build their schema with firm foundations. We cannot assume that students know the things we do!

When we plan to teach a concept we can unpick what the foundations are to that concept. What do you need to know and understand before you can fully understand the new concept?

I’ll take an RE example of the Trinity. Some of the knowledge you need to know..

  • Jesus
    • Human & God (Son of God)
    • The Incarnation
    • John 1
  • God
    • Not human or visible
    • As described in the Bible e.g. loving father
  • Holy Spirit
    • Genesis 1:2
    • Active in the world today

Then you can start to consider how God can be ‘three persons’ and the following discussions about what the Trinity ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’. Understanding the Trinity goes beyond knowing the three parts. You can only begin to understand the ‘holy mystery’ if you understand why understanding it is complex!

Actively doing this as part of planning is a good way to ensure we don’t make assumptions about prior knowledge.

Other strategies

I do 1-10 quizzes at the start of all my lessons. If teaching a new concept in that lesson I will try to ensure that some of these questions link to the new concept by asking prior knowledge that I know is part of the new concept. This means that we’re retrieving the content needed but when I go through the answer I’m also doing a mini-recap for those that may have forgotten.

Using visuals can also help students see the connections between concepts. Things like concept maps give clear visual links between concepts. These could be completed at the start/middle/end of a topic to help students ‘pull together’ their knowledge.

Using mind pegs from when you taught the prior knowledge can also be useful whether that be a resource your used or a lesson feature. ‘Do you remember when we watch the video of X?….’Do you remember the lesson when we did Y?’ Linking to classroom ‘episodes’ that the students experienced should help them remember the foundations.

I use the ‘what do we already know about this?’ strategy when I know we’ve covered some foundational knowledge. Some people call it a ‘brain dump’ or similar. Getting students to remember what they already know is not only the basis for building new knowledge but it gives confidence; ‘We already know some of this so it’s not so challenging.’

Using the tier 2 and 3 language is important. I use tier 3 vocabulary as much as possible but always following it with it’s definition so students don’t get lost. e.g. ‘Today we will be studying the Trinity – which means that God is three persons….’. I will carry on repeating this over and over until I think that I can use it in my explanations without the definition.

Key stage transition

One reason the key stage 2 to key stage 3 transition is problematical is that secondary teachers may not know what their year 7s already know. They then might over or under estimate this. Either way it can be disengaging for students. Some try to find out what they know by doing a baseline test at the start of year 7. The problem is that these are often ask questions from the huge subject domain. It could never cover everything you’d want to know about their knowledge so it becomes a waste of time. Maybe year 7 teachers visiting year 6 in the summer term could help with this. It won’t tell you what students know but you will get an idea of literacy levels and the level of challenge they are working at.

Teacher awareness

If you’ve only ever worked with students with a similar level of literacy and/or foundational knowledge you might initially struggle if you went to a new school to teach. I’ve seen this so many times in my career with others and with myself! Every time I have moved school I have had to realign how I teach. This isn’t about lowering or raising expectations. It’s about being aware of where you need pitch things.

I started my career in a school with challenges such as low literacy, social deprivation and behavioural challenges. I then went to an interview at a private school that didn’t have these challenges. The resource I provided was so far off the mark that the interviewers must have been bewildered! They may not have even realised why I had done that.

I now know that what was appropriate in my context was far from appropriate in that context. We can’t just pretend that all students can access the same resources. Again, this isn’t about lower expectations, it’s about a different starting point. I strongly believe that all students should access the same content but how we approach it may differ including the time it takes to teach it. If you don’t believe that, spend a year in a school different to yours and come back to me!

From what I see on social media, some teachers don’t realise that this is a thing. They have not worked in different ‘types’ of schools and therefore have the curse of knowledge of their own context and don’t understand how it can differ. I sometimes hear people talk about teaching and think that they have no idea what it’s like to work in a school that is different. We need to be aware that there are differences in literacy and knowledge and a great teacher differentiates (in the wider sense – not different worksheets!) for the students they have.

Great teaching

We cannot assume that students have foundational knowledge that we do and will therefore make appropriate links. We need to regularly be explicit about these connections. As soon as we do, we can build up their knowledge as per Efrat’s diagram to create complex schemas. If we don’t, students can become demotivated, confused, lose confidence and at worst completely switch off. The skill of a great teacher is to overcome the ‘curse of knowledge’ and make subject knowledge accessible for all students.


Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE?


In our book, Louise Hutton and I suggest that the disciplines of RE can be used for feedback. Having spoken to Stephen Pett about the Templeton World Charity Foundation Big Questions in classrooms project I think even more that the disciplines could play a role in reforming assessment in RE. (Since this draft Gillian Giorgiou also presented her thoughts at the #Waynesworldviews RE Curriculum conversations – recording here)

The challenges of assessment in RE

Every subject has challenges with assessment. Since levels were ditched a few years ago, teachers were given the challenge of creating new assessment systems. Of course, most, ended up being a levels rehash.

Could the disciplines be a way of solving these assessment issues?

What we could assess

We need to look very carefully at what it actually is that we want students to be able to know and do in RE. What is our curriculum aiming for? What do we want our students to develop over 5 years so that when they leave they can go on to further study with the tools they need? What is the procedural knowledge we want our students to be able to master?

  • Declarative knowledge – ‘Knowing that’ – facts
  • Procedural knowledge – ‘Knowing how’ – ‘skills’ (?)

Is declarative knowledge the substantive knowledge and procedural knowledge the disciplinary knowledge? Here Barbara Wintersgill (p4-5) has discussed this. Unfortunately lots of people have discussed it’s role in History yet there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about this in RE. Wintersgill frames the disciplinary as ‘Big Ideas’.

Big Ideas for RE are a product of disciplinary thinking and reflect both the processes of study and some of the key theories to emerge from the disciplines with which RE is most closely associated: religious studies, theology, philosophy, and others drawn from humanities, social sciences and the arts. Just as emerging theories change over time, so will the Big Ideas.
Like disciplinary knowledge, Big Ideas do not emerge directly from within religions / worldviews but from the study of religions / worldviews by communities of experts, which have provided the interpretations, connections and associations that bring factual knowledge to life

Barbara Wintersgill,

But is there a procedural & propositional knowledge trap that Michael Fordham describes about history here?

What does making progress look like in RE?

Ofsted they have said that the curriculum IS the progress model. As students work through the curriculum they should be making progress. But this can only be effective if the curriculum is very clear on what it is that we are developing in terms of knowledge and ‘skills’ (I argue here that skills are just a form of knowledge – you ‘know’ how to do something. People that have misunderstood a ‘knowledge’ approach claim that it is just students learning lists of information. Of course, this isn’t correct.) We need to be clear in our curriculum planning what these are so that we can think about how we want to assess progress in RE.

In an ideal world I would love to think that just teaching students is enough and we don’t need summative measurements to prove what is going on. The fact that they are present and engaging in RE, discussing it, applying it, questioning it tells me they’re ‘learning’. But the reality is that we do have to fill in data sheets.

So I will argue that, based on my belief that measuring progress in many ways is flawed, we need to do something that is simple (for the students and for us), efficient (in terms of completion and consequent checking/marking) and in terms of assessment, can give us the most valid inferences as possible.

How can we use the disciplines?

In this blog I have pulled out some very simple ideas of the ‘skills’ that might be developed in these 3 disciplines.

In the REtoday/Templeton Big Questions in Classrooms project so far they have identified:

  • Theology – coherence, faithfulness & significance
  • Psychology – reliability, validity, replicability, generalisability

I think we need to keep things simple and as condensed as possible. This can’t become a huge burden on teachers to base their curriculum on. With little curriculum time we need to balance what we do.

Possible methods

If we want to use the ‘skills’ or procedural knowledge derived from the disciplines themselves, what could this look like?

Multiple-choice questions

I have written several times about how we can use multiple choice questions as retrieval but we can also consider how we could use them for assessing disciplinary knowledge. I’ve had a go at doing this for ‘social science’….

One way would be to ask questions about the methodology of the discipline.

Whilst this is useful for explicitly assessing students on the methodology of the disciplines it is probably better with specific content.

So another way would be to use a specific content to test the ‘skills’ of the disciplines. You could use an ‘unseen’ source on the topic that you have been studying. Here’s an example on the resurrection of Jesus using social science research.

Or focus on the work/methodology of a person from the social science disciplines…

I know nothing about Durkheim. Please tell me if this is incorrect!

Have a go at the quiz here!

With Theology it could be text based. It would have to be chosen very carefully to reflect what students have learnt. It could either be on a text they’ve already studied or on an ‘unseen’ text.

Or using a scholar’s commentary…

And another religious text based one…

Have a go at this quiz here

And for Philosophy looking at critiques…

Writing good multiple choice questions is really difficult. I do not claim that these are good!

Whilst multiple choice questions are a great tool for assessment, we also want students to be able to write more extended writing using substantive and disciplinary knowledge. One reason for this is that what experts in the field do. In a discussion with Joe Kinnaird we debated whether we want students to ‘write like philosophers/theologians etc’ or write like a student of philosophy/theology etc. I think we need to be realistic that our students are are learning the foundations of the discipline and some of the substantive knowledge. They are beginning to see how the disciplines think and work. They don’t write as a philosopher/theologian/social scientist but use some of the same tools.

Extended writing

A possible idea is to get students to write using some of the tools of a discipline. For example, if they were looking through a philosophical lens they would be looking at logical arguments and critiquing the reasoning with its strengths and weaknesses.

This is where using GCSE questions (especially the smaller tariff questions) doesn’t really work at KS3. I strongly believe that if key stage 3 is done well it can provide much more of a challenge in writing than GCSE does. Limiting it to those formats doesn’t do the discipline justice.

But how to actually assess their work using the disciplines? Some people will want to give marks to an answer or even a grade. I’m not a fan. I’d prefer to focus on what outcome we want to see and compare their work to that.

We have begun to write mark schemes for a specific question/title in which we work together to create descriptors of what a ‘good’ one would look like in terms of the elements that make up the answer. For example, a question that focuses on Theology might require students to refer to specific texts and analyse them, acknowledging where they have come from and how they are used by believers.

I think that argumentation is a feature of the three disciplines suggested and we use this as the basis of our written assessments. I think if we use argumentation as our ‘progression’ model (where we have to do this for the data progress monsters) that there is consistency across the disciplines and students are building up important written skills. Here I have discussed the use of argumentation in RE. A discipline may have more of an emphasis on each argument element but they will all be used e.g. a piece of writing using philosophy would focus more on reasons and counter arguments whereas social science might focus much more on use evidence and examples. They will all follow an argument structure but with a slightly different emphasis.

There are strengths and weakness to using this approach as assessment. Criteria based assessment can still be very subjective and can lend itself to teaching to the criteria. However, if it is specific to the topic rather than generic descriptors it means that we can write criteria that are tightly focused and means that we can ensure that the curriculum is taught well. These have to be written before the topic is taught.

Our disciplinary methods can then be used to feedback, where appropriate. e.g. ‘You’ve said that the source may not reliable. Explain why this might be the case’ or ‘ You’ve included the arguments for X but you haven’t explored why they might be considered illogical. Choose one and explain why it isn’t logical.’

Final thoughts….

This is not a fully developed assessment model. I am still not 100% clear on many things.

  • What is the difference between knowing disciplinary tools and being able to use them? Do we want students to be able to do both?
  • What does disciplinary knowledge include/not include? Does this look different at different key stages?
  • What might the use of disciplines in assessment look like across key stages?
  • Should we include it in GCSE teachings where it isn’t specifically required?
  • Do we want students to ‘be’ Theologians/Philosophers/Social scientists’ or just to know how the disciplines work?
  • Is it realistic to want students to be Theologians/Philosophers/Social scientists or rather good students of Theology/Philosophy/Social sciences?
  • Should we bother using the disciplines in assessment at all?
  • How do we avoid assessment of the disciplines becoming ‘levels’?
  • How important is disciplinary literacy in RE? What part does disciplinary literacy play in religious literacy?

I would love to hear what people think.

Some linked blogs….