The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ & foundational knowledge in teaching

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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?

Literacy

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.. https://global.oup.com/education/content/dictionaries/key-issues/word-gap/?region=international

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.

One thought on “The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ & foundational knowledge in teaching

  1. Pingback: Anticipating Misconceptions – Understanding the Source? |

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