The Curse of Knowledge

Last October, I spoke to a group of PhD and Masters level students on new and emerging collaborative methods of research (e.g., social software tools) in education. I have done the spiel many times before, and I know that not everyone gets it (or cares to get it for that matter). This time, I approached the session differently. I slowed down, and I limited the many possibilities to just a few, manageable choices. After the session, a colleague, who has seen this same presentation several times, commented to me that it was the best way in which I had ever approached the topic and he had the sense that the majority of students were really excited about the possibilities.

Simple Remote Control

Today’s NYT Article Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike helped consolidate some of the thoughts I’ve had since then.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

The above concept may sound simple, but I can not assume so. A lot of what I teach sounds simple to me, but I must be deliberate here to say that many of the ideas we find simple are in fact not simple, in both the conceptual understanding and actualization of these concepts. If they were that simple, I would be out of a job. And unless we understand how our ideas sound to others, we may actually be causing more harm than good in creating the changes in schools, pedagogy and practice we seek. Consider the following as it may relate to your educational context.

This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

Other related ideas can be found in The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. The book is a few years old, but the ideas are relevant. If you haven’t watched Schwartz’s TED Talk, do so.

The Paradox of Choice is a popularization of components of decision-theory. The underlying thesis reflects the paradox “that more choices may lead to a poorer decision or a failure to make a decision at all.” Schwartz argues that with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all. This paradox produces paralysis rather than liberation.

So what does this all mean in our world of Web 2.0 tools, where there are dozens of ways to blog, wiki, podcasts and screencast?. Does this influence how we facilitate our courses or our professional development opportunities? What does this mean for our own personal practice?

I know I have to think about this more. Help me. What are your thoughts?

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  • I gave a workshop to new instructors a few months back and I think that everything that I said went over their heads. We do forget that not everyone knows the terms that we throw around every day (RSS, blog, wiki).

    Your post also reminded me of when my dad would try and help me with my math homework. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t grasp concepts as easily as he always had.

    Great post.