Week 16: The Curse of Knowledge, part 2

4. Narratives

Everyone loves a great story because our ancestral past was full of them. Stories were the dominant medium to transmit information. They rely on our innate narcissistic self to be effective learning tools — we enjoy stories because we immediately inject ourselves into the story, considering our own actions and behavior when placed in the situations being described. This is how we mentally make connections, and if students are listening to a story interlaced with content, they’re more likely to connect with the ideas. So connecting with content through a story is at the heart of learning and can help alleviate the stress associated with the Curse of Knowledge.

5. Analogies and Examples

An analogy is a comparison of different things that are governed by the same underlying principles. If understanding a process is what we’re after, looking at the result of the process proves informative. An analogy compares two unlike things by investigating a similar process that produces both. Said differently, an analogy highlights a connection, and forming connections is at the core of learning.

Whereas an analogy compares similar processes that result in different products, an example highlights different processes that result in similar products. Copious use of examples forces the brain to scan its knowledge inventory, making desirable connections as it scans. So learning is easier when analogies and examples are used to facilitate mental connections.

6. Novelty

New challenges ignite the risk-reward dopamine system in our brains. Novel activities are interesting because dopamine makes us feel accomplished after succeeding. Something that is novel is interesting, and something interesting is learned more easily because it is attended to. So emphasis on the new and exciting aspects of your content could trip the risk-reward system and facilitate learning.

7. Teach Facts

Conceptual knowledge in the form of facts is the scaffolding for the synthesis of new ideas. In other words, you cannot make new ideas without having old ideas. Disseminating facts as the only means to educate your students is wrong and not encouraged. However, awareness that background knowledge is important to the creation of new ideas is vital for improving instruction. Prior knowledge acts as anchors for new incoming stimuli. When reflecting on the ability of analogies and examples to facilitate connections, it is important to remember that the connections need to be made to already existing knowledge. So providing your students with background knowledge is a prerequisite in forming connections and can make their learning easier.

Making It Easier

By incorporating facts, highlighting novelty, liberally utilizing examples and analogies, cycling our content, telling content-related stories, making our lesson multi-sensory, and harnessing the power of emotion, we can make learning easier for our students.

Further resources: The Curse of Knowledge has been variously described in articles by Chip and Dan Heath, Carmen Nobel, and Steven Pinker, and also in books such as The Sense of Style and Made to Stick. It has been applied to a variety of domains: child development, economics, and technology are just a few.