Overcoming the ‘curse of knowledge’ in learning and development

Using facilitation techniques and working with an instructional designer

Overcoming the ‘curse of knowledge’ in learning and development
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I have mentioned previously in the context of academia that world-renowned experts in their fields aren’t necessarily the greatest teachers. There are several reasons for this including a focus on research over teaching, ineffective instructional techniques, lack of teaching experience and poor communication skills in some cases.

Some professors aren’t the best teachers because they may have less passion for teaching specifically than they do for the subject itself. Unlike school teachers, it surprises me how few university instructors are actually experts in teaching, instruction and facilitation.

Community college instructors may be a little different because the focus isn’t on publishing papers or conducting research. Many people who teach at the college level do so because they love teaching — although they are still generally selected because of their subject matter expertise.

While the above factors are no doubt quite important in some cases, I personally think the most important issue is experts in their field being unable to relate to beginners learning the material for the first time — particularly at the undergraduate level. Their expertise is often so deep and broad that it’s difficult for them to relate to non-experts.

While one of the characteristics of a successful adult learning teacher or instructor is subject matter expertise, such individuals should have at least some teaching ability as well. Experts tend to have more credibility, but they should also be able to relate to non-experts and impart their wisdom and knowledge to others.

This is known as the “curse of knowledge” — referring to the tendency of experts to assume others have the background necessary to understand what is being communicated. A related problem is failing to understand what learners really want and need to learn versus what the instructor thinks they should be learning.

This is an issue not only in academia, but also in corporate learning and development programs. While the problem in some learning and development programs is that trainers and facilitators don’t necessarily have sufficient background to teach the course, the opposite is also true at times. However, there are several things that can be done to reduce the likelihood of that happening.

Taking a facilitation approach

Depending on the subject matter of the learning program and the knowledge of learners themselves, one solution is to take a facilitation approach as opposed to one based on teaching or lecturing. Facilitation is a technique that is designed to work with learners to draw upon their own knowledge and skills rather than having an expert lecture or teach to the group.

The role of the facilitator focuses on processes such as goal definition, establishing ground rules, questioning assumptions, encouraging participation and keeping everyone on track by dealing with scope creep and ineffective behaviours. Rather than coming up with answers or lecturing in front of a group, facilitators focus on providing structure for learning.

Facilitation works well in an adult education setting where learners themselves come armed with expert or organizational knowledge or experience and are able to learn not only from the facilitator, but also from each other. While facilitators should be skilled at facilitation and have at least some familiarity with the subject matter of the learning program, they frequently are not subject matter experts.

Taking a facilitation approach will often help avoid the situation where an all-knowing expert is seen to be teaching, training or even preaching to learners. Nevertheless, I think experts in their field can be taught to use more of a facilitation approach as well — particularly when dealing with knowledgeable adult learners who can contribute meaningfully to the discussion. This is often used in organizational development type programs.

Working with an instructional designer

Another way to help overcome the curse of knowledge is to work with an instructional designer to develop learning programs. A good instructional designer can work closely with subject matter experts to identify the target audience, analyze and define the learning needs and outcomes, develop the scope of the program, determine sequencing of content, choose instructional techniques, develop assessments and evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

Instructional designers are there to optimize the effectiveness of learning design (and delivery to a certain extent). They can help subject matter experts determine whether they’re trying to cover too much, present material at too advanced a level for learners to understand or cover difficult material too early.

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