How the ‘curse of knowledge’ hurts workplace learning
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How the ‘curse of knowledge’ hurts workplace learning

“Those who can’t do, teach.” The line from George Bernard Shaw has a pithy appeal, but it doesn’t describe what sometimes happens when an expert who actually CAN do tries to teach.

You’ve probably seen it. The expert whizzes through difficult topics without blinking. They use jargon that learners don’t understand. And then they’re surprised when their audience is totally lost!

Researchers call this phenomenon “the curse of knowledge.” And it’s a big training and development challenge in all organizations.

In-house experts possess valuable practical and institutional knowledge that needs to be transferred to others. But bridging that knowledge gap can lead to frustration for both teachers and learners. At best, knowledge transfer is inefficient. At worst, it stops happening at all.

So what can be done to help?

From pieces to the whole

The problem, according to research, isn’t just that experts know too much. It’s how their brains organize that knowledge.

When you first learn something, you learn it in pieces. When children learn to read, they start with individual letters, then move on to words and sentences. Ultimately, however, people learn to process what they read on a higher level. They stop looking at the words and letters and focus on the meaning.

So if you ask accomplished readers to describe what they do, they won’t say, “I’m decoding letters.” They’ll say it’s about comprehension – understanding what the writer is trying to say. This insight doesn’t help someone who’s still trying to match letters to sounds.

Something similar happens when you master any body of knowledge. You no longer see the knowledge in terms of discrete pieces; you see it as a whole. But people still need to learn it piece by piece.

So how can you bridge the gap between how experts think and what novices need to know? A recent study at a German medical school suggests a source of help.

‘Near-peers’

In the study, researchers divided a class of third-year med students into two groups. Both attended a standard lecture conducted by an experienced professor.

After the lectures, Group One — the control group — attended traditional tutorials led by the professor, who answered questions and elaborated on the lecture content. Group Two’s tutorials were conducted by fourth- and fifth-year medical students – students just slightly more experienced than those in the class. The study called these trainers “near-peers.”

On the final exam, Group Two’s median test score was 20% higher than the group taught solely by the experienced professor. What’s more, 72% of those in Group Two received the highest grade possible – while no students from the control group did.

Why such a stunning difference? The researchers said that the near-peers were far more successful instructors specifically because they had only a year or two more experience than their learners.

Behind the numbers

This level of experience was important for two reasons:

  • The near-peer instructors were knowledgeable enough to confidently conduct the course.
  • But they were still close enough to their own learning experience that they could teach the subject matter the way they would have liked to have learned it. They understood what their students were going through. Even though they knew more than their students, they still thought more like newbies, not experts.

 When the researchers looked more closely at these follow-up sessions, they noted a huge difference between the professor-led follow-up sessions and those conducted by near peers.

The near-peers didn’t focus as much on concepts, ideas and theory. They took a more pragmatic, hands-on approach. They didn’t spend much time explaining the material; instead, they demonstrated techniques, gave trainees opportunities to practice, and provided constructive feedback.

Choosing your spots

So when should you use near-peer training?

It’s best used for complex, high-level skills. With routine job skills, there’s not much danger of the “curse of knowledge” and peers often informally help co-workers with these tasks already. It’s also ideal for practice and follow-up. As the study showed, the expert’s key role is delivering their knowledge. But near-peers may be more effective at showing trainees how to apply the knowledge.

To use this method in your training program, consider emulating the study design:  Have an experienced professional – whether it’s you as the manager or another expert – present and explain the initial training concept. Then delegate follow-up and any hands-on practice to someone with just a little more experience than the trainee. Research suggests it will improve your training results — a lot.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “The Curse of Knowledge: Why It’s Hurting Your Training Efforts — and How to Overcome It.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: Blank, W. A., et al. (2013). Can near-peer medical students effectively teach a new curriculum in physical examination? BMC Medical Education, 13:165.

 

 

 

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