We all want to learn from the experts. But why is it so hard for experts to transfer what they know? And how can we help them do better?
The “expert problem” in training arises primarily because of how our brains store and retrieve knowledge in their area of expertise.
Knowing the answer
What makes an expert an expert? Knowing the answers, of course.
The problem is, once you know the answer, it’s incredibly hard to imagine not knowing the answer.
Which means experts can’t really grasp, on an intuitive level, what the novice needs to learn. They assume others can learn the same answer easily – even if they themselves had to struggle when they first learning the material.
That’s why experts and trainees often end up frustrated. The expert thinks the room is full of dopes. The trainees think the expert is out of touch – smart, sure, but unable to teach.
Here’s an example of how powerful the Curse of Knowledge is: In a recent study, researchers asked people how difficult it would be for others to solve various anagrams.The twist: Researchers gave one set of subjects the answers, and a control group no answers.
The group that didn’t have the answers were pretty accurate when they estimated how hard the puzzles would be to solve.
But the group that knew the answer tended to think the puzzle was a no-brainier.
“The solution word blocks one from directly experiencing how difficult it is to come up with the solution to the anagram because the solution is already in the mind,” the researchers concluded.
“Presenting the solution deprives one from using subjective experience from predicting the performance of others,” the researchers wrote.
Say, for example, you’re teaching someone how to use a safety harness.
You know what each part is – the chest strap, the leg straps, what attaches where. All the learner sees is a twisted knot. They can’t see what you see. And just as important, you can’t see what they see – the knot.
The language of the learner
It’s as if you and the learner are speaking different languages. As an expert, it’s your responsibility to “translate” your knowledge into the language of the learner.
Some practical strategies:
- Practice with a “native speaker” – someone who knows nothing about your field of expertise. The old saying goes, you don’t understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother. Try.
- Use concrete imagery. Abstractions and technospeak are hard to grasp. Use vivid images to get your point across. For fall protection, don’t say, “OSHA requires no more than 0.04 inches deflection when 2,250 pounds of force is applied.” Tell them the anchor point should be strong enough dangle a Nissan Sentra.
- Tell stories. Stories translate better than concepts. Draw on your experience to tell how the concept actually played out in the real world. In sales training, for example, don’t explain how to counter a price objection; create a scenario to show the technique in action.
- Ask people to repeat difficult concepts back in their own language. Have them give you an example. This will help you gauge how well your lesson plan is coming across. Bonus: You’ll learn what kinds of examples you can use in the future.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. You know that people will forget much of what you tell them. The good news is that the information is in their brains. Repetition brings it out. That’s why you have all those drills when you’re learning a language. People need to hear something, use it, and then return for more training before they really understand.
- Keep the vocabulary list short. Avoid acronyms and jargon at first. Trainees will catch on, but it takes a while before they are comfortable using terms of art. In the meantime, they’ll feel lost.
Kelley, Jacoby, et al.,“Adult Egocentrism: Subject Experience versus Analytic Basis for Judgement.” Journal of Memory and Language 34, 157-175, 1996.
Heath, Chip, et al., Made to Stick, Random House: 2007.
Newton, Elizabeth, “Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies.” Unpublished dissertation, Stanford University, 1990.
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