Expertise can act like a drug. It puffs us up, puts us on top of the world—especially when we’ve paid our dues and earned the role through years of hard work. But like most drugs, it has a side effect. Stoned on expertise, we forget what it’s like to be a beginner. This cognitive bias is known as the curse of knowledge. And it is most noticeable in highly specialized fields that require a lot of study or experience to master.
In the now famous tapper/listener experiment, a group of tappers tapped out the rhythm of various well-known songs and the listeners’ job was to guess the song. Easy peasy, predicted the tappers; the listeners should be able to guess at least 50% of the time, especially if the song was something simple like Happy Birthday. It turned out not to be the case. The listeners could only guess the song 1 time in 40.
When the tapper taps, she hears the song in her head. She is full of nuanced information (including melody and lyrics) that does not get conveyed in the tapping. The listener perceives a bunch of disconnected taps, much like a random Morse code.
I hate to think of my teaching as random indecipherable noise.
But sometimes it may be. And the privilege of the expert role requires me (and many of us really) to consider this. And to work really hard to differentiate that which we know in our head and in the fiber of our being from what we communicate. And to do everything we can to recall and empathize with the felt experience of inexperience.
In a more recent study (2014, Harvard Business School), Ting Zhang found out that when experts kept a journal documenting their experiences at the start of something new, they could rely on their own writings to create that needed empathy when teaching.
Last week, I had the rare opportunity to teach a cohort of sixteen adult learners, relative beginners in Processwork, a field in which I’m considered an expert. It was the first residency of a 2-year masters program in process-oriented facilitation (MAPOF).
I didn’t need a written recollection device to experience not knowing.
On the last morning of the offsite I walked into the seminar room to find that the students had created an art installation. A diverse and shaggy cohort of stuffed animals had been placed in a circle at the center of our working space. A rabbit and a horse were working together in the middle of the group. A bear was propped outside the circle with a video camera (mimicking how all of our demonstrations are videotaped for in-depth study). They had created an uncanny replication of the group—strangely surreal. One could almost identify who was who by their postures and expressions. After admiring the piece, I took my seat and got ready to start the class. But before I could begin, the students started testing me. Using the same local jargon I had taught for the past few days, they asked me questions to check my understanding of what they had created. Don’t get me wrong; they were kind and friendly, without the slightest trace of meanness or mockery. But the questions were intense—rapid-fire, technical and targeted, based on the non-verbal signals and the power dynamics communicated through the stuffed animal’s postures, seating arrangements and relationship configurations. All very much related to what I had been aiming to teach.
Now I was in the student role, I wasn’t totally sure what my teachers were thinking or what they wanted me to see. I couldn’t find the answers they were looking for.
I broke into a sweat. And got what it was like to be a beginner.
We are not always lucky enough to have students who know how to teach their teachers. Especially in such a fun and helpful way. As teachers, it’s on us to stay aware in the middle of the compelling altered state created by our expertise. If we can cross the chasm between knowing and not knowing, if we are willing to admit our vulnerability and let our students be our teachers, we go a long way towards creating a sustainable learning environment where the teacher and student roles are shared.
There are ways to stay aware about this curse of knowledge when we teach. Here are some that I’m working on. Thanks to MAPOF Cohort 2 and to my friend and colleague Myriam Rahman, for giving me the chance to practice last week.
1. Know your audience and teach to their level. If it’s a mixed level group, start with the basics. (My mistake is that I sometimes teach to myself—albeit unwittingly. I address a level of complexity that interests me, while students glaze over.)
2. Make mistakes. Lots. And refrain from hiding them with more knowledge. It could be anything from goofing up the steps to an exercise, to sticking your privileged foot in your mouth, to losing your awareness at a key juncture. (I always find it embarrassing when this happens but I often get feedback that students feel safer and more confident when they see me “fail.”)
3. Allow the roles to switch. Let the people who are paying to learn from you, learn that you can learn from them. (Funny thing is, students are often the experts—especially about themselves!)
4. Notice feedback. Always. When students glaze over, be curious why. And adjust. (This can be extremely challenging. I’m still recovering from not having been sufficiently adored as a child. And I don’t think I’m alone. If our students glaze over and we take it to confirm we are inadequate or unlovable, of course we can’t bear to see it. As teachers, we need to be aware of our unconscious need for love and admiration, and how that comes across. Or better yet, let’s get over it!)
5. Elicit real feedback on your teaching. Often. Create an atmosphere where your students know (and truly believe) that you need them in order to grow. You can’t teach a group that giving you feedback is safe—you can only model it by doing it.
6. Practice 1-5 every time you teach. And know that practice never makes perfect. But it can make better.