Philip Fernbach was well launched on his explanation of how to build a histogram by putting data into bins. Then a student apologized for asking a “stupid” question. “What’s a bin?” She wasn’t the only one who was confused. About half the students in the class didn’t understand the terminology Fernbach was using.
Actually the student’s question was very intelligent. She recognized a gap in her understanding. She also identified the information she needed to fill the gap. And she was brave enough to risk embarrassment by asking for the information she needed.
Fernbach was embarrassed, too, by his assumption that his students understood what he considered to be basic terminology. He used the opportunity to correct the gap in his students’ knowledge.
As Fernbach’s experience proves, knowing about the curse of knowledge is no guarantee we won’t fall victim to it. “When we know about something, we find it hard to imagine that someone else doesn’t know about it,” he and coauthor Steven Sloman write in The Knowledge Illusion.
How can we protect ourselves, and our learners, from the curse of knowledge?
- identify prerequisite knowledge and review it briefly (or provide online glossaries)
- imagine we’re developing for a bright 9-year-old with no prior experience
- pre-test fundamental terms and concepts
- ask subject matter experts what “everybody already knows” about their field and assume many learners won’t know what SMEs take for granted
- test materials with actual learners
None of these methods is perfect, which is why we’d be wise to do as Fernbach did and make it safe for learners to follow his advice: “If you find yourself with a stupid question, consider yourself lucky to have spotted a gap in understanding that others in the room might have missed, and have the courage to ask it. Your community will be wiser as a result.”
Fernbach, Philip. “We Should Be Asking More Stupid Questions.” 6 May 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/we-should-asking-more-stupid-questions-philip-fernbach