Breaking the curse of knowledge

Kathleen Gesinger

knowledge-curseThere are many experts out there—on technology, customer service, management, information science and more. These experts may be deeply immersed in their efforts to explore a subject and push the boundaries of what may be possible. But bringing an expert’s deep knowledge into the context of working professionals can be a challenge.

We forget what it’s like to “not know”

Teacher/blogger Chris Reddy speaks to the “teacher curse;” that is, the challenge of helping others learn when you are well versed in a topic. He says, “Knowledge is a curse. Knowing things isn’t bad itself, but it causes unhealthy assumptions—such as forgetting how hard it was to learn those things in the first place. It’s called the Curse of Knowledge.” Chris provides some fantastic suggestions around how to thoughtfully and effectively design the learning experience for others.

Lorcan Dempsey touched on this same idea in his recent blog post “Libraries and the Curse of Knowledge,” where he discusses how the curse of knowledge can manifest itself within libraries. As he shares, “To be clearly understood, one cannot presume that potential users already understand how the library works, or is structured, or what jargon is used to describe services.”

Know where your learners are starting

Training and instructional design is all about working through the curse of knowledge and helping learners where they are, not necessarily where the trainer’s (or subject matter expert’s) knowledge ends. The most effective teachers are driven by curiosity when approaching adult learning, and will explore a lot of questions to determine the appropriate scope of training. Fundamental questions we ask when designing training are:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Where are learners starting at in their work or experience?
  • What do they need to learn to move forward?
  • How do we build a meaningful learning experience?

Make learning a conversation

I enjoy working with adult learners. Through WebJunction, I help library staff navigate their learning journey and supply them with practical, tangible skills to apply at work. As an open learning community, WebJunction provides online resources, programming and learning opportunities that build the knowledge, skills and confidence that library staff need to power relevant, vibrant libraries. A program of OCLC Research, WebJunction designs and delivers transformational programs that connect public library service to community needs such as lifelong learning, health and wellness, and economic success. More than 70 percent of all US public libraries across all 50 states have participated in WebJunction programs and learning since 2003.

A benefit of helping adults learn is that we’re all working with more daily context and background than we have as children, and I can draw on learners’ often deep stores of knowledge and experiences, including ideas or solutions I’d never considered. At its best, training can be a wonderful conversation between instructor and learner, blending past experience with present need. We learn together around a topic that is relevant to the work at hand.

Repetition is a good teacher

At WebJunction, we know that learning sticks best when a learner can try something out, make mistakes and try again. We also know that reflection or self-assessment can be a powerful learning tool. We encourage learners to answer these questions for themselves and for the trainers:

  • What is at least one new thing that they learned?
  • How will they apply this new knowledge?
  • What more do they need to learn or practice?
  • What past experiences and insight can they provide for others to learn from?

During our webinars, attendees use live chat to ask questions, share personal experiences, and simply not feel alone. Through blended-learning (a combination of independent study, facilitated discussions, and group interaction), learners can review recorded sessions as much as they need, ask as many questions as they need, and use the resources they find most helpful.

Start a virtual community to spread ideas

For some of our programs, we bridge the live online training sessions with a dedicated online space for learners to reflect on the training material and their library practice, read others’ reflections, and offer or receive peer support. This kind of virtual community of practice allows for new ideas to be shared and knowledge to be spread from library to library.

When you work through the curse of your knowledge, you can help an overwhelmed learner see that:

  • It’s going to be alright.
  • We’re here to help.
  • I know you can learn this.

We can better help competent adults learn new things when we honor their existing knowledge and offer new information and skills to build upon that base.

Question…What’s your advice for escaping the curse of library knowledge when communicating with your users? How do you overcome the curse of knowledge with users who have outdated views of your library? Share your answers with hashtag #OCLCnext