The Curse of Knowledge and Academic Instruction in English​


The above scene from the famous sitcom Friends, however comic, illustrates a rather serious epistemological problem: how do we, or even can we, know what others know? This is a problem which likewise plagues both scholarship and classrooms. In academic contexts, however, the problem is more often a failure to appreciate what others don't know. Steven Pinker, drawing on terminology from economics, ascribes such failure to the “Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know," and it has implications for English-Medium Instruction as well.

            Indeed, one of the examples Pinker provides will no doubt sound familiar to many lecturers and instructors. Attending a lecture at a TED conference on the latest research on DNA, Pinker notes that when it became evident that few of the attendees understood what was being said, the host interrupted the talk to ask for a clearer explanation. At this interruption and request the presenting biologist “seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed" because, Pinker observes, the lack of understanding was “[a]pparent to everyone ... except the eminent biologist." In other words, the biologist was certain that he was being perfectly clear (hence the surprise), when in fact most of his audience was at a loss. The same often happens in the classroom – lecturers believe they do a good job explaining ideas and inciting interest, only to learn, through subsequent questions or examination results, that the students got it wrong or not at all. Annoyance seems like a legitimate response to what is then perceived as intellectual inaptitude.

            However, according to Pinker, it is many times not readers or learners who are cursed with inept mental capacities, but the exponents of knowledge who fail to account for their own thought processes – who do not take into consideration that their audience “haven't mastered the patois of [their] guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to [them] is as clear as day." This is not to say that many writers or lectures are inept; on the contrary, it is precisely because they are masters of their trade that it becomes difficult for them to remember or imagine what it is like being a novice.  

            This applies doubly to academic instruction in English. Scholars who have spent their lives reading, writing and presenting in English, sometimes forget what it is like to not only be less familiar with a field of study but also with a language. Native speakers in particular tend to use more formal and/or colorful language, which even as it makes them more articulate and impressive to their colleagues, makes them less clear to their students. In other words, what sounds quite common to professionals, native speakers or even some of the students within a given group, may sound completely different to those less adept at English.

            An especially interesting illustration of this discrepancy is found in an experiment conducted in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford, and which is used by Chip and Dan Heath to illustrate just how ingrained this discrepancy is. In the experiment, in one group of people, each member was asked to pick a song from a list of popular ones and to tap the song on a table with their fingers. In a second group, each member had to guess the song being tapped. The result: although the “tappers" assumed that their listeners would guess 50 percent of the songs, the latter guessed only 2.5 percent, 3 out of 120. Heath & Heath explain the result: “When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head ... Meanwhile, the listeners can't hear that tune – all they hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code." And the reason for these results goes back to the Curse of Knowledge. “The problem," according to Heath & Heath, “is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song." Of course, English is more coherent than a bunch of random taps, but this experiment goes to show just how easy it is to overestimate one's own clarity and another's comprehension, and consequently the correlation between the two.

            So, what can be done about this curse and its ensuing problems? Pinker and Heath & Heath offer a number of solutions, and what follows is both an extrapolation from their advice and its extension to the field of language teaching, deriving likewise from my own observations in English-Medium instruction courses.


Moderate and modulate speech. Although this is the most pertinent piece of advice, it is also the most difficult to utilize, since the Curse of Knowledge derives precisely from the gap between what one thinks and says and what another hears and understands. Still, awareness of this gap is a good place to start. Speaking slower is another. Instructors can also watch and listen to lectures in other fields or languages and note the problems with comprehension they experience to avoid repeating those in the classrooms. One may also ask one's students to comment on the tempo and register when it becomes problematic, at least until it becomes more natural.


Use concrete language and analogies. Professional jargon and high linguistic registers are challenging enough, but when these join abstract concepts, comprehension takes a dive. While there is no avoiding jargon and formal language, coupling these with simpler formulations, real-life examples and comparisons to other fields of knowledge helps get the gist of things, even if not their precise import. In addition, some terms may be more familiar than others, and utilizing two or more of these increases the chances of hitting the comprehension nail on the head.


Use visuals. Beside the visual turn culture has taken in the past few decades, visuals offer another mode of input and so increase comprehension. With the wide availability of presentation software and online resources, as well as with a camera in every pocket, there is no excuse to stick to verbiage alone.


Check for comprehension. Perhaps the best way to know what others know or not is to simply check. Asking specific, relevant questions, in class and/or online, is a direct path from one brain to another, as well as a great way to retain focus and attention. Do not be content with “Is it clear?" or “Any questions?" Remember: the students may not know that they do not know or do not understand.


Employ multiple skills. Learning has many levels, ranging from basic understanding to the ability to use, analyze and evaluate the material at hand. Implicating similar ideas in different types of tasks or increasing the level of difficulty help determine what students actually know versus what they have simply memorized.


Talk to your students! However unaware students may sometime be of what they know or understand, they are the only ones qualified to account for what they think and feel. Therefore, asking students about their classroom experiences – rather than about the course or the instructor, as is the case in teaching surveys – can offer insight into one's teaching. This may be done conversationally or anonymously via the LMS (Moodle).   


In conclusion, the Curse of Knowledge is not a personal or professional fault. It is a mark on human cognition. And while it cannot be avoided altogether, being aware of its existence and dynamics is a good place to minimize its effects. With English-Medium Instruction, moreover, where students have to deal with language barriers in addition to misunderstandings, the ability to note and circumvent gaps and discrepancies between oneself and one's students is nothing short of grace.





Works Cited

Heath, Chip and Dan heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

            New-York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st

            Century. New-York, Penguin Books, 2014. Print.