Avoid the Curse of Knowledge to Enable Learning

I’ve always wanted to learn to play chess.Chess

I’m not sure why. I am not an avid game player. Playing games with other people (as a child and into adulthood) always made me nervous. I was afraid of looking like I did not know what I was doing. (We’ll talk about not being afraid to fail another time.) I did like Scrabble because I loved learning new words, but for some reason I had a hard time convincing others of how fun it was!

My interest in chess grew after I watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer in 1993. I got even more curious in 1995 and 1996 when I read about the matches between IBM’s Deep Blue (a chess-playing computer) and World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.

Still, I never learned to play … until last week.

I was spending time with out-of-state family after the death of a beloved great uncle. We had gathered at the home of one of my cousins (1st cousin once removed). I had not been to her family’s home before so my cousin gave me a tour. The tour concluded in a large living area. Her 13-old son told me that the room we were standing in was his favorite. I asked why. He first pointed to the upright piano in one corner of the rectangle-shaped room and then to a chess set displayed on a table in the adjacent corner.

I told him that I had always wanted to learn how to play chess and asked him if he would teach me. He immediately agreed and we sat down. He started with how to set up the board.

I wasn’t sure how this would go. While I’ve found teens to be terrific resources for learning about emerging technologies, cultural references and music, I worried that I might not pick up on chess quickly and my young cousin would give up on me.

It’s not unusual for the knowing among us to become frustrated with those who are learning. We possess a cognitive bias referred to as the “curse of knowledge.” Essentially, the curse of knowledge describes the effect of not recognizing what we know versus what someone with less familiarity knows. You’ve probably experienced the curse of knowledge when you try to teach someone about a familiar subject or activity. It’s easy to overlook fundamental information while describing the subject or activity because once you know it’s hard to remember not knowing.

As it turned out, my young cousin was an exceptional teacher and did not yield to the curse of knowledge. I told him I knew nothing. He started with the basics and slowly built layers of information. We actually played a game, but he openly shared the strategies behind his moves and suggested several strategies for my moves, which helped broaden my view of the board. At one point, several other cousins gathered around. I could tell that they saw moves that I did not. For a moment, that old nervousness crept in. But, my teacher generously allowed me to ask questions and consider possible moves in consultation with him.

If you have the responsibility of mentoring or training colleagues, take a moment to remember what it was like when you did not know what you now know. It actually requires effort because so much of our knowledge not easy to share or explain. But, recalling what it feels like to know very little will help you be more patient and provide better instruction. Moreover, seeing through the eyes of a beginner opens new dimensions to your own knowledge.

Because my cousin avoided the curse of knowledge, he taught me more in one game than I imagine I could have ever learned on my own. More importantly, he made the learning process enjoyable.

And, by doing so, he won me over to the game of chess.

Photo Credit: Muffet on Flickr, Chess Game


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