• David Strittmatter

Why brilliant teachers teach the worst

People who keep journals have life twice. - Jessamyn West
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Summary:

  • The caveat of becoming an expert is becoming sick of the curse of knowledge

  • The curse of knowledge describes the situation when someone incorrectly assumes that others have similar knowledge to oneself

  • And it makes us forget the excitement, joy, and other emotions we felt when we experienced something the first time


Practical advice:

  • Start questioning assumptions and reflecting on what you experienced when you first encountered an idea, concept, or other experience

  • Ask for genuine feedback and adapt accordingly

  • Make use of the Novelty Index to capture how things were at the time


Dear friend,


Let me tell you a story:


A friend of a friend is a frequent business traveler. Let’s call him Dave. Dave was recently in New York for an important meeting with clients. Afterward, he had some time to kill before his flight, so he went to a local bar for a drink. He’d just finished one drink when an attractive woman approached and asked if she could buy him another. He was surprised but flattered. Sure, he said. The woman walked to the bar and brought back two more drinks — one for her and one for him. He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered.


Rather, that was the last thing he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice. He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Then he spotted the note: don’t move. call 911.

A cell phone rested on a small table beside the bathtub. He picked it up and called 911, his fingers numb and clumsy from the ice. The operator seemed oddly familiar with his situation. She said, “Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?”


Anxious, he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube. The operator said, “Sir, don’t panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There’s a ring of organ thieves operating in this city, and they got to you. Paramedics are on their way. Don’t move until they arrive.”


The first time I read this story - thanks Chip Heath & Dan Heath - I was totally stunned. The story captivated me so much. But today, it’s not even close. It’s like telling me that there was a man on the moon. Yeah, wow, and?


We get used to things. Fast. Very fast. Whether it’s experiences, ideas, concepts, or knowledge, we forget how they were when we first experienced them. And the key problem with this is that we cannot stop this process. Once we heard, saw, learned something, we cannot get “unfamiliar” with it again.


That’s a major reason why the most brilliant teachers struggle most to teach others. They have become too familiar with the concepts and ideas they teach and cannot remember how they once struggled when they first learned these concepts and ideas. They fail to put themselves in the position of the students.


A term to describe this concept is “curse of knowledge”. In today’s blog article, I will talk about why this cognitive bias is so bad and show you 2 ways to circumvent it.


Why the curse of knowledge is so bad


Acquiring more experience in whatever field has many advantages. Who doesn’t want to be an expert in a field of interest?


But...


Have you ever had a teacher who was a brilliant mind but terrible at actual teaching? An expert who used so much jargon you could not follow his explanations? A once great song you heard so many times that you started to hate it?


The caveat of becoming an expert is becoming sick of the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that affects every person who acquires above-average experience in a particular field and describes the situation when someone incorrectly assumes that others have similar knowledge to oneself.


The curse of knowledge has 3 major risks:


First, it makes us forget the struggle we faced when we learned something new - whether it’s a skill or knowledge. For instance, I used to struggle using if-clauses properly. Today, I can use them on auto-pilot, but I couldn’t teach others how I overcame these struggles as I forgot them. Another example, a few years ago, I wanted to create a to-do list every day, but I couldn’t do it consistently. Sometimes I just forgot to do it, sometimes I created one but didn’t use it. Today, my whole life revolves around to-do lists. I couldn’t live without them anymore. Yet, I forgot how I made this transition.


Second, it leads to implicit assumptions. Once we understood or experienced something, we start to assume others understood or experienced it, too. For me, it’s obvious to put away my smartphone when I have to focus on a particular task. Or to go to sleep early instead of lying in my bed scrolling through social media when there’s nothing else to do. Or to make a decision and stick to it. And my brain tries to convince me others are doing it, too. These implicit assumptions can cause misunderstandings or even conflicts.


Third, it makes us forget the excitement, joy, and other emotions we felt when we experienced something the first time. Whether it’s brilliant ideas, thrilling stories, stunning concepts, or joyful experiences, most positive emotions associated with them fade with time.


And because the emotions fade, we cannot objectively judge and provide recommendations for people who will experience these things the first time. That’s particularly bad for writers as they cannot remember what emotions their ideas, stories, and concepts will evoke in their readers who will read about those the first time.


Stop assuming, empathize instead


As we become aware of the curse of knowledge, we can do something about it. A key measure is to start questioning our assumptions and reflecting on what we experienced when we first encountered an idea, concept, or other experience.


For instance, if I create a video about productivity tips and want to talk about to-do lists, I empathize with my audience and try to remember what struggles I faced when I started implementing these tips in my own life.


When teaching or doing similar activities, asking for genuine feedback is key. Imagine your teachers had asked you for feedback and adjusted their teaching style accordingly. That would have enormously improved their teaching.


Novelty indexing


Recently, I read a newsletter of Ali Abdaal and the advice he had received from Julian Shapiro - a great non-fiction writer. It blew my mind because it was so simple but effective:


“As we come across new ideas and take notes (in Notion, Roam, Apple Notes, a notebook, etc), we can use the Novelty Index to rank those ideas by how novel or exciting they seem at the time. That way, when we look back at our notes, we can always tell which ideas are most exciting to a total beginner. This is often the stuff that’s most worth writing about.”


And it’s working not only with ideas but also with concepts, stories, and experiences. I journal every day and keep notes of every great experience. Combining this with the Novelty Index, I can write down how frightening, painful, joyful, stunning, etc. something was at the time, helping me to completely circumvent the curse of knowledge.


I use Notion to keep track of all these different things whether it’s my journal, video scripts, blog articles, knowledge pieces, writing concepts, or gifting ideas. So, implementing it is no big deal for me. If you don’t keep track of anything yet, you might first want to start keeping track of the most valuable things in your life.


Then, you can use the Novelty Index as follows:

  1. Take a note when something is of particular interest to. I use Google Keep and Notion, but you could also use any other program or pen and paper

  2. Write down a score (1-5) of how much of a particular emotion it created in you at the time. Let’s say “joy” and “4”. Or “interest” and “3”.

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