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      The curse of knowledge… and How to Defeat It

      by Richard Whiteside

      Communications , Insights , learning consultancy , client relationships

      It may seem strange for a learning designer to write an article entitled ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. After all, making knowledge accessible and helping learners to make sense of challenging topics is part of what we do. But that’s exactly why this concept is relevant. Put simply, the curse of knowledge refers to how we often don’t notice when we know things that others don’t. Most importantly, we also don’t notice the impact this has on their ability to understand the information we are giving them.

      Graduate psychology student Elizabeth Newton illustrated this when she asked one group of people to tap out a well-known tune on the table and the other group to guess what it was. Hardly anyone guessed correctly, though the group who were tapping the tune assumed the success rate would be roughly 50%. The conclusion was that while the ‘tappers’ were hearing the tune clearly in their heads, the other group heard what sounded like a random collection of noises. The tappers couldn’t get the knowledge of the tune out of their heads and empathise with those who had no idea what the tune was or communicate that information in a different way.

      In any working relationship, effective communication is essential, but so often it is communication that lets us down. Simply being aware of the dangers of knowledge gaps and taking time to reflect on what the receiver of the information might not know, and empathise with the receiver, is a great start. Here are three ways in which learning design and consultancy can defeat the ‘curse of knowledge’.

      1. Clarity

        Asking questions is the first step towards clarity. This is just one of the things that make the briefing phase of a project so important. If both the agency and client feel comfortable asking each other searching questions, it’s far more likely that any miscommunication or confusion can be avoided. As I noted in a previous blog, one side may feel that asking too many questions makes it look stupid, while the client may not want to appear condescending in its explanations. By encouraging an open atmosphere where there are no ‘stupid questions’, the brief is more likely to work for everyone involved. Likewise, ensuring that the process is clear to the client, while defining everyone’s roles and responsibilities, is essential for a strong working relationship.

      2. Working with SMEs

        Often, professional knowledge is difficult to acquire from books or traditional teaching, unlike the more explicit knowledge of procedures or policies we get from formal education. This ‘tacit knowledge’ is intangible knowledge acquired from experience and insight. When an SME has been working in their field for many years, it’s likely there are terms, language, or frames of reference which are so obvious to them that they may not even realise that these won’t immediately make sense to others. An effective partnership between SMEs and learning designers will allow them to ask the right questions, discuss and understand some of that tacit knowledge and explain it in a way others can understand. Our learning designers can be a conduit between those years of expertise and your learning solution.

      3. Understand when to use and avoid jargon

        Most of us use jargon in our working lives. It is a normal part of professional dialogue, and we usually need to learn specific technical vocabulary to discuss our work. But we also need to think about why we are using it, the purpose it serves and the ways in which it can become confusing. At Logicearth we work with several pharmaceutical companies that inevitably use a lot of acronyms, technical phrases and medical terminology, which are second nature to those using them every day. These terms can be a useful way to communicate with your peers, identifying that you understand the same concepts as they do and that you share a common language. However, as the Harvard Business Review points out, using jargon can also be a way of merely trying to show off your status and compete with others. This can confuse people unnecessarily or cause those who don’t understand this language to switch off, which is the last outcome we want if a learning solution is going to be effective.

        Consequently, understanding jargon and the definitions of key concepts and expressions goes both ways. In learning design, we regularly refer to things like ‘storyboards’, but not everyone thinks of these in the same way. With products, there may be a need for an initial test version. Will it be a pilot, a demo, or a prototype? And what exactly does everyone understand these things are? The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) has drifted into learning design from lean start-up software development but is frequently misunderstood.

        It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that a good learning consultant can help with. By identifying who your audience are, their level of knowledge and what you are trying to achieve, you can avoid confusing or excluding any of your learners and confusing your stakeholders.

      In conclusion, the ‘curse of knowledge’ doesn’t need to be a curse at all. When developing any learning solution, everyone involved needs to feel comfortable asking questions. By acknowledging that there are many different levels of knowledge within the team, you can ensure that the final outcome works for your audience. Jargon can be a real stumbling block, but if you embrace the idea that it’s a shared language, it can also work in your favour.

      To return to Elizabeth Newton’s musical experiment: by working together, hopefully we can all sing the same tune, without too many wrong notes.


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