The Curse of Knowledge

I’m reading the book Made to Stick by Chip Health and Dan Heath. The title drew me to this book, since my new book, Making Learning Stick will be out in December of this year (more about in a later newsletter).

One of the ideas in Made To Stick is the Curse of Knowledge. The authors explain that once we know something, it is hard to imagine what it is like not to know it – like the old saying about asking someone what time it is and they tell you how to make the clock.

The Curse of Knowledge often rears its ugly head when a manager asks us to teach employees a particular skill….and we talk about terminal and intermediate instructional objectives, SMEs, target populations, and Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. Management doesn’t care about any of this! They just want employees to perform better on the job.

The Curse of Knowledge shows up in the classroom (in person or online) when the instructor impresses learners with his/her skill and knowledge, providing mountains of information, diagrams, and other lecture material but leaving them ill-equipped to sort out what they need to do, 1-2-3, to learn the new skills. Is it really helpful to talk about increasing shareholder value in a class of call center new hires? Wouldn’t terms such as “keep customers coming back” or “make customers glad they called” work better here? It’s about the participants, not about the instructor!

Here are a few tips and suggestions for neutralizing the Curse of Knowledge:

  1. Cut lecture material in half, yes that’s 50% (you will be surprised at how easy this becomes).

  2. Use teach back methods, so that you allow trainees to teach parts of the material instead of lecturing to them. (Note: Trainees As Teachers is one of the techniques to make learning stick in my new book Making Learning Stick due out in December.)

  3. Develop short tag lines and slogans instead of overloading trainees with lots of detail. You can find ideas and guidance for these slogans and tag lines in our books, Making Training Stick and Making Training Stick: A Training Transfer Field Guide.

  4. Stop lectures short of complete closure. The Ziegarnik Effect lets the trainees’ subconscious minds continue to work on what needs to be learned, after the lecture.

  5. Use a pre-test to determine prior knowledge, then omit this from lectures. Note: email, web-based survey tools, and course web pages make pre-testing easier than ever.

  6. Don’t talk about it, do it. Modeling the skills being taught is more powerful than talking about them. My blog has more commentary on this powerful teaching method.

Key takeaway from Made To Stick is to forget about how much we know, and focus only on what the learner needs to know.

Until next time…

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