The Curse of Knowledge.

It can be a killer.

The Heath brothers talk about the Curse in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Apparently first used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, the Curse means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do.

The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

Sound familiar?

We teach the way we’ve always taught, using the same language, assuming that kids are getting it because . . . after all, we get it. Our stuff is actually pretty easy, right? And if kids don’t get it, we can’t figure out why they’re so stupid. The content is obvious, the steps are obvious. If students aren’t getting it, it must be because they’re not really trying.

I’m guilty. It’s especially easy to do when training people on technology integration issues.

Much of the time it seems that our teaching is too general, too sweeping, too broad, too . . . no clue of where we’re going. What we do is based more on what we’re familiar with rather than on any real idea of what might be effective. The result? The vast majority of what happens in schools is demonstrably less than effective.

I recently ran across something that I hadn’t seen before that I think can help bust out of the Curse of Knowledge. The research is focused more on higher ed but there’s a lot of transfer to those of us in K-12.

John Biggs developed the idea and called it Teaching for Quality Learning. The basic concept is that we can look at what’s going on in the classroom, identify places for improvement and modify our instruction to improve learning.

Biggs has identified four different levels of teaching and learning that occur in the classroom. Some good. Some bad.

Our job? Fix the bad. Support the good.

The levels:

1. What the student is. 

This is the easy and terrible “blame the student” approach to teaching. We’ll keep doing what we do. If the students can’t learn then it is because they are bad students. It’s not my fault. Nothing I can do.

Biggs describes this level this way:

A teacher’s responsibility is to know the content well and to expound it clearly. Thereafter, it’s up to the students. When students don’t learn . . . it is due to something the students are lacking.

2. What the teacher does.

This is the “look at me and all the very cool and innovative teaching that I’m doing. I’m doing lots of good and difficult things in my teaching.”

I see a lot of teachers here. They believe that because they integrate technology or because they’re using Kagan, kids are learning. The problem here is that the focus at this level is on what the teacher is doing, not on the students. It’s seeing teaching as performance.

Biggs describes it like this:

The teacher who operates at level two works at obtaining an armory of teaching skills. But level two is also a defect model, the ‘blame’ and ‘credit’ this time being on the teacher.

Biggs suggests that:

The focus should not be on the skills itself, but whether its deployment has the desired effect on student learning.

3. What the student does.

This is the first of the good levels. The focus here is on teaching that actually leads to learning, on what the student is doing instead what the student is.

The emphasis here becomes learning through appropriate activities.

Biggs says that

Level three sees teaching as supporting learning.

Level three recognizes that learning can only be effective if students are doing something. And not doing worksheets but true, high level thinking stuff. PBLs. Collaboration. Creation. Discovery.

Our task (which will involve the deployment of many level two skills) is to set up an environment of learning activities and assessment from which it is very difficult for the student to escape without learning.

4. How the student manages what the student does

This is really the ultimate aim of education – a place where the student takes control of their own learning. The focus is on how the student can manage what they do, beginning within a structure created by the teacher, but eventually creating his or her own framework.

Biggs is clear about the fact that there is no shortcut from the first two levels straight to level four; a student can not operate effectively at level four without having experienced level three teaching or constructive alignment.

Biggs is also clear that it’s the active behavior of the student that counts, not the active behavior of the teacher. Kids learn by constructing their own knowledge – what they do equals what they learn.

So what can we do as teachers?

  • Have a clear end in mind. Know what you want kids to learn by doing.
  • Clearly specify the learning objectives for students.
  • Arrange activities that encourage and require students to carry out tasks that provide exposure to content, opportunities to struggle with that content and constant feedback on those struggles.
  • Design an assessment strategy that focuses on measuring doing rather than . . . well, not doing. This involves the use of problem-based learning and performance tasks.

Performing these steps results in the situation that Biggs describes:

In such a teaching, where all components support each other, students are “trapped” into engaging in the appropriate learning activities.

or as another researcher put it (Cowan 1998), teaching is

the purposeful creation of situations from which motivated learners should not be able to escape without learning or developing.

And I know that for many of us, this is preaching to the choir. But I appreciate the way that Biggs has divided classroom behaviors into different levels so that I can better monitor my own activity.

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