Training Programs and The Curse of Knowledge

Is it better not to know too much?


When working for a manufacturer, I asked a group of product trainers, “How important is it to have a thorough knowledge of a product in order to be effective as a trainer?” They quickly agreed that it is critical to know a product inside and out to do a good job of training.

Then I asked, “Who in our company has the most complete knowledge about a given product?” They considered this question and concluded that product engineers knew more about their products than anyone else.

Finally, I asked, “Would product engineers make the best trainers?” The trainers immediately responded that our engineers would not be the best choice for trainers.

How can it be that it is important to have good product knowledge to be a trainer, yet the people who possess that knowledge, the engineers, are not the best choice to train others? In their best selling book Made to Last, Dan and Chip Heath discussed this dilemma known as The Curse of Knowledge.

Made to Stick

“Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators.”

In fact, the more we know about a subject, the less likely we are to be able to explain it to others. More and more knowledge just makes communication more and more difficult. Since we can't imagine what it was like not to know, we can't figure out how to properly convey this information to those who don't know it.

The good news is that there are ways to overcome this conundrum. In our upcoming training blogs we'll address the use of SME's or Subject Matter Experts, and other methods of avoiding The Curse of Knowledge in training.

What examples can you describe of The Curse of Knowledge?

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3 Responses to Training Programs and The Curse of Knowledge

  1. We have all endured teachers who understood the subject matter so well that they made too many assumptions; took too many shortcuts and, worst of all, could not empathize with students. They ‘got’ the content so well and so easily that it seemed unimaginable to them that anyone else would struggle. Those teachers were, for most of us, useless. That said, I think we have also experienced the joy of someone who also understood the subject to a high degree and could leverage this to get the concepts across in multiple ways. The difference was, perhaps, not the degree of understanding but, rather, a parallel understanding of the underlying mechanisms of human learning and a core-felt belief that getting ‘it’ was often just plain hard work for both teacher and student. Now THOSE teachers…priceless!

  2. Art Johnson says:

    Thanks for the comments Maurice. I agree. There is, however, a difference between teachers and the product experts/trainers in business. Teachers have (or should have) expertise in learning principles and methodologies as well as in their subject matter. Trainers rarely have that depth of understanding and experience as educators. In my upcoming blogs, I’ll cover some techniques that will help trainers overcome “the curse of knowledge”.

  3. Jeff Jones says:

    In my experience, one of the weaknesses with “training” and with “teaching” is the fact that us people learn in different ways. Therefore to be truly effective, one needs be willing to explore the possibility of presenting a smorgasbord of ways to impart information. Within the smorgasbord’s variations are considerations that need be taken into account. These fall into such areas as speed of learning and assimilation of knowledge, or different baseline starting points as a result of prior learning and experience, or the fact that some are visual while others just need to listen while some read books and others engage in CBI training. Along with this hodge-podge of variables, the trainer or teacher needs to evaluate each student’s ability to understand a concept when given few details while others need more details to arrive at the same understanding. So, what is too much information for one may not be for another. Then throughout all this wonderfulness, some semblance of a logical sequence of information needs be conveyed at the appropriate level of detail. All in all, training or teaching is a lot of work. It’s typical to spend 3 hours on the development of learning materials for each hour of training but this doesn’t really factor in the full bodies smorgasbord.

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