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The Science of Smart: Four Secrets To Lift The 'Curse Of Expertise'

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Last week, learning expert Annie Murphy Paul wrote about the “Curse of Expertise” and the challenges it presents for educators. This week, she offers practical solutions for those struggling to make their expert knowledge accessible for the uninitiated. Find more articles like these on The Brilliant Blog .

This week, one particular number got the attention of a lot of readers. I quoted Ken Koedinger, a professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, as saying that experts can articulate only about 30 percent of what they know. This is a problem when designing courses, he noted, because the experts creating them often can’t adequately explain what they know to the novice learner.

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This phenomenon is called the “curse of expertise,” and it shows up in all sorts of settings—not just the instructor who can’t communicate what she knows to her students, but also the parent helping with homework who can’t get a concept across to his child, the marketer or salesperson who misjudges what customers knows, and the manager who’s frustrated that his employees don’t “get it” more quickly. Here, four practical ways to lift the curse of expertise and share your knowledge effectively with others:

Use data. Ken Koedinger, the CMU professor, also notes that designers of online courses now have a wealth of objective data on what learners find difficult to understand and master. This information, gathered with every keystroke the students make while proceeding through the courses, removes the bias that experts have (“But that’s so easy!”), revealing precisely where novices’ difficulties lie. You can use data, too, by setting aside your assumptions about what’s easy or hard and looking at the evidence instead.

Remind yourself of your own experiences as a learner. Experts’ judgments about their field are colored by the “availability heuristic”: that is, the memories that are most recent and thus most available to them are not memories of struggle and confusion but memories of ease and understanding. Prompting ourselves to remember in detail what it was like when we first started out can make the beginner’s mindset more accessible to us. A study led by psychologist Roger Buehler, for example, found that asking computer programmers to recall their own experiences as learners led them to make more accurate estimates of how long it would take a novice programmer to write a new program.

Draw up a list of the problems learners might face. As psychologist Tom Stafford notes, “learning makes itself invisible”—it subtly but thoroughly changes our perceptions and our judgments so that it’s hard to see how much we know, and how much others don’t. In particular, we “anchor,” or base our assumptions, on our own experiences as an expert, and then fail to make sufficient adjustments for the very large gap between us and the inexperienced. Generating an explicit list of the hurdles that novices must surmount, psychologists Patrice Engle and J. Bradley Lumpkin found, helps experts develop a more realistic sense of the challenges beginners face.

Break it down, then break it down again. As we gain expertise, tasks that were once a jumble of apparently unconnected steps become organized into simple and efficient mental patterns (“Just do this, and then this, and then you’re done”). The beginner, however, must still labor over each detail. We can help novices attain the mastery we enjoy by analyzing our own knowledge and breaking it down into steps—even “microsteps,” or tiny increments of knowledge—and making sure they understand each one. Once that’s been achieved, we can then help learners assemble the discrete steps into the streamlined mental models we ourselves use.

What if you’re the novice? Ask your teacher to adopt one or more of the strategies above. Or find someone who is just little more advanced than you are to explain. Research shows that people with “intermediate” knowledge can often be more helpful to the beginner than experts.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.