The curse of knowledge – the presumption of foundational skills and understanding

The Curse of Knowledge is when we make decisions based on the presumption of prior knowledge. While this can often happen when we are working with children, it is also common when you have been working a field for a long time. You can be blind to your sector specific expertise. This often manifests itself by the terminology you use. Due to using technical terms or acronyms frequently we take it for granted that others know what you are talking about.

You will know when this happens as the other person will either stand there and look at you like you speaking an alien language, or they will take a stab in the dark and do something you didn’t expect.

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that you often see in coaches that are teaching young children but are used to delivering sessions for older children or adults. They presume that their participants have the basic movement skills mastered and can follow basic instructions. The problem is that if instructions can be interpreted in a different way than you expect, they often are.

When one of my martial arts students (that is also an instructor) told me a story from his mixed Taekwondo class I nearly fell over laughing but on a more serious note, he was luckily that he was in an environment where the parents are in the same room as the children training. He saw one of his younger members walking around the class with his trouser legs bunched up around his knees. To remedy the situation, the instructor said ‘Fred, pull your trousers down’. You can imagine what the child did next? Yep, you guessed it, down came his training bottoms. Looking back we all laugh at the situation but it just goes to show the importance of good clear communications and knowledge of your participant’s stage of development. You can see from this example that in this case, The Curse of Knowledge was the perception that the child would understand the instructors request due to his trouser leg being stuck around his knee level.

So how can you avoid The Curse of Knowledge in your young children’s classes?

1. Understand the child’s psychological stage of development. Don’t just assume that because one child can do the exercise, everyone will be able to. All the children will develop at their own individual pace. You can always differentiate and make the exercise harder or easier.

2. Try to use language that is appropriate for the age group you are teaching. By all means let them know why they are doing the exercise in a specific way but try to keep the tech talk to a minimum.

3. Either demonstrate what you want them to do yourself or ask someone else to demonstrate it. Make sure your body position is good so everyone can see and that you demonstrate a few times both at full speed and slower.

4. Don’t use acronyms and break down what you are trying to teach in to smaller more manageable chunks.

5. Don’t forget to let them practice the first chunk before moving on to the next.

6. You have to find a balance with the pace of the class so they are not overwhelmed but things are moving fast enough that they are not bored. You know what happens in a children martial arts class when you have ‘dead time’, they find something to fill that time and often, it’s not something your want them doing. 

7. Don’t give them too much information. A maximum of up to 3 coaching points is fine for this age group. Their working memory is not fully developed yet and giving them a long list of instructions usually means they will remember non of them. You have probably done this before without knowing and then wondered why the children are running about the training room doing their own thing. 

8. Don’t be afraid to review the teaching points to confirm they understand they are being asked to do.

The Curse of Knowledge

It’s not easy to communicate well with this age group but it is something you can improve on overtime. As well as thinking about what you deliver, it’s always great to consider how you deliver it. I will have more blog posts coming up on this over the coming months but for now, follow the points above to reduce the chance of seeing The Curse of Knowledge in your training hall.

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