How to Overcome The Curse of Knowledge

On a recent trip to my Nan’s, I was asked once again to fix her iPad. She was unable to watch something on “that BBC button” and was quite distressed about it. In exchange for several cups of milky tea and a Tunnock’s Teacake, I did my best to solve the problem.

“Well what’s wrong wit’ bloody thing then?”

“Right. Looks like your wifi’s stopped working and the app hasn’t downloaded properly.”

Befuddlement ensued. I did my best to explain what ‘wifi’, ‘app’ and ‘downloaded’ meant before trying to explain what had gone wrong without using those terms. My Nan was still confused, so she just left me to it in a sort of “I don’t care as long as it’s fixed” way.

It struck me that I possess a lot of knowledge about the internet, apps, etc. that my Nan does not. It was very difficult for her to understand exactly what I meant, never mind attempt to resolve the issue herself, because she lacks the basic knowledge that I have.

This often happens in classrooms and is a phenomenon Steven Pinker terms ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. It means that experts often underestimate the amount of knowledge required to access new information. As has oft been said before, teachers can underestimate their own knowledge, and overestimate their pupils’ knowledge.

For example, when teaching something as seemingly straightforward as the humble apostrophe, we can underestimate the amount of knowledge required to really understand it. In order to use an apostrophe correctly, pupils need to understand five complex, overlapping rules:

  1. Singular and plural nouns not ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding apostrophe s.

E.g. Tom’s book, Ali’s table, the children’s room.

  1. Singular and plural nouns ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding an apostrophe (and sometimes an extra ‘s’ at the end).

E.g. Ross’s house, The foxes’ den, Elephants’ tusks. In order to understand this, pupils need to know the difference between singular and plural, and how to form plurals from singular nouns.

  1. Plural nouns that don’t possess anything do not require an apostrophe.

Sometimes pupils write things like this: ‘I have two apple’s’ because they have misunderstood the relationship between subjects, verbs and objects, and have formed a misconception about how possession works. This is something that needs to be addressed when teaching the apostrophe, either through teaching it correctly in the first place, or confronting embedded misconceptions.

  1. Pronouns of possession do not require an apostrophe.

Common mistakes with this one include: Our’s is really nice, I want her’s, the pencil is your’s. This happens because, again, pupils have formed a misconception about possession. This usually also indicates that they don’t really understand that pronouns replace nouns, but not always.

  1. Contracted verbs/nouns: show omission by adding an apostrophe in place of the missing letters.

E.g. I don’t know, we won’t go, they’re out ‘n’ about.


And don’t even get me started on the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’….!


The knowledge required to understand these rules is vast, and because experts are susceptible to the curse of their own knowledge, underestimating what they know and overestimating what pupils know, they sometimes fail to recognise just how hard it is to learn new, complex things. As a result, pupils end up confused and unable to understand and apply the thing you want them to learn.

Possible ways to overcome The Curse of Knowledge

At Michaela, we are working hard to overcome this. Here are some strategies for getting past the curse of our knowledge.

  1. Curriculum Sequencing

Joe Kirby’s post on curriculum design is well worth revisiting. A good curriculum takes knowledge into account, and prioritises teaching the concepts that pupils need to know in order to access new information. For example, it is far easier to learn how to subtract if you can count, so you wouldn’t teach subtraction before counting. The same applies for complex processes such as literary analysis. You can’t analyse a text unless you know things about it. You can’t write an essay until you know how to write a sentence, and so on.

  1. Knowledge Organisers

Looking at a unit as a whole, identify the 20% of content that will have 80% impact on pupils’ understanding. In an English literature unit on Shakespeare, for example, that might be key quotations, poetic and rhetorical techniques, plot, themes and a list of characters. If pupils learn this knowledge to automaticity, it will help them with more complex tasks later. Prioritise this knowledge at the start of the unit and refer back to it again and again until they have mastered it and are able to apply it flexibly.


  1. Drilling

Drilling the basics helps to free up space in working memory for more complex processes. For example, when writing an essay, pupils have got a lot to hold in their minds at once: grammar, spelling, punctuation, plot, themes, characters, quotations, links, paragraph structure, vocabulary, and so on. It’s overwhelming at the best of times, but helping pupils to automate many of the underpinning basics frees up thinking space. Experts can write grammatically accurate sentences without even thinking, weaving in interesting ideas and vocabulary with little thought. This is incredibly hard work for someone who has not automated the underpinning basics. At Michaela, we support pupils to automate the fundamentals by drilling them daily in quotations, grammar and knowledge. When it comes to essay writing time, they stand a much better chance of being able to get to grips with the complex ideas they want to express.



If Michaela sounds like somewhere you’d like to work, get in touch! We are currently looking for teachers of History and Science. More information here:


How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson


Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.


The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.


  1. More Focus


For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.


Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.



  1. More Rigour


When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.


  1. More Practice


If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.


We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.




The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.




If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here:

Where can teachers have most impact?

Lots of teachers go in to the profession because they want to make a difference. A noble aim, of course, even if it is a consequence of a slightly inflated view of ones ability to do so.  Government campaigns peppered with inspiring rhetoric aim to seduce the quixotic, convincing us that teaching will turn us into classroom heroes who will land in a school and change lives left, right and centre.


Teaching is a constant roller coaster, and to help us cope with the extreme highs and lows, from: ‘YES- Jimmy can finally use quotation marks!” to “Please don’t make me enter any more data- I want to kill myself”, we convince ourselves that we are having enormous impact on the kids who need us most. We elect to work at the most ‘challenging’ schools, living under the romantic illusion that we can parachute into them and save the world. We love the feeling of being in a battleground, of transforming their lives one controlled assessment at a time. We feed off the possibility of being that one teacher who finally helps a troublesome teen to knuckle down, or being that one teacher who can get that class to behave, or being that one teacher who inspires a bottom set kid to love reading. It’s all a bit Dead Poet’s Society, and we berate ourselves for occasional bouts of ‘average’, or for delivering a run of the mill lesson on a Thursday morning because you made the call to go to bed before 2am the night before.


We want to be inspirational teachers because we love the kids and we know that’s what might make the difference for them. And in a school with a challenging intake, Ofsted-driven practices and a behaviour policy that doesn’t support staff, we roll up our sleeves and continue the fight. We keep fighting because we feel that we are having a huge impact.


But is such transformation possible in a battleground school where good behaviour is rare and underachievement is rife? Is it really likely that we will change a kid’s life because we work relentlessly against the tide of low expectation and poverty that drives mediocrity?


It feels like it might be, but I don’t think it is as possible as we think.


Yes, we may help them to get their C- hopefully we’ll help them to do even better than that. And yes, we probably make their lives nicer for a short time, and we may spark something in them that may have lain dormant without our intervention. We tacitly accept that poverty, Ofsted and rubbish SLT exist and cause most of the problems, but we set these things aside and focus on the impact that we- individual warriors against the orthodoxy of the system-can have. We practise ‘Zen and the Art of Teaching with the Door Closed’, and carry on under the misbelief that there is no other way. Whether or not we manage to do this for more than a few years remains to be seen. Do many battle-ground addicts stick it out for fifteen or twenty years? Or do they perhaps realise somewhere along the way that they aren’t having as much impact as they think they are? Maybe they come to see that they aren’t all that indispensable after all, or maybe they realise the arrogance of thinking they can singlehandedly transform a child’s life in the midst of chaos.


I would argue that there are two fundamental problems with the hero teacher mindset. Firstly, it sets many of us up to fail. The level of transformation we think we can have is fairly rare: nearly half of children in the UK leave school without 5 GCSEs, and most of those are the ones we never quite managed to crack. Whilst we remember the success stories of our careers- the occasional pupil whose destiny we helped to change- we conveniently forget the ones the system has failed.


Secondly, it is never a guarantee that you will have this much impact on a child. It’s not systematic enough. It depends on personality, on circumstances, on luck. You may end up being the next Rafe Esquith, but in a profession absorbed in pointless bureaucracy and oppressive accountability, it is less likely than you might think.


But there is hope. I maintain my optimism about the power of education – I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t. I do think it’s possible to change the course of a child’s future through schooling. I think it’s one of the biggest leavers we have for improving social mobility and life chances. However, in order for us to have as much impact as possible, we must get over the hubris of “I’m a hero teacher” because the hero teacher is a myth. We must have the humility to realise that we cannot change the world when we are alone in our classrooms, and that in fact, we will have a far greater impact if we work somewhere where every single teacher and member of SLT is committed to getting pupils out of bad habits and into good ones, and will not rest until they have achieved excellence.


When teachers are working seamlessly together and are all singing off the same song sheet, something magical happens. When everyone is working towards the same objectives and believes that education means more than C grades and compliance, it is truly amazing and has genuine transformative power. Every single moment in a school like that feels purposeful. Rather than the occasional stumble over moments of joy and hope amid a sea of indifference, you can’t help but feel that every single small thing you do is contributing enormously to something far bigger than you would be able to achieve alone.


My message to you is simple: when choosing your next post, think carefully about where you will truly have the greatest impact. Going to work in a challenging school for the kicks you get from it will not be completely futile, but you will feel as if you are having more impact than you actually are in reality. Working somewhere where you are just one member of a group of people who all share your desire to change kids’ lives will enable you to have a far greater impact than you could ever have as a lone ranger in a challenging, chaotic school. The steps you take with a great team of colleagues will take you- and more importantly, your pupils- further than you could ever have imagined.