What is the curse of knowledge?

Teachers have “the curse of knowledge.” We tend to assume that our students know much more than they actually do. For Mandarin teachers, this means that we assume that our students can understand much more than they really do. The curse of knowledge leads to bad outcomes for the students because teachers do not give them the comprehensible input that they need. Students do best when they understand 100% of the words that their teachers use. The challenge for teachers in a good Mandarin Chinese class is not to have fun games, cool crafts or any other activity to keep students engaged. It is for teachers to speak Mandarin in a way that the students understand.

The Curse of Knowledge and Class Content

I wrote about story listening earlier here and here. Story listening is a language teaching method developed by Professor Beniko Mason, a English professor in Tokyo. In story listening, a teacher tells her students a story using pictures, gestures, and definitions to make sure that students “get it.” Where does the curse of knowledge come in? It means that teachers have to question all of their assumptions about what the students know. For example, when telling the story of Mulan, it is safe to assume that students know the basic plot. It is also safe to assume that students know the name Mulan. When teaching the story of “Butterfly Lovers,” however, teacher should assume that kids do not know the plot. It does not have its own Disney movie :). Telling a story to language learners is not the same as telling it to native speakers. The storyteller must speak more slowly, use shorter sentences, and use only known vocabulary.

Trade the Authentic Materials for Comprehensible Materials

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that something is easier than it really is. Teachers have to constantly check themselves to make sure they are using language that the students can understand. Even a slight variation can confuse students. Some educators think it is important to “challenge” the students. Many teachers believe that using authentic materials (meant for native speakers) will keep students engaged. In fact, the opposite is true. Authentic materials often use low-frequency words and are simply too difficult for beginners. Students don’t pay attention if they can’t understand. Authentic materials can often make students lose interest.

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that a children’s book in the target language will be easy for students. They think, “Oh this is for kids. I think it is very easy, so it must be appropriate for kids.” In fact, beginner students need material that is specific for them. The best materials use high-frequency words that the students know, or can easily pick up from a gesture or a drawing. In the beginning, a story for novice students is going to be very different than one for native speakers. If teachers do not highly modify their the story (or reading), it will easily be too hard for the students. If the students are not engaged, they will learn very little.

photo of excerpt from Monkey king book
This book is for language learners. It has a limited vocabulary. It is appropriate for intermediate students.
excerpt from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese
This is a page from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese. It is for native speakers, so will be too difficult for beginner or intermediate students.

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