The Curse of Knowledge

Do you ever despair of your learners and wonder why they can’t understand your explanations of grammatical structures?

You can’t understand it. You studied the grammar diligently until you knew everything about the structure you were going to teach.

And yet, when you shared your knowledge with your learners, they looked at you in that way, with confusion written all over their faces. And then the questions started, first a trickle, then a flood.

You left the classroom deflated thinking ‘What’s wrong with them? Why didn’t they get it?

 Well my teaching friend, you may have fallen victim to the curse of knowledge!!!!


What is the curse of knowledge?

When we know something, we find it very difficult to remember a time when we didn’t know it. We find it even more difficult to put ourselves in the position of somebody who doesn’t know what you know now.

Do you want to know why many parents are the worst people to teach their children how to drive?

Simple. For them, the act of driving is so natural, so internalised (they have probably been doing it for 30 years) that they can’t imagine what it’s like not to be able to do it. Maybe that’s why friends or older siblings do a much better job. They are not yet experts and remember what it was like to be a novice.

So, how can we make our grammar presentations more effective?

One thing you can do is avoid abstraction and make things concrete. In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath (watch a video here)say the following:

“The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.”

We are the experts and have insights into language which have come about through years of experience. We have a higher and more abstract level of understanding.

“Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air”.

Click to see a video about the Curse of Knowledge

Read on if you want a real TEFL example:

One of my trainee teachers was asked to teach the past continuous to a group of Elementary learners. She hit the grammar reference book and prepared an incredibly detailed presentation.

When she taught the class, I watched the learners’ faces: first, confusion then despair. I swear one lady was about to burst into tears! They were frustrated with the teacher and themselves, thinking they were stupid for not grasping the concept.

I did something I rarely do: I stopped the lesson and asked the trainee to sit down and let me take over.

I took a clock down from the wall and asked the learners what the time was.


“What are we doing NOW?”

We are learning English.

What day is today?

It is Wednesday.

What day was yesterday?


What were you doing at 7.25 (this time) yesterday Pepe?

Er…I am…was watching television.

Suddenly, a collective sigh of relief echoed around the classroom.

Pepe, ask Patricia the question.

For the next 10 minutes, the learners threw questions back and forth at each other. They started changing the time, the day and responded perfectly using the target language (past continuous).

That’s all it took. The clock changed everything: it made everything concrete and sticky.

So, that’s my tip for today:

get away from abstract concepts (like grammatical structures) and use the classroom environment to make everything as real, as concrete, as ‘sticky’ as possible.

Would love to hear some other ideas for ‘sticky’ grammar presentations.