Note: This is the fifth post in a series based on the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson.

One of the hardest parts of being a high school math teacher from my perspective is not falling into what Robyn Jackson calls the "Curse of Knowledge" trap.

"Once we know something, it is hard to understand what it is like to not know it. Our knowledge makes it almost impossible for us to imagine what it is like to lack that knowledge." (p. 104)
Perhaps someone in your building is always ragging on students because they just don't "get it." Isn't that our help students go from "not getting it" to "getting it."?! If students came to me knowing everything there is to know about math, then...
  1. I would have a pretty boring job, and
  2. I would not have a job for very long.
When I begin teaching Geometry this August, I need to once again "recalibrate" my brain and think back to what it was like to know very little about naming angles, rays and line segments. I cannot assume that students know about Pythagorean's Theorem, let alone when (and when not to) use it. In my experiences, the difference between being merely a content expert and a master educator is the ability to comprehend and understand what it is like to "think like the students do."

The content expert says, "I know this and so should you."

The master teacher thinks, "What barriers exist between where my students probably are and where I would like them to be."

The realists in my readership are thinking right now, "How do go about doing this?" Robyn Jackson's fourth chapter and principle, "Support your students" suggests a few practical ways of getting past the curse of knowledge.
  • Use pre-assessments to identify common misconceptions ahead of time. In our current era of high-stakes testing and accountability, pre-tests have been given a bad rap. Through pre- and post-tests, teachers are quickly able to "show" they are doing their job. While that may be true, a well-designed pre-test can quickly tap the brains of a classroom of students and in turn reveal commonly held misconceptions which can be used to guide future instructional planning. A pre-assessment of this type does not have to be scored or entered into the gradebook. It can merely be used as a narrative or snapshot or where students currently stand in their understanding of upcoming concepts.
  • Focus on error analysis. What are your students currently struggling to understand and why are they doing so? Might I suggest my previously documented thoughts on debugging as a place to start your reading?
  • Show bad examples and common errors/misconceptions. Once you have identified the errors and misconceptions, use them as future teaching moments. Some of my most meaningful group and individual remediation has not revolved around a new lesson plan script, but rather pulling examples of incorrect student work and asking students questions about it. Questions such as "What were you thinking here?" or "What do you think Johnny did wrong at this step?" These types of prompts also model self-assessment, a skill I believe is necessary for truly developing "life long learners" as so many of our school mission statements propose.
In what ways have you found success in helping your education-minded colleagues get past the "curse of knowledge"? What types of tools/strategies do you use in your classroom to identify misconceptions? Feel free to leave a comment below.