If you find yourself in proximity to discussions about education, you might likely know something about the "curse of the expert". In an often cited study, for example:
The curse made an appearance in that experiment when the intimate knowledge of the song they were demonstrating caused "tappers" to greatly overestimate the clarity of those demonstrations from the perspective of novices. And the basic message for education is that, for those in the know, it is all too easy to overestimate how well students are making sense of their instruction.
These findings don't suggest (I'd like to say "obviously") that expertise itself is something to be avoided or that one must take a vow of instructional silence upon obtaining it. Instead, the takeaway seems to be simply that all educators would do well to have some evidence of instructional clarity beyond their own experience and senses—because both of those things can fool you.
The Magic and Mystery of Expertise
Novices, on the other hand, can be cursed in an almost opposite way which we rarely talk about. Rather than seeing the expert's performance or knowledge as much more obvious than it is—as the expert does—novices can interpret the behavior of an expert as being much more magical or mysterious than it really could possibly be.
I'm stricken by this curse every 4 years as I watch the Olympics and wonder how those people possibly do what they do, or when I listen to anyone who moves through mathematics in anything but a plodding, hesitant way like I do, or even when I see things like this . . .
What if everyone on Instagram actually IS a plate of food?— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) June 24, 2015
. . . and wonder how people think of this stuff.
Even if I don't know exactly how these experts do what they do, sufficient experience with the world should tell me that their processes, however inconceivable they seem, are describable, technical, and replicable. But, rarely satisfied with the boring truth or with simply not knowing, the curse of the novice compels us to project onto the expert hypotheses about their performance or knowledge—and how they came to acquire it—that are not realistic, that are hand-wavily vague (practice! conceptual understanding!), or that tend to confirm unjustified biases about learning and excellence.
And these hypotheses, in turn, inform how we frame our fundamental mission as educators.
Reverse the Curse
Collectively, educators are both experts and novices in their fields. It makes sense to be watchful for ways in which our knowledge undermines our connection to students, but also mindful of ways in which we romanticize or mythologize those attributes of expertise we want our students to eventually have.
Of course, I'm just a
young grasshopper myself about all of this. But I would offer that being less than explicit about the skills and knowledge required to reach expertise strikes me as a perfect example of falling for the curse of the novice—we allow ourselves to be too much in awe of the expert, so all we have to teach is the awe. We deliberately muddy and mystify even the most straightforward of concepts, smugly satisfied that we have not only avoided the curse of the expert but also allowed students to glimpse for a moment the true wonderful magical spirit-world nature of, say, factoring a quadratic expression.
Experts are not better than us. They're just experts. Unless we have good reason to do so, those parts of expertise that are not a mystery to us we shouldn't make a mystery to learners either. And those parts that are a mystery to us . . . we should work to solve those mysteries.