The Curse of Knowledge


By Phil Schlechty

Some time back I read a book by Chip and Dan Heath entitled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Clearly this book stuck with me, since I am still pondering some of the ideas the authors present. From time to time I will use this blog to present the results of these “ponderings.” Here we go!


The Curse of Knowledge

            One of the ideas the authors present is something they call “the curse of knowledge.” In my early days I spent a great deal of time reading sociological theory, especially theory intended to explain life in complex social organizations, and I clearly became cursed by the knowledge I acquired. In 1976 I produced a book entitled Teaching and Social Behavior: Toward an Organizational Theory of Instruction. The title alone should have warned the reader that I had been “cursed by knowledge.” I had learned a lot about organizational theory and I cared a lot about schools. My goal was to take what I had learned and apply it to something I cared about.

            What I failed to appreciate is that to understand and embrace what I was trying to say about schools one needed to know at least as much as I had recently learned about organizational theory. Unfortunately, most who knew what I knew about organizational theory didn’t really care much about schools-they were more interested in studying life in corporations, hospitals, and the military. Even more unfortunate was the fact that most of those who cared about schools really didn’t know much about organizational theory. (I even wrote a chapter about what I called the “psychological bias of American educators” in which I lamented the fact that too few educators seemed interested in the study of schools as social organizations.) The result was that the book was a flop. A few university professors liked it, some graduate students read it, and my mother was very proud. The fact is, however, that what I wrote had little impact on the direction of schools and school reform.

            I sincerely believe that if I had known how to present my ideas in a “sticky” way I might have made a much greater contribution than I did to the school reform agenda that was beginning to emerge in the late 1970s. For example, in Teaching and Social Behavior I describe 36 different types of schools and try to show that the way schools are organized affects the performance of both teachers and students in schools and in classrooms. Among other things, I show how and why demographic shifts in student populations so often lead to increased reliance on bureaucratic structures and coercive means of student control. This does not happen by intent and it does not happen rapidly-rather it is a form of social drift that operates more like the classic frog in the pot of water being brought to a boil. Leaders can stop this in its early stages, but often they fail to act until it is too late and crises arise. If what I wrote in 1976 had been understood as I intended it to be understood, policymakers might have been discouraged from some of the ill-informed actions some of them have taken in the name of school improvement. Unfortunately, I failed to present my ideas in a sticky way. I hope I have learned something about this business since 1976.

            Here is a story that might make what I am trying to communicate more “sticky.” (Stories are a powerful way to make ideas stick.)

One of the wisest men I have ever known is Jay Robinson. Jay, who passed away several years ago, was, when I first met him, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina. (He later became vice president of the University of North Carolina.) I met him about the time the book mentioned above was published. Jay read it and here is what I recall him saying to me: “Phil, you are going to have to make up your mind whether you want to write books for people like me (by which he meant practicing school administrators and teachers) or for professors and graduate students. I read this book because I like you, but believe me I wouldn’t have gone beyond the preface if I had not known you. There is good stuff in that book, but I had to work too hard to find it.” (By the way, Jay is the person who introduced me to the work of Peter Drucker.)

            I started working with Jay in 1977 and I worked hard to meet his standards. I knew I was getting someplace when, in the early 1980s, I was invited to testify before the education committee of the Tennessee legislature. After I testified, one of the committee members gave me a ride back to the airport. On the way back I recall him saying, “Son, you sure can get the hay down to the ponies.” Obviously, he was pretty good at getting the hay down to the ponies himself. In one brief and pithy statement he both summarized the problem presented by the curse of knowledge I referred to earlier and suggested a solution as well. Those who have knowledge must seek the core of what they know and what they want to communicate and they must state what they know in terms that are familiar to their audience. (By the time we took our ride, the legislator was aware that I was born and raised in the country and knew something about horses, ponies, and haylofts.) 

            Stating a complex notion in simple ways is, according to the Heaths, one of the first steps in making ideas stick. To do this, one must get to the core of the idea and strip away everything but that core. In doing this, however, one must be careful not to strip so much away that the essence of the idea is lost. Moreover, the core idea should be stated in a way that invites others to later explore the subtleties, nuances, and additional insights that have been stripped away to make the idea more sticky.

            Here I am reminded of the maxim that anyone who wants to present a complex notion to an audience that is not already familiar with the contours of the notion should have a 30-second message that states in clear and simple terms the core of the message he or she is trying to convey,  a 3-minute statement for those who find, as a result of the 30-second message, that they want to know more, and a 30-minute statement that expands and develops the core idea to a more sophisticated level-thus the simple idea of the 30-3-30 rule for conveying new ideas.

4 Responses to “The Curse of Knowledge”

  1. Elaine Smith says:

    As teachers design new work for their students I can see how these thoughts really fit into the intentional use of your Design Qualities.

    Do we know who our audience of learners are so that we can take whatever complex notion is a hard to teach and/or difficult to learn concept for them, or for their teacher, and strip it down to core so that we can then design ways of these learners moving towards a complex understanding of it? How can we create situations/experiences so that students will take a 3-minute statement and want to find 30-minutes of learning/new information?

    I will definitely be pondering this and considering how I can in my role use the 30-3-30 rule not only to convey my ideas but in helping the teachers in our district consider it in the complex art of facilitating learning in their classrooms.

    Thanks Phil for once again leading me to deeper and ’sticky’ thinking!


  2. Katie Brochu says:


    Thanks for your comments. I am reminded just how powerful stories are in making ideas and messages stick. The 30-3-30 rule definately works!

    Your words give me much to ponder!


  3. Pam Beach says:

    I attended a Working on the Work conference for the first time this summer and very much enjoyed hearing Phil speak. I’m just beginning to explore this site and enjoyed reading The Curse of Knowledge. I think spending time reflecting on why (or why not) something worked is so important, so it pleased me to read Phil’s thoughts on what he had learned about presenting ideas in a “sticky” way. I’m in total agreement that using stories is a powerful way to make ideas stick. I’m looking forward to utilizing this Discussion link and reading the comments of other users.
    Pam Beach

  4. Timothy breslin says:

    The concept of the curse of knowledge seemed like a sticky idea to me, so I read “Made to Stick,” only to realize before I got beyond the first page that I had already read it. Even the Heaths couldn’t get much to stick in my porous brain. So, having forgotten much of it - yes, I’m aware, painfully, of the irony in that admission - I’m reading it again. It’s a pretty good book about teaching and learning - creating the conditions for a student to want to learn, or do, or want to do something that is important. Isn’t that design work? And I love how it fits with, “One goal is a goal…”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.