Insight • November 6, 2019

Three Types of Thinking and Why They’re All Important

By Krista Gerhard

How often do you think about thinking?  For most of us, the answer would probably be, “not very.”  As we manage our lives and do our jobs, we tend to employ different approaches to thinking without really being aware of it.  For the most part, that works. 

However, the times keep on changing and it’s becoming increasingly important for us to be more conscious of how we think, and to develop our thinking skills.  This is especially important if you work in a Learning & Development (L&D) role because you’re also responsible for developing those skills in others and helping them succeed in this changing world. 

In this article, we will define three very important types of thinking:  Critical, Strategic, and Entrepreneurial.  In subsequent articles, we will go into more detail about how L&D can use—and teach—all three forms of thinking.

Multiple types of thinking skills are becoming more important

In its Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum shares its 2022 Skills Outlook.  This is a listing of the top skills that employers will demand in the global economy of 2022.  Let’s take a look at the top 10 growing skills:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Creativity, originality and initiative
  4. Technology design and programming
  5. Critical thinking and analysis
  6. Complex problem-solving
  7. Leadership and social influence
  8. Emotional intelligence
  9. Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  10. Systems analysis and evaluation

It’s interesting that at least 7 of the top 10 hinge on one or more forms of thinking mentioned above.  For many roles, individuals will need to be proficient critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinkers.

Critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking:  What’s the difference?

Critical Thinking

We’ve written before about critical thinking, including the link between critical thinking and confidence.  However, we didn’t offer a definition.  Well, here it goes: 

Critical thinking is an effortful and continuous analysis and revision of one’s thinking processes and output for reasoning and logic and to eliminate bias in order to increase the probability of a desirable outcome.1

Wow!  That’s a mouthful.  It basically means that critical thinkers actively think about how they think! They gather, synthesize, and evaluate information in order to make decisions; however, they do so in a way that uses logic and reason.  Plus, they consciously work to avoid falling prey to various cognitive biases that can cloud their judgement.  At its heart, critical thinking is analytical and logical.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is a mental process that is applied when one is trying to achieve some goal or set of goals.  Whereas critical thinking is all about analysis, logic and reason, strategic thinking is about planning.  It involves being able to understand cause and effect and seeing several steps ahead in order to achieve some desired outcome. 

Strategic thinking does not exist in a vacuum.  Strategic thinkers typically must employ solid critical thinking skills to analyze and understand their current situations, then layer in strategic thinking to forge a path forward.  When thinking strategically, a person should also use critical thinking to discern the likely outcomes of one planned action versus another.

Entrepreneurial Thinking

Entrepreneurial thinking can also be called creative thinking.  It involves seeing things differently than most other people.  Entrepreneurial thinkers are able to identify opportunities that others may miss.  They’re also able to see problems and develop solutions that others might consider “outside the box.” 

Entrepreneurial thinking also doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  An entrepreneurial thinker must think critically about the ideas that he or she generates.  Otherwise, they run the risk of developing “flashy” ideas that are unworkable in the real world.  They must also think strategically when working to bring the best entrepreneurial ideas to reality.

Here’s another important point:  critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking skills can be taught.  Sure, most people will have differing natural aptitudes for various types of thinking. For example, Person A might naturally be more “entrepreneurial” in their thinking whereas Person B might be more inclined to think critically.  However, people can learn to use all three types of thinking.

Coming next…

In upcoming articles, we’ll explore two different aspects of all this that will be relevant to L&D professionals.  First, we’ll take a look at how L&D can use critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking to improve the way L&D engages with its stakeholders and increase its effectiveness.  Second, we’ll dive into how L&D can help improve its learners’ critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking skills.


  1. Halpern, D. F. (2014). Thought and knowledge: an introduction to critical thinking. New York: Psychology Press. Note: This definition is a compilation of various definitions from pages 8 and 9 in the source listed including one obtained via consensus from among 500 policy makers, employers and educators.

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Insight • October 23, 2019

5 Steps to Boosting the Impact & Strategic Value of Learning & Development

By Krista Gerhard

If you’re part of a learning and development (L&D) team, then no doubt you’ve been called a “miracle worker” at least once. In fact, L&D teams often have to “work miracles,” delivering programs for their stakeholders on short notice and with limited resources. For L&D, going above and beyond to meet the needs of their business partners is often part of the job.

How L&D meets those needs is also critically important. If the “how” isn’t right, then the L&D organization may run the risk of diminishing its impact on — and its strategic value to — the broader organization. In this article, we’ll explore why that’s true. We’ll also review five steps that can help L&D professionals better meet the needs of their learners and business partners as they increase their value and effectiveness as strategic partners.

Read the full article here

Insight • October 7, 2019

The Link Between Confidence and Critical Thinking

By Karen Foster

Over the last few years, we’ve been hearing the word “confidence” used quite a bit. 

Whenever we partner with clients on a project, one of the many questions we always ask the business sponsor is, “What do you want your learners to be able to do, or do better, as a result of this program?”  Obviously, the responses vary depending on the business’ needs and the learners’ roles and responsibilities.  However, one reply we consistently hear across the board is, “We need them to do X with more confidence!”

Confidence: A By-Product of Knowledge

Well, over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that confidence, in and of itself, is not something that can be taught or trained to, but rather is a direct result of how learners are taught or trained. A learner’s confidence comes from really “digging in” to a topic, thinking critically about it and gaining personal experience with it.

Think about it this way.  If you go to a restaurant and experience it for yourself—you taste the food, talk with the staff, and relax in its atmosphere—you’re going to have a different level of confidence when you tell your friends it’s awesome as compared to if you had simply been told it was great by others.  

Critical Thinking + Experience = More Confidence

It’s important for Learning and Development (L&D) professionals to connect improving a learner’s confidence in (for example) using clinical or economic evidence with training that allows learners to think critically and gain experiences in the targeted knowledge or skills. Unfortunately, in my experience, many training programs don’t do this. Instead, often they follow this pattern:

  1. Provide learners the evidence (such as a clinical trial or a vis aid) with the prioritized points already annotated and highlighted.
  2. Provide the key messages learners must communicate.
  3. Have learners verbatim repeat those messages through verbalization exercises.

This is not a recipe for confidence.  Why?  Because learners are handed everything and not provided an opportunity to think through or engage with the content themselves.

Another, far more effective approach would be one that encourages learners to truly think about the material.  Imagine a program that:

  1. Gives learners a clinical trial and asks them to read it (not annotated or highlighted).
  2. Asks learners to identify and formulate key messages on their own based on their own understanding of the marketplace, their customers and the trial.
  3. Provides an opportunity for learners to discuss their key messages and explain why they developed them (it’s OK if their messages aren’t the same as the ones Marketing will ultimately have them communicate in the field.  The key is to make them think about the content and engage with it).
  4. Affirms or “course corrects” the learners where necessary, helping them arrive at the correct key messages to be communicated.
  5. Has learners repeat and defend those key messages through verbalization exercises.

The process described above drives learners to internalize the content far better than simply handing them “pre-digested” material.  It gets them to absorb the information and work with it to create, test, and defend key messages.  After going through an exercise like that, the learners will be far more confident and effective.

As you work to develop new learning and development programs, remember the link between confidence and critical thinking.  By incorporating more critical thinking exercises into your programs, you’ll be able to generate far more confidence and better results in the field.

Article • September 12, 2019

How to Coach It When You Can’t See It

By Karen Foster

What goes through your mind when someone mentions the word “coaching?” If you’re like most people, you probably think about a person instructing on a skill or a behavior to another person. And, that skill or behavior — whatever it may be — is probably observable.

For example, you might think of a parent teaching their child to ride a bicycle or a basketball coach teaching a new player to dribble or a district manager teaching a sales representative on how to use a new visual aid. In each of those cases, the coach can physically demonstrate the desired behavior and then observe how the learner performs it.

But what about unobservable behaviors, like thinking? Here, we look at the differences between observable and unobservable behaviors and offer some guidance for coaching unobservable behaviors.

Read the full article here.

Article • August 15, 2019

Why Active Learning is So Important

By Karen Foster

What does the World Economic Forum have to do with learning and development?  Well, if you’re a learning and development (L&D) professional, you might want to take a look at their latest Future of Jobs Report.  In it they tell us that the #2 growing skill for 2022 will be active learning and learning strategies, right behind analytical thinking and innovation.

Increasingly, workers will need more than just information to help their organizations succeed.  After all, the world has plenty of information:  Users on the Internet create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each and every day.  So, the problem isn’t a shortage of information.  It’s a shortage of insights.  Workers will need to improve their ability to sort through information, prioritize it, and derive meaning from it.  They’ll need the ability to draw insights, apply knowledge to solve problems, and be innovative. 

In large part, L&D teams are responsible for preparing workers to help their organizations succeed.  In our evolving economy, active learning approaches are growing even more necessary to make that happen.  The key questions are:

  • What is “active learning”?
  • How should L&D incorporate active learning into its initiatives?

In this article, we’ll provide some answers.

The Roots of Active Learning

Active learning has its roots in the Constructivist Theory of Learning.  Now, there’s quite a lot to this theory, but we’re just going to hit a couple of high points that are relevant to our topic here. 

In basic terms, constructivism says that each learner constructs meaning and knowledge for themselves as they learn.  In fact, the learner’s act of constructing meaning is learning.  Each learner constructs that meaning by leveraging their own personal experiences and the associative neural networks they’ve built.

One critical “takeaway” from constructivism is that educators should focus learners on more than just the subject being taught, but also on thinking about the learning process itself.  From an L&D standpoint, this means that disseminating facts isn’t enough.  You need to help the learner truly engage with the content and fit it into their own system of meaning. 

In short, constructing meaning happens in the mind, but applying different techniques such as kinesthetic learning can greatly enhance the process.  When L&D creates programs that truly engage the learner, requiring them to think about what they are learning and to apply it (engaging the mind and the “hand”), that’s “active learning.”

Active Learning and the 1, 3, 10 Rule

As a learning and development professional who has facilitated numerous programs over the years, I’ve seen the power of active learning.  One key “rule” that I’ve found to be true is something I call the 1, 3, 10 Rule.  Here’s a quick explanation:

  1. Learner A gets 1x the benefit if they hear something from a facilitator.  This would be a purely didactic approach in which the facilitator simply gives information to Learner A, and Learner A passively receives it.
  2. Learner A gets 3x the benefit if they hear another Learner (B) describing it.  In this case, Learner A is still, for the most part, passively receiving information.  However, Learner A is more apt to think about that information and process it because it’s coming from a peer.  This provides a model of “what good looks like” to which A can most likely better relate.
  3. Learner A gets 10x the benefit if they think through it actively and arrive at a conclusion themselves.  In this scenario, Learner A is engaged, thinking about what he or she is learning, and applying knowledge to a problem or question.

It should be clear by now that the key takeaway is to engage the learner.  But how to do that?  Are didactic methods all bad and ineffective or do they also play a role in effective learning?  What key points should L&D professionals keep in mind as they develop active learning programs?

Building Active Learning into Learning Programs

Below are some key points to remember when developing active learning programs. 

Break Learning into “Chunks”

For imparting new knowledge and skills, it’s best to help the learner build a framework for the learning as they go.  That means breaking the learning into “chunks” or components that are self-contained and able to serve as foundational elements, preparing the learner for the next step in the process.  One piece builds upon another as the learner works his or her way toward mastery.

Imagine teaching someone to play the guitar.  For someone who’s never played the guitar before, you might start with teaching them how to hold it.  Once that’s done, you might move to the next step, perhaps teaching the learner about finger placement.

Use Didactic Methods, But Only as Needed to Get to Active Learning

Active learning is great, but don’t totally abandon didactic methods.  They do have a place.  However, they should only be used as much as is needed to get the learner to a point where they can engage with the material themselves.

Think about the guitar example above.  As a teacher, you probably wouldn’t just toss the guitar to your student and say, “Here, figure out how to hold this.”  It would be more efficient to demonstrate the proper technique to the learner first (a didactic approach).  But, you also want to get that guitar in their hands as quickly as possible so they can begin to actively engage with it.  That is when the bulk of the learning takes place.

In this way, the didactic approach helps set the stage for more active learning for that component.  Once the learner is relatively proficient with one component, it’s time to move on to the next, and the process repeats as the learner progresses toward mastery of the overall skill.

Figure 1: Didactic methods have a place, but only as needed to get learners into a more active learning mode.

Also, it’s important to remember that didactic presentations can become more impactful for learners when they actively choose to engage with the content in a more self-paced way versus simply being told to listen to it.  One easy example is a how-to video that the learner can pause.  In a way, this actually helps facilitate active learning, as the learner can pause the video, think about what she is seeing (and maybe even practice it), and then move on.

Facilitate Active Learning in Various Ways

There are many ways to facilitate active learning.  The most appropriate method in any given situation depends on the content, use case, and a host of other factors.  Interesting examples of active learning techniques include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Jigsaws – This is a cooperative learning technique that requires participants—individually or in small groups—to complete a portion of an output and then share it with the larger group to complete a “puzzle” or graphic.
  • Gallery Walk – With this technique, individuals or groups post a specific output in a designated space and all participants read or review the output.
  • Flipped Classroom – Also called “teach backs,” this technique requires learners—individually or in small groups—to develop and execute a “lesson” or concept.
  • Productive Failure – This technique involves providing an example of “what bad looks like,” analyzing it in small or large group discussion format and developing remedies as a large or small group.

Given the changes described by the World Economic Forum, professionals across many industries—including the life sciences—will be expected to analyze, understand, draw insights, make decisions, and apply knowledge like never before. For them, active learning will become ever more important. So, the next time you’re being asked to design a content-heavy workshop, ask yourself, “How can I help my learners generate real meaning from this?”  You can probably answer that question by building active learning techniques into your program.

Article • July 16, 2019

System 1 and 2 Thinking or “Ready, jump, think”

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning "System 1 and 2 Thinking" blog post image

What is System 1 and 2 thinking?

Imagine you are in New York City for the weekend. You are deep in conversation with a friend as you walk along 8th Avenue and you come up to 30th Street. You take a look at the traffic signal and it’s yellow. Your friend, formulating a thoughtful reply to your latest comment, takes a step out into the crosswalk. 

You glance to your left, and in a brief flash you see an SUV speeding up to try to make it across before the light turns red. You react without thinking. You reach out to your friend, grab her arm, and pull her back quickly to the curb. At just that moment, the driver notices your friend and swerves to his left. The SUV passes within inches of your friend! 

Your reaction is an example of what Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, calls System 1 thinking. Your mind reacted so quickly that you didn’t even have the time for conscious thought. In cases like this, System 1 thinking is quite a good thing! 

System 1 thinking is also very good for many things we do every day: it helps us quickly assess our surroundings, assess depth perception, recall information and form impressions. For example, if you drive to work you probably go through stretches of road where you don’t consciously think about your driving. It is a low-effort operation because it is ingrained in your memory. System 2 thinking is quite the opposite. 

System 2 thinking is hard. It requires conscious effort and energy, and is reserved for situations that require analysis and problem solving. For example: if I were to ask you to calculate 24 x 91, you’d need to activate System 2 thinking. Thinking that requires conscious manipulation of information such as inventing something new or developing a value story for a pharma product are facilitated through System 2 thinking.  In addition, research is also showing when information is consciously processed, via System 2 thinking, learners can learn better.

How can System 1 and 2 thinking impact learning?

Since we all have the same three-pounds of grey matter between our ears, whether we are designing a learning experience or taking part in it, System 1 thinking can impact the learning process. Since System 1’s literal role is to jump to conclusions quickly based upon a limited amount of information, it can lead L&D professionals to build learning based upon incomplete or inaccurate needs assessments. It can also drive learners to jump to conclusions about content and therefore impact their motivation to learn. 

In a learning environment, those designing learning need to think carefully about the topics, the business needs for those topics, and the desired learning outcomes. In addition, we also want learners to reflect, analyse, and consider problems from different perspectives. All of these actions require activation of the more effortful System 2 processes in order to be effective. 

How can we design learning to account for System 1 and 2 thinking?

For this reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure we account for System 1 while engaging System 2 thinking in our learning designs. Specifically, we do three things every time we approach a new program:

  1. Challenge the business’s and learners’ needs
  2. Build in time for self-reflection and contemplation 
  3. Give learners a break, literally! 

Consider a recent learning program we completed around critical thinking in account management. In this program, we first pushed our client to think more deeply about the need. Was it really a critical thinking need or was there something else at play? In our needs assessment, we found out that recent organizational changes had caused some role confusion amongst the customer-facing teams. They weren’t fully clear about what was expected of them. 

As a result, while the primary objectives of the workshop were aligned to critical thinking, we dedicated time to clarifying role expectations to good effect. In addition, we built in “step back and reflect” exercises where learners used learning journals to engage their System 2 thinking on the information. Finally, to give the learners a chance to mentally rest, we ran some fun and light activities and discussed some quotes. These demanded lighter thinking effort all the while maintaining good energy. 

Despite all the scientific progress humans have made, it looks like we aren’t going to be able to fully escape our System 1 and 2 thinking. And in some ways that is good news; as your friend who narrowly escaped the SUV might agree. 

That said,  we hope this article provided a little help in designing learning programs that engage the System 2 thinking of our learning professionals and participants alike. Thank you!

Article • July 1, 2019

Metacognition or “I think, therefore I learn”

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning Metacognition or "I think therefore I learn" blog post image

What is Metacognition?

I used to hate writing essays when I was a kid. I would read the assignment and then spend days simultaneously procrastinating and wallowing in a simmering fear about the topic and the work required to complete the assignment. 

Finally, the night before it was due I would bite the bullet and work through the night to finish the essay. The results were often not very pretty, and my teachers let me know it! 

Then, after one particularly poor grade on an essay assignment, I had an epiphany. This epiphany was helped along by a note from the teacher on the essay title page. It stated, in red marker, “Think about what you want to say before you start writing!” I read it and realized that my teacher was right. I was just diving in without giving any real thought to how I structured, prioritized, and focused my thoughts. 

This “ah ha” moment was probably my first real understanding of metacognition and how it could help me get better. Of course, I didn’t think of it as metacognition, but that is exactly what it was. In short, metacognition is basically thinking about how you are thinking! 

How can Metacognition impact learning?

Of course, metacognition is important for more than just learning. It’s a vital part to helping us think critically about the world, solve problems, and push ourselves to get better at what we do. In a learning program, the lack of metacognition can mean our participants are just going through the motions, perhaps even just memorizing facts and information to do just enough to “pass” the class. 

Let’s consider an example from a recent Trainer Transformation program we ran with a client. This is a comprehensive three-month program that helps new and tenured trainers improve their strategic partnering across the organization through a series of live and virtual workshops and self-directed learning. 

We had one particular participant, an experienced trainer who I’ll call John, who expressed skepticism at the activities. During each of the activities, instead of being introspective and thoughtful, he defaulted to a cynical viewpoint of, “I’ve been there, done that.” After a significant portion of the program had run its course, we organized an intervention to challenge John to use the activities as an opportunity to assess his own thinking around learning design and development. 

The results were notable. While we agreed he had a good base of knowledge, he was able to push himself to build upon that base by focusing on his own metacognition. 

How can we design learning to account for Metacognition?

We can incorporate metacognition into our learning design and development in a number of ways. We’ve listed three of them here: 

  1. Incorporate self-assessments and self-awareness activities. As we pointed out in our article on overconfidence, a little self-assessment goes a long way to getting people in the right mood to learn. 
  2. Teach participants about metacognition and how important it is. Be like my writing teacher, and help learners understand the existence and value of thinking about their own thinking. A simple solution is to talk-aloud your thinking while working through an example. This means sharing all the nitty-gritty details of how good thinking goes back and forth, up and down and side-to-side to distill signal from noise, comprehend new information, or complete a task.
  3. Build metacognition into your learning activities. A great way to do this is to ask the learners to answer “why?” as they work through exercises. For example, if you are running a strategic planning workshop, ask the learners “Why did you think that way?” as they develop strategies from a set of insights. You simply can’t use “why?” enough!

Metacognition sounds like a highly academic topic, and in some ways, it is. But in other ways, it makes a lot of sense that if we are able to analyze how we do something we’ll get better at it. Oh, and by the way, tell your kids about it so they don’t struggle like I did with their essay assignments!

Article • June 10, 2019

Confirmation bias or “See, I told you so”

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning Confirmation bias or "See, I told you so" blog post image

What is confirmation bias?

At family reunions or other gatherings—like over the Holidays—my family has a rule:  No politics.  We generally try to avoid topics that might cause disagreements.  But, not all families have that rule.  You and your family might thrive on lively debates.  It might be “anything goes” as far as you’re concerned!  

Think back to such a gathering.  Perhaps it was a family reunion or just a group of friends.  Have you ever been in a “lively debate” about some controversial topic?  Have you ever experienced a situation in which your debate partner just would not…could not…be moved by any degree of evidence, reasoning, or facts?  

We’ve all experienced this at one time or another.  In such a situation, your debate partner might be exhibiting confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms one’s preexisting conclusions.  For example, if the conclusion is, “The sky is blue.” The brain will more easily and more vividly recall information that confirms that conclusion, such as gazing into the sky on a sunny day, over sitting inside on an overcast grey-sky day.  

However, it goes further than that. Confirmation bias also relates to how our brains prioritize those two pieces of information. Using the same example, if the intent was to decide if the conclusion was correct, rather than consider the two as equally relevant, the brain often prioritizes the confirmatory over the disconfirming information.  Slightly disturbing, is that this is seen even if the confirming evidence is flimsy or even false yet the disconfirming evidence is rock-solid.

How can confirmation bias harm learning?

In the grand scheme of things, confirmation bias often results from a lack of critical thinking.  Learning and Development (L&D) professionals, in their desire to support and satisfy their internal clients, can fall into this trap.

Let’s consider this example.  Assume a business unit (BU) leader has concluded that account managers don’t leverage all of their tools to analyze their business. Now say that the BU Leader goes on a field visit and observes an account manager neglect some tools. When the BU Leader returns to the home office, he or she quickly pulls the L&D team into the room and sets them off build a training on using all tools to analyze the business.

To satisfy the BU Leader, L&D might move forward with developing a solution to drive account managers’ analysis skills, which might be exactly what’s needed.  But, then again, it might not.  The BU Leader may be prioritizing the single experience he or she witnessed in the field over back-end analytics that illustrate all tools are being used. 

If that is the case, then L&D would be wasting its time and resources, as well as valuable account manager time, on a program that isn’t really needed.

How can we save learning from confirmation bias?

L&D professionals can do several things to ensure that confirmation bias doesn’t infect learning programs.  Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Act as a true learning consultant with internal clients / business sponsors.  Be a strategic partner and when someone says they have a need, be sure to clarify what information is leading them to that conclusion and what the business objectives are regarding addressing the need. 
  2. Use learning needs assessments to objectively confirm the nature and depth of the need.  Data-driven needs assessments provide evidence that learning programs are actually needed, and that they are addressing the right things.
  3. Incorporate critical thinking exercises into training programs when possible and appropriate.  Critical thinking skills are extremely important and learners should be able to use them.  Critical thinking can help learners be more effective in their roles and help them avoid confirmation bias as they fulfill their day-to-day responsibilities.

Hopefully, this article provides some useful guidance regarding confirmation bias and how to avoid it.  We’ll probably never be able to convince your Uncle Fred to change his mind, but we just might be able to help you develop more effective learning programs.

Article • May 17, 2019

Overconfidence bias, learning’s silent killer

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning "Overconfidence bias, learning’s silent killer" blog post image

What is overconfidence bias?

My son has always been the fastest kid in his class. Just ask him.  When he was six, we watched the Olympics together.  When he saw Usain Bolt win the 100M sprint, he confidently turned to me and said “I’m definitely faster than him!” 

Now, I see it as part of my job as “Dad” to make sure he sees the world for how it is.  I promptly took him to the street outside, marked off 20 meters, and timed him. 

After a little warm-up, I counted down “3, 2, 1, GO!” and he jumped out of the start.  He moved quickly and reached the line in just over 4 seconds. 

We then went back and watched the recorded race, and estimated Mr. Bolt’s time for his first 20M as just over 2 seconds.  I looked at my son and said “Not bad! You’re half as fast as the fastest man in the world!” His response was a perfect example of overconfidence bias: “Well, at least I’m the fastest kid in the world!” 

Why does overconfidence kill learning?

As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”1 Overconfidence is a killer of learning because it stops people from thinking they can or should get better at something and precludes them from participating or fully engaging in a learning program. 

This can manifest itself in a lot of ways. For example, we’ve seen commercial leaders exclude themselves from learning programs geared towards their teams, even though they could have benefited. We’ve also noticed this with experienced “been there, done that” market access account managers, with typical quotes such as “I already know that” or “I don’t need that training”.  

How can we save learning?

Don’t worry, there is hope. The first step is to help participants understand their actual current knowledge and skill levels. In the case of my son, I was able to directly compare empirical evidence to help him understand how he stacks up to the world’s best. 

So, the first thing we need to do is help learners understand that they have room to learn.  One way to do this is via an assessment.  This can help establish a baseline and show learners where they are versus some specific standard. 

Another important thing to do is to drive a learning culture that enables learners to accurately self-assess their level of competency, then focus them on building competency in their biggest areas of need.  Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that self-assessment skills can be learned and used to more objectively evaluate one’s level of competence. 

So, the old saying that “ignorance is bliss” is actually true.  But, that bliss fades quickly when professionals’ performance in the field doesn’t quite match expectations.  By helping learners more accurately understand their own skill and knowledge levels, we can help them get a lot more value from learning programs.

1 Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, Vol. 1, Introduction, p.3

Article • April 30, 2019

The curse of knowledge or “It seemed so clear to me”

By Krista Gerhard

Salience Learning Curse of Knowledge blog image

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person (think of a trainer or a subject matter expert) is communicating with a learner and assumes the learner has the background knowledge to comprehend the communication.  I’m sure that textbook definition sounds very dry and boring, so let’s try a little activity to illustrate the concept.

Think about your favorite song or piece of music.  Now, go find some friends.  Don’t tell them the name of the song.  Just ask them to see if they can guess the song as you play out the tune.  Here’s the catch: your only instruments are your knuckles and a table.  Yes, to “play” the tune, all you can do is knock the melody or the most recognizable part of the song on a table. 

Here’s what you’re likely to notice: Because you know the song, your patterned and purposeful knocks will sound like a dead-on match to the song’s melody.  You say to yourself, “Surely, they’ll guess it straight away, right?” 

Well, probably not.  To your friends’ ears, the tune you are hearing in your head is likely to sound like a bunch of senseless knocking, as they don’t have the prior knowledge to interpret the information. That’s the curse of knowledge. As a side note, this experiment was popularized by a Stanford PhD students research study in 1990 where only 2.5% of the listeners were able to identify the song[1]

Now, let’s try it on you. 

Click on the player below and take a listen.  On it, we’ve “knocked out” a very well-known tune.  Can you guess it?

At the end of this article, we’ll reveal the name of the song.  

Why is it important to consider the Curse of Knowledge when designing learning?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a communication that went right over your head?  I have. Once when creating a learning experience around Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), I had the pleasure of interviewing a very knowledgeable subject matter expert (SME) to inform the design. 

While I am familiar with oncology, its marketplace and that marketplace’s unique business dynamics, at my first meeting with the SME after sharing this background, he assumed I also had a deep scientific understanding of diagnostics. As such he dove into a passionate and highly scientific explanation filled with technical terms and acronyms. Which, while accurate, fell like senseless knocking on my ears.  

This isn’t to say he was at fault. To him, certain knowledge was obvious and assumed. However, not for me.  Needless to say, he was extremely gracious as I asked questions to deconstruct his knowledge into its foundational elements in order to build up my own and create an appropriately complex design for the target learner.

But imagine if I hadn’t?  Imagine if the final experience was simply this same good-hearted SME presenting this highly complex information for, say, an hour in a dark ballroom with equally complex slides as its backdrop with no time allotted for learners to ask questions to clarify and relate this new information to the prior knowledge. This is the how the Curse of Knowledge can hamper learning and, unfortunately, it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

How can we save learning from the Curse of Knowledge?

As professionals who design learning programs, it’s essential to have an understanding of your learners’ current and prior understanding of a topic.  To properly learn new things, learners must be able to place new information into an existing mental framework of understanding.  If learners don’t have one, then new information can fail to “stick”.  

To avoid that outcome, you need to know your learner’s baseline level of knowledge.  If they don’t have a framework, then you’ll need to help build it by exposing them to—and causing them to engage with—the proper level of foundational knowledge and also relating the new knowledge in some way to other frameworks or knowledge they do have.

In short:  Know your learners, ensure they have a strong foundational framework (or help them build one), and keep your SMEs grounded in the learners’ level of knowledge to avoid high-quality learning turning into senseless knocking.

Now, how about that song? It is actually the most popular song in the world: Disney’s It’s a Small World (After All).  Readers from across the world have likely heard it at a Disney Theme Park in the US, Europe, Japan, or Hong Kong.  Now that you know the song, go back and listen to the recording again. We hypothesize that this time around you’ll “hear” the melody loud and clear and say perhaps, “Its so clear to me!”  But then you’ll pause and remember how once you have the knowledge you can be cursed.