Mr Kemp NZ

Tappers & Listeners – Why some ideas survive & others die

I am extremely lucky to work for a global organization of schools named Cognita. Over recent years, Cognita has changed their vision and mission to be 100% invested in providing the best care, support and learning for students and the best working environment for staff in more than 65 schools globally. The recent change in many leadership roles has helped the group stay relevant and lead with an emphasis on what is important in our business ….. KIDS! Student learning and staff development are at the forefront of ALL minds within Cognita and it is a very exciting time to be working for such an innovative and forward-thinking group.

Recently I was lucky to be part of a group to receive a very timely email from Cognita Schools Asia CEO Michael Drake. This email was in reference to communication and positioning ourselves as leaders in the field with effective and timely communication. He wrote in part “the audience receiving our communications will not have the same context as us and we should not assume they will understand what we think they will”.

In this email, he referenced the following article ( called “Made to Stick – Why some ideas survive and others die”, particularly referencing the point of “tappers and listeners”. I was immediately intrigued by this and read on with the context of the students, staff and parents I work with and for every day! I was so impressed and enlightened by the simplicity of the message that I asked Michael if he was OK with me sharing his words and the link he provided to a global audience. Below is the article with a reference to further reading.

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Tappers & Listeners (the key takeaways)

  • In 1990 Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in Psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game.
  • People were assigned one of two roles – Tappers & Listeners. Tappers received a list of Twenty-five well-known songs such as “Happy Birthday To You”; “The Star-Spangled Banner”; etc. Each Tapper was asked to pick out a song and tap the rhythm to a Listener. (By knocking on a table). The Listeners job was to guess the song based on the rhythm being tapped. The Listeners job in this game is quite difficult.
  • Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs. 3 out of 120!

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in Psychology.

  • Before the Listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the Tappers to predict the odds that the Listeners would guess correctly. They predicted the odds were 50%.
  • The Tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. WHY?
  • When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head.
  • Meanwhile, the Listeners cannot hear that tune – All they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a bizarre morse code.
  • It’s hard to be a Tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (The song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to ‘Lack’ that knowledge.
  • When they are tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the Listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.


  • Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.
  • Our knowledge has “Cursed” us and it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our Listener’s state of mind.
  • The Tappers/Listeners experiment is re-enacted every day across the world.
  • The Tappers and Listeners are Manager’s and Frontline employees, Teachers and Students, Politicians & Voters, Marketers & Customers, Writers & Readers.
  • All of these Groups rely on ongoing communication; but like Tappers & Listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances.
  • When a leader discusses “Unlocking Shareholder Value”, there is a tune playing in his or her head that the employees can’t hear.
  • It’s a hard problem to avoid – A leader might have thirty years of daily immersion in the logic and conventions of business. Reversing the process is as impossible as un-ringing a bell.
  • There are, in fact, only two ways to beat the curse of knowledge reliably.
    • The first is, not to learn anything.
    • The second is, to take your ideas and transform them.

What does this look like in your workplace? How do you turn the tides on the “curse of knowledge”? What will you do better in the future to ensure you communicate effectively and efficiently? So many thoughts running through my head! Thank you, Michael, for making me think and allowing me to share this out with thousands of educators all across the globe.

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Craig Kemp

Craig Kemp

I am a passionate Global EdTech Consultant based in Singapore but working with Schools and EdTech companies all over the world. I am a lifelong learner, dream creator and thought leader. I love to inspire others and find inspiration. Co-founder of #whatisschool, #asiaED edchats and #pubPD.

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