Note: This post has been updated and incorporated into 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner – an essential read for the serious lifelong learner.
Questions are engines of reason. Thus, you need to learn how to form questions sensibly rather than emotionally. – Epictetus
Ever attended a class or seminar and when the time came for participants to ask questions, only one or two hands are raised (if any) – out of a room with dozens of people in it?
Ever read a provocative newspaper article, blog entry, Facebook wall post, or tweet and not submitted a question about the “facts” it contains or the author’s sources and motivations?
Ever voted in an election without really asking who the candidates are and whether the issues they stand for are the ones that deserve priority?
How can we know if we do not ask? Why should we ask if we are certain we know? All answers come out of the question. – Ellen Langer from The Power of Mindful Learning
I could go on, but you get the point. Our days are filled with opportunities for asking questions that we often don’t take. Much of the time that’s fine: it can get exhausting to question everything. But I think there is plenty of evidence that most of us, most of the time, are not asking enough questions – much less good ones.
That’s a big issue when you consider that one of the most fundamental ways to learn better is to ask more questions and to ask better questions.
And it’s becoming a bigger issue as tools like ChatGPT rapidly become a part of everyday life. Getting useful, valid responses out of ChatGPT is highly dependent upon supplying effective prompts – which very often take the form of questions. And very often, a single question doesn’t do the trick. As is often the case when talking with human beings, you have to be prepared to ask ChatGPT follow-up questions to refine, focus, and improve the original response.
As I’ve pointed out before, toddlers have no problem asking lots of questions, but as we age, life demands, social pressures, and perhaps just plain fatigue tend to sap our desire and ability to continually probe, particularly outside of the comfort zones into which we inevitably settle. If you want to be a better learner, you have to cultivate – daily, consciously – both the desire and the ability to ask questions. It’s that simple, and that hard.
How to Ask Better Questions
But again, the goal is not just more questions – though that is a great start. We also need to learn how to ask better questions, questions that are truly effective in advancing our learning. As a general rule, a good question should support our learning in at least one of four key areas.
How do you know that a new piece of information is true? What do you know about the source? Is the new information consistent with what you already know to be true? With the rise of the Web, and the consequent ability for nearly anyone to disseminate any information they wish, it has become more important than ever to establish the trustworthiness of new information.
Why does it matter that the information is true? What is the potential impact of the information? How much time is it worth spending to learn more about or take action related to the information? Generally speaking, we need to understand why we should care about something before we are likely to make the effort to move it into long-term memory.
How well do we really understand the new information? What else do we need to help us make sense of it? How does it connect to what we already know? While we don’t have to master the details of every new piece of information that comes our way, if we expect to remember it we do need enough depth to help us contextualize the information and relate it to things we already know.
What can we do as a result of the new information? What should we do? Does the new information compel us to act differently? Learning is fundamentally a process of change. So, how will the way we act or think change as a result of the new information?
In many cases, we may find answers in each of these areas simply by taking a moment to pause and reflect upon new information as we encounter it. The point is not to become like a “teacher’s pet” who always has her hand in the air, eager to ask a question simply to show how smart she is. The point, rather, is to be active in seeking answers, whether you do this out loud, on paper, in a chat interface, or in your head.