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10 Ways to Be a Better Learner: No. 3 – Ask Questions

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 gone through a day, a week, a month, or even more at work without stopping to ask “Why?” about what you are doing and what you have learned in the process.

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.

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.

Any questions?

Jeff

P.S. – As you might have guessed by the “No. 3,” this is part of a series. Here’s No. 1 – Adopt a Growth Mindset, and No. 2 – Cultivate Your Network.

See also: Asking Better Questions: 3 Decision Points

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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5 comments
Tim says

A good question is one that leads to a useful answer or at least to the next question.

Reply
Jeff Cobb says

Ah, a sophist in our midst! Always a good thing? No, but I only suggest that we need to ask more of them. I would argue, though, that questions do essentially equal engagement. Perhaps not deep engagement – as in the example you give – but having to generate a question of any type requires at least a minimal level of focused mental activity. Even so, I don’t advocate the sort of rote questioning in your example (which I realize is all too common). Questions are just one tool in the engagement toolbox and need to be used well.

As for what constitutes a good one – I’d be interested in what you or other readers think. I find it difficult to generalize about what constitutes a “good” question. If you have a specific learning objective in mind, for example, then questions that lead to achieving that objective may be “good” (an argument in favor of formative testing). On the other hand, the path to knowledge is often circuitous and we often benefit from pursuing seemingly random or tangential questions (an argument the average constructivist would embrace). Still, “What is a good question” is a good question.

Thoughts anyone?

Jeff

Reply
Celisa Steele says

Is a question always a good thing? I sort felt compelled to post a question in response to this post, but then I wasn’t really sure what to ask. Maybe you should do a post about how to ask good questions? Or whether questions are always needed? I certainly believe that if we’re to learn, then engagement is key, but do questions equal engagement? I think we’ve all seen lackluster questioning–for example, when are students required to ask at least three questions following another student’s presentation. And who are the questions for? For the questioner? The questionee? Those listening to the exchange? Anyhow, this was a post that got me to put on my questioning cap. Thanks, Jeff.

Reply
Jeff Cobb says

Jason – Excellent. If you think of it, please comment again to share how it goes. I’d like to know, and I am sure other readers would too. Thanks for commenting! – Jeff

Reply
Jason Habing says

Great post. I am going to try to ask 5 questions a day for a week, and see what sort of results that brings. I think looking for questions to ask will promote daily learning and self improvement.

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