How to become a better learner

3 years ago   •   6 min read

By Frank Dillon

Asking good questions is the key to unlocking true understanding says BRADLEY R. STAATS 

Learning is so vital today that we can think of ourselves as living in a learning economy. We can’t just be knowledge workers; we must also be learning workers. In the words of Jeffrey Immelt, the former chairman and CEO of General Electric, “You never hire somebody, no matter what job you’re hiring for, for what they know. You’re hiring them for how fast you think they can learn.”

But we’re bad at learning. Supremely bad. In fact, we’re our own worst enemies. Instead of doing the things that will help us learn, we often do just the opposite. And one of the most common mistakes is rushing to answers instead of asking questions.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.  Albert Einstein

Asking questions to learn is not something we need to be taught – at least not initially. Children may interact with the world primarily through questions, but adults do not. A study that found that 70 percent to 80 percent of kids’ dialogue consisted of questions also found that the range for adults was only 15 percent to 25 percent. Given the power that comes from asking questions, why do we so often rush to an answer?

If the world were static, acting without questioning would be perfectly reasonable. But we know that isn’t the case. We need to think about how to overcome the inclination to rush to answers. 

The scientific method—a basic approach to learning in all contexts—begins with a question. It helps us identify what our exploration is meant to answer. For example, Alexander Fleming was not searching for a way to prevent bacterial infections when he noticed something odd on a petri dish colonized by Staphylococcus bacteria. However, when he saw that mold was growing on one dish and that no bacteria were in that area, he started asking questions. He didn’t know those questions would lead to the discovery of penicillin. When we ask questions, we fill in the blanks in our own knowledge. 

Several years ago, I heard Joe Kennedy, then the CEO of the online music service Pandora, illustrate this beautifully with the story of Thomas Edison and The Great Train Robbery. In the early twentieth century, the motion picture industry was at a crossroads— largely because there wasn’t really a motion picture industry. The invention of camera technology to capture a moving picture had astounded observers in the late 1800s. After the initial shock wore off, it wasn’t clear that the technology would lead to a business. In general, it was viewed as a novelty. But why watch a show in flickering black and white and without sound when one could have a more vivid experience in a live theater? 

Thomas Edison recognized that if film technology was to lead to a sustainable business, the question of what film could do differently needed to be asked. In answer, the director Edwin S. Porter and his team helped create what we now think of as a motion picture. They filmed at actual locations and switched between cameras for the same scenes— close-ups and long shots—and across scenes occurring at the same time, known as crosscutting. A simple question sparked the creation of the first American action film and, through the innovation of others, an entirely new industry. 

Numerous examples exist of incredible innovations that resulted from a simple question. Edwin Land’s daughter asked him why she couldn’t see a vacation picture right away— and he invented instant photography at his company, Polaroid. Joe Kennedy’s Pandora, too, was founded on a simple question: Can music I like be used to find new music for me? With the spark of a question, learning can take us in new and sometimes exciting directions. 

Once a leader says, “I think,” everyone else stops thinking— or dramatically changes how he or she thinks, rather than using political capital to challenge the leader. One of the most powerful ways we can learn from others is to ask, “What do you think?” and be open to the answer

Finally, by asking questions, we make it easier for others to help us. As my friend and colleague Dave Hofmann likes to say, once a leader says “I think,” everyone else stops thinking—or dramatically changes how he or she thinks, rather than using political capital to challenge the leader. One of the most powerful ways we can learn from others is to ask, “What do you think?” and be open to the answer.

The power of questions can be seen in the work of Karena Strella, a partner at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder. Strella spent years running executive searches for many of the world’s most successful companies. She recognized that although her clients were pleased with her work, the predictive ability of Egon Zehnder’s models fell short of what she wanted. Her question: How could the firm do better? To answer it, she engaged in a two-year project to build a better model. In the process, she came to appreciate that predicting future success meant not only assessing individuals’ prior accomplishments but also – and even more important – finding a way to assess their potential. 

Her model consisted of four elements: insight, the ability to take in and use information from many sources; engagement, the ability to connect with people to share a vision; determination, the ability to overcome obstacles; and curiosity, the ability to seek new ideas by asking questions. As she used the model, Strella found that the “supercharger” for potential was curiosity. Without curiosity, an individual’s potential skills and abilities never turned into real action and improvement. 

Strella’s model was a commercial success for Egon Zehnder. As the firm deployed the model, it identifed previously overlooked candidates – often women or underrepresented minorities – which led to an expansion of the talent pool under consideration. A curious learner herself, Strella was able to change her perspective, along with the perspective of her entire organization, and to use the new model as a key element in the company’s strategic offerings.

Challenges in Learning from Asking Questions 

Rushing to answers when the world is changing around you is a shortsighted strategy at best. The answer that worked yesterday is unlikely to be correct tomorrow. Increasingly, we are tasked with activities that require judgment and expertise – not just mindless repetition of the same answer. As Marshall Goldsmith wrote in his book by the same title, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

We also often fail to ask questions because we self-censor, for two reasons: We think we shouldn’t ask questions, or we don’t realize that we need to do so. The first is easier to understand. We worry that people will think less of us when we don’t know an answer. But of course, in uncertain environments it is simply unrealistic to expect to know everything that comes your way – you have to learn. 

Moreover, others don’t necessarily expect you’ll always know the answer. Often people respect those who are inquisitive, seeing them as both unconventional and socially perceptive. For example, research by Karen Huang at Harvard Business School and her coauthors has found that we like people who ask questions, because we find questioners to be more responsive. This is true even in the context of dating: people who ask more questions in speed dating are more likely to get a follow-up date. Furthermore, inquisitiveness and curiosity in general have been associated with better physical and mental health.

The second problem is we too quickly assume that we understand a situation given the information that surrounds us. If that information doesn’t suggest any alternatives or any reasons to question the initial assumption, why should we do so? As a well-meaning soul told me when I was a kid, “When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” Now, it isn’t clear to me how my assuming made the other person look bad, but it certainly is true that ill-thought-out assumptions are a bane of learning. As Mark Twain said, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”

We live in a world of answers. But if we want to get to answers that will increase our chances of being successful – both now and in the future – we need to recognize our tendency to skip asking questions, or to ask the wrong questions. Instead, we need be willing to recognize that “I don’t know” is a fair place to start, and quickly follow up by asking a question.

Bradley R. Staats is a professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flager Business School and works with organisations around the world to develop their learning and analytics strategies.

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