Ask more questions!

questionmark_200Teaching and developing others, particularly young people, can be a challenge. We try to organize a set of facts in a logical manner and deliver it to the receiving parties coherently, so the transfer of information is correct and goes smoothly.

But does it?

Sometimes it seems like we can talk and lecture until we’re blue in the face, but it just doesn’t engage the others. People tend to zone out if they’re getting too much information. There’s not an infinite capacity to receive and store what’s being explained to them.

It’s important to engage the brain in a manner other than just listening to what’s being said. The mind wanders easily, and something that the person doing the teaching says can jog another’s memory and cause them to think in tangents, tuning out the stream of information.

How do we engage others in the learning process?

I just gave you a hint. Hopefully I made you think, as well.

When we, instead of just giving answers and conveying information, engage the listener by asking them to think, the learning process takes a leap forward. The other person has to make those connections in their own mind. And we do this, ironically not by giving more answers, but by asking more questions.

There are many good reasons to engage others by improving their thinking. Mary Jo Asmus lists several in an article on why we should stop giving advice. Among them:

  • Others are smart and creative and have potential. Assume the other person can think for himself and is capable of drawing a conclusion.
  • People want to learn. Learning requires understanding, and a good way to gain an understanding is to work your way through the solution.
  • Giving advice makes it too easy for them. Nothing worthwhile comes without some effort, and if we just give information without expecting the receiver to participate, learning can fail.

Here’s an example of a couple ways to handle a simple camp task:

Scout: What knot should I use to tie this rain fly down?

Adult: A taut-line hitch.

Scout: Oh, okay.

The Scout goes off and ties a taut-line hitch (if he remembers how), and comes back to ask the same question at the next month’s campout.

A better way:

Scout: What knot should I use to tie this rain fly down?

Adult: Are you asking the right person?

Scout: Oh, probably not. I should ask my patrol leader.

Patrol leader (in an ideal world): What do we need the knot to do?

Scout: Hold the rain fly snugly to the tent stake.

Patrol leader: What traits does that knot need?

Scout: It needs to adjust to hold tightly but we need to undo it in the morning.

Patrol leader: Then what knot has that property?

Scout: I remember – it’s that one that you can slip down the rope, but when you pull, it holds.

Patrol leader: Do you know what it’s called?

Scout: A hitch or something, right?

Patrol leader: Yeah, and when you pull the rope tight, what’s that called?

You get the idea. Instead of answering others’ questions, if we ask them questions that lead them to the answers, we’ve not only quelled our information overflow but we’ve also involved the learner in the teaching-learning process.

So stop giving advice and ask more questions – lots of them! The more you ask, the more the others have to use their brain-power, which will help them learn and retain more than they would otherwise.


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