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8 Questions to Inspire Teaching and Training Moments

June 26, 2012

Effective Teaching Starts With Questions

Zen Buddhists have a concept called “Beginner’s Mind,” which is difficult to translate but roughly equates to clearing preconceptions so that new ideas can enter.  (Darren Henson offers a nice brief overview.)  This is an important idea for teachers, trainers, managers, and anyone who wants to help others learn for two reasons: first, because when we know a lot, we often forget what it was like to not know, and second, because we need to reconnect with the “beginner’s mind” our students naturally bring to the new (to them) information and skills.  Reconnecting with our “beginner’s mind,” in other words, can help us overcome the problems of expertise.

As with so many good things, expertise is a double-edged sword.  A number of people have written about the problems of expertise, ranging from the probability that experts will use “heuristic” thinking to see novel problems as if they were analogous to old ones (see for example Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow or a brief but helpful explanation here) to experts forgetting what they didn’t know when they first started, making it hard for them to know what beginners need.  As Nietzsche said about knowledge, expertise entails a kind of forgetting, a not-remembering of all the mistaken notions one began with, all the dead ends one travelled in arriving at expert knowledge or skill.

Because of this forgetting, we as teachers (whatever our “jobs”) must use questions to re-open those forgotten and abandoned paths, not so that we can retread them, but to remind us what it is like to be a beginner, not yet knowing the “obvious” simple way of doing something, still feeling the way to competence.  I routinely use questions when preparing new lessons, from ones that prompt me to reconsider alternatives I previously rejected to others that push me to reach out to different kinds of thinkers and learners.

••The ones below are certainly not all the questions you might ask to inspire explanations or drive new ideas for teaching; they are just the ones I myself, through more than ten years of teaching, have found to be most useful.  I’d love to hear your ideas–leave a comment with the questions you pose for yourself or other tricks you’ve found to help you re-enter the “learner’s mind.”••

8 Questions

1.  How did I first get interested in this subject?  It is well-documented that the more you know about something, the more interesting it is to you.  This is one reason why high-schoolers and other young learners may be, or appear, bored with school material: they don’t yet know enough to be interested.  If you can reach back into your memory and retrieve the interesting fact or story or skill that first led you to your investigations into the subject, you can share that with students or employees and help them reach your level of interest.

2.  What didn’t I know when I started?  This one is absolutely key–and incredibly difficult.  Try it, and you’ll find that it’s surprisingly hard to remember what you used to not know because as soon as you know it, it becomes self-evident.  Remember the frustrations you ran into, the questions you had to ask someone else; make sure you cover these same things for others.

3.  Who else do I know who’s interested?  I ask this question because remembering the vastly different people who are interested in the same subject reminds of two important facts: there are other ways besides mine to care about this subject, and there are types of learners unlike me who study it.  Asking this question reminds me to think about how to teach to those who don’t immediately see, or appreciate, things just like I do.

4.  How could I get them to teach it to me?  We all learn more effectively when we do, read, write, or stumble our way through things on our own.  Once you’ve figured out what you want them to know, find ways to turn it around so that they teach you.  Presentations, working groups, emails and other online sharing–any of these are effective ways to get them to learn it on their own and then let you know what they’ve learned (and what they still need help with).

5.  How can I over-communicate this?  “Over-communicate” is something of a buzzword right now, but as a teacher, it strikes me as incredibly important.  There’s a traditional saying among teachers that you should “Tell ’em what you’re gonna teach ’em, teach it to ’em, then tell ’em what you taught ’em.”  I first noticed this style of instruction when I took my CPR recertification course from the Red Cross.  The videos outlined each skill, then showed it being performed in detail, then recapped.  I still remember the core skills even though that course was more than ten years ago.

6.  How can I make sure that questions get asked?  It’s important, of course, that questions get answered, but as any experienced teacher will tell you, the real problem is getting them asked in the first place.  Fear of embarrassment, the belief that everyone else already knows the answer, the simple desire to not make the class or meeting go any longer, forgetfulness–there are many reasons why a person might not ask even a pressing question.  Offer many avenues for anonymous question-answering, WAIT at least seven seconds (it’s long!) after you ask for questions to make sure there really aren’t any, and be honest in answering.  And never use question-gathering as a means of belittlement or critique because you will never get another question, and important misconceptions will not be cleared up until they have already caused problems.

7.  Where can they get more information?  This might go along with over-communicate.  If they want more information but don’t want to come to you, where can they go?  Are there videos, websites, books, memos, or other people they can contact?  Provide this information in paper and digital forms.

8.  How can I connect this to something memorable?  From Aristotle’s insistence that we must tie our own goals to the goals of our audience in order to persuade, to new neuroscience research showing that we learn by literally–that is, physically–connecting new information to already-existing nodes in our brains, there has long been consensus that learning is most likely to “stick” when it’s tied to something we already know, something we care about, or something memorable in its own right.  On the downside, this is why traumatic memories are so strong; on the positive side, it means that if we find the right “anchor” for new knowledge, it can be learned more quickly.

Reconnect with your “beginner’s mind” by asking questions that get you outside your own expertise.  And if you have any ideas for other questions–or other ways to access the “beginner’s mind”–please share them!

  1. As teachers we should be professional in relating to the beginner’s mind (what a fascinating concept!) – isn’t that what pedagogy, andragrogy and learning facilitation are all about?

  2. Hi–thanks for reading! I think I’ve learned more about writing from my years of teaching it than my students possibly could have, and mostly from thinking back to the time before I knew the “rules” and asking myself, “How did I get here?” It makes you rethink all your own processes. I’m learning more about the beginner’s mind and may post about it again later. Thanks for stopping by!

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