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The Role of Curiosity in Learning

When was the last time you asked a truly curious question? A question to which you had no idea what the answer was, a question that made the recipient say? For many of us, the last time we were truly curious was when we were 5 years old—a naturally curious age.

Institutional Learning

Institutional learning begins with our education system and has much to do with silencing natural curiosity. We send curious 5-year-olds to school, and the first thing they hear is “sit down and be quiet.” Soon after that, we stick a piece of paper in front of them and tell them “know the answers or you fail,” which is repeated for the next 12 to 16 years. Then they enter the workforce and are told “know the answers or you’re fired.”

Institutional learning is a traditional means of learning, where experts have knowledge that they dump into the heads of the students, and the students are expected to regurgitate it. The problem with this type of learning is that it creates a dependent state.

Because most leadership training happens in a classroom—away from the real issues—it can only be a discussion of leadership, not a true learning experience. Individuals learn much faster from experience than from lectures.

Individuals feel anxious when they learn something new. It is critical for these feelings to be part of the learning experience. By including the feelings, the student gets to the meaning of the learning and makes it a part of their being. The student must be empowered in order to survive work and life experiences.

It’s no wonder most of us have forgotten how to be curious—forgotten how to ask truly great questions. There are no rewards for asking great questions—the rewards go to those with the answers.

With the rewards going to those who know the answers, why would we want to be the one asking the questions? Why would we want to go back to being as curious as a 5-year-old?

But for an organization to become a learning organization, it needs to break out of the rut of doing things the same way. It needs to be open to learning and exploring the possible. The first step on the road to becoming a learning organization is to encourage a culture where it is safe to ask questions, a culture where employees are free to question everything.

The Power of Questions

The power of questions is multifaceted. By asking questions, we can:

  • Uncover information about the things we do not know.
  • Express an interest in what another person has to say.
  • Draw another person into a conversation.
  • Make it clear that we are not making assumptions and are open to possibilities beyond our initial reaction.
  • Allow us to uncover underlying causes rather than simply looking at the symptoms.
  • Encourage multiple perspectives.

When we ask someone a question, we force him or her to listen to us. It is only through listening that he or she will be able to respond to the question. Because questions indicate that we care what the other person has to say, trust and openness increase. Perhaps most importantly, questions help us reach a common truth.

What raises the bar from a question just being a question to being a great question?

Great Questions

Many times when a great question is asked, there is a pause in the conversation, followed by the statement, “good question.”

Great questions come from a place of great curiosity. They come from a place of being open to the possible. Great questions make us think more deeply about a situation, uncovering the truth behind what was previously taken for granted.

Great questions can be very difficult to ask because they take us outside our comfort zone. Great questions do not need to be complex.

One of the keys to being able to ask great questions is to listen. To pay attention to what is not said—the nonverbal signals—as well as what is said.

When structuring any type of learning, organizations should harness the power of questions to allow individuals’ natural curiosity to uncover every aspect of the knowledge being imparted and to maximize communication.