Guest Post by Chip R. Bell
Quality questions have a multiplier effect on learning. Ask an information-seeking question and you get only an answer or a fact; ask an understanding-seeking question and you unleash a more powerful chain of events. It is all about how your brain process input and output.
The human brain is often compared to a computer, but it is actually very different. Most computers are largely information-storage devices. Ask an information-seeking question, and the computer goes into a retrieval mode—as does the human brain. However, ask an understanding-seeking question, and the mind has to make up an answer not found in the storage closet of the brain. Computers cannot make up answers. Understanding-seeking questions stimulate the kind of mental activity that creates insight or discovery. As the mind leaps and turns and twists to respond to an understanding-seeking question, special new synapses are activated and the insight experience occurs.
How does a questioner start this insight-curiosity-wisdom chain? Ask questions that require higher-level thinking. Remember that the ultimate goal is to create insight, not to share information. Granted, some information sharing may be necessary; the main objective, however, is to nurture understanding and growth, not just exchange facts.
Construct questions that require the person to dig deep to answer:
- Questions that force comparisons can accomplish this: “What are ways the Hollar project was different from the Dickinson project?”
- Questions that require synthesis can induce deeper thinking: “What do you see as the key implications of Mr. Rivers’s assessment?”
- Questions that call for evaluation can provoke higher-level thinking: “If you could handle that assignment again, what would you do differently?”
The conventional wisdom on questioning has always been to ask open-ended questions. Closed questions, the lesson goes, will cause the receiver to deliver a short, single-word or single-phrase answer. However, the process is more complex than that. Anyone with a teenager knows that the answers to questions beginning with “what,” “how,” and “why” can be as short as those for a yes-no question. The intent of questioning to seek understanding is not just more words in the answer but more depth in the thinking needed to produce the answer.
Chip R. Bell is a senior partner with the Chip Bell Group and manages the office near Atlanta. He has served as consultant, trainer, or speaker to such major organizations as GE, Microsoft, State Farm, Marriott, Lockheed-Martin, Cadillac, KeyBank, Ritz-Carlton Hotels, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, USAA, Merrill Lynch, Allstate, Caterpillar, Hertz, Accenture, Verizon, Home Depot, Harley-Davidson, and Victoria’s Secret. He has served as an adjunct instructor at Cornell University, Manchester University (UK), and Penn State University. Additionally, he was a highly decorated infantry unit commander in Vietnam with the elite 82nd Airborne and served on the faculty of the Instructional Methods Division of the Army Infantry School.
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