Part 2: Why People Aren't Asking Questions
There I sat in a cold lecture hall as a second year PT student in utter shock. The room was full of people talking, laughing, socializing, but all I could hear was the voice inside my head saying I wasn’t good enough. My vision sort of clouded on the edges so all I could see was the paper sitting in front of me and the red ink taunting me on the top of the page. My heart was beating so fast and loud I could hear the thump, thump out of my chest. I wanted so badly to quickly escape the room and find a deep hole to crawl into…at the very least my pillow on my bed to bury my head in. But, relief was not to come so swiftly…relief was meant to wait.
As you recall, I believe there are three reasons why our students aren’t asking questions:
students/coworkers worry about their social image
students/coworkers approach learning only as a passive participant, not as an active learning experience
students/coworkers haven’t yet learned how to ask productive questions
Last week I spoke about how to get students to ask productive questions. This week I want to focus on how we can help break through the barrier of passive learning and promote curiosity rich active learning.
How does a baby learn? It explores its environment. A baby’s brain is actively engaged by sounds, by colors, by textures, by taste, etc. When a baby gets a little taste of something new it is motivated to learn more. When a baby sees that shiny toy across the floor, it is motivated to get to it. We begin our early lives in full on exploration mode. My son is a perfect example as he constantly is picking up new objects in stores and trying to figure out what they do or where they go. Somewhere between early exploration and adult learning, we loose that sense of exploration. Some would argue that is because schools are so structured now that are kids do not have room to explore. Others would argue that our parenting has become so overprotective that we want our kids to live in a bubble wrap and avoid all things dirty. I think both arguments are a bit too one-sided, but I’m not here to settle that debate. I am here to make a suggestion for your classroom or boardroom you can use today to increase the curiosity in the room. We need to create exploration opportunities. How do we do this?
Well, I’m glad you asked. We create exploration by withholding answers...for a little bit. We create exploration by sparking interest and backing off. We create exploration by getting out of the way and seeing what students do. Now, you may be thinking well that just sounds like a free for all…and that is not what I’m advocating. Remember, I am a rule follower to boot, so even writing this makes me a bit uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable thinking that as the leader and instructor who thinks they have all the answers shouldn’t provide all the answers to the students who want them. I’ve learned that isn’t helpful. Remember the goal…we are trying to create an environment open to exploration which opens the doors for asking questions. Students who sit and listen to a lecture (even a highly entertaining one) still are just sitting and consuming. Some students have already learned how to take passive lectures and turn them into active learning opportunities by being genuinely curious and asking questions, but other students in your class have only been told to do what their told and to memorize what is being said instead of digesting the information with a curiosity mind. Those are the students that need to explore more, they need to feel uncomfortable with the different structure. Remember the lobster…feeling uncomfortable is the signal to shed the shell and grow a bigger one. Let’s add more exploration into our classroom with activities that aren’t so structured that lead students to ask questions.
I will readily admit due to time constraints and expectations, sometimes giving students time to explore is just not that feasible. Sometimes information needs to be translated to students in a passive manner. Lectures are a key example. In order to operate in the world we need information, knowledge. But, that information needs to be dynamic in application and not static in recall only. Being a passive participant creates people who are memorizing and dumping the information later. Memorizing something doesn’t translate to the dynamic world, especially in healthcare and dealing with the differences in human beings. Often patients present with just a little bit different symptom or the pain isn’t responding to the first intervention. You have to be dynamic with your knowledge to know when to apply different parts of that knowledge. For example, you may memorize that a person with a rotator cuff tear is unable to lift their arm overhead…then walks in Grandma Betty who has the best hair in the neighborhood. No she doesn’t go to the hair salon once a week, she does it herself. She has a full-thickness rotator cuff tear, but can reach well overhead every day. How do we explain that to a person that memorizes? How do we zag when we need to if all we know is to zig?
As students are consuming your information, inserting drama can be just the ticket to make the switch over to active learning. We can take an example from some of the best movies being made in Hollywood, drama makes the brain want more. I’m not advocating creating confusion, but instead creating dynamic pauses that don’t fully give the whole picture. Create some drama. These dynamic pauses leave the listener wanting more, so they can begin to wonder about what is on the other side of this pause. One way to do this is to set the scene with a story, but stop the story right before the climax. Make the listeners wait or make them wonder how the content you are delivering applies to the story. That dynamic pause causes curiosity to increase. To add to the drama, ask them questions. Poll the audience on how they think the story ends. Or ask open-ended discussion questions that they can discuss in small groups for a few minutes. I think back to The Hardy Boys novels I would read that allowed you to pick the next chapter based on certain scenarios. I would choose one direction and read the whole novel, but then I would go back to my first choice and read it all again with the other choice. Even when I knew how one version of the story ended, I couldn’t let the other version go unread. The drama was too much to ignore.
Sometimes people aren’t aware of a different way of doing something, so they don’t do things differently. I am a perfect example. Before I got married, I did things the only way I thought there was…following instructions. After getting married, I learned sometimes there are more efficient ways to complete tasks that the instructions don’t always describe. When assembling a chair for example, I am very much the type of person that looks at step one and does step one…then step two, etc. My husband can look at the parts, look at a picture, look at the instructions and knows if he does step 6 before step 3, things would go a whole lot smoother. He has taught me how to look at things and begin by asking questions. Things like, is this the best way to go about completing this? Do I have all the right tools? He has modeled for me what curiosity looks like in a way I didn’t know possible. We need to be that for our students and colleagues. Many students come into your classroom with skills that have always worked for them and passive learning is often a number one tool. It is our job to model active style of learning by showing how we ask questions. I often share stories that include the inner mind questions that are going on with the situation. This does two cool things…one, it makes you like a real human being that talks to themselves in various situations…two, it models to your audience the art of asking questions and using those to solve problems. Sometimes people just need an example of the behavior they should be expressing because maybe they aren’t aware of a different way of doing something.
The moment I realized I was a passive learner came as a swift realization of needed change. I won’t forget that cold lecture hall when I received the scores back from my first Neurobiology exam while in PT school. 68%...circled at the top in red. After I pulled myself together just enough to go talk to my professor, my professor helped me diagnose the problem. For nearly 13 years of my life I had sat in a desk and listened, consumed, and digested information as fact. I passively allowed experts to feed into me without questioning them or questioning the information. I learned information at a surface level when I needed to go about five layers deeper. That day and that score helped create a skeptic…not in the bad connotation way, but in the way that curiosity is born.
Exploring, creating drama, and modeling are all great ways to help move the needles in your audience’s brain from a passive participant to an active participant. They also will help spark questions in their brains…and really that is the goal, right?
What are ways you move passive learners to active learners?