Learning more effectively by exploring various unknowns

I’ve been thinking about how to learn better. Questions are a big part of that, I think. I enjoy learning the most when I have a question to explore instead of just aimlessly wandering around. Questions give me a sense of progress. Even difficult questions tend to have within them the seeds of their answers. I’d like to get better at this. After all, better questions get you better answers.

Brief update: What have I learned since my 2013 post on getting better at asking questions? I’ve gotten better at using outlines to map out my questions. I actually managed to sit through a couple of Coursera courses instead of losing steam mid-way, although I ended up skimming lectures and focusing on the homework. I’m still really bad at asking questions, whether it’s in a community like StackOverflow or asking specific people directly. I still read a lot, but my podcast-listening has dropped off the map due to impatience and to swapping this for playing video games during the rare commute. I still have a hard time sitting still for videos, although maybe this will come in handy for learning Japanese (videos with exact Japanese subtitles, perhaps?). I’m getting pretty good at taking notes along the way, untangling and keeping track of the little questions that pop up while I’m figuring things out.

There’s still a lot more to learn about asking better questions, though. I want to get better at asking small, concrete questions that yield some handholds and help move me (and other people) a little bit forward. Sometimes I find myself getting intimidated by questions that are too large or vague. Sometimes I catch myself retreading the same ground with no new insights or questions. (I sometimes get the sneaky suspicion I’ve blogged about something recently, but my searches don’t turn things up.) I’m fine with exploring questions that might only be relevant to me, but it would be even better if I can ask the question or phrase my answer in a way that other people can apply those ideas to their lives as well.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about getting better at asking questions so that you can learn more effectively. I listed a few approaches that I use or that I want to explore, and I organized them into four categories:

  • learning about things I know I don’t know
  • learning about things I don’t know I don’t know
  • learning about things I thought I knew, but didn’t
  • learning about things I didn’t know I knew
2014-11-25-Getting-better-at-asking-questions.png

2014-11-25-Getting-better-at-asking-questions.png

I even came up with analogies! =) (Analogies are great. You can stretch them and figure out even more.)

Things I know I don’t know

Getting better at this will help me gradually expand what I know. This is the easiest category to work with. It’s like seeing a mountain in the distance and saying, “I want to go there!” There might be forests in the middle and you might have to turn back a few times to try a different route, but you have an idea of where you want to go and how you might get there.

I learn a lot in the context of projects I’m working on or things I’m curious about. I can get even better at this by:

  • Choosing goals or projects so that they build on top of each other, and asking questions that are aligned with those goals or projects
  • Going on learning sprints that focus on one topic, so I can take advantage of momentum
  • Reviewing my lists of previous questions and ideas, so that old questions don’t fall through the cracks

Things I don’t know I don’t know

This covers all the stuff other people take for granted that I just haven’t come across yet, and it also includes all the new stuff that we haven’t gotten around to creating or discovering. It’s like wandering around in the woods, not knowing that there’s buried treasure a few steps over there (or, alternatively, a nicely-shaped tree just perfect for afternoon reading). I can spend the rest of my life focused on the things I know I don’t know and that will be enough, but I like being pleasantly surprised by the things I wouldn’t even think of looking for.

The best way I get this is by reading comments on my blog, since people know about all sorts of stuff I haven’t come across yet and they generously share these tips. (You wonderful people, you!) I also read blogs, communities, source code, books, and indices as a way of stumbling across things that might be handy someday.

I can also get better by:

  • spending more time reading question-and-answer sites like Quora and StackOverflow
  • finding more blogs that ask interesting questions
  • getting the hang of using other people’s maps (courses, books, tutoring, etc.)

Things I thought I knew, but didn’t

You know that feeling when you start explaining something to someone and then you stop halfway through to look up the details? It’s surprisingly fun. =) It’s a little like when you’re asked to draw a map of your neighbourhood, or perhaps like writing a guidebook section about a few square blocks.

I can get better at this by:

  • Answering questions (either ones directly asked of me or in support communities)
  • Explaining things to myself and other people, discovering the gaps along the way
  • Reviewing old posts (things I used to know)

Things I didn’t know I knew

This is another fun category: the stuff that makes you go, “Huh. I didn’t know other people would find that useful.” Just like other people take stuff for granted (things you didn’t know you didn’t know), you take stuff for granted too. It’s like when someone asks you to recommend a place, and then you start explaining why you like this particular cafe, and in the process of explaining your recommendations, you realize all sorts of things that you appreciate about it but that you’d never actually thought about before.

Getting better at learning from the things I didn’t know I knew will help me get more out of my experiences, and it’ll also help me learn more deeply. Plus I get to help other people, too.

I can get better at this by:

  • Noticing what I do differently and explore why
  • Describing what I do and answering people’s questions; also, answering people’s questions in communities
  • Sharing more stuff

There are even more kinds of unknowns out there, and you can use different strategies to explore them. Taxonomies of the unknown has a fascinating list. I figure these four might be a good place for me to start, and I can’t wait to try out even more!