We are surrounded by information. Data rushes past us in a fast-flowing torrent. We need some way of making sense of it.
Quite often, I go to meetings that start before anyone has the faintest notion of what the agenda is going to be. I sit and listen to speakers who fail to tell me, at the beginning of their speech, what they are going to talk about. I go to sessions where a trainer launches straight into things without any context. I work with companies undergoing major change programs where no one has made it clear to everyone concerned why they are happening, and everyone is circulating data that is apparently important and that few people actually understand. And, in my private life, I encounter many potentially enriching situations where information is being presented as if it were the only reality rather than a point of view.
This kind of experience is deeply frustrating for your brain. To be able to operate effectively, your brain likes, as you have already seen, to be able to make connections and see patterns between things. Deprive it of a context and it is much more difficult for it to connect what it is seeing or hearing or experiencing with what it already knows. It is also more likely that you will feel discomfort or anxiety as a result of trying to work out the relevance of what you are being faced with.
One of the most important learning to learn skills is the ability to ask questions that will enable you to check out the big picture. You may also need to interrupt the momentum of the situation to check out what is going on.
10 tips for asking for the big picture
1 I'm really sorry, but I don't know what this is about. Could you explain?
2 Have I missed something? This doesn't seem to fit with what I thought we were going to be doing. Perhaps you can explain.
3 Could you just go back over what it was you were planning to deal with in this session?
4 It would be really helpful if you could tell us what we are going to cover today.
5 It would help me if you could take a few moments to outline how you are going to be approaching this.
6 Exactly how does this fit into the overall picture?
7 Hang on! I really need you to stop and explain how this all fits into the bigger picture.
8 Could you possibly just take a little time to explain how this all fits into the bigger picture?
9 I really don't understand this. Please can you help me?
10 Could we all stop for a few minutes and agree an agenda for this session?
A Think of some situations in your work or home life where you would have liked to have the big picture. Mentally rehearse some of the sentences above and adapt them to your own language and style.
People sometimes argue that they simply do not have time to stop and discuss what the best approach might be. They just present their approach as the only sensible one in the circumstances. This kind of attitude makes it less likely that the learning on offer will successfully engage the learners undertaking it.
Comments like the ones I have suggested may seem almost insultingly obvious to you. But, obvious or not, unless they are spoken early on in a learning episode, confusion and disconnection will reign.
As you grow more confident as a learner, you will work out other things that you may need to ask at the beginning of an activity. For example, you may want to find out more about:
♦ Your understanding of what is on offer: how long it will last, whether it is assessed, whether it is to be undertaken individually or in groups, how it fits in with other activities being planned.
♦ The purpose of what is on offer: whether it is seen as a social or an academic experience, what the objectives of the tutor or facilitator are.
♦ The media that will be used: how much will be interactive, how broad a range of learning methods will be used, whether some of the learning will be online.
It is quite possible to be put off learning something, even though you are really interested in the subject. In many cases it emerges, on further discussion, that you were turned off the very first time you attempted to do something, as my wife was from playing the piano.
As an adult learner (and as a child), by not asking questions like some of the ones we have been exploring, you can miss the critical moment of context when you could establish the connection between the learning being offered and your own life and needs. Perhaps if my wife had been able to ask questions that would have helped her understand what it was her music teacher wanted, she might have had a different experience when she was a child.
You may have felt a similar experience if you have ever been in a situation where you had something very difficult or sensitive to tell someone. Bad news is a good example of this. If you do not broach the subject immediately, all is lost. It becomes steadily more embarrassing to say what was on your mind.
If learning is to be successful, you need to connect to it actively. In the act of connecting you are, of course, creating opportunities for influencing the style of the learning. A facilitator who is asked to recap on what has gone before and what is planned for the session is being helped to do a better job. By asking questions about the use of different media, you are seeding ideas that may not otherwise have been in the mind of whoever is working with you. Of course, this needs to be done in such a way that it does not come over as one person "parading" their knowledge.
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The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave several of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce and check off items on our to-do list by each day’s end seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us.