How to find your Learning Question (and why you should)
At Enrol Yourself the ‘Learning Question’ is at the heart of our approach to lifelong learning. We run 6 month learning accelerators for adults that are self-directed and fully peer-to-peer. We bring groups of 10–12 people together to pool their resources, skills, creativity and enthusiasm, each working toward an outcome they couldn’t achieve alone.
We do not teach subjects, instead every Enrol Yourself participant has a Learning Question. Crucially, this is something they choose for themselves. For some people this choice comes naturally. This often happens when someone has a pre-existing idea or goal. Take Sarah Adefehinti who had the idea for her business, Loving with the Lights On, and needed support and structure to get started. So her question was clear from the start: ‘how can I create and market holistic self-love workshops for adults?’.
For others the way is not so clear. This can be because they have lots of goals and don’t know how to choose — or because they’re not sure what they’re passionate about yet. For some, they fear that no immediate question means they don’t have what it takes. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it’s about time we did a better job of demystifying the process and supporting people to find their question!
With our third peer group underway and three new Enrol Yourself facilitators recruiting peer groups in London, Birmingham and Glasgow, we now know quite a bit about what a good question looks like — and how to find it.
What is a Learning Question?
A Learning Question is a like a thesis question. It’s your own unique course title. It frames your goals, challenges or curiosities as a site for active exploration and response. It’s an itch you have to scratch.
It’s important that a Learning Question be open. Open questions are ‘designed to encourage a full and meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings’. They are the opposite of closed questions which encourage single-word answers.
Similarly, a Learning Question is designed to encourage a full and meaningful enquiry. It’s more about provoking a process of learning than about finding an answer, but if you do seek an answer it must be one that incorporates your growing knowledge and personal perspective.
Very often a Learning Question spawns a series of new questions which continue to move you forward and help you grow. Unlike an academic thesis question a Learning Question does not seek resolution as an enormous written paper! It seeks a creative response appropriate to the question.
The question can be seen as an externalisation of an inner purpose that is of great importance to the learner. This importance could be practical and immediate (e.g. ‘how can I gain the skills I need to get promoted?’) — or more philosophical (e.g. ‘what is hope and can it be designed?’).
Why find a Learning Question?
Here are just 5 reasons:
1. It will make you more purposeful
“My Learning Question was all about economics and design and I’ve come out the other side knowing deep in my bones that this is what I will do with my life.”
— Ali Norrish, 2016 & 2017 participant
2. It will break you out of your bubble
“My question provided a space to look up and move around, to ask bigger questions, let thoughts and feelings percolate, to see myself through others, to play on the edges, and explore the adjacent possible.”
— Matt Weatherall, 2017 participant
3. It will make you more creative
“Enrol Yourself has helped me feel a lot more creative. I now know my worth and can focus on doing what I love.”
— Fan Sissoko, 2016 participant
4. It will sharpen your skills
“The chance to harness the insight and skills of the group when designing my website and flyers meant I was able to reframe and ‘grasp’ marketing. I now really understand what it entails in a practical sense.”
— Sarah Adefehinti, 2017 participant
5. It might even make you happier
“My Learning Question broke the ice for me. It made having a voice possible. And now that I have been seen, I know I can be listened to. And to be listened to is knowing how to listen.”
— Roxana Bacian, 2016 participant
So how do I find it?
For every person there are infinite possible questions. This can be overwhelming, so the trick is to start from where you are and what’s important or urgent for you now — and not to get hung up on finding the perfect question, or ‘the one’. A question that is right for you now is just a stepping stone to the next question. You can be as promiscuous as you like.
You can start by figuring out which category you fall into:
a) Already got it! If you’re reading this and a question has been conjured, fully-formed… Great! No need to read the rest :)
b) So. Many. Ideas. This is a good position to be in, you just need to weather the overwhelm. Read on.
c) I’m drawing a blank, but I’m keen. A blank sheet of paper holds lots of potential. We’ll help you unearth something. Read on.
d) I’m not ready for a Learning Question right now. That’s totally fine. Maybe you will be in the future, maybe you won’t.
If you’re in category b or c have a go at the making the following lists:
- Things you’re interested in
- Life goals and professional goals
- Things you want to do, make or start up
- Things you would like to see change in our society
- Things you care most about in the world
- Things you’d like to be remembered for
Once you’ve done that:
- Ask yourself why you’ve written the things you’ve written
- List the skills and/or capabilities you would need to do or achieve any of the above
- Pull out key words and themes from across your lists
- Now highlight everything that is most important or urgent now
At this stage you should have enough material to start playing with our Question Generator. It’s on online tool that gives you the question structure and lots of prompts and joining words to play around with. Start putting some of your key words or themes in the boxes and see what you come up with. Generate as many as you can — at least 5.
Now look at the questions you’ve written. Try and put them into priority order. Which are you drawn to and why? Which one triggers the most excitement? Which one feels most urgent? Show them to someone else and discuss them. Try to pick someone who will listen to you and ask you helpful questions — not someone who is likely to force their opinion onto you.
Repeat this process until you’ve got something you’re happy with.
A few more helpful tips
- Don’t overthink it. You’ve struck gold when you feel some excitement. Don’t worry about the precise wording, just capture the essence. If you’ve still got hundreds of options and you’re excited about all of them, play the prioritisation game, kicking them off the raft one-by-one.
- Don’t condense multiple questions into one. At first you’ll feel really clever for shoe-horning all five of your top interests into one mega-question like ‘how can I develop as a leader through bringing together the best of creative arts, activism, economics, social change and science?’. The only person you’re fooling is you! There’s no way you can understand all of this over 6 months (or even a life time) and the enormity of your question will make it very hard for you to start work. Your interest in activism won’t wane simply because you start by focusing on the creative arts.
- Don’t go too big. Whilst ‘how can I change the world?’ might have noble intent, something more targeted will lead you to productive action. For example ‘how can I improve my local community by harnessing the skills of the retired population?’ gives you everything you need to get started.
- Don’t be rhetorical. If you’re asking a question you already know the answer to then it won’t lead to much exploration or growth, and you’re likely to lose interest. For example, you already know the answer to ‘how can I learn to code?’ — you probably need to do a coding course and work bloody hard. A better question might be ‘how could I use my developing coding skills to solve a problem?’.
- Don’t pretend it’s not personal. At Enrol Yourself we think Learning Questions should be sticky. This means you need to really care. Your question might be about changing something big in society, but there’s a reason you care about this that goes to the core of who you are. You’re not selfless and you do have a personal agenda. Embrace this!
The Learning Question can be a powerful weapon. Previous participants have found their jobs re-structured around their topic, they’ve changed careers, they’ve embarked on new projects and ventures. They’ve tackled very personal challenges. They’ve grown outwardly for all to see, but they’ve also grown inwardly in subtle ways that can’t be seen on their CV. The best questions invite both outer and inner work. Good luck!