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Jordan: Stupid Questions

07/23/12 5:55PM By Helen Labun Jordan
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(Host) In her work at e-Vermont, commentator Helen Labun Jordan has learned - and taught - many new online tools. Along the way she's realized that the way we learn is fundamentally shifting.

(Labun Jordan) One day at the library, I saw a little boy approaching the front desk with great concern.

"Why can't I get into the bathroom?" he asked.

"Because you need this," the librarian said, handing him a key.

The boy thanked him. Paused. Then asked, "What happens if I can't get out of the bathroom?"

Good point. Sure, that key was the answer to getting into the bathroom, but no one said anything about getting back out again.

Here's the issue though - when do we stop asking questions? And I don't mean that in the philosophical sense of when do we lose our childhood curiosity, I actually mean when do we stop asking questions.

We've got two adages that define learning: ‘there's no such thing as a stupid question' and ‘nothing ventured nothing gained.' Okay, there are versions of these that don't sound like clichés, but this isn't a lecture on educational theory.

The downside of 'nothing ventured' is that you might get locked in a bathroom. The downside of asking 'stupid questions' is that you might never stop asking questions. After all, you'll have to ask more questions to get in the stupid ones. Unless, of course, you plan to cut back on intelligent questions. Unlikely.

We might be tempted to think that asking all these questions doesn't have much of a downside when compared to being trapped the library's bathroom - but I disagree. Standing by, asking questions keeps us from showing the boldness needed to learn by experimenting, being wrong, and experimenting again - a cycle that's exactly where learning is headed.

Look at the world of technology. An entire generation has grown up in this environment that assumes fewer questions, more action, from square one. Twice now I've heard the same story: a computer beginner gives up on memorizing when to double click or single click the mouse. Frustration sets in - until they're advised: "Click and if nothing happens, click again"

Once online, we face an information surplus without any natural stopping point. Think about trying to know ‘social media'. You can't - there are too many platforms changing too quickly. Your best bet is to play around with a few options, choose one for now, and stop worrying about the rest.

The people who create our technology clearly assume that everyone learns through trial and error. Whenever I buy an Apple product, I get the instructions: "plug it in and figure it out from there."

In the future, more systems will be designed with an assumption that we're all comfortable learning through uncertainty and experimenting until we get things right. We'll have more technology. We'll have more young designers who've never seen an advantage in knowing every step of a process before you begin. We'll be venturing into proverbial bathrooms left and right and we need to get used to it. I hate to pick a winner among clichés, but personally I intend to start asking fewer stupid questions and make more stupid mistakes instead.
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