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A good learning question

Bruce Britton

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17th Apr 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was working in The Netherlands with members of The Leprosy Mission (TLM). The occasion was a four-day workshop focusing on annual country learning reviews and how to make them more effective. I had the opportunity to co-facilitate the workshop with Jacqueline Verhagen from PSO. Working with another facilitator is always interesting for me: on this occasion I got the chance to see how another professional views the issue of learning in organisations, and to learn some new facilitation techniques and tools. One thing that Jacqueline and I discovered was a shared passion for using questions to guide the work we do. In my evaluation work I consider clear questions to be the most useful part of the Terms of Reference. When I know what questions the evaluation should be addressing, I find it much easier to plan the process. Reaching a shared understanding with my client about the questions that will guide the evaluation is time well spent. In the workshop with TLM, Jacqueline placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of using good learning questions to focus the annual country learning reviews that TLM holds. But what makes a ‘good learning question’? With Jacqueline’s help, TLM came up with a list of some characteristics:

  • States very clearly what you want to learn
  • Clearly demonstrates your desired future
  • Is developed by involving as many stakeholders as possible
  • Is derived from your ‘pain’ and your ‘ambition’ (push and pull)
  • Is not just about the wording, but also the background, context, and the burning issue that underlies the question
  • Gives direction and a sense of outcome
  • Is an open question – but no so open it lacks direction
  • Is not too complex that it can be interpreted differently by different people
  • Avoids words that you can’t picture (e.g. ‘sustainability’, ‘integration’, ‘acceptable’)
  • Is worded in a way that it doesn’t limit your options
  • Uses positive words to give energy
  • Can be monitored

So here’s a learning question I want to examine: “How can I use inspiring learning questions with my clients to help them confidently consider change that goes beyond their normal comfort zone?” OK, it doesn’t tick all the boxes but it is generating energy in me!

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