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Two Questions to Boost Your Learning Process

In the first year of my doctoral studies, I wrote an article and submitted it for publication in a conference. My article was rejected by the scientific committee of the conference. One of the reviewers wrote that the reason why my article was not accepted was that after reading it, he was not able to answer the two following questions: What do I know now? And, what can I do now?

AI Image of a person reading a book.
An AI generated image depicting the analogy between knowledge and music.

That rejection and that anonymous reviewer taught me one of the most important lessons I learned during my doctoral studies. Even now, 12 years later, I tend to repeat these two questions, whenever I read something, have a dialogue with someone, watch a movie or attend a seminar. These two questions give me a reality check when it comes to assessing whether I have learned something and make me more alert as I am experiencing new things and going through some new concepts and ideas, but why is that so?

The first question, “what do I know now?” checks whether I have received or assimilated some information. Information provides answers to“who”, “what”, “where”, and “when” questions. The second question, “what can I do know?” is about acquiring knowledge that tells us “why” and “how to”. Knowledge has organizing power, which means it prompts us to take action, to trigger a change, to take measures to do something. It’s like when we hear music and next thing we know our bodies start moving automatically, without our conscious decision.

As a learner, I have noticed that there are two caveats that are worth mentioning. First, I always bear in mind that the transformation from information to knowledge is not instantaneous. Once we put the information seeds in the knowledge incubator, we should attend to them on a regular basis before they sprout. Therefore, I know I should keep repeating the second question, stimulating my brain to keep looking for practical implications, and at some point suddenly the answer dawns on me. A friend of mine used to say: “All real reading is re-reading!” Extending the music analogy, it may take a few listens before we begin to hear differently and to relate to a piece of music.

Second, knowledge can emanate from the combination of various sources of information, some of which may be tacit, and thereby not easily be detectable. For instance, reading and memorizing poetry or mastering and using a mathematical technique, may not easily be traceable in the practical insights we develop, but they may still count as crucial steps towards development of such insights, even if this direct link is not explicit. Thereby, if I do not see an immediate practicality in the information I am exposed to, I know it does not mean I should reject it. Similarly, if I invest time in assimilating some concepts or ideas and yet I do not seem to be able to map them onto a concrete application, I worry not knowing that the role they play can be subtler than what I can possibly imagine. This means sometimes learning for the sake of learning in the absence of a vision of an immediate applicability of what we learn could contribute to the incubation process.

As an educator, I ask my students to ask themselves these two questions to boost learning as they go through their studies. More importantly, I also ask them to challenge me when they are unable to answer the two questions during my courses and when we go through the course material. It does not mean I should answer the two questions for them. Rather, as a learning designer, I should help them in their process of seeking answers to the two questions. They may find it difficult and may find the wrong answers, but this exercise can orient them to a more proactive approach towards learning, and help them realize they are the ones responsible for acquiring the knowledge they need to align themselves with what life expects from them.

I sometimes feel that learning in the current educational system is becoming synonymous with absorbing memorizable chunks of information for the mere purpose of answering questions in an exam or meeting expectations in an exam. For me, true education is about striving for acquiring knowledge. Effective learning occurs only when what we know can manifest itself in our thoughts and actions, that’s when we start dancing to the rhythm of knowledge. As educators or learning designers, our responsibility is to steer ourselves onto the path of becoming knowledge-oriented and then, help the learners in their journeys, first and foremost, by embodying the properties we wish to see emerge in them.

I hope after reading this short blog you ask yourself the following two questions: What do I know now? What can I do now?


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