Asking questions is the hallmark of the lifelong learner

OF ALL the skills you have, which one can give you the best returns by boosting your career and personal growth — over a lifetime?

That precious skill is “learning to learn”, a meta skill that affects everything else you will ever learn in your life.

Futurist Alvin Toffler warned: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

If you do realise the vast implications of mastering “learning to learn” and want to make some progress in that direction, here are a few small steps — tiny matchsticks — to rekindle the fire of learning inside you:

Reflect and write

Many people do not do it, but periodic reflection is the key to continuous learning. Confucius highlighted it when he said: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Peter Drucker, the management thinker, also stressed reflection when he said: “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

To be on the path of continuous learning, do three things:

•  Start a diary;

•  Reflect at the end of each day on “what I learnt today”; and

•  Note it down.

Author Mark Twain, General George Patton, naturalist Charles Darwin, composer Ludwig Beethoven, American founding father Benjamin Franklin and Renaissance artist and thinker Leonardo da Vinci all had one thing in common: They kept notebooks to record their observations, ideas and impressions. Why not follow in the footsteps of the greats?

Be thirsty and ask questions

Without the thirst for knowing and understanding, one cannot learn. But where does the thirst come from?

Before visiting a foreign country, what do you do? You ask questions: Which are the tourist attractions? Which hotels are within your budget? Which connecting flights are available? When you gather information from the answers to these questions, you quickly learn about the new place.

According to Paul Harris, a child psychologist and professor at Harvard, a child asks about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five.

How many questions do we ask as adults? Do we realise that with Google around, questions matter more than the answers? To be thirsty, be curious and ask questions, remembering that every question is a door to new learning.

Know how you learn best

In one of the classic Harvard Business Review articles, Managing Oneself, Drucker wrote: “Of all the important pieces of self-knowledge, understanding how you learn is the easiest to acquire.”

Not everyone learns the same way: Some people learn by hearing, some by reading, some by pictures and some by moving around. Drucker gives examples of British politician Winston Churchill who was a great writer and learnt by writing and Beethoven who kept copious notes. Drucker himself learnt by talking.

To know how you learn best, visit the VARK Inventory at

VARK stands for Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinaesthetic. Initially developed by Neil Fleming in New Zealand in 1987, VARK is a 16-question inventory to understand your unique learning preferences.

VARK provides feedback on the following four learning preferences:

 Visual (V): People with visual preference soak up information more easily if it is in the form of maps, diagrams, charts, graphs, flow charts, pictures and so on. Visual learners prefer explanatory diagrams in a user manual of a new camera to bullet-point instructions.

•  Aural/auditory (A): Auditory preference implies an affinity for information in the spoken form. Auditory learners are more comfortable with phone conversations, group discussions, meetings, oral feedback and the opportunity to talk things through.

•  Read/write (R): These learners are more comfortable with information in the written form, such as reports, papers, lists, hand-outs, books, bullets points, written plans and manuals. They enjoy an advantage in the academic phase of their career where information is mostly in the form of words.

•  Kinaesthetic (K): Kinaesthetic preference suggests learning through action, personal experience, practice, movement or simulation. People with this learn more easily by watching a demonstration or trying things out themselves.


These three actions — starting a learning diary, being curious and using your own learning style — can unleash the lifelong learner in you, someone Toffler would describe as truly a literate person.

There is a wise Chinese saying: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Why not plant the seed of learning today?

Article by Atul Mathur, an engineer, technical writer and Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment-certified trainer. He will conduct a half-day workshop, Rekindle The Fire Of Learning, on Wednesday, July 30. To register, visit, e-mail or call 9489-6150.