On Asking Questions

The power of the internet belongs to those who have mastered the art of asking good questions.

What, then, constitutes a good question? What’s the difference between a good question and a bad one? In today’s world, our ability to find information often dictates productivity. How then can we purposefully strive to form better questions?

It is a bit of a paradoxical situation We ask questions to discover something we do not already know – we only know what we want to know, and so we can only describe what we want to know in terms of what we know of it already. Which – when you think about it – is a serious limitation.

All new information we glean through self-directed learning (ie. Googling), is an extension of what we already know. (and everything we come to learn is a platform from which to build future understandings). So in order to learn new things, we must ask questions based on ‘old things’. In a world where keyword based discovery reigns king, not knowing the jargon of ‘new things’ can cause considerable delay in acquiring new concepts.

The context surrounding new concepts must be built first. We must ask ourselves, “What terms do people who are already familiar with these concepts use to describe them?”

‘Google Instant’, the feature that autosuggests what you might be looking for based on what you’ve already entered into the search box,  is an attempt to aid you in discovering the context surrounding what you’re looking for – though you still must know enough of what you’re looking for to employ at least one instance of jargon, from which Google can extrapolate related jargon.

So back to our root question: “How do you search for something when you lack context?” Currently, the answer seems to be hoping that someone else also lacked context and attempted to describe what they were trying to learn the same way you did. This can break down fairly easily as the material to be learned becomes more specialized; as the material to be learned requires more prerequisite knowledge.

A concrete example: A few days ago I was trying to learn the syntax for writing arrays in python. There was surprisingly little available information on Google (compared to the number of results a normal query would have returned), and the material I did find was obviously not official python documentation. The context I was lacking is that python does not have arrays, and the jargon I was looking for was ‘tuples’, ‘dictionaries’ and ‘lists’ – data types that offer similar functionality of what I knew as ‘arrays’.

It seems that our ability to ask good questions is directly related to our ability to build context around what we want to know. How do we build context surrounding what we want to know? We start with what we already know and generalize what we want to know. As we build context and associated jargon, we gain the ability to increase the specificity of our query – and the likelihood of finding experts who are discussing what we want to know -  because you now are using the same jargon they are.

So how do we become more efficient at learning? And how, when our productivity depends much on our ability to learn, how do we increase productivity? Learn to build context fast.

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