Curious Language Sparks Learning Engagement – Tip #182

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Let me ask you a question: What do you think is the no.1 killer or hindrance to learning?

Share your answers in the comments section and I’ll share my answer (and suggested solutions) in this post.

The No. 1 Barrier to Learning

According to research, there are 3 barriers to lifelong learning: 1) situational or physical and material barriers, 2) institutional or structural barriers, and 3) dispositional or attitudinal barriers.

In my opinion, the main thing that blocks learners from learning is this: lack of curiosity. It won’t matter how good your content is and how awesome your training style. If learners are not interested in a topic or subject matter, there can be no learning that happens.

Lack of curiosity is a personal barrier that learners have placed between themselves and their ability to learn. Our role is to help them take that barrier down—we have to ignite their curiosity.

Barriers to Curiosity

I can see three major roadblocks that hinder learners from being curious about a topic or subject matter. They are:

Focus on the negative aspect of learning
When faced with something new to learn, learners may have the tendency to resist. They can focus on the negative things, like “It will take too long,” etc., instead of thinking about what they’ll learn and the rewards they will reap as a result of this new learning.

Inaccurate assessment of skills
Whether in morality, generosity, or skills, people have a tendency to be wrong in their self-assessments. This inaccuracy stems from optimism and lack of expertise. According to Cornell University psychologist David Dunning, humans find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don’t know.”

In one study, Dunning found that only 6% of college professors thought they had a lot to learn in order to be an effective teacher, while a whopping 94% believed they were doing “above average work.” Writing in Harvard Business Review, Erika Andersen, founding partner of Proteus International, stated that this “self-deception surely diminished any appetite for development.”

Fear of vulnerability
Some learners are afraid of being a beginner again. When trying to learn something new, they might think they’re really bad at it or they’ll never get it right. Their self-talk isn’t balanced or they haven’t expected failure to be part of the learning process.

Curious Language

There are many ways to cultivate curiosity in learners. In the past, I’ve talked about having “curiosity conversations,” asking reflection questions and “what if…?” questions.

Another way to make learners curious about a topic or subject matter is through Curious Language.

How…? Why…? I wonder…?

Curious language has to do with context. Curious Language naturally attracts the human mind because it is trying to find meaning in an event.

For instance, when workers see a work problem or a new goal, they instantly think of the value of this event/issue as to how it might impact their lives. They ask: “What are the consequences and benefits if we don’t fix this or if we fix this?” Then they ask the series of questions: “How…? Why…? I wonder…?”

In diagnostic thinking, we see the worker moving swiftly through the diagnostic process (assessment, diagnostic, feedback). In the diagnostic mode, curious language becomes an external articulation of the state of our minds.

This is why stories are valuable. Stories cause people to communicate their experiences and they have to communicate in the curious language.

—How…? Why…? I wonder…?

There is no other way.


Laal, Marjan. (2011). Barriers to lifelong learning. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 28 (2011) 612 – 615
Natalie Wolchover. Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It
(). LiveScience, February 27, 2012
Erika Andersen. Learning to Learn. Harvard Business Review, March 2016
Tip #15 – How to Add Curiosity in eLearning Stories
Tip #86- Is your content out of context or in context?
Tip #100 – Spur Learning Through ‘Curiosity Conversations’
Tip #132 – “Keep This A Secret…”
Tip #175 – 3 Ways to Learn Better in the Modern Era
Tip #181 – The Conversation Loop: Foster Learning Through Experience Sharing

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”