Chinese language and culture favor pairs. Thus many written Chinese terms consist of two characters that complement or reinforce each other.
A well-known example is the term for "crisis," which consists of a character representing "danger" and another "opportunity." A less well-known one is the term for "education," which in Chinese entails characters for "teaching" and "nurturing." How appropriate!
Another relevant Chinese term is that for "knowledge." One translation for this term pairs a character meaning "to learn" with one meaning "to question." The former concerns itself with acquiring, the latter with inquiring. Both are indispensable aspects of the process of transferring knowledge. I would like to share some thoughts on the process of inquiry, or questioning.
Inquiry is an attitude—a very important one when it comes to learning. It has a great deal to do with curiosity, dissatisfaction with the status quo, a desire to dig deeper, and having doubts about what one has been told. An inquiry can be as short and simple as a question in the classroom, or as extensive and complex as a career-long research endeavor.
Even in ancient times, Confucius emphasized the connection between inquiring and learning. Many of his doctrines, such as The Analects, appeared in question-and-answer formats not unlike today's FAQs (frequently asked question lists) in cyberspace.
Questioning often leads to believing. There is a saying that has been attributed to Confucius: "Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand." As a self-proclaimed disciple of his, I think he would be pleased for me to add: "Answer me, I believe."
When Stephen Tong, one of the most prominent theologians and international evangelists in the last 25 years, was still a young nonbeliever, he specialized in sitting in the front pew throwing question after question at preachers. Now that he is on the other side of the pulpit, he provides for the doubting Thomases by setting aside time after every sermon or lecture to answer extensive questions. Many have become believers through this vehicle.
In fact, "answering" can lead to "believing" in just about any situation involving human thoughts and attitudes.
Effective inquiry requires determination to get to the bottom of things. I always enjoy and learn a great deal from watching how experienced television journalists pursue their subjects and elicit in-depth information from the interviewees. In addition to persistence and keen insight, they use exceptional interpersonal and communication skills in crafting their sharp and relentless questions.
Effective inquiry also requires wisdom and judgment. This is especially true for a long-range intellectual pursuit that is at the forefront of knowledge. When there is no path, guide, or precedent to follow, we need to do a great deal of probing. We also need to be wise enough to define the scope of our inquiry so that each step we take is doable and significant and contributes to the total solution.
Inquiry is the key to successful lifelong learning. If one masters the art of questioning, independent learning is a breeze. Educators should help students develop inquiry skills by incorporating and modeling this art form in all educational endeavors.
Questioning is good for the questionee as well. It can help clarify issues, uncover holes in an argument, correct factual and/or conceptual errors, and eventually lead to a more thoughtful outcome. This is why in organizing a forum such as a workshop or conference, it is always good to include a few nonbelievers. As the Chinese proverb says: "True gold is fireproof because it has been purified by fire."
Teachers and leaders should model the importance of inquiry. The teacher/leader must not only allow and encourage questions but demonstrate a personal thirst for knowledge. He or she must inspire students or followers by demonstrating a willingness to do the Star Trek thing; in other words, to go where no one has gone before.
In summary, inquiry is a necessary and dynamic process in the creation and transmission of knowledge. It lifts learning from a passive process to an active one. It renews us on a daily basis. In an age when things become obsolete at an ever-faster pace, developing this indispensable skill should be high on the agenda of every educator and student.
Marshall M. Lih is director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Engineering Education and Centers. This article does not represent an official policy or position of the U.S. government or the National Science Foundation. The author is solely responsible for the content and opinions expressed herein.