Friday, April 9, 2010

THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF INQUIRY-BASED LEARNING

While surfing the net, I have found the following interesting article, 'Did You Ask a Good Question Today?, by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

For me, it contains a profound point of view:

Dr Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, was once asked why he became a scientist.

He replied:

"My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, 'What did you learn today?' But my mother used to say, 'Izzy, did you ask a good question today?' That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist."

Judaism is a religion of questions. The greatest prophets asked questions of God. The Book of Job, the most searching of all explorations of human suffering, is a book of questions asked by man, to which God replies with a string of questions of His own.

The earliest sermons usually began with a question asked of the rabbi by a member of the congregation. Most famously, the Passover Seder begins with four questions asked by the youngest child.

So I can identify with Rabi's childhood memories.

When I left university and went to Israel to study in a rabbinical seminary, I was stunned by the sheer intensity with which the students grappled with texts. Once in a while the teacher's face would light up at a comment from the class.

"Du fregst a gutte kashe," he would say (you raise a good objection). This was his highest form of praise.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells of how, when he was young, his instructor would relish challenges to his arguments. In his broken English he would say:

"You right! You a hundred prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong."

Religious faith has suffered hugely in the modern world by being cast as naive, blind, unquestioning.

The scientist asks, the believer just believes. Critical inquiry, so the stereotype runs, is what makes the difference between the pursuit of knowledge and the certainties of faith.

One who believes in the fundamentals of a creed is derided as a fundamentalist. The word fundamentalist itself comes to mean a simplistic approach to complex issues. Religious belief is often seen as the suspension of critical intelligence.

As Wilson Mizner once put it: "I respect faith. But doubt is what gets you an education." To me, this is a caricature of faith, not faith itself.

Questions testify to faith - the universe is not impervious to our understanding, life is not chance.

What is the asking of a question if not itself a profound expression of faith in the intelligibility of the universe and the meaningfulness of human life?

To ask is to believe that somewhere there is an answer. The fact that throughout history people have devoted their lives to extending the frontiers of knowledge is a moving demonstration of the restlessness of the human spirit and its constant desire to transcend, to climb.

Far from faith excluding questions, questions testify to faith - that the world is not random, the universe is not impervious to our understanding, life is not chance.

That, I suspect, is why Judaism encourages questions. On the phrase: "Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness," Rashi, the 11th-century biblical commentator, says: "This means, with the power to understand and to discern."

Critical intelligence is the gift God gave humanity.

To use it in the cause of human dignity and insight is one of the great ways of serving God. When faith suppresses questions, it dies. When it accepts superficial answers, it withers.

Faith is not opposed to doubt. What it is opposed to is the shallow certainty that what we understand is all there is.

Somehow, after reading it, it reminds me of an interesting as well as extensive article, 'Why Are Jews So Powerful?', written by an Islamic scholar & freelance columnist, Dr Farrukh Saleem, a couple of years ago.

Because of the issue of "sensitivity" I have chosen not to reproduce it here, but I feel readers can easily conduct a Google search.

Nonetheless, here are some snippets:

"There are only 14 million Jews in the world; seven million in the Americas, five million in Asia, two million in Europe and 100,000 in Africa...

... Over the past 105 years, 14 million Jews have won 15-dozen Nobel Prizes!"

Interestingly, according to an article, which I had found on the net:

"... The United States has had about one-third of all winners... Jewish names appear 127 times on the list, about 18 percent of the total. This is an astonishing percentage for a group of people who add up to 1/24th of 1 percent of the world's population..."

In conjunction with the foregoing, I like to share an interesting anecdote which I had first heard from a visiting Taiwanese Nobel laureate (Prof Lee):

It goes something like this:

In Asia, Singapore in particular, when a young kid comes home, his parents will ask

"“What did you learn today? How did you do for your tests?".

The kid will mumble an answer: "I score 85 marks!"

The parents will then shoot another question, "Did you score higher than Ah Beng or Ah Seng next door?"

To me, the culture of education obviously holds the key. But, more specifically, inquiry-based learning, which is rooted in personal learning with a questioning mindset.

To our educators & all parents out there: Food for thought!

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