Inquisitiveness the mother of innovation

Updated: 2011-02-25 07:55

By Li Xing (China Daily)

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During a meeting of China's top leadership on continuing educational reforms on Monday, President Hu Jintao highlighted the importance of fostering initiative and innovation.

How are we to do this? The most common answer, judging from a search of the Internet, is to encourage students to ask questions.

But this flies in the face of a centuries-old Chinese tradition that only teachers have the right to ask questions. Often, the teachers' questions are as simple as "Isn't that right?" depriving the children of a chance to think for themselves.

One reader of my recent column, "Learning different ways of thinking", commented that he or she felt frustrated teaching children who never asked questions.

But surely these children, like all children, once pestered their parents and teachers by constantly asking the question "Why?"

So what has happened?

"Students often ask too many questions and prevent teachers from accomplishing their goals," explains Wang Na, a junior middle school history teacher, on a website for teachers in Hebei province.

Intent on completing their lesson plans some teachers prevent students from asking questions. Not surprisingly, the students soon stop asking.

One study published several years ago found that while 13.8 percent of 1st to 6th graders asked questions in class, the figure fell to 5.7 percent for 7th to 9th graders and 2.9 percent for 10th to 12th graders.

But an increasing number of teachers like Wang recognize that "denying the students' right to ask questions will rob them of the chance to think, to discover problems, and to develop the ability to deal with problems".

Fostering students' inquisitiveness can inspire them not only to ask questions but also to solve problems, thus nurturing their ability to innovate, says Wang, who started teaching in a school in Langfang in 2008.

It is heartening to see that such discussions are going on nationwide, as teachers describe different ways to promote inquisitiveness.

Such inquisitiveness helps to improve public understanding of science and technology. Development in science and technology is essential to China's rejuvenation, Hu Jintao added in his speech on Monday.

According to a recent survey, China lags some 20 years behind the developed nations in the percentage of its citizens with a basic knowledge of science.

However, more and more Chinese are becoming interested in science and technology, getting their information not only from television (87.53 percent) and newspapers (59.12), but also from friends and colleagues (42.98 percent) and the Internet (26.61 percent).

Interestingly, the public has maintained a healthy skepticism about science and technology; about 75 percent believe that science and technology bring both benefits and harm, although the benefits predominate.

For example, in a recent survey nearly 70 percent of Chinese consumers expressed reservations about genetically modified rice, despite the assurances of some scientists.

Encouraging children to raise questions helps them learn to create and innovate. As Wang says, "We may nurture another Einstein this way." Meanwhile, fostering the ability to think critically about science and technology, as well as social programs, may help to make them more effective.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 02/25/2011 page8)