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Critical Inquiry and Inquiry-Oriented Education

Opinion: K.P. Mohanan, Professor, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune

Human violence has multiple roots. Someone who stabs another in a fit of road-rage is acting under blind emotions. Someone who cannot kill humans but is prepared to kill animals has not expanded the scope of their ethical considerations beyond humans. And someone who wages war against another country is guided by ideological or economic factors, unaffected by ethics. To deal with violence, then, education must incorporate strands that aim at the emotional, ethical and intellectual foundations for peace.

Educating emotion requires helping the young liberate themselves from negative emotions such as anger, hostility, hatred, cruelty, intolerance, selfishness and competitiveness, while strengthening positive emotions such as empathy, compassion, love, and the spirit of altruism.

Educating the intellect for peace involves helping learners protect themselves from ideologies of violence. It should also empower them to change systems and practices that either promote violence or fail to prevent violence.

Ethical foundations draw on both emotion and intellect. Enriching the natural ethical instincts is a matter of emotions. Expanding the scope of ethical considerations is a matter of both emotions and reasoning. And connecting ethical values and principles to one’s actions and practices is a matter of reasoning.

In sum, we need a form of education that combines the emotional and the intellectual.  In this article, my concern is with the intellectual part.

Intellectual education needs to include not only the information and knowledge to work towards a non-violent world but also the abilities of critical thinking and inquiry to investigate the causes of violence, and to find ways to dissolve those causes. This means that Inquiry-Oriented Education (IOE), which seeks to develop the capacity for rational inquiry, has to be recognised as an important strand of education. What follows are my reflections on the role of rational inquiry in education and of critical inquiry as a specific form of rational inquiry.

What is Rational Inquiry?

Inquiry is the investigation of a question on the basis of our own experience and reasoning, to look for an answer and arrive at a conclusion.

It involves:

  • Questions whose answers we wish to find out
  • Methodological strategies to look for answers
  • Answers to the questions, and conclusions based on them
  • Rational justification (proof, evidence, arguments) for the conclusions
  • Thinking critically about our own or others’ conclusions and justification

Rational inquiry is inquiry that is committed to the following axioms:

  • Rejecting Logical Contradictions: We must reject statements that are logically contradictory
  • Accepting Logical Consequences: If we accept a set of statements, then we must also accept their logical consequences

By ‘logical contradiction’, we mean a combination of a statement and its negation. Thus, the statement that the earth is flat and the earth is not flat constitutes a logical contradiction. A logical consequence of a set of statements is a conclusion derived from them through logic. Thus, the conclusion that all humans are vertebrates is a logical consequence of these statements: (i) all humans are primates; (ii) all primates are mammals; and (iii) all mammals are vertebrates.

For readers who wish to go beyond this brief sketch, a wide range of examples of rational inquiry for school and college education are available at www.schoolofthinq.com

Opinion-1_Small-1Inquiry-Oriented Education, which seeks to develop the capacity for rational inquiry, has to be recognised as an important strand of education.

What is Critical Inquiry?

There are many situations where we do not realise our ignorance. We also take many beliefs and practices for granted, without questioning. When we subject such domains to critical thinking, we are pursuing a special kind of rational inquiry, called critical inquiry, which begins with doubting and questioning what has been taken for granted (analogous to ‘interrogating/cross-examining’ an ‘expert witness’ including ourselves) and demonstrating that we don’t know what we think we know.

Questions for critical inquiry are triggered by critical thinking. Critical thinking is a set of mental processes for evaluating the merit of something. ‘Merit’ here could be the truth of a statement (e.g., the statement, ‘That the earth is round’ is true.), the usefulness of a product, action, practice, or policy to achieve a given goal (e.g., death penalty to effectively deter crime), the ethical desirability of an action, practice, or policy (e.g., the ethical rightness of the death penalty), the beauty of a work of art (e.g., Is da Vinci’s Mona Lisa a great painting?), or the value of something that we (ought to) strive for (e.g., we ought to liberate ourselves from anger and hatred).

Opinion-1_Small-3Mathematical and scientific inquiries offer fruitful emotion-free terrains for the practice of critical inquiry.

Examples of Critical Inquiry

Critical inquiry into issues of terrorism, communal violence, forced migrations, xenophobia, nationalist and religious ideologies that promote violence, and the relation between economic policies and violence, are of direct relevance to education for peace. Such issues, however, are emotionally charged. They might be seductive for beginners, but precisely because of their emotional appeal, there is a danger that when investigating them, feelings replace thinking and assertions of personal opinions replace rational conclusions.

My experience suggests that for beginners to engage with such topics with adequate detachment, clarity and rigour, they need to strengthen their mental equipment in two ways: by striving for emotional maturity, in order to detach feelings from reflection and reasoning; and by strengthening and sharpening their intellectual capacity, using topics that would not create emotional storms.

Mathematical and scientific inquiries offer fruitful emotion-free terrains for the practice of critical inquiry. Let me sketch an example.

Opinion-1_Small-21. Angles and Triangles

Suppose we begin a class activity for eighth graders with an innocent-sounding question: How many angles does a triangle have? The textbook answer is: Three. We can now initiate critical inquiry: What is an angle such that triangles have three angles and rectangles have four?

Most novices would think of this as a trivial question. But then, the function of critical inquiry is to challenge complacency.

What is an angle? A student’s answer might be: “If two straight lines meet in such a way that they do not form a single straight line, what lies between them is an angle.” If so, the combination of two straight lines in Fig. 1 forms an angle, but not in Fig. 2.

What is a right angle? What is an acute angle? What is an obtuse angle? What is a straight angle? The standard textbook answers are: “A right angle measures 90º; an acute angle is less than a right angle; an obtuse angle is more than a right angle (but less than two right angles); and a straight angle is two right angles.”

We now proceed to rigorous reasoning. Given these ‘definitions’, it follows that angle ABC in Fig. 1 is an obtuse angle; while angle DEF in Fig. 2 is a staight angle. Since any straight line can be viewed as being made up of two straight lines at a straight angle, there is a straight angle at every point in a straight line.

How many angles does a straight line have? Since every finite straight line has infinitely many points, it has infinitely many straight angles. Therefore, it has infinitely many angles. Since a triangle is made of three straight lines, it has infinitely many angles. This conclusion negates the textbook answer to the question we started with.

We now have to either accept the conclusion that triangles and rectangles have infinitely many angles, or re-define the concept of angle such that we abandon the concept of straight angle from the textbook.


If schools around the world could engage in discussions pursuing rational inquiry into principles and concepts of ethics, there would perhaps be far less violence in the world.

This begins an inquiry into questions whose answers we realise we don’t know: What is an angle?

This example illustrates the strategy of ‘problematisation’ in critical inquiry: we begin with questions on what we think we know and take for granted; we engage critically with the answer; and realise that we don’t know what we thought we knew, triggering further inquiry.

As I said, math and science offer rich terrains for emotion-free practice of critical inquiry. Once learners acquire the necessary sharpness and strength of mind, they can be guided into critical inquiry in emotion-riddled terrains. We now explore two such examples.

2. Freedom Fighters and Terrorists

We give students the following hypothetical story.

Suppose a country, Arraya, rules over an island, Parumbi. The people of Parumbi don’t want Arraya to govern them, but the people of Arraya want Parumbi under them. Parumbians take up arms to achieve their goal. Their supporters describe them as ‘freedom fighters’, and their activity as an ‘independence struggle’. But the government of Arraya and its supporters describe them as ‘terrorists’, and their activity as ‘terrorism’.

We then give them the following real world story:

An article, “Terrorism, Not Freedom Struggle” (The Times of India, 10 August 2001) stated that “rejecting Islamabad’s description of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as freedom struggle,” India’s external affairs minister said that under no circumstance should India accept “Islamabad’s attempt to confer cross-border terrorism a kind of diplomatic legitimacy 1 …” Pakistan’s newspaper Business Recorder quoted Harry Truman as having warned that “once a government is committed to silencing the voice of dissent, it has only one way to go. To employ increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” It went on to say: “Nothing illustrates the Indian policy, vis-à-vis occupied Kashmir, better than the above quoted remark of the American leader2.”

The students’ task is to spell out how we would distinguish between ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘terrorists’ and to define ‘terrorism’ and ‘independence struggle’ such that we can engage in a rational debate on whether a particular movement qualified as an independence struggle or as terrorism.

3. Nation and Nationalism

Activity 1
Write down the answers to the following questions: What is your nationality? Do you feel good when you hear your national anthem or see your national flag? Are there nations that you dislike or are hostile to? Write the names of those nations.

Activity 2
Now consider the following question: What is a nation?

Discussion: Two meanings of the term ‘nation’ emerged:

  • People-nation: nation as a people united by a shared ancestry, language, and culture. (e.g. ‘Naga-nation,’ ‘Navaho- nation,’ ‘Palestine as a stateless nation’). People-nation prompts loyalty and, devotion to the people with shared ancestry, language, and culture.
  • State-nation: nation as a government that rules a population in a given geographical region. (e.g. India, Pakistan, Vietnam, South Korea, United States of America, Australia, Nigeria, Argentina, and Germany). State-nations are results of war, conquest and power negotiations; they don’t require shared ethnicity, language, or culture.

Opinion-1_Small-5A promising avenue for emotion-education is perhaps something along the lines of mindfulness meditation: ‘looking’ internally at the contents of one’s own experience . . .

Activity 3
Consider the concept of nationalism: We may define it as: a form of collective identity that prompts loyalty and devotion to one’s nation.

Discussion: Given the two distinct concepts of nation, we needed to recognise the corresponding concepts of nationalism: people-nationalism and state-nationalism. People-nationalism might perceive the rulers as ‘foreign’, prompting the political separation of one’s people from those rulers. State-nationalism would perceive those involved in that separation as ‘traitors’. State-nationalism then is loyalty and devotion to one’s rulers and is identical to ‘patriotism’.

Activity 4
Let us go back to the questions we asked earlier: What is your nationality? Do you feel good when you hear your national anthem or national flag?

Discussion: Is your concept of nationality grounded in people-nation or state-nation? Do you feel good when you hear the national anthem or see the national flag? Do you feel patriotism rise in your heart? Does that feeling come from loyalty to the people, or to the state?

Opinion-1_Small-6Activity 5
Now let us do a thought experiment. Imagine that the Second World War was won by Germany, Italy and Japan. The ‘Allies’ lost. If that were the case:

What would your nationality be now?

Which national anthem and national flag would produce feelings of patriotism in your grandchildren? Which nations are your grandchildren likely to hate?

Now answer the same questions by assuming that there were no wars anywhere in the world after the tenth century, and that the political map continued without change till today.

After thinking through these questions, go back to the concepts of state-nation and peoples-nation and write a one-page reflection on the concepts of nation, nationality, nationalism, and patriotism, and the role of violence in the origin and evolution of nations.

An Example of Ethical Inquiry

As a form of rational inquiry, ethical inquiry seeks to help develop the capacity to construct and evaluate ethical theories at individual and collective levels and to deduce the ethical judgements derived from those theories.

In a class session that I did for 6th Graders in Pune, India, the children came up with this ethical principle: It is immoral to kill humans and other creatures. During the subsequent discussion, one child said that the principle doesn’t apply to enemies. The entire class agreed that it is okay to kill enemies. The principle was revised as: It is immoral to kill fellow creatures other than enemies.

Some students even suggested that killing enemies is our ethical duty.
This resulted in the following dialogue:


At this point, they were no longer sure about their position on enemies. I gave them a few minutes to discuss the problem in groups and come up with a concept of ‘enemy’ such that killing enemies is okay. After some discussion, most groups came up with the following statements:

Those who want to kill others are our enemies.

Those enemies exist in both India and Pakistan.

I would have liked to raise the question: Is it morally right to kill someone who has killed another? This could have taken us to fairly complex issues like mercy-killing, honour-killing, war, abortion and death penalty. I did not pursue that line of inquiry, for I wasn’t sure if it was age-appropriate for the children.

If schools around the world could engage in discussions of this kind, pursuing rational inquiry into principles and concepts of ethics, there would perhaps be far less violence in the world.

 Contemplative Inquiry

As mentioned earlier, the education of emotions has an important role to play in minimising human violence. A promising avenue for emotion-education is perhaps something along the lines of mindfulness meditation: ‘looking’ internally at the contents of one’s own experience, including sensory and non-sensory experience, as well as the experience of emotions. Meditative techniques such as attending to breathing, body scan, loving-kindness and observing thought are forms of looking at the inner world3.

The so-called contemplative inquiry in this tradition is a form of rational inquiry that takes the results of such introspection as the grounds of inquiry to arrive at rational conclusions about oneself. This allows us to address questions as, “Am I a covert racist?” “Am I as ethical as I think?”, “Do I carry hatred in me?”, as part of inquiry into a fundamental question: “Who am I?”

Instead of merely experiencing emotions such as anger or hostility, we can employ contemplative inquiry with the rational-perceptual part of the mind examining with equanimity the emotional suffering part. The outcome of attention then forms the basis for rational investigation of oneself.

Inquiry-Oriented Education

Helping the young to develop the capacity to engage in these diverse modes of rational inquiry, combined with practices that enhance positive emotions and dissolve negative ones, is an imperative that institutionalised education can no longer afford to ignore in today’s world. Mathematical, scientific, conceptual, ethical and contemplative inquiries play significant roles in this enterprise, which would involve incorporating the strand of Inquiry-Oriented Education into schooling at the primary, secondary, as well as tertiary levels. UNESCO MGIEP has currently undertaken such a move in a collaborative endeavour with ThinQ4 in its LIBRE programme.

1 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Terrorism-not-freedom-struggle-Jaswant/articleshow/1086523490.cms

2 http://www.brecorder.com/index.php?option=com_news&view=single&id=1108304


4 www.schoolofthinq.com

K.P. Mohanan received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and taught at the University of Texas in Austin, MIT, Stanford University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). At NUS, he initiated the General Education Programme for undergraduate students and, as part of this programme, created a web course on Academic Knowledge and Inquiry.

In January 2011, he moved to IISER-Pune, where he created a three-course package on rational inquiry, covering scientific, mathematical, and conceptual inquiries. He is currently engaged in developing courses and programmes on different types of inquiry-based learning for high school and college students.