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Fostering a "scientific mind"

On July 21, Saturday afternoon, I was invited to attend a symposium entitled "Scientific Minds Developed in Childhood: Seven Perspectives for a Strong and Healthy Heart and Mind" sponsored by Sony Foundation for Education, held in the Sony company headquarters building in Tokyo.

Coordinated by Professor Kiyomi Akita, (education, preschool education, Graduate School of Education, the University of Tokyo), the panelists included were Professor Kiyoshi Aoki (DNA research, University of Human Arts and Sciences), Ms. Setsuko Otake (preschool education, Director, Futaba Sukoyaka Nursery School, Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo), Associate Professor Mitsuko Kaminaga (child science, Tokyo Seitoku University), Mr. Hideaki Koizumi (brain science, Hitachi Fellow), and Mr. Toshiyuki Yamada (applied physics, Director, Sony Institute of Higher Education Shohoku College, former Director of Sony Central Research Institute). About 500 people attended, most of whom seem to be involved in preschool education.

The seven perspectives for developing the scientific mind consisted of (1) sensitivity and creativity (2) closeness and sensitivity to nature (3) love and understanding for plants, animals, and life (4) respect and consideration for people, things and actions (5) joy in play, learning and living together (6) curiosity and critical thinking (7) self-expression and motivation.

Since its founding, Sony Foundation for Education has been committed to the goal of cultivating a scientific mind in young children, and this was also a subject that interested me. Dr. Akita, the coordinator, opened the symposium with an introduction to its goals of fostering the love of science in young children and the desire to express it through the body. Dr. Koizumi followed with a presentation on Pierre Curie's views on experiencing joy in nature research, children who made a special field for insects to protect the other fields, and his own concept of bubble science. All these subjects provided rich suggestions. In particular, the talk on making a field for insects cited the concept of compassion and charity from Indian philosophy that can be furthered broken down into kindness, sharing pain, sharing joy, and non-adherence. He explained that fostering a scientific mind was synonymous with cultivating kindness and empathy and amounted to interaction between the new brain and the old in terms of evolutionary theory.

Professor Yamada, whose father was a high school science teacher, talked about collecting insects and plants as a child in a riverside of Mie prefecture. After entering high school, he became interested in electricity and studied in engineering at university. From an early age, he learned the importance of feeling close to nature and being moved by it. He said, surprisingly, his children are all engaged in the liberal arts, and he supposed this is because he spent his entire life in the sciences so that he sought literature and art at home.

Professor Aoki stressed the integrated relation between imprinting and sensation during infancy, which is a time of receptivity to external stimuli. Prof. Kaminaga explained that in preschool education, it is important for children to experience the act of creating and breaking things on their own.

According to Ms. Otake, when unifying the nursery schools and kindergartens in Shinagawa Ward, they were turned into places where children could share space, time and friends, and this entailed modeling them after the home environment and creating an environment that would also immediate contact with nature. This is the Child Caring Design at nursery schools.

During the question-and-answer session, a mother with a child with a mild developmental disability and another person who appeared to be a professor asked meta-cognitive questions that left an impression on me. In response to the mother, Prof. Koizumi replied that since the child seemed to have a high-functioning developmental disability, the right type of education could encourage the child to become a great scientist. According to Prof. Akita, meta-cognition is learning how to learn as the child monitors himself or herself while undergoing repeated experiences over the course of time.

After the symposium, a number of thoughts came to me. For children to be able to eventually live independently, we need to raise them to develop empathy that will enable them to read human behavior and understand the feelings of others, and for this, we need a theory of the empathic mind. In the same vein, we need a theory of things to develop a "scientific mind" in children. Children are innately equipped with both of these basic programs. Just as we have established a theory of the mind up to the age of four or five in a dynamic manner, we also need to theorize things. I believe that in forming a theory of the mind and a theory of things, they share a common foundation: basic trust that the infant forms. This basic trust tells the infant that life is peaceful and that others can be trusted. Without this basic trust, the child does not develop an empathetic mind. And without it, nor does the child develop a mind that will accept basic principles such as the 1+1=2 or the sun rises in the east, without which learning mathematics as well as daily life becomes difficult. This basic trust constitutes a common foundation.

In his talk on the "new brain" and the "old brain," Prof. Koizumi importantly noted that from the perspective of evolution, the "new brain," is a new cortex with the programs of reason and intellect formed as a covering over the "old brain." The "old brain" consists of the limbic system with programs of instinct and emotion, but it covers the diencephalon and brain system that can be considered the survival brain which is central to the programs of the body. In other words, our brain has evolved from the survival brain, the old instinctual and emotional brain, to the new rational and intellectual brain to enable the programs of the body to operate optimally.

As such, the optimal operation of the programs of the limbic system not only contributes to the working of the programs of the body in the survival brain, but also to the programs of reason and intellect in the "new brain." This means that learning, playing and experiencing the joy of living to the fullest depends on activating the limbic system, promoting the full working of the programs of the mind and body, and fostering the both the empathetic mind and the scientific mind. In particular, these operations are reinforced by contact with nature and playing with toys that stimulate the intellect.

The conference did not broach the issues of word usage, sentence formation, and understanding. We can say that infants communicate through sensitive information such the rhythm, pitch, intonation of language, and become capable of communicating with rational information when they begin to talk. This is because it is thought that once they are able to attach word signs to refer to things and occurrences, they become able to think rationally. Consequently, a scientific mind is reinforced in infants by first reading picture books to them and then letting them read many different books on their own, in particular, not only books on animals and nature, but also on cars, trains, etc. It goes without saying that emotionally powerful direct experience, in nature or of the experimental kind, it is also important.

Regardless of the work that they will do as adults, cultivating a scientific mind through a theory of things is important in infancy - just as important as fostering an empathetic mind with a theory of the mind.

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