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Children's Curiosity Transcends Education

Located on a hill in Hayama with a wonderful view, the Graduate School for Advanced Studies is the central organization for all the national research institutes in Japan. On January 24, the team working on characteristics of human ontogenic development in Human Sciences Research Project at the Hayama Center for Advanced Studies (HCAS), one of its affiliated institutes, and the Japanese Society for Child Science co-sponsored a series of lectures entitled "Children's Curiosity Transcends Education" at the Iwasaki Koyata Memorial Hall, International House of Japan. It was held at the initiative of Dr. Keiichi Omoto, HCAS Senior Research Fellow, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, The University of Tokyo, and attended by about 300 people. According to the announcement, the theme of the program of three lectures, two special presentations and discussion was as follows:

Humans differ greatly from other animals in their tremendous curiosity. In particular, human children play with objects in their environment and share this enjoyment with others. The theme of this particular lectures series was the distinctive characteristics of human children with special focus on curiosity and creativity.

In the first lecture, Dr. Omoto stated that humans show both physiological neoteny as well as emotional and psychological neoteny, and as a result, one human characteristic is continuing child-like curiosity even in adulthood. Dr. Omoto introduced the example of Matsumori Taneyasu, a samurai who was a natural historian and painter of nature who lived from the late Tokugawa period to the Meiji era.

In the second lecture, Dr. Makoto Iwata, Professor Emeritus, Tokyo Women's Medical College, explained that our ancestor, the Cro-Magnon man, who made cave paintings, was the only being on earth to spontaneously, began to draw pictures in a natural environment. The Neanderthal man, who displayed ability in the plastic arts, is thought to have made small anthropomorphic figures, but not drawings.

Cro-Magnon man began to draw 30,000 years ago and made many cave paintings over a period of more than 20,000 years. Most were images of animals which show us the rather astounding development of hunting techniques over time. I think the development of hunting, from hunting in teams or small groups and using a club and other instruments to hunt large animals, most likely led to a large increase in life-related information.

Looking at the developmental process as seen in his grandchild's drawing, Dr. Iwata noticed lines enclosed by circles at the age of three. Closed forms indicate that the ability to distinguish between figure and ground, and drawing closed forms is the first step in the rapid development of drawing ability.

Furthermore, Williams Syndrome was cited as a model to demonstrate the link between drawing and genetics. Williams Syndrome is caused by the lack of the genes and nearby genes that produce elastin. Elastin is the protein that allows vessels and tissues such as aorta and ligaments in the body to stretch. Patients with Williams Syndrome are talkative and very friendly and characterized by growth disorder, mental developmental disorder, blood vessel narrowing of aorta, and an elfin facial appearance (prominent lips and mouth, epicanthal folds, and small, upturned nose). These patients are also deficient in the ability to reproduce visual information such as patterns and forms. This suggests that this deficit is linked to one or more of the genes on chromosome 7q11.23, which is missing in Williams Syndrome patients. It seemed to me, however, that as far as the ability to reproduce patterns and forms is concerned, this could be located at the genetic level, but that drawing pictures should be considered a different act that involves the entire brain.

Dr. Yutaka Saeki, a cognitive scientist and Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo, Professor, Aoyama Gakuin University presented the third lecture on "A Consideration of Education from the Perspective of Mimicry," which was rich in substance. It is widely accepted that children's education is fundamentally rooted in play and mimicking and research has established that mimicking behavior is an innate program. It is also well known that just as newborns will mimic the same action of someone sticking out his or her tongue, infants playing together will display resonance behaviors by performing the same action.

According to Dr. Saeki, the importance of resonance behaviors in infants lies in the fact that, through the mutual mimicry, infants come to know the existence of the self as the agent performing the mimicking action and the other who is observed. Educationally, it becomes problematic when adults and teachers give children cues, telling children to observe and do the same thing because they are then instructing them to simply copy an action. He advised us to guard against making unreflexive mimicry a part of education, which does not require any thinking about meaning or intention.

Following the lectures, a special report was given by Shinichi Nakama, Human Renaissance Institute, who introduced an educational program called "Terakoya" that fosters toughness in the wild, intellect and sensibility in elementary and junior high school children. Makoto Kinoshita, Secretary-general, The Japanese Society of Child Science, gave a very interesting talk about Helen Keller who could know much more from palm of her hand than people without disability. This was concluded by discussion and a question and answer led by Yoshiko Sawai, Director, Child Labo.

Each presentation was extremely informative, but it was unfortunate that we did not discuss the question related to the theme: Why does children's curiosity transcend education? One could say that curiosity is a program of the mind that pursues new information. Curiosity is something innate, which newborns demonstrate as soon they are born when they look around. We can then say, in a broad sense, that education is cultivation of the mind and intellect by putting into motion and integrating the innate programs of mind through child-raising, child-care, and school education and other techniques at home and in society. Without innate curiosity, education is not possible and that much is certainly clear.

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