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Attitudes of Learning to Learn

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The theme today is "Attitudes of Learning to Learn." It is a term conceived by the Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute as an alternative to the somewhat technical term "social-emotional skills." What are the abilities that we, including children, need for classroom learning at school besides language and interpersonal relationships?

Right away, "intelligence" comes to my mind. The ability to read, calculate and memorize is located in the cerebral cortex, which is the surface of the brain. You have probably heard about or seen descriptions of the acoustic center of speech in the temporal lobe or the motor speech center located in the frontal lobe. You may also know that the hippocampus, which is situated deep inside the brain, plays a role in memory. Despite its location, it is also a part of the cerebral cortex.

It has been established that this part of the brain called the cerebral cortex is associated with important intellectual functions of the brain such as language learning and memory. In psychology, these are called "cognitive functions," and neurologists and psychologists have studied them in relation to education and learning. However, based on research and surveys in recent years, we have come to understand that the development of cognitive ability alone is not sufficient for effective learning.

A pioneer in this research is Walter Mischel, a psychologist who conducted what is commonly known as the "marshmallow test." Children around five years of age were given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it right away, but if they could wait until the researcher returned (15 minutes), they would be given another one, and were left alone in the room.

The results of the experiment showed that there were two groups of children: those who sought immediate gratification and those who chose delayed gratification. Ten years later, Mischel conducted detailed psychological tests on the children who had participated in the experiment. At the age of five, children who sought instant gratification and those who chose delayed gratification showed no difference in IQ. However, ten years later, the children who chose delayed gratification showed a better performance not only in academic achievement, but also in social skills and empathy.

This ability to delay gratification is precisely one of the social and emotional skills, or namely the "attitude of learning to learn." This "attitude of learning to learn" is not something that one acquires by faithfully copying and memorizing what the teacher has written on the blackboard. So, how does one develop this?

Actually, we still do not know for sure. Researchers in education, psychology, and neurology are now desperately working to answer this question.

In autumn of 2016, the Japanese Society of Child Science held a conference in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Dr. Yuichiro Anzai gave the keynote speech and I would like to introduce what he talked about. Previously Chair of the Central Council for Education and currently President of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, he plays an important role in policymaking in education and research in Japan.

His lecture was titled "For children in the future--What do adults want to do?" The title may strike many of you as a bit odd and make you wonder if the subtitle isn't "What should adults do?" But after hearing Dr. Anzai's lecture, I understood that he had posed the question for very important reasons.

What is the difference between what one should do and what one wants to do? Although there seems to be little difference between them, from the viewpoint of psychology and neurology, there is a huge difference between these two questions. To answer the question "What should I do?" it is necessary to analyze your particular situation, and based on that, to ask "What is expected of me?" The type of mental activity that is required in this analysis is definitely a cognitive process.

On the other hand, to answer the question "What do I want to do?" there is no need to analyze what is expected of you. It is enough to follow the feelings that rise up inside and decide based on them. What you feel inside is not simply knowledge, but emotion or knowledge that is strongly colored with emotion.

I have forgotten some of the details of Dr. Anzai's lecture, but I remember that he talked about children who live in Shodoshima, an island in the Inland Sea of Japan. His message was that rather than doing what they should do, children should do the things they want to do.

It was a lecture that truly focused on the "attitudes of learning to learn."

sakakihara.png Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.