Lessons from Indigenous Thought Working with “koto” and robotics


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Lessons from Indigenous Thought -- Working with “koto” and robotics

Ian H. Frank, Ph.D. and Malcolm H. Field, Ph.D.

Future University - Hakodate


The Japanese language contains the concept of “koto”. There is no direct equivalent in English, but loosely it can be interpreted as the intersection between the concrete world of “things” and the abstract realm of feelings and thought. We believe this concept provide a valuable perspective for framing thinking about technology, science, and especially education. We illustrate koto thinking by discussing robotics. Robots are an especially compelling example since in addition to enjoying a deep-rooted place in modern technological culture, they can also be viewed as agents interacting with their environments.

We have developed a course that draws on developments in robotics and also in other areas of science and technology to target meta-level thinking skills. Our ideas have grown from work carried out in Japan, drawing on thought that for us was “indigenous”, but we believe the lessons they hold are general. Especially, the 21st century calls for an education that allows students to recognise patterns of connection and work across boundaries. The koto viewpoint is allowing us to understand and move toward this goal.

The great failure of education is that it… ahs attached value to the things man does, but not to what man is. Man’s institutions are celebrated but not man himself… There are national anthems, but no anthem for humanity… Norman Cousins, Human Options

Why do schools teach almost nothing of the patterns that connect? Is it that teachers know that that they carry the kiss of death which will turn to tastelessness whatever they touch and therefore they are wisely unwilling to touch or teach anything of real-life importance? Or is it that they carry the kiss of death because they dare not teach anything of real-life importance? What’s wrong with them? Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature

Culture and education are intimately connected. Culture implicitly constrains which classroom activities are likely to succeed. The pedagogy individuals experience determines how they will shape their culture as adults. Yet, cultural learning and interaction is often ignored because the variables are hard to isolate.
We are developing a multi-disciplinary teaching approach within the context of the Japanese culture. Our primary goal has been at the meta-level: to challenge students to consider the nature of thought. We use technology, and draw on research from such areas as Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence and neuroscience. Our approach aids in developing extended learning repertoire, and challenges students to consider their place in their own culture, and their culture’s place in the world.
We have found that there are Japanese concepts – mono, kokoro and koto – that can be used to frame our methodology. Mono and kokoro can loosely be translated as “things” (the physical world) and “heart” (man himself). Koto can be thought of as the intersection of these two. That is, while being concerned with the physical world, koto still includes the aspect of human interaction. It is this that characterises our approach. Very little can be viewed entirely as “concrete” or “abstract”: we consider all parts of the educational process from the perspective that both mono and kokoro are integral. Especially, we value patterns of connection, both for individuals, and at the higher level of societies and cultures.

This paper introduces some of the technology we use, and our key thinking. First, we address the circumstances that created the need for our approach by considering higher education in Japan, and globalisation on education. We follow this with a deeper introduction to the notion of koto, and relate the concept to the broader educational paradigm. Next, we outline one component, robotics, which we will see is a particularly germane example. Finally, we report briefly on some of the obstacles and successes we have encountered to date, and outline our future direction.

Japanese Education

Reforming Japanese education is high on the agenda of Japan’s Ministry of Education (MEXT). New paradigms, such as task-based learning and problem-based approaches are slowly being recognised. MEXT argues that ‘it has been actively promoting a variety of policies in the field of education…in the area of schooling, MEXT is cultivating a base for participation in learning... by adopting a theory of education that emphasises… the desire to spontaneously educate oneself...’ (Monbukagakusho, 1997b). But traditional Japanese structures run deep and the potential for social conflict, such as the breakdown of the social structures, explains why the pace of reform is slow (Landers, 1998). Furthermore, many educators and administrators have had little to no training on how to teach others how to have the ‘desire to spontaneously educate’ themselves.
MEXT has been less than enthusiastic about providing concrete blueprints for reform. For instance MEXT’s 1998 University Council Report stated their desire that people ‘related to higher educational institutions must make [the] first efforts...’ (op.Cit.). MEXT maintains that not until the universities and other higher educational institutions ‘fill their expected roles, will Japan, with its greatest sources of people’s intellectual activities and creativity, become a nation that can demonstrate intellectual leadership...(ibid. p.4). The ‘expected role’ is left undefined, but we believe that for Japan to be successful, this role will need to be recognisably “Japanese”.

Evidence for this comes from many fields but let us look at the case of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the classroom. The literature contains many claims; for instance ICTs increase motivation (Sakamoto, 1992), enhance metacognitive skills (Van Dusen, 1997), improve collaborative interaction to solving problems (Wegerif, & Scrimshaw, 1997, Wegerif & Dawes, 2003), by equal participation in dialogue (Warschauer, 1996). However, many of these effects have not been sufficiently substantiated in Japan. Field (2005), for example, found that it could not be argued that ICT is changing, or would change learning in Japan as both the target content and any text-based computer-mediated communication continued to be influenced by strategies rooted in the local culture.

So, education, in Japan at least, requires a consideration of the cultural context. And in the 21st century, this context is inextricable from the global one.
Japan situated between many paradigms: West and East, North and South, developed and developing. However, rapid changes in the global society have the potential to force Japan away from this privileged position.
Modern globalization processes should be of special concern to educators, as they promote the “knowledge-society”, where the emphasis is on knowledge and skills rather than the ability to utilize natural resources and capital (Stromquist, 2002). Indeed, globalization in its modern form has only become available because of the development and infrastructure of ICTs. Carnoy (2000) believes that information and innovation are the two main bases of globalization; this should mean that education should impact on the transmission of that knowledge. We follow this in believing that new technologies and knowledge need to allow students to engage in activities that will lead to success in both personal and academic or professional pursuits.

Gardner (2004) argues that for the youth of today to be able to manage the rapid changes occurring as a result of globalization, pre-college or tertiary education will need to ensure that students understand the global system Important aspects of this include analytical creative thinking within and across disciplines; and the ability to address problems that are not limited by traditional academic, economic and social boundaries. We recognise that the new technologies, knowledge and skills both help and hinder the development of local communities: ‘the Internet comprises shape, and are (sic) shaped by, groups that use them for their distinctive purposes; it is not just a set of individuals connected to another set of individuals’ (Burbules, 2000, p.336). It is our goal to provide opportunities for students to acquire the new knowledge and the new skills within an integrative perspective that allows them to recognise and make use of insight into how people are connected.

Connections exist at multiple levels, including global and local, but most of all at the level of the individual. To understand this more clearly, we need to consider koto in more detail.
Mono, kokoro and koto
The concepts of mono
, kokoro and koto are part of the Japanese language. Mono and kokoro have natural English counterparts as “things” (the physical world) and “heart” (man himself). But koto signals a mode of thinking about the world that as non-Japanese speakers, we may be unaccustomed. Although all three words are extremely common within the language itself, the earliest discussion we could trace of the philosophical implications was of the 1893 correspondence between the famously widely-read Minakata Kumagusu and top shingon priest Toki Horyu described in Figali (1999):

[Minakata] further parts company with Inoue by adding a third term to the dyad mono/kokoro: koto (thing), which he defines as the intersection of mono and kokoro (9:15). He visualizes this intersection in a sketch depicting the relationship among the triptych mono/kokoro/koto, which he includes in the margin of this letter: two overlapping ovoid areas labelled mono and kokoro, the common portion of which is labelled koto. He further explains that “that which mind activates and gives rise to when working on matter is called koto” (9:18) and that the field of koto ranges “from the taking of a tissue in hand and blowing one’s nose to the founding of religions to benefit people” (9:16). A single English equivalent for koto that gets across Minakata’s meaning is difficult to find. “Thing” lacks the sense of the human participatory necessary for its production and is too easily confused with objective, material thing (mono), whereas “affairs” suggests the human element but lacks the sense of materiality involved.

We have quoted here at length because this is a worthy exposition of koto, but let us add as an example, a story from human experience (itself a koto approach). In “Descarte’s Error” (Damasio, 1995) uses the story of Phineas Gage as support for his argument that the famous “I think therefore I am” is an inadequate solution to the mind-body problem. While leading a team of railroad workers, Phineas Gage suffered a terrible accident that resulted in an iron rod passing through his skull from below. Miraculously, he survived, and even appeared fit and healthy to the casual observer. However, he had lost the part of the brain responsible for feeling emotions, and it gradually became clear that without this, he was unable to hold down a job or function in society. Damasio interprets this as evidence that it is our very physical embodiment that is essential in understanding the human mind. Our thought processes are not something that can be abstracted away solely to the mind. The body is also important. Again, it is the intersection between the abstract and the concrete that is significant.

Our experience is that, as the above example suggests, koto thinking can be very well illustrated by science. We have found that the same holds true for technology – and for education. In the classes that we have been developing, we have started from the notion of koto to describe all of: the types of contents included in the curriculum; the style of teaching; the experience of the students during the course; the goal for the expanded awareness the students gain from the course. That is, while aiming at the acquisition of analytical creative thinking skills, we always look for content, activities, methods, and concepts that allow individuals to realise how they, and others, interact with the world. Before giving a concrete example of this, let us look at the broader educational context.
Koto Parallels in Education and beyond
The obvious place for us to find thinking similar to koto is the educational movement that grew from John Dewey’s work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A key part of this movement was an emphasis on the social in education: ‘Darwinian thinking greatly influenced Dewey’s philosophy. It was where he first acquired the notion that a human begin or community is like a highly complex natural organism that must function within its environment’ (Garrison, 1999). This concept is also seen in Vygotskian ideas on the social formation of the mind.

Within the tradition of American pragmatism, in which Dewey was also a key figure, it was especially George Herbert Mead who thematised the idea of a social self. As described by Habermas (1989 p.43) Mead asserts that ‘…the individual reaches his self only through communication with others’. Since we are writing from the perspective of indigenous Japanese thought, it is also of interest that Mead’s philosophy in turn has been compared to Watsuji Tetsuro’s Confucian/Zen model of the person as ningen (Odin, 1992). For instance, in his 1935 work “A Climate”, Watsuji compares the way that in Western societies a person is seen as an individual, whereas the Japanese case ‘Man is essentially social, or relational’ (Watsuji, 1961, P.138).

Moving closer to the present day, there is “Situated Learning”. Lave and Wenger (1991) build on the notion of “apprenticeship” to define “legitimate peripheral participation” as being central to learning. They view situated learning as a transitory concept between a view, which cognitive processes (and learning) are primary, and a view, which social practice is the primary, generative phenomenon, and learning is one of its characteristics. Also there is problem-based learning (PBL) which evolved from the field of medicine, and task-based learning is common to second language acquisition. Koto thinking shares features with all of these, but instead of focussing attention on just the social aspect, or just the problem or task and its design, koto thinking keeps in mind all aspects, including the people involved, the way they carry out the task or problem, and the way they interact (with each other, the teacher, and the environment).
Recently, we also discovered a use of koto in a design policy handbook produced by the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry (METI, 2005) which contains a number of themes that resonate with our paper, including the need for adaptability and imagination, and the benefits of considering the human aspect in design. The current paper is the result of collaboration between faculty from distinct disciplines: AI/Computer Science and Communication/Education. Since we have no training in “design” ourselves, we had thought not to look at the area of design, but we view this as further evidence of the explanatory power of koto thinking.
Robots and their Interpretation with koto

Robots are a perfect foil for our purposes for two reasons. First, Japan has a deep cultural fascination with robotics. Comic books and animation series (such as Atom/Astro Boy and Doraemon) are a staple of all Japanese childhoods, and the country’s leading industrial giants create flagship robots, such as Honda’s Asimo humanoid robot and Sony’s AIBO, largely for the media and public interest they generate (Joyce, 2005, 2006). Second, and more importantly, robots give us a microcosm of a triadic model: mono – the environment in which the robot exists; kokoro – the design of the robot, including its programming; koto – the way that the robot interacts with the environment.

By actually observing the way that robots behave, the students can learn for themselves a crucial lesson: talking about intelligence only makes sense in the context of how an agent (human, robotic, or otherwise) interacs with the environment.
For example, one experiment very easily carried out with basic Lego Mindstorms℗ kit is to build a wheeled robot with two light sensors that enable it to follow a “racing track” marked in black on a light surface. This is a simple task and most (even younger) students can complete a robot for this task in around 90 minutes. By presenting the students with tracks of differing degrees of difficulty (e.g. chicanes, gaps in the lines), the students can be challenged to think about the optimal placement of the sensors. When the students are then instructed to change the locomotion of the robots from wheels to tracks or legs (again with Lego Mindstorms℗), they find that the optimal placement of sensors is now very different. This, the students experience an extremely important lesson: a change in either the mono (our environment, the type of racing track), or the kokoro (Phnieas Gage’s brain, or a robot’s design) can render once-appropriate behaviour ineffective. What is the koto
intersection between mono and kokoro?

Our use of robotics is inspired by Turbak and Berg (2002), who view the essence of engineering as a fundamental component of liberal arts education. They point out that robotics calls for constructionist learning and this allows educators opportunities to expose students to “big ideas” in engineering (such as iterative design, real-world constraints, tradeoffs, and feedback) that are important for understanding not only classical engineered systems, but also interpreting social systems and the natural world. Robotics is also inherently interdisciplinary in nature, calling for students to solve problems in diverse areas, such as design, emergency rescue and other human vectors.

By challenging the students to make tradeoffs in an iterated design process, we agree with Turbak and Berg (ibid.) that students experience that there is no single right answer to any problem, but with each problem and solution comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. The nature of the experience that robotics allows us to give students is, in its deepest sense, a koto one.
Developing a Curriculum and Evaluation
Due to the limitations of this paper, we have chosen not to outline the specifics of the curriculum in favour of establishing the foundations of koto thinking (above). However, it will be of no surprise to readers to learn that we hesitate to compartmentalise and divide responsibilities and functions of curriculum into disparate learning chunks. We have room here to look at some of the connections between concepts.
Although we have highlighted robotics, we have found that the notion of koto also describes many of the different areas that we are drawing into our classes. For example, with human-computer interaction, Reeves and Nass (1996) have written entertainingly of how humans respond to technology in a social way, and we allow students to experience this in class. In neuroscience, new tools of research, such as fMRI, are revolutionising our understanding of the mind. We often use examples (such as Phineas Gage, or the writings of the physician Ramachandran) to provide real-life examples for our activities and problems. In cognitive science, social scientists are creatively designing experiments that help to illustrate some surprises of how the human mind can work, such as how people rely on hunches without factoring in personal background, scientific evidence, and unperceived influences (refer Myers, 2002).

Our preferred teaching style also contains aspects of koto in that we are moving away from “presenting” anything to the students. That is, we proceed by providing some (cold) activity, which we experience together. After the activity (which may be a task or a problem) we experience a guided reflection, and usually only after the student has “experienced learning” do we distribute and provide specific information to the students.

The ideas briefly described in this paper have evolved over four years of experimentation, both of our own ideas and in our teaching practices. The main testing ground has been an intensive course at one of the elite universities in Japan (by the first author), although we have also conducted a workshop for students at the same university. We have also been working with students at a science and technology university (our home institution) and are providing our first full academic year course this year based on the notion of koto thinking. It is our intention that our students will go out into the schools and provide workshops for the local students. We have also been approached by a leading technology company in Japan to provide workshops for their technicians.
Based on Kirkpatrick’s (1998) four level model, an evaluation has been carried out on courses we have undertaken. This evaluation can be provided by contacting us, but we list a few comments below.
This class gave me a flesh [sic] air to my brain. It was so much fun! I think the funniest/craziest class in Waseda.

I’ve never had such a wonderful and creative class.

I have never imagined this thought [sic] of class. But it was full of ideas and messages that will purely be part of myself.

I learned that there are so many thing that I haven’t noticed even though I was seeing them unconsciously. Stereotypes constrains new ideas. I think I will!! I will review the things more to improve things and people around me.

Really, enjoyable experience, good mix between practical experiences and “theories”, clean and self explanatory teaching materials/handouts. Talented pedagogic team. Enough surprises and challenge to attain a high level of information retention rate.

I learned attitude of science and not just knowledge.

No negative comments have been recorded, despite the evaluation specifically requesting suggested improvements.

Conclusions and Road Ahead
We have introduced the notion of koto and described how it can be used to frame understanding of science and technology through an example of using robots. The key feature of koto thinking is that it simultaneously addresses the physical and abstract, the external and the internal mental worlds. The genesis of these ideas is inseparable from the indigenous culture that produced them. Beside the notion of koto itself, we have found ourselves teaching students who are a product of an education system that does not readily succeed in engendering thinking skills. For us, working with such students is not always easy. By attempting to overcome this challenge, we feel that we have followed a path that may have gone unnoticed had our students been more able.
The difficulty of the task also led to seeking advice, and to collaboration, across paradigms and disciplines. Such collaborations require extending zones of comfort, as does the challenge of facing a class “naked” with none of the expected tools of such as slides, PowerPoint, and textbooks. We also have to report that our own institution does not feature our approach in its syllabus (yet). This paper is just one step in educating the educators.

Although our ideas arose from work that has been carried out in Japan, we believe that the core thinking is transferable. The most important koto lesson for any student is to understand how they are connected to the world around them. This naturally includes the notion of how others are connected to the world, and the skill of thinking across borders. We have found indigenous thought, as we demonstrate in robotics, allows us to frame and direct the lessons we are teaching. We hope this will help us overcome the problems of acceptance in Japan as discussed above. But more than this, we believe that Japan’s koto thinking has lessons to a much wider audience: adaptability and imagination are important for success in the 21st century.


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