Three Years and Talking:
A Proposal submitted to the Spencer Foundation in 2000. [not funded]
The fundamental objective of Three Years and Talking is to understand and exhibit the way that language develops along with other aspects of cognition in the earliest years of life. The special resource I have that brings this objective within reach is a six year long developmental case study, beginning at the infant’s 18th week and proceeding with regular videotaped recording of her development for six years. The foci of the study are three vectors:
• language learning and its predecessors
• learning about objects in space and their interactions
• learning through activities of everyday life
Within the coming year, the focus of work is analyzing the videotaped corpus in the age range from18 weeks to three years, looking first at obvious language and communicative behaviors and secondarily at the development of spatial understanding.
To advance this general objective and these specific goals, during my Geneva appointment I will:
• select and transcribe the most relevant segments of the videotape corpus
• embed these transcriptions in a software environment (described in chapter two of “Case Study and Computing”) which permits precategorical linking of material in a re-compilable lexical indexing facility
• develop the best articulated descriptions of phenomena and developmental sequences that I can, based on what is observable in the corpus at this initial level of transcription.
• discuss this work with colleagues in the intellectual community of the Archives Piaget.
The anticipated outcomes of this effort will be:
• descriptions of phenomena captured in the study corpus
• a first-order theory of the phenomena, to wit:
§ expressed language development before the age of three
§ the placement of that development in the social context of everyday family life
§ an overview of the interplay, if any, of expressed competences in the disparate domains of language and spatial understanding.
The success of the effort at this level, and anticipated outcomes, will be pursued as immediate goals.
Relevant Literature for This Research
The primary current literature relevant to this project can be represented by four works:
• The Symbolic Species (Terrence Deacon),
• Language in Cognitive Development (Katherine Nelson).
• Lawler’s Case Studies, from “Cognition and Computers” and “Computer Experience and Cognitive Development” and other analyses and projects reported in “Case Study and Computing: advanced qualitative methods in the Study of Human Behavior.”
• The Society of Mind (Marvin Minsky), as developed and extended in The Emotion Machine (Minsky’s work in progress).
These works are “the tip of the iceberg,” in that each draws upon its own long and deep scholarly traditions, with Deacon’s book representing the Peircean semiotic tradition and corpus, Nelson representing the work of Merlin Donald and Roger Brown specifically, as well as linguistics more generally. Lawler’s work and books draw continuously on the work of Piaget and others, while Minsky represents the deepest and most creative impulses towards the mechanistic interpretation of mind, in a framework of interaction that unites perspectives as diverse as those of Sigmund Freud and William James. These works all are relevant to my goal, understanding and exhibiting the way that language develops en suite with other aspects of cognition in the earliest years of life, as can be seen in the following discussion of method.
Methodologies and Modes of Analysis
The essential procedure is to construct a rich corpus focused on important phenomena (completed) then to analysis that corpus through cycles of theory development, extending and deepening the description of events and modelling of learning progressively. The basic method is described more extensively in the paper on Datacase Designs, part of chapter two of Case Study and Computing. A short paper is easily accessible on the web (now here CASE: A Case Study Analysis Support Environment).
The strategy for this phase of the work is
• to use the observations and theories of Katherine Nelson as description of knowledge and learning for a typical child aged three to six
• to seek predecessors or such behaviors and developments in my corpus for the period up to my subject’s third birthday
• thus to explore how language and its precursors relate to cognitive development in varied domains.
My theoretical scheme for early language development derives from Peirce’s semiotics via Terrence Deacon in “The Symbolic Species.” This involves description of three primary uses of language:
• iconic use of language (sensations lead to automatic recall of memories)
• indexical use of language (directed reference made to things by utterance, non-standard as well as standard)
• symbolic use of language. This entails relating the infant’s personal “idiolang” to the shared language of his social group; it requires translation between the two, i.e. the introduction of synonymy as a key step in communication. But this is an instance, in its simplest form, of the definition of one word in terms of others, the definitive criterion for symbolic use of language.
Note, of course, that rich preservation of context necessary for analysis and interpretation because the same utterance may have different meanings, depending on the speaker and the specific context of use.
Minsky’s work — which I have studied for years and continue to study — serves as an inspiration and creative expression of how computational ideas can be used most profoundly to represent what we know of the human mind, its processes, and development. To continue current with his ideas, I have spent the past year in Minsky’s circle as a Visiting Professor at the MIT Media Laboratory. (This also offered me, at the same time, the incredible opportunity to audit Harvard Professor Sheldon White’s graduate course on the History of Psychology, which has significantly influenced my conception of my current research project.) My ultimate goal for such case study analysis and modelling, whether I achieve this end or someone else does, is the fully explicit representation of sequences of learning covering broader fields and more extended ranges of knowledge development than is possible today.
The Role of the Researcher
This is a project with one principal investigator, myself, and my roles are practical , theoretical, and auxiliary, as follows:
• owner of the corpus
• corpus (video) analyst
• computer support specialist
• developmental psychologist
• theoretical psychologist
• computer modeling specialist
• development officer (funding research)
• technical writer
New Knowledge about Education Expected
We endeavor to learn more about the genesis of mind, what derives from the individual’s proper activity, what is shaped by his social environment, and what remains as the biological inheritance. This requires, I believe, that we work with specific cases of learning through detailed analysis of such evidence as we can locate and document.
If we can see when and how changes take place in the balance of these influences, as surely they do, and under what circumstances changes occur, then we will better able to construct more nearly adequate answers to Piaget’s three central questions for the Science of Education:
• what is in the mind ?
• how do our actions change what is in the mind ?
• why do some changes endure forever while others are transient.
Contributing to the Improvement of Education
Everyone understands that cognitive change is central to the objectives of Education, and most of us believe that personal experience and social interaction are key aspects of experience that affect cognitive change. When we try to go further into precisely how these aspects influence the processes of cognitive change, we are in the realm of contending theories. Case studies, such as the ones I have undertaken and still pursue, present concrete evidence at the level of behavior about how processes of change go forward. Understanding these processes of change in deepening detail is a fundamental task for improving the social enhancement of individual learning and development, that is, Education in the broad and general sense. (My argument for this position is the central theme of On the Merits of the Particular Case, chapter 1 in “Case Study and Computing.”) I believe that such work as my case studies will themselves provide evidence about these processes and, further, will inspire other researchers to engage in the laborious but fruitful pursuit of such important questions for improving Education.
Deacon, Terrence W. (1997) The Symbolic Species. W. W. Norton & Company, New York.
Nelson, Katherine (1996) Language in Cognitive Development. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Minsky, Marvin (1987) The Society of Mind. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Lawler, Robert W. (1985) Computer Experience and Cognitive Development. John Wiley Sons, New York.
Lawler, Robert et alia (1986) Cognition and Computers. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Lawler, Robert and Kathleen Carley (1996) Case Study and Computing: Advanced Qualitative Methods in the Study of Human Behavior. Ablex, Norwood, NJ. Now Distributed by Intellect Press, Bristol, UK.
Piaget, Jean (1971) The Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child. The Viking Press.