Barker & Wright

Barker and Wright: On The Texture of Behavior

Taking behavior seriously does not always permit the development of an explicit model of the behavior, as this vignette [1] should convince you:

“On June 2, 1949, four-year-old Margaret Reid spent 28 minutes in the Midwest behavior setting, Home Meal (lunchtime)….her behavior was consistent with the standing behavior pattern of the lunchtime setting. But this is by no means all. Margaret did 42 clearly discriminable and different things on the level of behavior episodes during the 28 minutes. Here are 21 of the 42 actions, just half the total:

Rejecting lemonade; Recollecting pancakes eaten for breakfast; Cutting tomato; Helping self to noodles; Forecasting Bible School picnic; Challenging little brother to lunch eating race; Appraising combination of lemon juice and milk; Inquiring about Valentine’s day; Coping with dropped napkin; Commenting on play of neighbor friend; Playing on words about Bible School picnic; Wiping something out of eye; Reporting little brother’s capers; Dunking cookies in cocktail sauce; Telling about imaginary friends; Putting box of Kleenex on bench; Inviting parents to look into stomach; Soliciting mother’s opinion on brother’s eating; Using spoon as airplane; Chanting “Bones to Be, Bones to Be”; Reporting on birthday greetings at Bible School….”

Barker and Wright then expand one of these incidents — Cutting tomato — into fifteen even more detailed action descriptions. How information processing models of today should approach material exhibiting such volatility is far from clear. In some instances, as Anzai and Simon (1979) demonstrate in “The Theory of Learning by Doing,” the analysis of limited-scope case material may proceed with admirable specificity. However, the orderliness of thought shown by their subject, a liberal arts college graduate, is not characteristic of the less regular thought of the child from whom every adult develops.

My study has taken a middle course between the analysis of limited scope experimental protocols and the overwhelming detail of a complete ecological study. By following the CHILD’S main interests and activities, the primary themes of her development were permitted to emerge sufficiently early on that they could serve as foci of documentation. Thus I could follow the learning of a single mind on its natural scale of development — that of months and years — while still preserving a sufficiency of material for detailed analysis where the pattern of development indicates the effort is justified; from these main developmental themes, I have chosen for extended analysis those which engage what I take to be central issues of the nature of mind. I believe there is no other so rich study of the cognitive development of so mature a child extending over so long a time and so explosive a period of mental growth.

Publication notes:

  • Written in 1984.
  • Published in an appendix as an “Extended Citation” in Computer Experience and Cognitive Development, Lawler (John Wiley, 1985).

Text notes:

  1. from Midwest and Its Children (Barker and Wright, 1955)
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