ON THE NARRATIVE NATURE OF YOUNG CHILDREN'S ICONIC REPRESENTATIONS: SOME EVIDENCE AND IMPLICATIONS

B. van Oers
Dept. of Education
Free University Amsterdam
B. van Oers
Dept. of Education
Free University Amsterdam
Van der Boechorststraat 1
1081 BT Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +20 4448912; Fax +20 6613588 or 4448745
email V75U009@HASARA11.bitnet

It is the meaning that is important, not the sign. We can change the sign, but retain the meaning.

L.S. Vygotsky, Sobranie So_inenij, T. 5, p.74.

1 Semiotic activity and learning activity

One important objective of education is the promotion of learning activity in children (as was argued by Davydov, 1988). In order to achieve this goal, schools should foster this development from an early age. However, as Vygotsky (1984, p. 27) points out, complex cognitive activity "never appears in a ready-made form, but arises out of consecutive changes of genetically interrelated psychological structures". The same is true, as I suppose, for the development of learning activity. In the early grades (4 - 7 year olds) the promotion of learning activity can be prepared by stimulating the development of the essential psychological prerequisites of learning activity during (role)play. Beside the development of the learning motive, it is assumed in this paper that the improvement of the younger child's methods of making meaning (semiotic activity) is an essential basis for the promotion of learning activity in the disciplinary domains of later school learning.

The transition of the younger child's semiotic activity towards a more discipline bound discursive learning activity is, among other things, accompanied by a development of logical forms of thinking with the use of language and other symbols, beside the iconic (perception bound) forms that had dominated their thinking so far (compare Podd'jakov, 1977; also Bruner, 1964). Consequently there is also a gradual change in semiotic activity as to the signs that are preferably used by the children. One of the questions that arise then is how the gradual transition from iconic representation (or the use of iconic signs) to abstract symbols takes place. According to Venger (1986) the use of schematic diagrams provides a bridge between iconic thinking and logical thinking. It has been demonstrated several times recently, that young children can indeed successfully deal with schematic representations of reality. It can be reasonably argued that the improvement of schematic thinking in young children is one of the necessary conditions for the development of learning activity. However, the issue of the interrelationship between iconic and symbolic thinking within the development of semiotic activity is still open to many questions. In this article I will focus on this issue and, more specifically, deal with the function of children's speech related to their iconic representations of reality.

2 Semiotic activity in young children

In our research programm we are trying to deal with some of the questions related to the development of semiotic activity in children in a school context. Semiotic activity is defined here as the activity of relating a sign and its meaning, including the use of signs, the activity of investigating the relationship between sign and meaning, as well as improving the existing relationship between sign (or sign system) and meaning (or meaning system)1. Some of our earlier studies have shown that young children in the early grades can be involved in semiotic activity as defined here, if this activity is based on the construction and use of self-made diagrams of real-life situations and objects (see Van Oers, 1994a; 1994b). Several studies of Russian investigators had established this fact too in different situations and under different conditions (Venger, 1986; Salmina, 1988; Glotova, 1990; Brofman, 1993).

In practice, these schematic representations are often used as a starting point for semiotic activity, as they can be used as meaningful objects of conversation and study. Basically, the children's schematic diagrams can be considered as complex signs referring to external objects, actions or situations. They belong to a category of signs that Pierce would have called icons, i.e. signs that refer to an object (action, situation) by virtue of an inherent similarity between them. However, the psychological nature of these signs remains unclear in most studies. Particularly, the relationship between the form of the sign as a perceptual unit and its meaning needs further clarification. Can an iconic sign by its form (or by improvement of its form) ever refer in a all- encompassing way to its meaning, as is suggested by terms as 'representation' or 'reflection' (otrazhenie)?

3 Preliminary thoughts about signs

Without doubt the sign is a core concept in Vygotskian thinking. However, Vygotsky never systematically examined this notion; his view on the issue is scattered throughout his works, and a detailed description of Vygotsky's view on the sign can only be brought together from several of his publications.

Most studies of the sign starting from the Vygotskian perspective are biased towards language, using words as a examples of the sign (see for example Wertsch, 1985; Sinha, 1988). This is understandable, considering the emphasis Vygotsky himself has laid on the role of language in cognitive development. As a result, however, most attention has been given to (what in a Piercian language would be called) the symbolic and indexical relationships between sign and meaning (see for example Wertsch, 1985; also Mertz & Parmentier, 1985). Obviously, this does not clarify the role of the iconic (perceptual) aspects of the sign in relation to its meaning.

An iconic sign is suggestive of meaning as a result of its perceived structure. An iconic representation of reality suggests some of the features of reality that the producer wants to draw attention to. However, as Vygotsky (1984) argued, this is seldom a result of pure perception. In his study of the tool and the symbol in the child's development Vygotsky (1984)2 himself contemplated the issue of perception and speech, in a way that is relevant for our problem here. Reflecting on children's drawings, he argues that early in development perception and speech become fused and from that moment perception can never be mere re-presentation, as speech co-determines perception. Vygotsky (1984) indicates two contributions of speech to perception:

f isolation/singling out: speech articulates some aspects of the perceived object, isolates them for special examination or conversation. We found many examples of this in our classroom observations. In one case (see Maaskant & Vlaming, 1992; Van Oers, 1994a) children had drawn (individually) a railway track they made with their toy train set. One of the children made the following drawing:

When trying to interpret this drawing, another group of children discussed among each other the nature of the object in the middle. Was it a train underneath a bridge, a suitcase or a pillar? This conversation was made possible by the ability to single out the object by way of words.

f structuring/transformation: speech introduces deep alterations into the process of perception, according to Vygotsky. In addition to the initial articulatory function of speech, speech now is going to make perception more synthetic. Unfortunately, Vygotsky remained rather obscure as to what exactly he meant by that. We can reasonably guess that it means that the drawing is being perceived now as a culturally meaningful whole, subordinating the elements of the perceptual field in one coherent interpretative reference frame. But now I am interpretatively filling in what Vygotsky might have had in mind when he mentioned the deep alterations of perception, as a result of the fusion with speech. However, instead of speculating further, I would like to present a few observations that might shed some light on the nature of the function of speech with respect to iconic representations.

4 Some suggestive observations

It has been observed by many researchers, that children often spontaneously add verbal comments to their drawings and diagrams (see among others Athey, 1990 for lots of examples).

The following may be an example of this phenomenon3.

One child (6;2 years old) made the following drawing:

As an accompanying statement to direct the perception/interpretation of the watcher she added that the boat was called fourty-three, and that the fishes needed traffic signs:

"I did not draw all the fishes, you know; there are also two traffic lights, a red and a green one. The fishes also see the crosses."

Both examples strongly suggest that the speech utterances used are not just accompaniments of the drawings. With its remarks the child wants to make sure that the observer sees the meaning of the drawing as it is meant; the comments are given in order to give the drawing one coherent meaning.

Similar examples we found in our own classroom observations, indicating that not things are seen, but meanings. Apparently, the child doubts whether the drawing in itself is suggestive enough to communicate the meaning as the child has in mind. Speech is often explicitly used as an instrument that must complete (or guarantee) this perception of meaning ("poznaju__ee vosprijatie" as Vygotsky would have called it). The speech has an explanatory function with respect to the drawing! Not just isolating elements of the representation, or altering the structure of the perceptive activity. Children' drawings and diagrams most of the time have a communicative function, and language adds explanations to the iconic signs in order to make sure (as far as the producing child itself is concerned) that the correct meaning is communicated.

When children use iconic representations as signs, they often remark that their drawings are necessary, but that they might not be clear enough. In one of the school classes that I visited and videotaped several times, I witnessed a group of children (age 5-6) playing in a shoe shop (Van Oers, 1994b). At a particular moment they became involved in the problem of how to indicate what sort of shoe was in a box, so that they wouldn't have to open all the boxes to find out what shoe was in it. Discussing the problem in the group (including the teacher), they decided to draw pictures of the shoes on labels and to stick these labels to the outside of the boxes. However, some of the children soon began to feel uneasy about whether these drawings were clear-cut enough for the customers to recognize the kind of shoe in the box. So they invented the idea of adding letters to the labels, that should explain the meaning of the drawings. One child wrote a letter M onto her label and explained: "that means that there is a mother shoe in this box". The other children followed her lead (papa shoes got a P; children shoes a K (for the Dutch word Kinderen)). Her again we see that, at first, the speech productions function as an explana- tion to the drawings. For some of the children the letters eventually completely replaced the iconic representations of the shoes.

As a last, and very indicative observation I want to discuss an extended conversation with one child4 that asked me if I could read the picture that she had drawn.

It started like this:

I answered her that I was not sure, if I got the meaning right: I thought it was a man walking his dog. Wrong! She decided to help me and added a few explaining words to the drawing:

The additions explained that there was a 'man' ("man") on a 'mountain' ("berg") and the dot uphill was 'a man in a cloud' ("man in wolk"). I then told her that I thought it was a picture of a man climbing a mountain with another man connected to each other by a rope. This was much better, the girl said to me, but not good enough for the real story the picture was telling. She asked me: "What are they doing?" (emphasizing 'doing') and I repeated hesitatingly "Climbing a mountain (?)". And then she answered me: " Yes, but that is not the story, that is not what really happens" and then she began to write the story down at the back of the paper with the picture on it:

Which means:

"Once there was a mountain; a very high one. And there was a man and he also had a friend and they wanted to go to the clouds and to the sun, and to stars and to the moon. But they did not succeed and they never tried it again."

The child apparently rejects my descriptive account of the drawing. This example illustrates how children try to tell stories with their drawings and iconic representations. The representations of the children in this developmental period often have a narrative function. They do not just represent situations, but they represent a narrative. This was obvious in cases of representation of imaginary situations, but it could also be observed in representation of real situations. In an attempt to make sure that all the elements of the narrative are communicated children add speech utterances to their representations. Most of the time these utterances refer to the dynamic aspects of the situation (what really happens), which they apparently feel are not clearly indicated by the drawing alone.

4 Conclusions and implications

The few observations that we presented here, strongly suggest that children often feel need to explain their iconic representations in order to make sure that the real meaning is communicated by it. The speech is not just for singling out elements of the representation, nor is it just altering the structure of the perceptive activity. Instead, it is often an articulation of the narrative function of the iconic representation and, consequently, an addition to optimize the communicative function of the drawings, above all with respect to the dynamic aspects of the situation represented.

If my suppositions about the narrative function of iconic representations for young children are correct, this certainly will have relevance for school learning. By giving systematic attention to the children's representations and discuss these with the children:

(a) children can learn about the incompleteness of signs; (by the way, I tend to suppose that this is also true for symbols of the more abstract kind);

(b) an opportunity is provided to introduce young children into the act of explaining, which is a basic element in learning activity (see Forman, 1992).

Speech enters into iconic representation as a means to make explicit the implicit dynamic aspects of the children's intended meaning. By providing these opportunities in early childhood education, schemes and diagrams can help to bridge the gap between iconic and logical discursive thinking. Improvement of the ability of explaining might be one important contribution to the development of discursive learning activity later on. Discussing iconic signs both encourages children to reflect on the adequacy of their signs and teaches them how to observe different narrative conventions (Harré & Gillett, 1994) or conventional conversational maxims (like the requirement of clarity/non-ambiguity, see Forman, 1992). Here starts the process of dynamic schematization that Werner & Kaplan (1963) consider to be the core process of all symbol formation.

However, teachers in the early grades then will have to abandon the idea that children's iconic representations are just private expressions that shouldn't be discussed from another one's point of view. They will have to accept the idea that children's drawings are an attempt to communicate a narrative and to explain the meanings that the children have in their minds.

5 Notes

1. This encompassing definition is the reason that we prefer semiotic activity as a translation of what Vygotsky called "znakovaja dejatel'nost'", instead of sign-using activity or symbolic activity, as these latter expressions refer to only some of the mental operations that Vygotsky probably had in mind when talking about "znakovaja dejatel'nost'". 2. A somewhat altered version of this article is published recently in the Vygotsky reader edited by Van der Veer & Valsiner (1994, pp. 99-174). This version is attributed to Vygotsky & Luria, and it is carefully and most interestingly annotated by the editors. 3. Thanks to B. Pompert who communicated this drawing and accompanying comments to me. 4. That happened to be my daughter Sophie at the age of 6;6. This is just one example of several similar conversations I was lucky to have with her.