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3.2.2 Three Stages of Human Development

in Vision and Reality of Hypertext and Graphical User Interfaces

Jean Piaget spent his life working with children to figure out how they learn. His theory of learning explains why children of different age take a different approach in learning a new topic. Piaget argues that human development proceeds in a sequence of stages. The presentation here follows Alan Kay’s paper A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages [Kay 72a], respectively his essay User Interface: A Personal View [Kay 90].

The sensorimotoric stage covers about the first 1 1/2 years. During this period the child’s behavior is mainly based on reflexive actions. The child can distinguish between objects. The sensorimotoric stage is followed by the preoperational stage that lasts until four years. Speech starts. The child develops an understanding for size of objects, but volume and mass is still out of reach. The child plays and touches the objects physically. Between the age of four and eight comes the concrete operational or visual stage. The child paints images. Trial and error is the way how the child explores the world in this stage. The forth and final stage of development is the formal or symbolic stage. It is characterized by logic, hypothesis and deductions, theories, and thinking in abstractions.

Jerome Bruner, also a psychologist, has repeated many of Piaget’s experiments and confirmed the results. But he concludes a more far-reaching theory than Piaget’s stage model of human learning. He structures cognitive abilities into a set of mentalities. The three main areas are the enactive, the iconic, and the symbolic mentality. To each mentality he finds a corresponding stage in Piaget’s model. The early playful stage matches the enactive mentality. With David C. Smith’s words, «Learning is accomplished by doing. A baby learns what a rattle is by shaking it. A child learns to ride a bicycle by riding one» [Smith 93]. The phase until about eight years is dominated by the iconic mentality. «Learning and thinking utilizes pictures. A child learns what a horse is by seeing one or a picture of one», says Smith [Ibid.]. The logic and formal stage is in accord with the symbolic mentality.

The main conclusion drawn from Piaget’s and Bruner’s work is, that it doesn’t make any sense to try to teach abstract mathematical concepts to children before they have reached the third stage of formal and symbolic reasoning. In consequence Seymour Papert’s design of the programming language Logo is mainly driven by insights of Piaget’s and Bruner’s theories – as portrayed in Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas [Papert 80]. The concept of the turtle attracts children immediately because it is well designed to fit into the first stage of curiosity and play and at the same time the second stage of visual and iconic thinking as the turtle is used to draw images.

During the video lecture Doing With Images Makes Symbols: Communicating with Computers [Kay 87] Alan Kay points out that mentalities of human cognition do not supersede each other. If a new stage unfolds the previous stage remains active. It is a layered model of learning for children as well as for adults. Although adults tend to neglect the early stages as childish. This turns out to be imprudent, because the relation between practical experience, and a more figurative, iconic thinking on the one hand and logical reasoning on the other hand is the vivid source for creative thought. This is illustrated with a quote from Albert Einstein. His introspective description of how he thinks harmonizes in remarkable manner with Bruner’s model of mentalities [Smith 93]:** Smith took the quote from Jacques Hadamard’s book The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, Dover Publications, New York, 1945, p. 142-143.

The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ’voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. […] This combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought–before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. […] The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

Einstein even refers to the enactive physical layer – «some of muscular type» – that plays an important role for his process of thought.

Software design should consider to serve all mental layers. The desktop metaphor and WIMP graphical user interfaces are successful, because they offer direct manipulation of content that corresponds to the visual and physical layer. Icons and pull down menus are used to convey abstract concepts of directories and algorithms. Kay’s slogan «Doing with Images makes Symbols» [Kay 90, p. 196] wraps up Piaget’s stage model, Bruner’s mentalities and their application for user interface design.

The mouse is a physical extension of the hand to touch and manipulate icons and windows on screen. They are graphical representations for otherwise abstract concepts. Alan Kay’s programming language Smalltalk can be used to formulate ideas of all kind, to express relations between those ideas, and to logically infer new facts. Tab. 3.2 gives a summary of the three models.

with Images
makes Symbols
Piaget’s stages
kinesthetic / sensorimotoric visual symbolic / formal
Bruner’s mentalities
enactive iconic symbolic
Kay’s interface design
mouse icons, windows Smalltalk
know where you are, manipulate recognize, compare, configure, concrete tie together long chains of reasoning, abstract

Tab. 3.2 Doing with Images makes Symbols

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