I’m immensely proud of my lab-mate, Andrea Astle, who a few weeks ago successfully published her MA research. This took a lot of work on her part – the amount of details that one should pay attention to in a 14-pages paper is really rather remarkable.
In our lab, one of the main questions we ask is “how do children come to understand symbols?” A symbol is something that stands for something else. For example, language is a very complex symbol system, in which a set of sounds we make can stand for an object (dog), a place (home), or a feeling (happy). Symbols are everywhere in our society – written language, pictures and signs are some examples. Understanding symbols, then, is a basic skill that allows us to read and write, use numbers for math, and so on – it’s a pretty important skill.
But what impacts children’s understanding of symbols? Children have a basic capability to understand symbols at a fairly young age – as can be seen by their pretend play and their use of language. But are there individual differences in this universal skill? In other words, is there a certain characteristic or early ability that makes symbolic understanding easier?
What We Did
In this study, we looked at a very specific symbol use: children saw a room (kind of like a doll-house room) and a line drawing of that room. On the line drawing there were indicators of where the stickers are hidden in the actual room. The child’s job was to find the stickers in the room, based on the line drawing and the indicators. There were two kinds of stickers (say, an orange tiger and a green turtle), but both kinds were marked on each of the line drawing. Now, we had several versions of the indicators that marked the stickers’ hiding places. In one version, these indicators looked exactly like the stickers (they were little pictures of an orange tiger and a green turtle). In another version (the “conflict” version), we used dots of the opposite colour – so a green dot would stand for the orange tiger and an orange dot would stand for the green turtle, because the stickers got “mixed up”. In the third version, we had dots of arbitrary colour stand for the stickers (say, pink for turtle and purple for tiger).
What We Found
Turns out that working memory – the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind – was related to children’s performance on the third version, the arbitrary version. But in order to solve the conflict version, both working memory and inhibitory control – the ability to suppress a strong response – were required. In the conflict version, children needed to overcome their strong tendency to look for the orange tiger where the orange dot was. Both of these relationships were examined after performance on the baseline version (where orange tigers pictures stand for orange tiger stickers). That is, what relies on working memory or inhibitory control is the “extra” skill that is needed over and above being able to solve the baseline version.
What Does it Mean?
Well, not surprisingly perhaps, it means that children find it harder to use symbols when the symbols are conflicting with what they stand for. We see it very clearly in language, for example. Children can understand the sentence “that’s just great” when it is meant to be positive (you got an A in your exam? That’s just great!) at a fairly young age. It takes them a few more years to understand that this sentence can sometimes mean the exact opposite of positive (you forgot your books again? That’s just great!). So if you are trying to use symbols with children, the best way to go is with something that is exactly what it stands for. For example, if you are going on a treasure hunt, using a little picture of a treasure chest might be less confusing (and more fun!) than a red X.