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Distributed cognition in early literacy

Flewitt, Rosie and Lancaster, Lesley (2015) Distributed cognition in early literacy. In: Learning from Picturebooks. Routledge, New York. (In Press)

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“What are you afraid of, Tame”? “The ghost,” he says, his eyes changing. “What are you frightened of, Patchy?” “The alligator.” . . . I try out “ghost” and “kiss” on the ones who can’t learn to read. I print them on the low wall blackboard where they can touch them and Lo . . . here are these stallers reading overnight! . . .There must be more words like this, analogous to these two; captions of other instincts, desires, resentments, horrors and passions. I can’t help noticing all this strange writing that they do. It must be the beginning of composition; the first wall between one being and another; the putting of thoughts for someone else into written words instead of speech or touch; the graduation of talkers and touchers into writers . . . But I didn’t start it: they began themselves . . . For there’s magic in the minds of Little Ones and my fingers get sticky with it. (Sylvia Ashton-Warner 1958) Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s fictionalized account of teaching “Little Ones” in a remote New Zealand town during the 1940s describes the intense relationship between very young children’s early explorations of reading and writing, and their social and emotional lives. The “imported vocabulary” that was supposed to supply them with all the necessary tools to learn to read and write failed to provide the means to interrogate their own lives; these tools were not infused with the “passions” and “magic” required to build bridges between written inscriptions and the social, emotional, and bodily lives of the children. Deacon (1997) points to the counterintuitive nature of early symbolic learning, with the learning of symbol systems requiring an approach that postpones commitment to seemingly obvious associations in order that the underlying architecture can be noticed. It is not the technical detail contained in the “imported vocabulary” and the like that is the starting point for engagement with symbolic principles, but those features of life experience that are significant, intriguing, or even commonplace (if Ashton-Warner’s Little Ones are anything to go by) that provide a meaningful and grounded, superordinate framework for their attempts to engage with the symbolic principles that inform the writing systems used by those around them (Lancaster 2013). At the heart of this process, however, is an uncomfortable division between what seemingly happens in the mind and what happens in the world. Edwin Hutchins (1995: 354) has pointed out that early in the development of cognitive science, culture, history, context, and emotion were set aside as problems to be addressed once a good understanding of cognition had been achieved. However, the achievement of such an understanding remains elusive and the reintegration has yet to happen. The setting up of boundaries between an isolated mind “inside” the body, and a social, corporeal, and cultural world “outside” was from the outset unlikely to succeed, Hutchins suggests, as it “creates the impression that individual minds operate in isolation and encourages us to mistake the properties of complex sociocultural systems for the properties of individual minds” (ibid.: 355). Distributed cognition and text in action In this chapter we pursue an alternative, distributed view of cognition with respect to literacy and text. We view cognitive development as being integrally intertwined with culture, history, location and emotion, and start from Pea’s premise that ‘the “mind” rarely works alone’ (1993:47). People think and act in conjunction and partnership with others (Salomon 1993:xiii), with the cognitive load shared and distributed not just between those participating in actions in real time, but also between past and present participants, through the use of symbolic tools that have been developed through human history. Hutchins (1995), as part of an extended psychological and anthropological study of ship navigation ‘in the wild ’ examines the historical development of navigational tools and associated computational systems. Navigation is performed by a team of people, with what happens in their individual minds ‘part of a larger computational system’ (xv) that incorporates work done by past generations of navigators. ‘External’, physical computational symbols and systems carry the cognitive load and allow for complex computations that cannot be performed by individual minds alone. Over time this has resulted in ‘a way of thinking [that] comes with these techniques and tools’ (115), and associated changes to culture and technology. This case exemplifies three features of the distribution of cognition during social and representational activity that are significant in children’s early engagement with cultural practices such as writing: the use of external tools to do things that the mind cannot manage alone; this includes the production of texts; the participation of others - adults and peers - who share the cognitive load; and the integrity of the physical environment to the process. We aim to show how cognition is distributed as adults and children under the age of four engage with texts, and how interpersonal, bodily, and material interactions between adults and children drive this distributive process. We focus on how children and adults share access to knowledge and systems through multimodal (Flewitt, 2008; Lancaster, 2012), multi-media interactions, as well as to the various tools and devices that are present in the material settings of text production and interpretation. To illustrate how these theorisations of cognition and text unfold in the everyday experiences of young children, we draw briefly on evidence from our own research conducted over the past decade (Lancaster and Roberts, 2006; Lancaster, 2007; Flewitt, 2003; 2008). Through this work, we have made some attempt to reintegrate the cognition of young children with the historical, bodily and emotional settings from which it arises. To do this we have used a multimodal, analytic framework: an approach derived from semiotics and discourse analysis that takes account of all modes used in the course of communication and representation, and which views language as part of a communicative ensemble (Jewitt 2009:14). It is a particularly important approach when working with children who are still developing as language users, providing a more delicate and fulsome picture of children’s representational intentions than can be achieved by concentrating on language alone. Meaning is distributed across modes, including bodily modes, with each making a partial contribution to the interpretation and representation of texts. This requires fine-grained transcription, micro-analysis and thick description. Geertz (1993) points out that specialised, micro-studies can generate ‘the theoretically more powerful’; theory building on the small scale has the capacity to go more deeply into things, demanding a concentration on, ‘very densely textured facts.’ (p.24). Coherent and theoretically consistent generalisations often need, initially at least, to be made within, rather than across studies. Of particular relevance in the case of a study of very young children is the way in which the small scale can, potentially, provide access to the conceptual world of the subject or subjects concerned; as Geertz says, ‘in some extended sense of the term, to converse with them.’(p.24). In these studies we have focused on how children under the age of four create and interpret signs and texts, and examined the interactions that mediate this cognitive and semiotic activity, showing how these phenomena are distributed between individual actors, social, material, historical and psychological environments, as well as symbolic and technological artifacts that include pre-existing, established, human-devised systems such as drawing, writing, and number. We consider the nature of the texts produced and interpreted by children of this age, and the extent to which they are an element of the ‘passion’ and ‘magic’ that drives early symbolic learning. To this end we will review and clarify our definitions of text further in the light of the theoretical framework that we have adopted We will examine these definitions in the context of how young children interpret and express meaning through signs, and consider the extent to which young children’s interpretations can be regarded as text reading, and their graphic productions can legitimately be regarded as texts, prior to an ability to understand and produce conventional inscriptional systems.

Item Type: Book Section
Controlled Keywords: early literacy, distributed cognition, social semiotics, early sign making, Learning, Arts and Humanities(all)
Depositing User: Atira Pure
Date Deposited: 18 Dec 2014 14:02
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2015 09:57
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