- Howard Gardner Speaks at Piaget Society Symposium
Dr. Howard Gardner, research psychologist at Harvard's Project Zero, launched the Sixth Annual Symposium of the Jean Piaget Society on June 11 in Philadelphia with a talk on "Symbolic Competence: The Roots of Creativity." Limiting his remarks to a discussion of the verbal mode, Gardner probed the question of how children develop competence in creating and comprehending metaphor. The latter, comprehending metaphor, is particularly germane to those of us interested in children's literature research. For if we are willing to grant, with Roland Barthes, that "the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text," then we might well make use of Gardner's report of Project Zero findings for what they tell us about possible developmental patterns in children as potential producers of text. Are there differences in the way children and adult readers manipulate metaphor in children's literature? Although Gardner did not address the question directly, he did provide a foundation for the formulation of an answer.
In one study, Project Zero researchers asked children 5 to 15 years old to explicate metaphorical sentences. A typical sentence read something like, "After many years of working at the prison, the guard had become a hard rock." The researchers found that the youngest children (5-7 years) either (1) took the metaphor literally, (2) attributed the equation (i.e. guard = rock) to a magical transformation, or (3) rejected the equation but came up with an explication that included both elements. Children ages 8-9 engaged in primitive manipulation of the metaphor by selecting a quality of one element of the equation and using it as the basis for the metaphor (i.e., "the guard's muscle was as hard as a rock.") Children ages 10-11 realized that a comparison was intended but were not sure what trait the comparison depended upon. Finally, children in the oldest group, ages 14-15, were able to give a number of meanings and rationales for the metaphor in question.
In another study, children were asked to choose between four possible endings to short stories. Each of the endings involved a different kind of simile. For example, for the short story, "Things don't have to be large in size to look that way. Look at that boy over there, He looks as gigantic as _", there were four ending types: (1) literal, (2) conventional (i.e., a skyscraper in a big city), (3) metaphoric appropriate (i.e., a double decker icecream cone in a baby's hand) and (4) metaphoric inappropriate (i.e., as a clock in a department store). The results indicated that pre-schoolers answered at random, 7 year olds inclined toward the literal selection, 11 year olds favored the conventional choice and 14 year olds straddled the conventional and metaphoric appropriate selections.
Gardner hypothesized the following developmental scheme based on Zero's data. Preschool children are in a Wild stage where they can pass with fluidity from one domain to another (i.e., "a cookie crumb looks like a pencil dot, a germ, a baby before it's born"), but are egocentric and therefore unable to test out the metaphor to see if it works for anyone else. Next comes the stage of Domestication at about 6 years old when children become very literal minded. Developing a firm sense of category at this stage, the children are busy firming up their boundaries and if they accept metaphor at all, are likely to attribute it to magic. At about 10-11 years old, Gardner hypothesizes a Trainable stage wherein children can learn to cross domains and to give interpretations for crossing domains. Finally, a Competent stage is hypothesized at about 14-15 years old when children are able to supply productions and accounts of how metaphors work.
Clues to the literary communication process between child and children's literature? Perhaps. At any rate, a fascinating presentation and food for thought about "what makes a good children's book good" --for children.