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What a Concept!

(First Published in Spring 2000 SEE/HERE Newsletter)

Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Jim Durkel, CCC-SPL/A and Statewide Staff Development Coordinator (with help from Kate Moss (Hurst), Stacy Shafer and Debra Sewell) Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Outreach

Communication has three parts. The most noticeable part is the "form." Form is how the communication happens. It is the behavior used to communicate. Speech is one communication form. Sign language is another. Crying, using objects, using pictures, even falling asleep - all of these are behaviors we do, forms we use, to communicate.

"Use" is another part of communication. What is the purpose? Is it to share information, direct attention, request something, ask or answer a question? All of these are reasons why we communicate.

The third part of communication is called "content." Content is the part of communication that deals with meaning. It is noon. I am hungry. I walk up to you, look at you and say, "Lunch?" My voice rises at the end of the word, and I raise my eyebrows when I say it. Those are the ways I communicate, my forms (we usually use several at once). I am using these forms to ask you if you want to have lunch with me. That is why I say that word to you in that way. It is the reason I am doing this. But what does "lunch" mean? What is the content? Am I asking if you want to go eat and drink somewhere for 2 hours, or am I asking you if you want to go to McDonald's and be finished in 30 minutes? Am I asking you to cook this noon meal for me as you have for the last 20 years, or am I offering to cook it for you? You and I probably have a shared idea of what "lunch" in this context means. We understand that other people may or may not use it as we do. The shared idea is the "content" part of communication.

This content develops as a result of several things. First, you and I have decided what the word means to each of us. This was not taught to us. We "figured out" the meaning. We heard it used at the same time everyday. We did something the same way as we heard it (or very shortly after we heard it). More than likely, there were actions, smells, tastes, sights, sounds, objects and maybe other people involved in what we did when we heard the word.

We developed our own meaning or concept for "lunch" based on our personal experiences. Even if we did not hear the word "lunch" used, we still developed an understanding of what happens at a noon meal. We discovered how it was the same as other meals (we sat at a table, we ate food) and how it was different. (We did not eat cereal like at the morning meal, and we usually did not eat as much as at the evening meal.) We developed a concept of lunch.

Once we had the concept, we paid attention to the form ("lunch"). We heard the word "lunch" every time we had our noon meal. Next, we figured out if that form referred to the same concept for all people. Some folks eat "dinner" at noon! Last, we figured out how to use that form in certain ways to get people to fix us lunch or eat lunch with us.

Children with visual impairments, including deafblindness and children with multiple impairments, have difficulty developing concepts. They have difficulty understanding how the world works, how parts of the world relate to other parts, how these parts are the same and how they are different. What makes the communication of children with a loss of vision really different from the communication of other children, is that many of these children often use communication forms without having the content or meaning or concept firmly in mind. Often, children with a vision loss are good at hearing, remembering, and using words without having a real "gut" sense of what they are saying. I do the same thing whenever I try to talk about football. I know the talk, but I can't walk the walk. I know labels ("tight end," "Hail Mary Pass"), but I did not have the experience of playing football. I do not really have concepts for these words.

Many people think of concepts as things like "right," "left," "top," and "bottom." These are a particular type of concept having to do with positions in space. But "tree" is a concept, as is "dog," "house," "push," and "work." There is the concept of "book" and of "reading." Concepts can also be about events, such as "going shopping" or "visiting Grandma." The story of "Snow White" is a concept. And so on. All the words we know, all the language we speak and read, have underlying concepts. Some concepts are expressed in one word, like "lunch." Other concepts are expressed only by using several words in a specific way, "After I run some errands, I will eat lunch."

Impaired concept development will impact learning later in life. For example, most teaching after second grade is not "hands on." Students are expected to read about and/or listen to the teacher talk about something. For students who have good experience-based concepts, this kind of learning is OK. So what if you have never been in an igloo. You understand houses, and you understand how various kinds of houses are different and how they are the same. You understand that not everyone lives in Central Texas, where ice outside is a rare thing. You understand ice and how it can look like a brick. You can read about an igloo and relate what you read to what you know. If those basic concepts are shaky, your understanding of what you read will be shaky too. Even if you can say all the words, read all the print, or read all the Braille.

When I say concepts, many people think, "label." They think we should always be talking to children with visual impairments. They think the underlying problem is that children "just need the words." But this is not really true. Concept development is delayed because vision is what drives the typically developing infant to move and interact with objects. When vision is impaired, often this drive is also impaired. Babies with visual impairments do not handle objects in the same way that babies with no vision loss do. They do not explore the environment the same way. They also do not see the actions of others well or at all. They cannot rely on vision to give them information to the same extent that babies with no visual impairment can. Vision also allows one to see how one piece of the world relates to several other pieces of the world. Children with visual impairments have to view their world piece by piece; then put it all together into the big picture. Children with no visual impairment can see the big picture first; then look at the pieces; then go back to the big picture. For example, a child with no vision loss will see that I am holding a rattle. She will look at the rattle and at me, and she gets the picture that the rattle is "attached" to me. A child with a visual impairment will hear the rattle, maybe see it, but may not understand that the rattle is "attached" to me. For that child, objects appear to float in space, unless we help her get the big picture. All of these things happen during an early time of learning called the sensorimotor period.

The sensorimotor period was named by Jean Piaget, a French psychologist. He studied how children developed concepts and made sense out of the world. He believed that children "constructed" these concepts through active exploration and interaction with the environment. Most of this exploration and interaction took place during play. Piaget said that the sensorimotor period in most children lasted from birth to the age of 2 years. During this time, children learn about their bodies, their own actions and the actions of others. Children also learn about the properties of objects and how objects are used. Children begin this learning by accident, then through their own deliberate movement, then by watching others. This is a time of developing concepts about how the world works through the use of sensory and motor (sensorimotor) skills.

Jan van Dijk, a Dutch psychologist who works with children with deafblindness, says that all we know can be traced back to our actions. He gives the example of asking us to define a castle. We say, "It is where the queen lives." He responds, "Yes, tell me more." We say, "It has towers and big gates." If he keeps asking questions, eventually we say it is where people eat and sleep and play. And, that eating, sleeping, and playing means using certain objects in certain ways. We have used these objects and performed these actions. These are concepts that we usually develop during the sensorimotor period.

Our experiences can give us concepts that are very unique to us. You probably heard the story of the woman who called her mother to ask about how to make a roast. Mother told her to get the roast, cut off the end, rub it with oil and pepper, put it in a pan, and bake it in the oven for a period of time. The roast was great, and later Daughter asked Mother why she had to cut off the end of the roast. Mother said she did not know but that was how her mother did it. When they asked Grandmother why they had to cut off the end of the roast, Grandmother said she did that because otherwise a roast would not fit into her pan.

We all have our unique ideas about the world around us. If you use chairs as something to hold on to and push around the room to help you walk, your concept of "chairness" may be different than mine (I think they are to put my legs on when I sit on the table). Children with visual impairments are not incapable of learning the concept of "tree." But their concept may be very different than mine because we rely upon different senses and have different experiences of "treeness." A 2-year-old with a visual impairment may know all about rustling leaves, a piece of treeness I did not learn until much later in life!

Kurt Fisher, an American psychologist, says that we put together basic concepts into bigger and bigger "chunks." For example, we learn about how one object can be stood up on top of one another. Another time, we learn that if we push a ball, it will roll. Another time, we learn that a rolling ball can knock over things. We put all these things together when we set bowling pins upright on the floor and aim a bowling ball at them in order to knock them down. Sensorimotor concepts that we can use as adults!

Some people call these bigger chunks of basic concepts, "scripts." A script usually involves a series of actions. We have a script for going to the grocery store. We get our cart, walk up and down the aisles, put food in the cart, and then pay for that food. Some of us may have parts in our scripts where we eat the free samples, some of us don't! We learn how a script for buying food at a Walmart superstore is different from buying food at a convenience store.

We also develop more abstract and more complex concepts, as we grow older. We learn about the physical world in science classes. We start by dividing the world into things that move and eat and things that don't. We don't stop categorizing until well after we are discussing bacteria and plankton and chemical compounds. We learn about our own bodies and our lives; then learn about our friends' lives; and then we are discussing Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. We learn about in and out and on and off; and then we are booting up computers, putting in our floppies and typing away. But all these concepts start with what we learn in the sensorimotor period. They start with our own experiences, not what we have been told about another person's experiences.

How do we help a child with visual impairments develop a solid base of concept development? The key is not to so much tell the child about the world around them, as it is to provide the child with experiences that allow them create these concepts for themselves. For example, telling a child who has no vision about you washing dishes is not as good as having the child right there with you. She needs to learn about dish washing as she feels the suds, experiences the dirty dish going into the water, notices the difference between the wash water and the rinse water, and touches the dishes in the dish rack. You can use words to describe what the child is experiencing, but don't use words without the experience.

Another way to help the child develop these concepts is to give them opportunities for exploration and play. The OT, PT, Orientation and Mobility Specialist, and Teacher for Students with Visual Impairments all need to work with families to help children develop motor skills they can use to explore the world. Sometimes this means that children need "help" to move independently. Sometimes it means that children need toys that sound interesting to encourage exploration or toys that feel interesting, or toys that we know the child can see and will enjoy examining.

A child with visual impairments needs to have routines in order to learn how pieces of the world are connected. We need to provide an environment that is predictable. How is eating different than bathing? Each happens in a predictable place, with distinct objects and actions, and at certain times during the day.

A predictable environment is also one where I can find things easily. During the first part of the sensorimotor period, children without a vision loss "forget" about things they can't see. Gradually the child learns that objects do continue to exist, even when they are out of sight. This is a harder concept for children with visual impairments to learn. Anything these children can't touch or hear is gone. We can help these children learn about the permanence of objects by creating a situation where objects are easy to find and where objects don't get lost quite so easily. We can do this by attaching toys to a frame with string or by putting the baby in a play pen with her toys velcroed to the same place on the floor or to the slats every time. We can make sure a toddler's toys are always in the same place, and that the toddler has lots of landmarks to use to find those toys. We can look for toys that make sounds, so the child can hear them even if he can't see or touch them (We need to remember that reaching to a sound happens later in the infant's life than reaching for an object he can see).

Children need toys that help them make comparisons. If we give a child blocks to play with, we should give her all types of blocks. She needs LEGOs and wooden blocks and big blocks and small blocks; so that she can compare and discover for herself what makes a block a block. Some important comparisons are materials (wooden spoons vs. metal spoons), size (big spoons vs. small spoons), shape (a plain spoon vs. a spoon with Bugs Bunny for the handle), number (one spoon vs. many spoons) or the objects themselves (spoons vs. forks).

Toys and objects should respond to the child's actions. The child needs to have things that she can squeeze, rattle, open, close, stack, turn, pull apart, and put together. The child also needs things that get warm when she holds them, things that move when she pushes, and things that make sounds when she blows through them.

Provide the child with real, every day objects. Pots and pans, cups, plates, forks, blankets, brooms, TV remotes, toilet paper, towels, and sponges.

We need to provide experiences. We need to take the child with us to the store, post office, and dry cleaners. We need to explore parks and malls. We need to have the child with us while we wash dishes, make beds, prepare meals, put gas in the car, shine shoes, fold clothes, and plant flowers.

Hooking new learning on to old concepts is one way to help the child learn more about her world in a meaningful way. It allows the child to try new things and change her ideas about the things she already knows. New things should not be totally new. We need to introduce new things to our children in a way that does not scare them. Some part of the new thing should be familiar to the child. If we are introducing a new object, is there some way the new object is like something the child already enjoys? Is it the same size, the same color, the same shape? Can the child try familiar actions such as banging or opening or rolling on the new object? Does the new object make the same noise a familiar object makes?

Children need lots of time to try something over and over in order to make sense of it. Let your child play. Let your child direct the play. You can join in and play with your child, but do what she is doing before you try to show the child something new. Let the child know that she can have interests of her own, and then that you can show her new ways of doing things.

Concept learning and teaching should be fun for both adult and child. It is exciting to see children discover the world. It is thrilling to see children having new ideas. It is a joy to be part of that discovery and learning.