University of Edinburgh

Tactile Graphics

CHAPTER 3: A simple experiment as a key to teaching strategy

3.1 The nine cup layout

Before children who are blind can correlate pictures or maps with any kind of external reality they need to develop an awareness of shape, direction and distance. An understanding of scale can be developed as the child matures, although the first clues to this will dawn naturally on most children. Comments like, 'You realise I couldn't draw the whole room on this piece of paper, so I have had to shrink everything down to fit' will help in the early stages. Directional sense can be developed through exploration opportunities, through games and through activities which involve making connections between plans or maps and the environment.

As a simple and controllable spatial exercise with a map the author used nine identical plastic cups in three rows of three open side downwards on a table (usually on a clingy rubber mat to prevent the cups sliding about unnecessarily during handling). Each cup had a blob of Blu-tack adhesive rubber within it which could be used to hold a small coin or other hidden object. Although the cups were of three different colours; blue, pink and green, these were used at random and children with residual vision were warned to disregard colour when making choices.

The task was to decide under which cup objects were hidden by extracting the information from a thermoformed diagram. This consisted of nine raised discs, mainly smooth in texture, with the cup containing the 'treasure' being indicated by a rough sandpaper texture. The child was asked to decide which cup or cups contained the treasure and then asked to choose the cup by first touching it, and then to confirm the choice by overturning it.

At the first stage only one cup contained a hidden object. With more proficient pupils two cups at a time could be used and the pupil asked to choose the two cups simultaneously. Later, a few of the cups could be used in a more abstract or random pattern because it was felt that it may be more difficult to retain a mental picture of this kind of array. which would therefore represent a further stage of development.

The original task with nine cups was also found to be too difficult for some of the children in this group so the teaching aims were sometimes modified during the course of lessons. Thus with one pupil a smaller array of cups to gradually extend the skill of the pupil. Similarly when another was having difficulty in translating the 'map' information for the task of the cup-choosing, the map could be placed in dose proximity and in front of the array of cups to make one-to-one correlation easier. (It must be noted that even at this stage this pupil's eyesight was still not good enough to allow the pupil to see the map and the full array of cups simultaneously. A hand movement was still necessary.) So the original test was broadened into a teaching programme for the children concerned.

3.2 Interpretation of results

This simple experiment gave some interesting results which helped specify the hierarehy of sub-skills which make for success in this task, or indeed in any collection and use of spatial information from a tactile display. Simple numerical results could have been recorded, but this approach was not adopted because:

(a) any bald numerical results would have been highly specific to a particular group of children and classroom environment and difficult to extrapolate to other teaching situations in any meaningful way.


(b) this activity constituted a genuine teaching experience for the children concerned, so that each child was dealt with in a sympathetic and supportive way, and led on to greater and greater success. At the same time the skilful teacher/researcher could gauge each child's weaknesses and specific problems and use this information to guide remedial action.

It would not be appropriate here to describe detailed case: histories for individual children although more detailed information has been published elsewhere (Hinton, 1991). Instead. The pattern of development which emerged is discussed in broad terms. The timespan of this investigation was about four months.

3.3 General discussion of the experiment

The children's individual progress illustrated some of the sub-skills which are important for success with this task.

Firstly, the child must be capable of listening to and reacting to simple instructions. With children in the five to six age group it is quite usual to meet a few children who while being basically intelligent and co-operative are not at a sufficiently mature state of development to be capable of responding fully to the instructions given by the teacher. It is possible to deal with this problem by breaking down the instructions into smaller steps, or by simplifying the whole task, as was done in this instance by offering a smaller array of cups.

There may also be children whose attention span is not very long, or who do not listen very well, and perhaps are prone to distraction, or whose general intelligence is not adequate for the task. As has been mentioned, most of the writer's researeh interviews were also teaching sessions for the children concerned. For this reason, stark statistical differences were not left unattended to, but each child's contribution was accepted, and suitable guidance was offered so that the child's experience could be extended and its performance improved step-by-step without more ado. Although important in the teaching of the children concerned, it of course had an effect on the presentation of researeh data of tending to blur the differences and narrowing or even obliterating the final range of results.

Another limiting factor for performance was the willingness of the child to explore the tactile map so as to find the information which first identifies the target cup. Most of the children were happy to attempt this and persistent in examining the map until the marked discs were identified. Any further differences between pupils then resulted from differences in their spatial sense, and ability to remember an array or the position of the target. Short-term memory must also be considered in this connection and is discussed in Section 4.2 of this book. The one child who was half-hearted with the actual map had a background of some deprivation of normal activity which inhibited her use of her hands. Her teacher had already done a great deal to improve this situation and the child showed every sign of overcoming this weakness in her development. 

When children had obtained the positional information from the map, the two remaining factors for success were remembering the information for long enough to transfer the hands from the map to the array of cups, and coupled with this, having a sense of direction and position sufficient to act upon this information. Blind children of similar general intelligence do vary in their sense of position and ability to navigate accurately. The map-makers and environmental psychologists have explored these differences in some detail, and they are of course found also in fully sighted children. A book by a researeh team at the University of Sheffield (Spencer, Blades and Morsley, 1989) discusses the whole question of children's spatial ability and Morsley has particularly investigated this in blind children.

3.4 Language as a tool for directing action

Some children are able to describe their strategy for locating the target, which appeared to consist simply of counting cups from the left-hand side of the array to the target. No other strategies were described, and it was not felt to be educationally justifiable to interrogate the very young children in this group to discover if other strategies were in fact used.

It is clear that language becomes increasingly important in the years leading up to school entry. Thus the children who were able to talk about their strategy for remembering and correlating the position of the target from map to table would appear to be in a stronger position to make an accurate location than children who appeared to be less mature and less able to describe the experience. However, one should not fall into the trap of ignoring personality differences in making judgement on this kind of activity.  

From working with one pupil over many weeks the author became aware that this child was of a quieter and more self-contained disposition, not so prone to voice her thoughts in public as some other pupils. The mere fact that her strategy was not made public did not mean that a similar cognitive process was not being performed, and visual observation of her actions in fact suggested that it was.

The development of language use and the understanding of the language which allows place, relationship and action to be described becomes a powerful tool for the control of action and for relating that action to a current position and a desired end. The children who appeared to be less mature in the group described above appeared sometimes to be acting instinctively and their actions in response to the tactile map seemed to be almost as likely to be wrong as right.

The final factor affecting the children's performance in the nine cup task was the possession of sufficient residual sight, however imperfect, to allow an impression of the whole array of nine cups to be viewed simultaneously. Such a level of vision conferred a great advantage. Note, however that the child still has to retain in mind the information from the tactile map. No child in the group described had sufficient vision to see that as well, and neither did any child feel the tactile map while they were actually choosing the cups.

It is appropriate here to refer back to the more random or abstract type of array used with some of the more proficient children. This in fact presented a less difficult task than was surmised originally. It appears that with this type of array, once children have identified the target on the diagram they are able to keep in mind a much smaller sub-group from the array which contains all the relevant landmarks for locating the target cup. With such a stratagem it is not necessary to remember the whole array. In this connection a quotation from Mackworth and Morandi (1967, p551) is noteworthy:

The perceptual process is continuously trying to find simplifying regularities and consistencies to detect and discard unwanted, redundant stimuli which may overload input channels.

As these 'simplifying regularities and consistencies' emerge they act as a kind of pictorial or structural mnemonic which enables chunks of incoming information to be held and handled in short-term (or indeed long-term) memory more easily. Masses of information, whether tactual, visual or verbal, which appear to be largely formless or structureless, or whose structure is diffuse and monotonous, are very difficult for the nervous system to deal with. This applies to the higher cognitive structures of the brain as well as to the more immediate perceptions of the peripheral nervous system and the operation of short-term memory. (See Chapter Four)

The results from this very simple investigation suggest that it would be a simple matter to devise a series of educational experiences, many of them capable of being confined to the table top. in order to develop the spatial ability of visually impaired children and provide a worthwhile supplement to the larger scale activity of the mobility teacher. This particular task is also useful diagnostically to assess development over this short age bracket (say four to seven) in order to choose a suitable level of activity.

3.5 The importance of experience 'on the ground'

In seeking to develop the spatial understanding of young blind children it should also be noted that there is evidence from experiments on kittens that an animal which is allowed free exploration develops better understanding of its environment than an animal which is passively transported over the same ground. (Held and Rein, 1963) In a similar way, disabled children who are pushed everywhere are less sure of the direction which they must lake to get to a desired destination in, say. their school than able-bodied children or disabled children who propel themselves. (Foreman and Gell, 1990) The conclusions of this experimental work are echoed in researeh on mobility maps with students in higher education where there was better understanding of tactile map information by those students who were active explorers, than by those who were by habit less independent. (Casey, 1978)

Restricted in scope though this experiment is and limited though the learning potential of the equipment is, it shows among other things how such a simple formative evaluation of the child's ability can be a useful guide to development activity.

3.6 A consideration of these observations in Piagetian terms

Piaget spoke of generalised abilities which allow certain basic reflex actions to take place as 'schemata'. At birth these schemata control the basic reflexes such as grasping. sucking and looking.

Any new event in the child's environment is responded to if possible by being 'assimilated' into one of the schemata of the current cognitive structure, eliciting then a stock response. Such assimilation does not constitute learning, for learning implies expansion of the cognitive structure; a modification or extension of one or more of the existing schemata. This process Piaget calls 'accommodation'. In fact there is a sense in which all learning depends on failure, a failure to solve a problem by existing behavioural patterns (Piaget would describe this as a failure to assimilate the experience). Optimum conditions for learning come from experiences which are mildly challenging so that an amount of assimilation is possible which is reassuring and encouraging for the learner, while at the same time accommodation is necessary to take full possession of it, thus extending the cognitive structure. If the challenge is too great it may overwhelm and bewilder the learner; if there is no challenge or too slight a challenge, learning will not take place or will be minimal.

In dealing with individual children's responses the teacher/researcher was trying to achieve optimum conditions for learning for each child, though admittedly acting at the time with the intuition which comes of long teaching experience.

Piaget would have no difficulty in explaining in these terms either Held and Hein's data from the experiment with kittens (Held and Hein, 1963) or Foreman and Gell's findings with disabled children (Foreman and Gell, 1990) or indeed Casey's experience with blind college students. (Casey 1978)

Only by building up a wide range of schemata, in these three cases from active exploration, can the kittens or people concerned hope to make sense of their surroundings. To continue to learn the child needs to experience situations in which he/she can observe that hi her existing schemata are too narrow or in other ways imperfect so that the existing structures are modified or extended to accommodate these new situations. If the child's experience is not broad enough, and if the opportunity to explore is not given, the exceptions to existing schemata will not become apparent.

The next chapter of this book discusses the same situation in rather different terms in discussing the effect of long-term memory on tactual perception.

Piaget also describes the increasing utilisation of cognitive structures in responding to the environment as a child develops, with consequent lessening of the need for the environment to be 'here and now'. Piaget's word for the process is 'interiorisation', The building of more elaborate cognitive structures make more complex problem solving possible. Thought itself becomes a tool with which to respond to and manipulate the environment, Piaget, in fact, described stages of development, thus:

  • Sensorimotor stage
    A very egocentric stage in which objects seem not to exist for the child when they cannot be seen or felt directly.
  • Stage of pre-operational thinking
    In which rudimentary concepts are established but in which things call be wrongly classified by transductive logic,
  • Stage of concrete operations
    In which children can solve quite complex operations as long as they are dealing with concrete objects and real events,
  • Stage of formal operations
    On which children can deal with hypothetical and abstract situations.

Maturation in the physical. neurological and genetic sense is important, but Piaget also emphasises repeatedly the need for cumulative experiences with the environment.

He originally put forward this classification in a paper entitled 'Les stades du developpement intellectuel de l'enfant et de l'adolescent' at the 3rd Symposium de l'Association de psychologie scientifique de langue francaise in Geneva in 1955, but it is cited repeatedly in English translations of his later works (Piaget and Inhelder, 1967, p 454) and in later commentaries on his theories. (Gruber and Voneche, 1977; Inhelder et al, 1987, p 141; Hill, 1990, p 115).

By the chronology which is usually given for Piagetian stages one would expect the children who participated in the experiment described above to be completing their transition from pre-operational thinking to the stage of 'concrete operations' and the observations seem to bear this out. Their increasing facility with language, not only to describe objects, but also to specify (and indeed to remember and control) actions is likewise a notable feature of development in this age group.

3.7 'Conjecture and refutation'

Karl Popper's view of the learning process may also be considered in this context. Popper believed that 'we have been born with the task of developing a realistic set of expectations about the world'. (Berkson and Wettersten, 1984, p 16) Berkson and Wettersten summarise Popper's view thus:

Because we do in fact learn by conjectures and refutations in an effort to solve problems, the best way to make progress in the growth of knowledge is to focus on and articulate problems, to conjecture solutions boldly and imaginatively, and to assess the proposed solutions critically. (Berkson and Wettersten, 1984, p 27)

Popper would therefore applaud a 'problem solving' approach to learning. While this may not be practical or advisable as an all-embracing strategy for the education of visually impaired pupils, the writer nevertheless believes that one way to broaden the outlook of blind children is to encourage them to make, and then evaluate, reasonable hypotheses regarding the things they encounter. It is very easy for a blind child to become inhibited by the fear of 'making a mistake', This problem is discussed again in section 4.3 of this book.

Ron Hinton
First published 1996
ISBN: 0901580775