Dr. Paula Marentette is fascinated by hands.
“For some of us,” Paula explains, “they move constantly. They often accompany our speech, but sometimes they communicate without – or before – speech.” The Augustana professor of psychology studies how children think: her research uses gesture as a tool to make thinking visible.
In their gestures, children often reveal something about their thoughts that they can’t quite articulate. It helps these children express concepts they can’t yet discuss. The contradiction between knowing something and not being able to explain it is fascinating to watch in a young child. However, if the observer – either student or researcher – is paying attention, they can identify a state they frequently experience themselves.
Along with Dr. Elena Nicoladis, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alberta’s north campus, Paula examines gestures to clarify the very origins of communication. The hands are involved in early communication in fascinating ways, months before children could begin to produce words. The professors are exploring how chimpanzees and human infants learn to gesture based on an approach called ontogenetic ritualization.
They are also considering how children understand representational gestures, ones that are associated with the movements that can be made by various objects. By referring to unrecognized objects with either iconic gestures – gestures which were related to the actions the objects do – or arbitrary gestures, Paula found that preschoolers learned the
iconic gestures as labels for the unfamiliar objects much more quickly. She wants to know more about how children might expect gestures to describe the actions of objects rather than be used in a symbolic way.
Understanding how children use and interpret gesture helps us to understand how children learn language and how they think about the world.
Students in her cognitive development courses are assigned to conduct Piagetian tasks with young children. “This is a great observational assignment,” says Paula. “It gives them the chance to apply a theory in a particular situation with a particular child.” Students observe the children while applying the theory, but can also observe their own learning and apply the theory to themselves as well.
Which, you have to admit, is a handy way to learn.