Aesthetic Understanding Overview

Most work on graphic representations within developmental psychology—including the work discussed in prior sections of this chapter—is embedded within the study of cognitive development. But once one appreciates that any given graphic representation is not a small, flat, singular replica of some portion of reality, the stage is set for considering a host of factors related to the creation of any particular representation (e.g., what was the creator's intent?) and to the impact of that particular representation (e.g., how does the graphic medium selected affect the emotional tone of the representation?). The former raises questions that are associated with research on theory of mind (e.g., Flavell, 1986), the latter raises questions that are associated with the study of aesthetic development. In the final section of this chapter, I focus on the latter. Thus, whereas in the prior sections I have discussed research that is addressed primarily to children's developing ability to see through graphic representations to the world that lies behind them, I now turn to empirical work that is concerned more directly with the representational surfaces themselves.

More specifically, the research described below concerns children's developing appreciation of the aesthetic nature of representational surfaces. Our work (e.g., Liben, 2003b; Liben & Szechter, 2002; Szechter & Liben, 2000b, 2003a; Szechter, 2003) has focused on one particular medium—photography. One reason for selecting this medium is practical: even very young children have the skills to produce photographic images and equipment is relatively inexpensive and portable. A second reason is conceptual, and is derived from the tendency for children and adults alike to think of photographs as if they were a means of capturing reality (e.g., see Beilin, 1991, 1999; Sontag, 1977). In actuality, any given photograph reflects many decisions: how it is framed, the kind of film, the lens, shutter speed, and aperture, lighting, printing process, and so on. Photographs thus provide a particularly strong test of participants' appreciation of the representational nature of graphics, of the extent to which the creator (rather than reality itself) controls the ultimate appearance of the representation, and of the range of substance and affect that may be communicated by a particular combination of choices. In an elegant statement that captures the intersection of the seeming opposing qualities of simplicity and complexity, Szarkowski (1973) wrote, "The simplicity of photography lies in the fact that it is very easy to make a picture. The staggering complexity of it lies in the fact that a thousand other pictures of the same subject would have been equally as easy" (p. 134).

Below I discuss three kinds of data bearing on aesthetics derived from asking participants to first, select and explain which photographs they liked most among a set they had themselves taken, second, to create a photograph with a requested expressive impact, and third, to reflect on photographic qualities in the course of comparing pairs or sorting photographs into categories.

Photographic Preferences

In a study of the bases for aesthetic judgments, 8-year-old children and college students were first taken on a walk through a college campus. As they walked, they were asked to take digital photographs, some of which were defined by the interviewer, and some of which left entirely to the participants' choice. After returning to the computer lab and downloading their images, participants were asked to select their three best- and three least-liked images, and to explain their selections.

Figure 12.10 provides a sample of best-liked selections and explanations given by children and adults. As illustrated there, children's explanations of their choices tended to focus on the referential content of the images, whereas adults' explanations were more likely to focus on what the surface of the image itself looked like (e.g., coloring, light patterns) or on some abstract idea or feeling the image itself conveyed (e.g., a sense of calm). To allow quantitative analyses, explanations were categorized as focused primarily on (a) the content of the photograph (i.e., on what was depicted), (b) the surface of the photograph (i.e., on how the image looked), (c) the technique used in creating it (e.g., a comment about camera position), or as (d) uncodable, either because the participant could not provide an explanation at all, or because the explanation could not be unambiguously assigned to one of the other categories (see Liben, 2003b). As would be expected given the examples provided in Figure 12.10, the quantitative data showed that when discussing most-like images, children gave greater attention to referents than did adults. Thus, the developmental progression reported for other visual arts (e.g., Freeman, 1995; Freeman & Parsons, 2001; Gardner, 1970; Parsons, 1987) in which an early focus on the referent gives way to a greater focus on the aesthetics of the image, appears to operate for photography as well.

Figure 12.10 Illustrative selections by children (top row) and adults (bottom row) of their "best liked" photographs. Children's explanations were: (1) "It was my favorite team's mascot." (2) "It shows a pretty sign and pretty flowers." (3) "I love beetles, and plus it is a yellow beetle and yellow is one of my favorite colors." Adults' explanations were (4) "Cause it just makes him look really cool. The close up of it. Just the effect of it." (5) "The way the sun beats down, it kind of distorts the image. You can see like spectrum colors." (6) "I like the colors . . . usually you look at pictures straight on [gestures straight ahead], but you're looking up." Original photographs were in color. Reproduced from Liben (2003a) with permis-

Creating an Expressive Photograph.

The second empirical example explores participants' ability to craft a photograph of a referent so that it conveys a particular emotional tone. Specifically, 8-year-old children and college students were asked to take a photograph of a lion statue so that it would "look kind of scary" (Liben & Szechter, 2001). Our expectation was that a scary effect could be achieved by using a close viewing distance. To provide an index of viewing distance, we printed each photograph to a fixed size, drew a circle around the head (extrapolating beyond the picture boundaries when necessary), and measured the head's diameter. On average, lion heads in children's photographs were significantly smaller than those in adults'. The top row of Figure 12.11 shows photographs that are of roughly the average sizes produced by children (left) and adults (right). Examination of the distributions as well as the mean sizes showed that both children and adults took close-up shots, but only children took photographs from a great distance and thus produced images with relatively small lions.

Viewing distance is not, however, the only possible means of affecting the expressive nature of the image, as illustrated by the two additional examples of photographs shown in the bottom row of Figure 12.11. Thus, we scored the photographs for other qualities as well. Data revealed that children and adults also differed in their manipulation of viewing azimuth, such that children were more likely to have the camera facing directly at the lion's face than elsewhere (65% vs. 35%), a pattern that was reversed among adults (33% vs. 67%) and of viewing angle, such that children were more likely to point the camera up than use a straight-ahead view (65% vs. 35%), a pattern reversed among adults (22% vs. 61%,; the remainder tilted the camera downward.) In addition, to evaluate whether these differences

Figure 12.11 Illustrations of "scary" lion photographs. Top row depicts average viewing distance of children's (left) and adults' (right) photographs; bottom shows a child's (left) and an adult's (right) photograph at roughly comparable viewing distances. Original photographs were in color. Reproduced from Liben (2003a) with permission.

Figure 12.11 Illustrations of "scary" lion photographs. Top row depicts average viewing distance of children's (left) and adults' (right) photographs; bottom shows a child's (left) and an adult's (right) photograph at roughly comparable viewing distances. Original photographs were in color. Reproduced from Liben (2003a) with permission.

in viewing distance, azimuth, and angle did, indeed, affect the expressive impact of the images, we obtained "scariness" ratings. College students were asked to use a seven-point scale ranging from "not scary at all" to "very scary" to rate the photographs (unmarked for photographer's age). Photographs taken by adults received significantly higher scariness ratings than those taken by children.

Although we had (in retrospect, regrettably) not asked participants to explain their strategies, in a few cases, they spontaneously offered revealing comments. One child, for example, commented that "If you want to make it look scary you can't take a picture of the face because the face isn't scary at all. The eyes are just circles and the mouth isn't growling. You have to take other angles to make it look scary." As is often the case with verbal statements, the words alone are ambiguous. The comment might be a sophisticated one, implying an appreciation of the expressive power of differing vantage points, or it might be an unsophisticated one, implying a belief that scariness rests entirely in the referent itself, and this lion's face is simply not frightening. Evidence that the latter interpretation is probably correct comes from the fact that after making this comment, the child proceeded to take a photograph of the lion's leg so that the claws—rather than the face—were the focus of the image. Another child's spontaneous comments also suggested her belief that it is something about the referent rather than the image of the referent that makes it scary. After taking one photograph as requested, this participant asked the interviewer to take a picture while she climbed up on the lion's back to "give him horns to make him scary." Only a single child verbalized a strategy that was aimed at affecting the image, saying he would make the picture blurry so "it looks like the lion's going to jump out at you." He was not, however, able to implement his strategy: He shook the camera immediately before and after, but not during, the exposure.

Responding to Photographs

A third empirical approach has been to explore age-linked and experience-linked sensitivity to the expressive qualities of photographs by using open-ended interview and observational techniques (Szechter, 2003; Szechter & Liben, 2003a, 2003b). In this work, 7- to 13-year-old children and their parents were asked to complete various photography-related tasks.

In one of the tasks, respondents were shown pairs of photographs that contained the same referential content, but that varied as a consequence of changing some aspect of the photographic process (e.g., shutter speed). Participants were asked to explain how the photographs differed. Consistent with findings discussed earlier showing children's focus on referential content of images, children were significantly more likely than adults to attribute differences to a change in the referent, even though the interviewer had begun by explicitly saying that both photographs "show the same thing." For example, in response to a pair of photographs of the same woman that differed in appearance as a result of adding a filter, 47% of the children but only 12% of the adults stated that the woman had changed her scarf. Furthermore, in describing the differences between the two images, children tended to offer more factual descriptions, as in "And the hat is darker in this one," whereas adults tended to offer comments about expressive effects, as in "The color of the cape and the background in this picture [pointing to one] are harmonious." Of course, these data alone may simply reflect adults' greater knowledge about photographic processes and greater verbal fluency, and thus it is useful to combine these findings with those from other components of the interviews.

In another of the tasks, respondents were shown five photographs. For each, they were asked three questions that had been identified by Barrett (1987) as useful for eliciting viewers' reflections on photographs: What do you see? What does it mean? How do you know? In their answers, children were significantly less likely than adults to comment on the photographer's role or technique, and they tended to offer concrete and literal descriptions of the photographs. For example, shown Memphis, a photograph by Eggleston that (in a literal description) shows a tricycle looming large in the foreground, with suburban ranch home in the background, a prototypical 8-year-old child's response to the questions was:

I see a little, like, bike. It has three wheels. Um there's houses behind it and a car. And, um, there are no clouds in the sky. Um, I think it means someone left their bicycle out and it got a lot [mumbles]. Because it looks flat there [points to bike]. That's all.

A sharp contrast is seen in one particularly articulate parent's response:

I see a tricycle on the sidewalk in front of a house . . . I guess in some ways I think about how normally kids are little, and houses and people and parents are big, and so it's like they're kind of turning that on its head and saying this is the kid's world and of course it's at a kid's eye level, it's not taken down this way [gestures down], but it's taken at kind of a level where the kid's at, so it's like this is what would be important to a kid. Um, I know because he took the trouble to get down, it's obviously, nobody's ya know, this tall [gesturing low to ground], so he's taken the trouble to lie on his stomach and compose it just so . . . maybe causing adults to see things from a child's perspective.

Converging data were provided from a sorting task, in which respondents were asked to complete multiple sorts of a dozen photographs that could conceivably be categorized by referent (e.g., animals, houses), photographic qualities (e.g., color vs. black and white; close-up vs. distant shots), emotional tone (e.g., happy vs. sad) and so on. Children were far less likely than adults to sort on the basis of photographic qualities, and instead, were more creative in finding endless referent-based groupings (e.g., "with or without walls, with or without houses, with or without windows, with or without doors, with or without people").


In one sense, spatial-graphic representations are easy to interpret. Even infants are able to extract denotative meaning from motivated graphic representations relatively effortlessly. However, just as understanding or producing single words or even short sentences is not tantamount to mastering all that language offers, so, too, identifying the referential meaning of graphic representations is not tantamount to understanding the rich cognitive or expressive meanings that graphic images provide. I have proposed a more complete interpretation of what it means to understand graphic representations as summarized in Table 12.1. With this more differentiated conception of understanding, it is easy to appreciate the relevance of the range of perceptual, cognitive, and social processes encompassed by the Embedded Model shown in Figure 12.3. In concert, these diverse competencies and developmental processes set the stage for going beyond dichotomous questions and theories that have plagued theoretical debates in developmental psychology (Liben, 1997b; Overton, 2003). Rather than motivating research by yes-or-no questions such as Is representation present from birth? or Do preschoolers have projective and Euclidean concepts?, these more differentiated conceptualizations inspire questions about sequencing, about the conditions under which some competence is activated and applied successfully, and about the experiences that foster their emergence and application. Questions like these are of interest not only to theorists, but also to those whose goals are to optimize developmental outcomes.

The empirical work that I have reviewed in this chapter has addressed the development of a sample of competencies in the representational, spatial, and aesthetic domains. The research literature from which it draws is limited in a number of important ways, each of which presents opportunities for further research. First, unlike work on children's developing mastery of linguistic representations, the extant work on children's developing mastery of graphic representations typically samples rather sparsely and unsystematically over different chronological ages and populations. That is, most studies to date in this area have sampled participants of only two or three (often widely separated) ages drawn from largely homogenous populations (e.g., drawing adult samples from college psychology classes). Research is needed to provide descriptions of normative behaviors across the entire life course and across diverse populations.

Second, much of the extant literature focuses on measures of central tendency (e.g., presenting mean levels of performance by age, and testing the statistical significance of mean differences). It is not surprising that on any given task, older participants do better than younger participants. But what accounts for these differences? Do all individuals gradually become better and better, or do increasing proportions of individuals move out of an incompetent category and enter a competent one? What might these different profiles imply about developmental mechanisms? Scholars have developed methods that may be used to differentiate patterns of age-linked change (e.g., Thomas & Lohaus, 1993), and these methods that may be profitably applied in future work on graphic representation.

Third, and implicit in the previous point, is the observation that performance varies widely within any given age. For example, earlier in this chapter, I commented on tasks on which there were kindergarten children who performed very well and second-grade children who performed very badly. It is clear that age is not the causal factor in explaining levels of mastery. In our own work, we have attempted to identify factors other than age (e.g., intellectual skills; leisure activities) that correlate with better or worse performance (e.g., Liben, 2005; Liben & Downs, 1993). Although this approach is not unique to our work, it is also far less universal than it should be if we are to maximize the opportunity to formulate hypotheses about potential causal factors.

Fourth, as correlates of competencies are identified, it is important to evaluate whether they are merely related through some third factor (e.g., general intellectual ability; greater family resources) or whether they have causal power. One way to distinguish between these alternatives is through experimental research in which the hypothesized factor is manipulated. Illustrative of this approach in the graphic domain are studies in which children are taught to use pictorial symbols for communication (e.g., Callaghan, 1999), given photography lessons (Liben & Szechter, 2002), or exposed to home video (Troseth, 2003). Additional research of this kind is needed to provide experimental tests of whether the factors found to be associated with better understanding in correlational research actually have the power to facilitate better outcomes. In turn, research is needed to observe whether (and if so, how) these hypothesized mechanisms operate in the natural ecology. Illustrative are observing ways in which parents mediate graphic representations during picture-book reading (e.g., Szechter & Liben, 2004) or while examining museum exhibits (e.g., Fender & Crowley, 2003). To the degree that graphic representations are becoming increasingly pervasive in school, occupational, leisure, and public settings, it should become ever easier to find opportunities to observe relevant interactions beyond the walls of research laboratories.

In this chapter, I have argued that children's understanding of spatial graphic representations is multi-faceted, protracted, and complex. Programs of research can be no less multi-faceted, protracted, and complex if we are to understand the developmental processes that account for the evolution of children's understanding, and if we are to design educational experiences to facilitate it.


Work discussed in this chapter was supported, in part, by grants from the National Institute of Education (NIE-G-83-0025) and from the National Science Foundation (ESI 01-01758).


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