Friday, September 7, 2012

Week of September 12, 2012: Then and Now - What Would Piaget Say?

Last week, we tried interpreting our memories and relating our perceptions using a visual metaphor: reflective surfaces.

This week, I would like to use a different type of reflective approach--a psychological looking back.  Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who did a great deal of work with cognitive development in children.  Piaget's stages themselves, however, can be used to make your writing more interesting, especially if you work them backward.

So, here are Piaget's stages of cognitive development:
  • The sensorimotor stage, seen in children under 2:  The world is perceived through the senses, and the child aims to control his body and eventually to control his environment (and meet his needs) through the control of the body)
  • The preoperational stage, generally seen in children from 2 to 7:  Children begin to understand the world as separate from them, even though they can't quite imagine seeing it from any perspective but their own.  They acquire language in this stage and begin to use it skillfully and also begin to understand that quantities and qualities may remain the same even in different environments.
  • The concrete operational stage, generally seen in children from 7 to early puberty: Children begin to use logic, but they do better applying it in SPECIFIC circumstances, especially ones that they can visualize.  They also can begin to extrapolate a bit (if an apple is a fruit and fruits grow on plants, then apples must grow on plants).
  • The formal operational stage, generally seen in puberty and beyond, although some experts doubt that all people reach this stage:  People in this stage are now able to think in abstract ways, and using general ideas, can use logic to solve problems.
To be honest, I think that we still use cognitive skills from all of these stages, but we tend only to report the last one.

For example:
When Minnie's heart broke after Mickey spurned her, she knew she must be in love.

Now this is all abstraction.  What if we made it just a little more concrete?

Revision to include concrete operational descriptors:
When Minnie's heart broke after Mickey refused to answer her, refused even to acknowledge that she had spoken, Minnie knew that what she felt must be love.

Okay.  So now we know what Mickey does, but how about seeing the interaction of the objects of the world from Minnie's point of view.

Revision to include preoperational descriptors:
 "Drat!" Mickey muttered.  "I broke my last pencil!"
"I have an extra, Mickey," Minnie volunteered.  "Would you like to borrow mine?"

Mickey turned to Donald, sitting on his other side.  "Donald, do you have another pencil I could borrow?"

Minnie's heart was breaking.  Mickey had clearly torn it in two.  She must really love him if he could hurt her this much.

Now we get more of the scene.  It no longer sounds like an adult recalling an adult memory in abstraction.  We have the details and some of the twisted logic that make this a middle school memory.  Even if the memory hadn't been from middle school, the additional details in the environment would have revealed far more about the type of story you want to tell.  But how do we really feel that we are there?  Through our senses, of course!

Revision to include the senses and the actions of the body:

Minnie could hear the splintering from her own hard classroom chair.

"Drat!" Mickey muttered.  "I broke my last pencil!"

"I have an extra, Mickey," Minnie volunteered, quickly digging in her purse and producing a sparkly pencil which she held out a few inches from his nose.  "Would you like to borrow mine?"

Mickey didn't blink, didn't breathe, didn't twitch.  He just turned, Minnie's bubblegum-scented pencil actually brushing his nose on his way to face Donald, who was sitting on his other side.  "Donald, do you have another pencil I could borrow?"

Minnie gagged on her own hopes.  Her heart pounded ragged beats.  Clearly Mickey had rent it in two.  It could only be love.  Only love could twist your guts.  Only love could make the sweet fragrance of bubblegum not quite covering the lead and sawdust scent of pure pencil become so nauseating.  Only love.  Only love.

Do you see now how the stages can really be used to put us in a place, can make a moment come much more alive?

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