Chapter 1. Introduction

Visual learning is not new. From the Paleolithic cave paintings, to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, to the visual language used in our modern-day world, we have always been a visual society (Gangwer, 2009, p. x).

 

Setting the scene: 8 children, 1 multifaceted task

This study is about the conceptual consolidation of eight primary school children in 2011 who were given the challenge of creating explanatory animations for their chosen topics. The title for this research project is Storyboard. When Walt Disney first used the term storyboard in the 1930s, he essentially invented a pre-production animation technique that guided the design process for cartoons. The use of storyboarding has recently expanded beyond entertainment contexts into educational research. Mitchell et al. (2011) have encouraged researchers to “incorporate the storyboard into the repertoires of visual data possibilities” (p. 219), as it is a semiotic framework for expression and meaning.

In the current study, the evolving representations of each child’s conceptual journey were deemed to be more important than the final animation artefacts. This assumption arose from an earlier study (Jacobs, 2007), where I had used explanatory animations as a teaching medium for a case study involving six of my primary school teaching colleagues. I made a series of explanatory animations and collected pre-test and post- test data from these six colleagues. An unexpected outcome of that study occurred retrospectively when I realised that the person who had learned the most from the explanatory animations was actually me as the author. My realisation that the explanatory animation creation process can directly impact the conceptual consolidation of the animation author provided a clue that these two issues could be researched concurrently. This was a significant finding for me as it eventually provided a rationale to commence the current study working with eight children over a five- month period through seventeen weekly one-hour animation sessions.

The storyboards that the eight child participants worked on eventually became source material for their completed animations. Unlike a traditional storyboard where the images and words are used to plan the actual imagery, these eight children were able to use the “Save as.PNG” function within Microsoft PowerPoint, where each PowerPoint slide of their storyboard became the ‘frames’ for this animation imagery. Consequently, I was able to see what the children were thinking through their evolving representations. This was very exciting for me as both a teacher and a researcher as the children’s ideas were literally taking shape on their computer screens. As the children were also writing voice-over scripts for their narration, their requests for assistance allowed me to quickly ascertain where they were heading through their explanatory draft material. These interactions seemed to resonate with what Vygotsky (1962) described as “tapping the child's thinking” (p. 52). It is this insight into the student’s thinking which constitutes the theoretical interest in the current study. As Waldrip and Prain (2013) have noted:

Teachers should view representational work by students, including verbal accounts of the topic, as a valuable window into students’ thinking and evidence of learning. This assessment can be diagnostic, formative or summative (p. 27).

The flexibility of the digital environment, where representational ideas could be tried and literally undone with the click of a mouse, caused me to think in terms of the children playing and tinkering with models. Clement (2008) has identified a gap at the core of conceptual change theory as “we do not have an adequate cognitive model of the basic cognitive change process; we do not have a good understanding of how flexible models are constructed” (p. 417). This is an important issue because the notion of a model being flexible is consistent with the constructionist view of learning where meaning is constructed, and also deconstructed, by the learner. The current study seeks to investigate how meaning can be constructed and socially negotiated, through the various combinations of words, metaphors and representations to forge important links between animation pedagogy and the conceptual change literature.

 

Statement of the research question

This study asks:

In what ways can storyboarding and explanatory animation creation enable primary school students to articulate and consolidate their conceptual understanding?

The arrows in Figure 1.1 are to show that these two elements are mutually informative:

Research question

Figure 1.1. Research question.

The mutually informative nature of these two processes is not a claim from the current study. Rather, it is an introductory premise based on my own experience that explanatory animation creation and conceptual consolidation are iterative processes. Vygotsky (1987) stated that his most important insight into the process of conceptual consolidation was that a concept “develops” (p. 170) in the mind of the learner. This implies that conceptual growth must be studied over time.

Goldman (2008) also noted “there is an important difference between learners generating representations once they have understood the content and learners generating representations that help them in the process of understanding” (p. 367 original emphasis). This difference is exemplified in activities where students have the opportunity to make multiple representations, preferably over long periods of time.

 

Thesis overview

Chapter 2 reviews some of the literature associated with conceptual change. There is very little in the literature about the impact of the explanatory animation creation process on the animation author’s conceptual understanding. This is because the vast majority of the educational animation literature is focused on the viewers of explanatory animations rather than the makers. Hubscher-Younger and Narayanan identified this gap in 2008 which is the same year that I commenced the current study:

Extant literature contains many studies of the efficacy of animations and other kinds of representation created by expert teachers and researchers. However, studies on the characteristics and efficacy of student-created representations are much less numerous (p. 237).

The “student-created representations” to which Hubscher-Younger and Narayanan refer, were created by undergraduate students rather than primary school students. The available literature is even smaller when the focus shifts to child authors rather than adult authors. In spite of this scarcity, or even because of it, there are other relevant issues pertaining to the explanatory animation creation task that have not been deeply explored, such as transmediation across multimodal constructs, using words and graphics during the animation creation process.

As explanatory animation creation is a multifaceted task, some methodological content is included in the literature review by way of an introduction to Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as an “umbrella methodology” (Anning, Cullen & Fleer, 2009, p. 1) that has evolved from Vygotsky and Sakharov’s dual stimulation method. These are complementary methodologies as CHAT has evolved from Vygotsky and Sakharov's original method of dual stimulation, which was the “cornerstone” (Giest, 2008, p. 103) of the CHAT school.

The dual stimulation method is based on the premise that the second stimulus will provide agency for the child who is engaged in a problem solving activity occasioned by the first stimulus. For Vygotsky, the focus was always on the mediating role of the second stimulus after the first stimulus had established the context. In the current study, the first stimulus for each child was the task of explaining the topic that he or she had chosen. The second stimulus provided the means for achieving this through the process of creating an explanatory animation. Vygotsky alluded to the conceptual affordances of the mediating device (as a second stimulus) by suggesting that the “subject must be faced with a task that can only be resolved through the formation of concepts” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 124). Vygotsky explained the nature of this resolution by stating that “the path through which the task is resolved in the experiment corresponds with the actual process of concept formation” (ibid, p. 128). Hence, the power of explanatory animation creation process is its ability to track and illustrate the conceptual-developmental pathway.

The notion of activity is particularly important for this study because each of the child participants was required to perform a variety of technical and pedagogical roles, as their explanatory animation creation task was clearly multifaceted. Harel and Papert (1991) were amongst the earliest researchers to note that constructing digital artefacts is a multifaceted task:

The child-producer who wants to design a lesson on the computer must learn about the content, become a tutor, a lesson designer, a pedagogical decision maker, an evaluator, a graphic artist, and so on (p. 78).

Throughout this study, activity is seen in terms of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where I provided assistance to the children as a more capable or experienced helper. As I was also the researcher, the ZPD afforded me the opportunity to share a close proximity with the children, which further enabled me to document their conceptual journeys according to the qualitative perspective and practices of naturalistic inquiry.

Chapter 3 defines the methodology for this research as an explanatory case study conducted as practitioner action research. The research methodology chapter then outlines twelve sources of data that were generated throughout the study and provides an analytical framework for how these data will be analysed. Vygotsky’s ZPD forms the basis for these analyses as ongoing comparisons between what each child knew about their chosen topic and what I knew. In each case, my own understanding of the content knowledge for each of the children’s animations was also expanded.

Chapter 4 provides an analysis of the twelve data sources in the form of eight portraits where each of the children’s conceptual journeys is presented as a narrative with accompanying screen shots from their animations. Combining and critiquing relevant events from these multimodal data sources chronicled the key instances of conceptual change for each child and also for me. Each child’s explanatory animation creation task was conducted using computers and so all of the resultant data sources were digital.

Chapter 4 concludes with three montages from the eight portraits which, in turn, discuss the Vygotsky’s ZPD with reference to the zone itself, the proximity afforded to me as a researcher throughout this project and the conceptual development that each child experienced.

Chapter 5 presents further discussion around activity. The CHAT triangle is used as a prism metaphor to help understand some of the complexities involved in the division of labour between the children and myself. Animation design guidelines are also examined using the same prism metaphor in relation to rules. Further discussion is also made about the animation medium where I present a new definition of animation as variant graphics.

Chapter 6 concludes this thesis with my presentation of three complementary theories of conceptual consolidation, based on the actual experiences and progress of the eight children who participated in the current study. The three theories cover a definition of what a concept is, an articulation of some of the main phases of conceptual consolidation, and a suggestion of what might constitute evidence of conceptual consolidation drawing on Bruner’s (1966) notion that the ability of children to paraphrase is a hallmark of comprehension.

Chapter 6 also addresses the research question in terms of the explanatory animation artefacts and the processes that are used to create them. The explanatory animations artefacts are shown to be flexible models at every stage of the construction process. Accordingly, the explanatory animation creation task is shown to have functioned as a transmediating tool for cross-modal cognition. The explanatory animation creation task provided a very specific window into the ubiquitous phenomenon of conceptual change. It is the hope of the current study that this window might be opened wider.

 

Limitations of this study

The current study is the work of a single researcher, working in a single school. I was the only researcher directly involved in this project but there was a rationale for conducting this study in its current form. If the aim was simply for each child to consolidate their knowledge of a topic, then it would not matter if others assisted. A third party (researcher) could have been involved in helping each child with their conceptual consolidation, but it would have been harder for me to articulate when and where these changes occurred if a third party was involved. Both metaphorically and literally, I had to go along for these conceptual rides if I was going to able to articulate each journey with sufficient insight to justify any claims I might eventually make. (1)

Another limitation concerned the choice of technology as I mandated that all of the case study participants would use PowerPoint to generate and organise their animation imagery. In one sense, this was a limitation, but it was also helpful that all of the participants were already familiar with the basic functionality of this software when commencing this project. Gargarian (1996) has observed a paradox relating to design restraints by claiming there is “freedom in restrictions” (p. 132). The paradox is that boundaries define the parameters, which then helps to guide the progresses. These same design parameters then became a catalyst for creativity.

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1. My two university supervisors confirmed my findings but never had the opportunity to meet the children.

 

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