Ji Y. Son, Indiana University
Robert L. Goldstone, Indiana University
Abstract: Appreciating scientific phenomena often implies an abstract rather than superficial understanding of how systems work. However perceptually-based computer simulations may be effective pedagogical tools towards that end because abstractions may actually be grounded in perception (Goldstone & Barsalou, 1998). However, using perceptually based simulations have their dangers as well. Research suggests that superficial features can compete with more abstract relations for our cognitive resources (Medin, Goldstone, & Gentner, 1993; DeLoache, 1995). Language has often been proposed as a powerful way to direct attention towards more subtle relational aspects of perceptual experience (Clark, 1997). Not just any verbal labels aid abstract understanding (Gentner & Rattermann, 1998). We propose that verbal labels that direct attention to the relevant properties of the perceptual experience should help learners notice relations in the competition for attentional resources. Labels that highlight superficial qualities should not. To foster a well grounded yet abstract understanding of a scientific principle (in our experiments, the complex systems principle of competitive specialization), we applied various verbal labels onto a particular perceptual simulation. Participants learned competitive specialization while watching ants efficiently cover food resources but these ants and food were labeled concretely and superficially ("ants covering food") or abstractly ("coverers covering resources"). There was a third labeling condition where the words were concrete objects but were related abstractly to the situation ("lids covering pots"). Results showed that participants receiving the initially unintuitive mapping of "lids" onto perceptual ants performed significantly better than those receiving the label "ants" on a subsequent quiz about competitive specialization. Performance of participants who learned in the "coverers" condition seemed to fall in between these other conditions. Concrete words that clearly evoke relations, such as lids and pots which concretely evoke covering, use concreteness to bring about abstraction.