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Relational Concepts: Language, Thinking and Pedagogy and the Spatial Metaphor of Time

By Shirley O'Neill



This monograph is for researchers and teachers. It argues for a strengthened cross-curriculum approach to teach and scaffold children's understanding of spatial concepts. Research and pedagogical interludes illustrate how teachers frequently use the spatiotemporal terms 'before' and 'after' in the language of instruction, yet at the same time these are relational concepts that need to be taught.

The centrality of the acquisition of spatial knowledge and conceptualisation of space to children's development of spatial reference frames and spatial reasoning is highlighted.

Connects research, language and pedagogy

  • Introduces the train-language scenario as a way of testing children's understanding of the relational concepts of 'before' and 'after'.
  • Illustrates the complex nature of the application of 'before' and 'after' and how the usage of these terms may impact on pedagogical talk, learning and assessment.
  • Differentiates between the teaching of 'object' concepts and the more abstract 'relational concepts'.

Pedagogical interludes

  • Demonstrate the relevance of relational concepts to the teaching of literacy, numeracy and the study of life cycles and
  • How a project-based approach can involve children in working with spatiotemporal concepts and formulating temporal relations through authentic learning experiences.



This monograph focuses on young children's understanding of the relational concepts of 'before' and 'after'. It highlights how teachers frequently use these terms in the language of instruction, yet at the same time, they need to teach them as part of the basic concepts that young children need to acquire during early childhood. Acquisition of spatial knowledge and use of the accompanying language is vital to children's learning both in the early years and later when working in the abstract. These terms along with the various spatial prepositions in English are also used to make reference to time and temporal relations. Thus, while on the surface they may appear as, merely, useful conjunctions, the theory base of cognitive linguistics reveals their relevance in learning and understanding the way humans conceptualise time as a spatial metaphor. Importantly, acquisition of the relational concepts that underpin the use of these terms reflect the user's ability to make reference to the domains of both space and time. As Lakoff and Johnson (1999, p.3) note 'the mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical... Metaphor is the main mechanism through which we comprehend abstract concepts and perform abstract reasoning'.

Although focusing on research the monograph should be of interest to both researchers and teachers. Chapter one raises awareness of how children are involved in and are exposed to talk about space and time and how there is a demand for them to understand spatial and temporal relations from an early age. It explores the abstract nature of time and the theory presented by Herbert Clark that explains how language and space are related. It examines the impact of human beings' canonical/upright position on Earth and the canonical encounter as the interface between humans as 'perceivers' and the sense they make of the space around them. This chapter also illustrates the complex nature of the application of 'before' and 'after' and how the usage of these terms may impact on pedagogical talk, learning and assessment. In doing this, it identifies the potential ambiguity in the use of these terms and the fact that they are key, spatial concepts to be acquired in early childhood. Besides identifying the scope of English prepositions and their use to refer to spatial and temporal relations, it highlights their importance for the study of conceptual metaphor and the spatial metaphor of time. The difficulties that young children have in their understanding of the terms, because they are framed through two different viewpoints (derived from moving-ego and moving-time metaphors), is established.

Chapter two explores the theory of how concepts are formed. It describes early approaches to concept formation and how children's level of cognitive development impacts upon their understanding of space and time. It reiterates the difficulty that children find in understanding time, along with the fact that the development of this concept is reliant upon understanding space, and reminds that Piaget found it to be the most difficult concept to acquire. In differentiating between the teaching of 'object' concepts and the more abstract 'relational concepts' it adopts Katherine Nelson's approach to teasing out how the relational concepts of 'before' and 'after' might develop and why they differ in the cognitive demands that they make. It considers the breadth and depth of the application of 'before' and 'after' in language use, and the implications for research into children's understanding and relational concept development. It illustrates the range of sentence structures in which these terms are typically used and their potentially differing comprehension demands. Clarification of the way the terms are used to refer to the relations between objects in space or events in time is provided, and an explanation is given for the way they reflect the moving-ego and moving-time metaphors.

In the third chapter research is considered that has focused on the way relational concepts are understood, and how these concepts differ in difficulty according to linguistic and cognitive considerations. While the major focus is on children's understanding of relational concepts, that of adults is also included because of its importance for understanding a model of operation for adults. The research demonstrates the importance of researching and teaching relational concepts since they are shown to link to language, cognition, psychology, and spatial reasoning. Besides showing the different approaches to the study of time and relational concepts, the chapter argues that the application of 'before' and 'after', in Piaget's terms, requires children to reverse operations. This is because, as relational concepts, they involve the application of moving-ego and moving-time metaphors. Their use and comprehension requires the ability to change and coordinate multiple perspectives, including that of self/ego. Importantly, the body of research spans several decades, is cross-disciplinary and includes studies with children and adults. The centrality of the acquisition of spatial knowledge and conceptualisation of space to children's development of spatial reference frames and spatial reasoning is highlighted. While being relevant to those interested in research, pedagogy and learning it argues for a strengthened cross-curriculum approach to teach and scaffold children's understanding of spatial concepts and the associated object/event relations. The chapter concludes with a discussion of a mediation process for understanding spatial/temporal 'before' and 'after'.

Chapter four reports the results of the author's research that explored preschool and year one children's understanding of the metaphors of moving-ego and moving-time as reflected in comprehension of sentences incorporating the terms 'before' and 'after'. Besides comparing children's performance according to year level, the research compared their performance according to the relational concepts, the linguistics markedness of the terms and their understanding of the underpinning metaphors. This research introduced the idea of a train-landscape scenario as a mechanism that requires the use of the proposed mediation process for testing children's understanding of 'before' and 'after'. This scenario is based on the illusion that people may experience when seated in a moving train. That is the sense of being stationary and the landscape whizzing by in contrast to a sense of moving forwards past a stationary landscape. This applies to moving-time metaphor and moving-ego metaphor, respectively. The train-landscape scenario was originally designed by the author for the purpose of researching preschool children's understanding of the two metaphors of time. The aim was to create a relatively simple but interesting task that could improve upon past research by being applicable to both metaphors. It also allows for children to make more than just an opposite response as a potential incorrect response which addresses the limitations of other investigations. An over view of the research methodology is provided and the analysis of the results are reported. The discussion and conclusions reinforce the importance of designing pedagogy and learning experiences that are explicit in helping children develop concepts of space and acquire and use the related language. The research findings support the need for teachers to have in-depth knowledge of relational concepts and the way they apply to learning across the curriculum. They also support the need for teachers to explicitly teach and scaffold their acquisition, particularly in the early years.

To stimulate thinking about how these relational concepts appear in practice the monograph includes a number of pedagogical interludes. They help draw attention to the importance of the research in the field by further illustrating the complexity of the application of the terms at the practical level of instruction. They also illustrate how teachers may teach and reinforce these relational concepts in their practice and take note of the potential ambiguity in their use. Though not intended to be exhaustive, they provide exemplar strategies that highlight the relevance of the relation concepts to teaching across the curriculum. Apart from the first they are presented at the end of each chapter. The first provides brief insights into how the terms 'before' and 'after' apply to teacher-student dialogue and how such dialogue may reflect the two metaphors of time.

It also illuminates how various learning experience contribute to developing children's use of language that involves reference to spatial concepts in general. The second, though brief, includes examples of their use in giving instructions, explaining procedures and informing. It also provides a timely prompt to how, as relational concepts, they apply to learning across the curriculum. Pedagogical interlude three uses an illustrative approach to demonstrate the relevance of these relational concepts and the moving-ego and moving-time metaphor perspectives to the teaching of literacy. This is exemplified through consideration of temporal sequence in the use of non-literary procedural genre and the composition of literary narrative. In the fourth pedagogical interlude attention is drawn to how the study of life cycles is underpinned by the idea of time and temporal sequencing. This interlude demonstrates how a project-based approach can involve children in working with temporal concepts and formulating temporal relations through authentic learning experiences.

Finally, pedagogical interlude five concludes the monograph with three ideas for graphical organisers that apply to mapping, discussing and constructing temporal information.

Further, it is hoped that together with the research focus the inclusion of pedagogical interludes will help reinforce the importance of teaching relational concepts. It is important to make the pedagogy explicit and to scaffold all children's learning in this regard, no matter what the age. Teachers need to develop, maintain and enhance children's meta-cognitive processes that enable the range of reference frames to be adopted. The monograph concludes by likening 'the perceiver' or child to a traveller who needs to be adequately equipped for the learning journey in this case. It is argued that rather than the instruments of compass and telescope a multi-reference frame viewer is needed. Through this analogy it can be appreciated that this equipment needs to scan, select and move between reference frames, and be automatic in the use of language in switching between the domains of space and time.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword

Chapter 1 - Understanding relations in space and time

  • Our need to talk about and understand time and space
  • Testing comprehension of 'before' and 'after'
  • The abstractness of time
  • Metaphor duality and time perception
  • Contradiction in applying 'before' and 'after' as a requirement of metaphor differentiation and indicator of cognitive difficulty
  • Pedagogical interlude I
  • Influence of environment on our perception of space
  • Influence of environment on our linguistic reference to space
  • Canonical encounter and referential communication
  • Correlation of P-space and L-space
  • Space-Time dependency, perception and language acquisition
  • Pedagogical interlude II
  • Endnotes

Chapter 2 - Relational concept development

  • Approaches to concept formation
  • Nelson's conceptual model and relational concept theory
  • Application of Nelson's theory
  • Exploration of concept formation of 'before' and 'after' based on Nelson's theory
  • Implications for conceptual metaphor
  • Pedagogical interlude III

Chapter 3 - Temporal metaphor and metacognitive processing

  • Approaches to the study of time and spatio-temporal terms
  • Research into spatial/temporal 'before' and 'after' and related terms
  • Reversibility and coordination of perspectives for moving-ego and moving-time metaphors
  • Spatial reference frames, spatial reasoning and scaffolding in comprehending object and event relations
  • Linguistic and semantic considerations in comprehending object and event relations
  • A mediation process for the comprehension of spatial/temporal 'before' and 'after' sentences
  • Pedagogical interlude IV

Chapter 4 - Research on the train-landscape scenario

  • Experiencing the spatial metaphor of time
  • Methodology
  • Application of metaphors and the role of orientation
  • Application of 'before' and 'after'
  • Year one children's performance on FCCT 2D compared with that of preschoolers
  • Application of terms
  • Markedness
  • Metaphors
  • Within group comparisons on the FCCT 2D
  • Discussion
  • Spatial/temporal reference frames and viewpoint
  • Conceptualisation of 'before' and 'after'
  • Conceptual Metaphor
  • Conclusions
  • Pedagogical interlude V
  • Endnotes



Relational Concepts: Language, Thinking and Pedagogy and the Spatial Metaphor of Time

Published: 2009
Pages: 180
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