Animation can be outlet for victimized children, a tool for research

July 17, 2006

Champaign, Ill. -- Animation is a proven vehicle for biting comedy, a la "The Simpsons" and "South Park."

But some of the same qualities that make it work for comedy make it valuable, too, as an outlet for victimized children and for a new research method that tests the empathy of teachers who may deal with them, says Sharon Tettegah, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Tettegah believes so strongly in the value of animation - specifically "animated narrative vignette simulations" - that she sought out a computer science professor at Illinois, Brian Bailey, to help develop her concept for a child-friendly program for producing them.

The program that resulted, called Clover, gives children, as well as adults, a tool for making and sharing their own vignettes about their personal and sometimes painful stories.

According to Tettegah, the program is the only one she is aware of that allows the user to write the narrative, script the dialogue, storyboard the graphics and add voice and animation, all within one application. Those four major aspects of producing a vignette gave rise to the name "Clover," the plant considered to bring good luck in its four-leaf form.

A paper about Clover, written by Bailey, Tettegah and graduate student Terry Bradley, has been published in the July issue of the journal Interacting With Computers.

In other research, Tettegah has used animations as a tool for gauging the empathy of teachers and others who might deal with children and their stories of victimization. One study with college education majors, or teachers-in-training, showed only one in 10 expressing a high degree of empathy for the victim, she said.

A paper about that study has been accepted by the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology (CEP), with publication slated for later this year. The co-author of the study is Carolyn Anderson, a professor of educational psychology at Illinois.

Tettegah has done additional empathy studies with hundreds of participants, and will present some of that research at the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) SIGGRAPH conference July 30-Aug. 3 in Boston and at the American Psychological Association convention Aug. 10-13 in New Orleans.

Animations are valuable in this kind of research because they go beyond just text in visually telling a story, yet don't have the distractions of video, Tettegah said. "Think about when you watch a cartoon: You focus more on what they're saying and not on how they look," she said.

Psychological research surveys often elicit "socially desirable" or "forced choice" responses, Tettegah said. An animation, however, can tell a story and then ask for an open-ended response, she said. The subject has little or no clue what the researcher is looking for.

In her empathy studies, Tettegah has found that most of the subjects tend to focus on the perpetrator or other issues, rather than showing concern for the victim.

This is a concern, she said, because a child being bullied or called names wants the teacher's support. Yet the results also fit with research by others showing that teachers often don't deal with the problem when these incidents occur, the assumption having been that they don't know how, she said.

In the study to be published in CEP, each of the 178 subjects (142 women and 36 men), were shown a short animated vignette, based on a story collected by Tettegah in earlier research, involving a boy and girl, both 9 years old.

In the vignette, the children are asked to work together on a class project, and the boy tells the girl he doesn't want to work with her because her skin color might rub off on him. (Two different versions were used, with the boy being black and the girl white in one version, and vice versa in the other version. The races of the perpetrator and victim had no significant effect on subject responses to the vignette, Tettegah said.)

As the story progresses, the girl tells her father about the incident, and he then talks to the teacher.

After viewing the vignette, each subject was asked an open-ended question about how he or she would have responded as the teacher in the situation. They were given unlimited time and space to respond.

Tettegah and four research assistants then did a line-by-line analysis of the subjects' responses and developed a system for coding the content. They looked for content in four areas related to empathy for the victim: concern for the victim, problem-solving with the victim, mention of the victim and management of the situation with the victim.

After the coding, Anderson, a statistical expert, analyzed the resulting data using sophisticated techniques involving latent variable modeling. The results suggested a single latent variable underlying the responses, showing very few of the pre-service teachers expressing significant empathy for the victim in the vignette.

Overall, fewer than 50 percent of the study participants exhibited even low levels of empathy and only 10 percent exhibited a high level of empathy.

In light of these results, Tettegah, a former elementary teacher, thinks some kind of empathy-awareness training, similar to cultural or ethnic awareness training, should be considered as part of training future teachers.

"I think that we are not, as teachers, tapped into those moral emotions ... it's not a deliberate thing - you just don't even think about it," Tettegah said. "But we need to be more aware of our victims and what happens to them, because they sometimes get damaged for life."

Clover was designed with that concern also in mind, Tettegah said. The program gives students a powerful means for telling their stories, whether of victimization or dealing with other moral or social dilemmas, she said. Ideally, their animated vignettes can be shared anonymously and used in character-building exercises in the classroom.

The program "really engages students and excites them," Tettegah said. In producing the vignettes, they gain a strong sense of ownership, she said, and at the same time build their writing, critical thinking and technology skills.

Tettegah has been demonstrating and testing Clover in local schools since last fall, and with positive results, she said.
The program is available for download at

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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