Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting?

March 16, 2016

Mindy Hopper presented Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Her presentation defines incidental learning and where it is infused in social learning, identifies the broader implications for deaf students, and inquires about the role of sign language interpreters in incidental learning discourse within the Deaf student’s situated contexts.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Mindy’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Mindy’s presentation directly.]

Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting?

Hello everyone! It has been an amazing and inspiring time at this Street Leverage event. I have learned so much that I feel truly alive. I am honored to be here today. My presentation is based on my dissertation work which centers on the topic of incidental learning. I want to make clear that I am not applying this focus solely to Deaf students in mainstream settings, but also more broadly to Deaf consumers of interpreting services in a variety of settings, such as medical offices, financial planning, meetings or any host of others.

Types of Learning

While there are many different types of learning theories, today I would like to focus on three main kinds of learning: formal, informal and incidental. Formal learning tends to occur in more structured environments. Such environments may include an agenda from which to discuss a number of prescribed items with a certain audience- much like I am presenting to you now. Informal learning occurs in environments in less structured environments such as in group conversations of varying sizes as side conversations in a room or while chatting in a hallway. In this setting, no agenda, lesson plan or topic of discussion exists. Incidental learning can occur in either formal or informal settings. Dynamic and fluid, incidental learning is elusive in its complexity, duration, and propensity for layering. It is often brought on by external stimuli that create for those involved many different but related conversations. Bystanders attune to them either consciously or subconsciously. Through connection to that stimulus, either visual or auditory, our brains can file it away for immediate or eventual knowledge gain and growth of related ideas. We will delve more into the complexity of incidental learning during this presentation.

Moreover, incidental learning is rich and infused with social learning. Opportunities for these kinds of learning are absolutely ubiquitous from day one and throughout our daily lives; and constantly emergent around structured school curricula. Next slide. [SLIDE at 3:05.] This slide embodies what incidental learning really is: a constant milieu of visual, auditory and linguistic stimuli in any given environment. The question is: do Deaf students have access to them?

I want to take a moment to share some examples of incidental learning with you from my own personal experience. At some time between the age of 6 to 8, I remember getting thirsty while playing outside. I went into the kitchen to get some water when I saw my mother having a discussion with my father. She was using spoken English so I couldn’t catch her exact words, but she seemed agitated and held a paper in her hands. I then lipread her saying one phrase: “the interest is a killer.” For whatever reason, those words stuck with me. But unable to make sense of it in the moment, I went back outside and continued to play. It was not until I was a junior in high school taking a consumer education class when the teacher began to lecture on the dangers of consumer debt and high interest rates that I put it together with my parents’ worry and anxiety of what I had remembered from all those years ago, deciding at that moment not to get a credit card. Had I not drawn on that past experience through incidental learning, I may not have had the same degree of reaction to what I was later learning as an adolescent.

Another example of incidental learning happened to me just recently as I participated in a meeting via interpreting services. This particular interpreter knew me well both personally and professionally. While interpreting, the interpreter, for a moment,  attuned to a sudden flurry of discussion in the hallway about some breaking medical news. Apparently, the polio vaccine was being used as treatment to fight brain cancer, since the virus had been shown to attack cancer cells. The interpreter had shared this information after the meeting. My interest was piqued, and at that moment I was afforded a choice: I could do further research into the topic, take it at face value, or dismiss it. I decided to dig a little deeper and discovered information I then shared with some friends. That access point was an example of the power and influence incidental learning can have.

The Critical Nature of Social Learning

Now, before I display the next slide which departs a little from the current topic, I would like to mention something called utterances. In my doctoral research I studied utterances among 8th grade middle school students in a variety of interactions. You can imagine the staggering amount of social interactions in this age group- whether it be outside the school, in the halls, at lockers, in the gym or cafeteria, the bus, playground, bathroom- basically, you name it, it was happening there. I documented and will share with you some utterances on the next slide. As you read them, think of what power and influence having access to those utterances would mean. While you read them, you may have thought back to your own experiences growing up in middle school. Consider that your most salient memories of that time may not have been academic related, but rather, dependent on the society of your peers outside the classroom- and most others would agree. I am not looking for individual answers here; this is just food for thought. The implications of access to utterances such as these are rich, in terms of knowledge, understanding the world around you, feelings of self-worth, gaining a sense of belonging and more. As I show the next slide listing different possible implications of accessing such utterances, I encourage you to think about the impact of each.

As you can see, the impact is broad. Through this exposure a person develops metacognitive awareness and in particular, self-esteem, which is crucial. After all, it feels good to possess knowledge about the world, right? I want to share one other example that came to light in my dissertation research. I was observing a group of students who were friends and peers. By the way, if you would like more information about my methodology, I will address that in my workshop. We entered a classroom and before instruction officially began, I observed the group of girls chatting about college options and their reasons for wanting to attend certain schools. The Deaf student I observed learned of this conversation much later. During this particular conversation, one girl preferred a certain college for its small class sizes and low faculty to student ratio, while another preferred a different college for its many majors, particularly in environmental engineering where she could study the effects of global warming. Yet another student chimed in with a preference for a college with the lowest tuition to avoid saddling her family with debt. As a researcher, I was blown away. Eighth grade, and already these students were talking about college? Looking back, college never even crossed my mind until I was a senior in high school. It made me wonder: did my friends discuss college plans as these students did when I was young, and I just didn’t know? It gave me pause to think I may have missed out on something so important because of gaps in incidental learning.

Leveraging Incidental Learning

[SLIDE at 10:50.] In the next slide, notice the person in the lower left corner. You will see a progression of images to be viewed in sequence, lower left to upper right. So at the bottom of the screen you see a student who is a human being with innate curiosity. Now in theory, suppose the person in the lower left corner had access to the incidental learning, that ambient information that is constantly and simultaneously flowing amongst their peers.  The information, the scaffolding exchange of ideas, becomes a person’s fund of knowledge. This fund of knowledge develops over time, expands and allows us to make decisions accordingly. It also allows us to negotiate, form newer ideas, and make new conclusions. This process of appropriating input influences our values, perceptions, beliefs, and how we relate to our immediate community and indeed, the world. Having access to this wealth of knowledge allows us to see things from different angles. It helps us to “look under the hood,” and come to terms with “social realities” which connect with our sense of belonging and engagement as an equal member of our community. This is all constructed in theory.

You may wonder why I chose to take such an avid interest in incidental learning. As a Deaf person, my epistemology, or the ways of knowing myself, my experiences, and the world all have been shaped by my identity and my environment. From a very young age, I was educated in a mainstream program as the sole Deaf person and trained in an aural-oral communication method. Although I received a perfectly satisfactory education, I later realized with a sense of concern how much of my rich incidental environmental information I had missed. I would occasionally get just a portion of a topic being discussed incidentally, but would often miss the layers of why and how this information came up in the first place. I am very concerned because the numbers of Deaf students mainstreamed is now approaching 85-87%. In environments where they may be the sole Deaf student, access to the wealth of incidental learning could be very limited. That is the reason I feel that the role of the sign language interpreter is key in supporting the benefits of incidental learning.  [SLIDE at 13:30.]

Systemic Ideologies and The Role of Sign Language Interpreters

You might be wondering why I decided to show a slide with traffic lights on it. Based on my observations- not to say this is endemic- some of you may relate to this and feel imposed upon by systemic ideologies. The picture of traffic lights, to me, signifies the systemic ideologies. When interpreters arrive in a classroom environment, often they do not start interpreting until the instructor begins to speak- the red light, green light or on/off approach. When the instructor stops so does the interpreter, the class ends, the students exit the room and so forth. Should we consider that systemic oppression? It may be a daunting thing to consider as an interpreter, but really what I want to emphasize is that interpreting needs to effectively communicate the most salient points of instruction without allowing anxiety to take over the weight of the process. Consider Demand-Control Schema when thinking about how to synthesize systems and information when you interpret. Through DC-S an interpreter can reflect on their values, ethics and also how to respond to the larger demands of systems at work while coming to a conclusion on how to act. It is also imperative to use your intuition on what makes sense to do in any given situation.

Systemic ideologies tend to prioritize content stemmed from from the teacher’s formal curricula or high-stake testing standards. Some even have language policies or IEP documents that cite which kind of language mode or communication is required. In general education, spoken language as a rule seems to dominate the environment while a signed language is expected to function discreetly in a corner. It can be a struggle then for interpreters to garner the resources and support needed to perform their job well in that kind of unbalanced dynamic, and to circumvent that requires some creativity. Next slide. [SLIDE at 16:06.]

Collaboration is Key

It is interesting that this slide seems to dovetail nicely with a theme I have noticed during this Street Leverage conference: collaboration. An idea I would like to float with all of you today, one I happened upon in my dissertation work, stems from a comment from a Deaf student I observed. She was satisfied with the interpreter’s service overall, but asked why it was the interpreter’s preclusion to decide what information was important- basically asking “why the filter?” She wanted to have the autonomy to choose what information to attend to in their daily interactions.This is noteworthy. I suggest that interpreters set aside time in their schedule to check in with the Deaf student on their preferences, interests and goals to further the spirit of partnership and to give the student a sense of ownership over their own education, both formal and informal, in whatever topics interests them- health, science, sports, etc. The interpreter is then able to tailor their attunement to the Deaf student’s and make what is salient to them accessible. At that point the student is free to pursue that information or not at their discretion. Regular check-ins could happen weekly so there is opportunity to modify, if needed, what is most of interest.

Another idea to foster collaboration is to reach out to any notetakers present in the classroom. Notetakers, like interpreters, are accustomed to attending primarily to the formal instruction in the room- mainly the teacher. But if an interpreter took it upon her/himself to alert the notetaker to the importance and impact of incidental learning, notes would then become one more way for the Deaf student to have access to the environment beyond official instruction.

One more suggestion is to attend and participate (not interpret) at a student’s IEP meeting. An interpreter has unique insight to share with other privileged decision-makers at IEP meetings, such as parents and school personnel. Yet another thought that surfaced while conducting my research- and this is brilliant- is developing partnerships with local interpreter preparation programs. Students or intern interpreters could shadow a Deaf student in their school day and be responsible, in signed or written form, for communicating incidental content when the teacher is not present in the room. Again, the Deaf student would then be able to peruse that communication and make an informed choice on whether or not to follow up. These are just some of the ideas that came up in my research process, and merit more thought. [SLIDE at 19:59.]

You will notice that one thing is now different about the slide you just saw. It is the same as my initial slide, but with what difference? Yes, now you, the interpreter, have a place in the scheme. In conclusion, you all are a part of the informal curriculum, and in the informal environment, that takes place around a Deaf consumer. It is not a feature solely within the bounds of a classroom. At that next medical appointment you interpret, think about stepping outside the confines of interpreting only direct communication and instead widen your frame to the incidental communication happening all around. An overheard conversation between medical staff may have relevance beyond what appears on the surface, and could serve to impact the Deaf consumer in a meaningful way.

Your Turn

I urge all of you to contemplate exactly how you approach your daily work. After all, you are an important voice in our mutual collaboration and benefit. Through continued dialogue, we can work toward transformation. It does not happen overnight of course, but will with ongoing investment from all of us. As the hashtag says, “it’s our turn,” and I then put it to you as becoming “your turn” in this effort. Before I close, I have one more thought to share: [holds up poster] challenge your practice. Think outside the box. See it from 10,000 feet. Delve into the layers that make up who you are as a practitioner. Heed your intuition, and keep on the path. Thank you.

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