Miss­ing out is no joke

Much of our knowl­edge is ac­quired in an un­planned way and deaf peo­ple can miss out

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Platform - John Crad­den

The old say­ing that you learn some­thing new ev­ery day con­tin­ues to be very rel­e­vant, even in this dig­i­tal age. You can learn some­thing new ev­ery day of your life, but what isn’t so well-known or ac­knowl­edged is that most of our knowl­edge is ac­quired through in­ci­den­tal learn­ing.

In­ci­den­tal learn­ing is gen­er­ally de­fined as any learn­ing you ac­quire ac­ci­den­tally, in­di­rectly or in an un­planned way. In­ci­den­tal learn­ing can take place in­side as well as out­side a class­room or any for­mal educa­tional set­ting.

It’s not to be con­fused with in­for­mal learn­ing, be­cause while the set­ting may be in­for­mal (eg, pri­vate tu­ition at home), there is still the in­ten­tion to learn.

Chil­dren will gain ac­cess to in­ci­den­tal learn­ing in a num­ber of ways, in­clud­ing ob­ser­va­tion, rep­e­ti­tion and prob­lem-solv­ing; but ar­guably the big­gest sin­gle con­duit is through so­cial in­ter­ac­tion with other chil­dren. Be­ing deaf from an early age, it proved an al­most heav­ens-open­ing epiphany the day I learned that in­ci­den­tal learn­ing was a thing.

It made me re­alise just how much I missed out dur­ing my school years, even when I thought I was do­ing pretty well.

I at­tended main­stream schools, where many of my teach­ers would likely have de­scribed me as a fully-in­te­grated, as­sim­i­lated, func­tion­ing stu­dent. The truth is, of course, I was a mas­ter bluffer, a wallflower, a mem­ber of the crowd, present and yet ab­sent.

I learned just about enough in the for­mal set­tings of the class­rooms, but the as­sis­tive hear­ing-aid tech­nol­ogy that helped me hear the teacher di­rectly didn’t ex­tend to be­ing able to pick up what my class­mates were say­ing.

Nor was I able to pick up on much or any of the chat­ting, gos­sip­ing and jok­ing out­side the class­room or in the yard or on the bus home. Sure, I lis­tened earnestly, picked up a word here and there, but ac­cess to the full un­der­stand­ing and con­texts would al­ways be elu­sive.

That’s not to sug­gest that many of the id­iots, jok­ers and heck­lers among Rath­more Gram­mar School’s class of 1991 had much to con­trib­ute to our col­lec­tive, for­mal learn­ing, but I’m only re­ally be­gin­ning to com­pre­hend now the amount of in­ci­den­tal learn­ing I missed out on back then.

In­deed, it sur­prises me that the sub­ject of in­ci­den­tal learn­ing is only be­gin­ning to get some trac­tion in the broad, mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary field of deaf ed­u­ca­tion.

Per­haps part of the rea­son for this is that it’s far eas­ier to talk about how im­por­tant and cru­cial in­ci­den­tal learn­ing is than it is to mea­sure or eval­u­ate it. In­deed, the idea that you can di­rect or in­flu­ence in­ci­den­tal learn­ing seems oxy­moronic.

Aware of op­por­tu­ni­ties

But some schol­ars are now sug­gest­ing that teach­ers and par­ents can cre­ate bet­ter con­di­tions for in­ci­den­tal learn­ing for deaf chil­dren, sim­ply by be­ing aware of the op­por­tu­ni­ties for it and in­quir­ing about ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

Does the deaf child have ac­cess to the lan­guage of in­ci­den­tal learn­ing that oc­curs at the li­brary, dur­ing break times, at lunchtime, dur­ing for­mal classes, dur­ing prac­ti­cal art­work and lab­o­ra­tory work­shops, af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties such as sports and mu­sic, and meet­ings in ex­tracur­ric­u­lar clubs such as de­bat­ing, for­eign lan­guages, drama, chess, etc?

It is sug­gested that teach­ers could try and find ways to in­te­grate in­ci­den­tal learn­ing with struc­tured learn­ing. A good ex­am­ple would be to al­lo­cate class­room time for dis­cus­sions on in­for­mal top­ics, such as where stu­dents like to so­cialise and why, favourite books, or what hap­pened at the din­ner ta­ble last night. Teach­ers can share in­for­ma­tion of their own as well, and then re­late it to what they are teach­ing in their for­mal class­room set­tings.

But if the child is still miss­ing out, it may mean com­ing to terms with a re­al­ity that some deaf ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts might find dif­fi­cult to ac­cept: that the con­di­tions for in­ci­den­tal learn­ing can be much eas­ier to cre­ate in a deaf school en­vi­ron­ment than a main­stream one.

Once a child has enough sign lan­guage (or sign-sup­ported lan­guage), they have bet­ter ac­cess to lan­guage and there­fore countless more op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ci­den­tal learn­ing through af­ter-school clubs, sports, or­gan­i­sa­tions and just hang­ing out with their peers.

Missed joke In the same way that I missed out on more in­ci­den­tal learn­ing than I re­alised at main­stream school, many peo­ple to­day still of­ten say back to me when I ask them to re­peat a missed joke or a ca­sual aside: “Ah, it’s not that funny”, or “It’s not worth re­peat­ing”, or “I’ll tell you later”.

These days I un­der­stand why they say this. It’s partly lazi­ness, yes, but more likely its be­cause the joke never sounds quite so funny the sec­ond time around; it loses the con­text and nu­ance of the so­cial in­ter­ac­tion that gave rise to it, and there­fore its po­tency.

So to any­one who recog­nises that they do this to a deaf per­son: I get it, I re­ally do – but it doesn’t make it any less an­noy­ing. I know you mean well, but you are deny­ing us cru­cial bridges to valu­able in­ci­den­tal learn­ing.

Hav­ing said that, I will apol­o­gise in ad­vance if you ever join me with a group of friends chat­ting in Ir­ish sign lan­guage. Why? I’ll tell you later.


John Crad­den (right) sign­ing with Amanda Mo­han, Elaine Gre­han and Brian Crean at the Deaf Vil­lage Ire­land.

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