Scissors, paste, sign language: Study to show deaf children's enculturation

April 7, 2011

Learning to be a member of a culture is a primary developmental task for all young children. For most, it happens at home. But for deaf children around the world – more than 90 percent of them live with hearing parents and siblings – their assimilation into deaf culture, the world of sign, and their national culture is likely to begin in early-childhood programs.

A multidisciplinary research team of ASU faculty, doctoral students and alumni has won major support from the Spencer Foundation to better understand this acculturation process. Gathering video ethnography data in deaf kindergarten classrooms in Japan, France and the United States, the researchers aim to uncover the links between teaching approaches in signing classrooms and how children come to perceive themselves as members of deaf culture and of their wider culture: community and society. Teacher signs to deaf kindergarteners and Professor Tobin outside Tokyo school Download Full Image

In addition to bringing to the project a range of academic perspectives and insiders’ knowledge of the deaf world, the researchers are breaking new ground in other ways. It’s the first study of the enculturation practices of early schooling for the deaf to use a cross-cultural, comparative, ethnographic approach. It’s also the first to include videos – both as a research tool and as a final product – capturing typical days in kindergarten classrooms in schools for the deaf.

(See this 30-second " target="_blank">video clip of a typical day at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf.)

Co-principal investigators for the three-year project are Joseph Tobin, an educational anthropologist and early childhood education specialist who holds the Nadine Mathis Basha Professor of Early Childhood Education in the College of Arts and Sciences’ School of Social Transformation; Thomas Horejes, assistant professor of sociology at Gallaudet University; and Joseph Valente, assistant professor of early childhood education at the Pennsylvania State University.

Horejes and Valenti are alumni of ASU doctoral programs in justice studies and education, respectively. Rounding out the team are Professor Tobin’s dissertation advisees Akiko Hayashi, Patrick Graham, and Jennifer Hensley, graduate students in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Horejes, Valente, and Graham are deaf. Horejes and Graham use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. Hensley is an ASL-English interpreter.

“Early childhood education programs in schools for the deaf have been largely invisible to all but their students and staff,” Tobin says. “Even parents of deaf children often lack a clear sense of what goes on in their children’s classrooms or how they communicate and interact at school. The ‘voices’ of deaf teachers and students have been under-utilized and underrepresented in research as well as in policy formation.

“Our study tries to open up space for dialogue among the stakeholders in deaf education,” Tobin says.

The research team’s methods are an adaptation of the video ethnography approach developed by Tobin and his colleagues in the projects “Preschool in Three Cultures,” “Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited” and “Immigrant Parents’ and Teachers’ Perspectives on Early Childhood Education.”

During spring break, the team videotaped a typical day in a kindergarten classroom at the Maryland School for the Deaf, and in June will do the same in a signing classroom in Toulouse, France. Last fall the researchers videotaped at Meisei Gakuen, a deaf school in Tokyo.

The 12 hours of tape from each school are edited down to a 20-minute video, selecting scenes to provoke discussion of key issues in deaf education, to give a sense of the kids’ daily routines, and to capture revealing or gripping moments, like a child making an intellectual break-through or a child experiencing frustration or new successes in attempts to communicate.

The edited videos will function as a rich and provocative cue for interviews with a widening circle of stakeholders.

First, the classroom teachers are asked to provide context and insight into their pedagogical choices. Then the children are asked for their reactions and reflections. Next, the video is the basis for focus-group discussions with the other teachers and director in the same school; then with parents at this school; then with teachers, directors, parents and children in five or more other schools for the deaf in each country; then to these categories of stakeholders in the other two countries; and finally to deaf education experts in each country.

Ultimately it is the reflections of stakeholders to the videos, rather than the videos themselves, that are the primary data of the study.

France, Japan and the United States present an ideal mix of common and divergent political, economic, social and cultural features, Tobin says. All three are highly urbanized, economically developed and have social service and insurance reimbursement systems that allow for both deaf education programs and for cochlear implants and other assistive technologies.

“All have kindergartens for the deaf, and in each of these countries,” he notes, “there is a lively and often acrimonious national debate about the best approach to deaf education, sign language and deaf culture.

“But the three diverge markedly in their views of the nation-state, language and language policy, citizenship, cultural identity, multiculturalism, and the public and private spheres,” says Tobin. “They also have very different educational systems, disability laws and services, forms of signing, and forms of deaf support and advocacy organizations.”

Influencing the future

The investigation is timely, as deaf culture and deaf education adapt to the spread of the cochlear implant and other technological changes. In all three countries involved in the study the percentage of deaf infants and toddlers given cochlear implants has grown exponentially over the last decade, and an increasing percentage of parents are opting for speech-only programs for their deaf children.

Some proponents of technological interventions believe advances in digital hearing-aids and cochlear implants will soon eradicate deafness and, therefore, the need for signing and deaf schools. Some deaf culture advocates see this shift as an ethnicidal, linguicidal threat. But many scholars of deaf education, including some who are strong proponents of deaf culture and of sign, see more potential than threat in cochlear implants and other new technologies, arguing that deaf culture – like other cultures – is continuously adapting to change and remaking itself.

“In the midst of these debates, we wanted to provide a platform for deaf children and their parents and teachers to express their positions about schooling, language, disability and cultural identity,” Tobin says.  “Analyzing the perspectives of each of these stakeholders can shed light – not just heat – on the discussion, and a nuanced understanding of what’s at stake.”

“Joe Tobin and his team are doing pioneering work at the interface of educational anthropology, disability studies, and the emerging field of Deaf Cultural Studies,” says Mary Margaret Fonow, director of the School of Social Transformation in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who has received approval for the school to move ahead in planning new undergraduate and graduate degrees in disability studies at ASU. “By contributing to the ongoing evolution of deaf educational ideas and practice, they’re expanding the repertoire of the possible – and ensuring that kids have the chance to develop to their full potential.”

Maureen Roen

Director of Communications, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


Brain teasers at ASU: Children learn neuroscience

April 7, 2011

As a wave of bright-eyed elementary school students filed through the doors to the Brain Fair for Children at Arizona State University, a third-grader boasted to a friend: “I’ve been here before. This is so cool.”

That was evident when ASU associate professor of psychology Heather Bimonte-Nelson, wearing a jewel-encrusted lab coat with “Dr. Heather” written in glitter, asked: “Who’s ready to learn about the brain?” and the hands of some 350 children sprang up. “Who wants to see real brains?” she asked next, and there was more hand raising accompanied by giggles. Download Full Image

And then, the big question: “Who wants to touch real brains?” The room popped with a chorus of “Me!” as hands waved in the air and the third- and fifth-graders exchanged looks of wonder and excitement.

“Today, we’re going to teach you about the brain, college and science,” continued Bimonte-Nelson, director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program in ASU’s Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When you go to college, you gain knowledge. When you gain knowledge, you gain power. Today, you’re going to gain a lot of power.”

Energetic and whimsical, Bimonte-Nelson, bounced in the front of the room as she led the children through warm-up exercises, having them point to their frontal lobe, temporal lobe and occipital lobe, while shouting out the names of each lobe.

For the next several hours, children rotated among learning stations, designed by ASU students who were there to demonstrate science and answer questions. At one of the stations, children put on gloves and held or touched real sheep brains. “The brain is so cool,” one child exclaimed.

Amita Padiyar, an ASU freshman in psychology explained how the fair served as a great opportunity not only for the children, but for her as well. “I know when I was younger I didn’t have the chance to be taught about the brain like this, and I really think it’s a wonderful experience. The brain is fascinating and the biggest thing is that it pertains to everyone. And it’s always good to gain more knowledge on the things which pertain to you.”

Two third-graders from Imagine Schools at Camelback, Carlos and Santos, could hardly wait to describe their experiences at the fair. “We’re learning about illusions and how our eyes get tired, and we touched goop.” Santos said excitedly. Not missing a beat, Carlos added “This is our second time here and I want to come again next year. The slimy brain is the best!” he said, before rushing off to another station.

Susan Ham, mother of a fifth-grade student from Kyrene de la Sierra Elementary School in Phoenix, watched the children with admiration. “These activities are so hands-on and interactive. They provide the kids with a different viewpoint of science. They break down the common misconception that science is ‘scary’ and show the kids how interesting it can really be.”

At the Microscope Imagination Station, shrieks of excitement and awe erupted as a group of fifth-graders from Kyrene de la Sierra Elementary School had the opportunity to touch a very long, live carpet python.

Zach Stahlschmidt, an ASU graduate student in biology, who assisted the children with viewing a salamander and Gila monster, and their respective brains, said, “Exposing these kids to the diversity of science and allowing them to see animals that they might not have the opportunity to see otherwise, it’s truly a great thing.”

A few feet over, another group of children stood deeply focused on brains they were modeling out of Play-Doh. “You see how this is all wrinkly?” an ASU student leader asked as he pointed to the children’s sculptures. “Our brain is the same way. Our brains do so much and hold so much information that it has to be folded really tightly to condense all of the stuff. If we unfolded the brain, we’d have huge heads.”

Some 650 kindergarteners through fifth-graders from Creighton Schools, Imagine Schools at Camelback, Kyrene de la Sierra Elementary School, Pardes Jewish Day School, John F. Kennedy Elementary, and V.H. Lassen School participated in this year’s brain fair at ASU April 4-5.

In addition to the more than 100 student and faculty volunteers from psychology and the School of Life Sciences, guest scientists from Barrow Neurological Institute of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center and the University of Arizona College of Medicine were also in attendance to talk science with the children.

Sponsors credited for devoting time and resources included ASU School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) Program, ASU Psychology Department, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Dunne Transportation and the Society for Neuroscience.

Nate Hightower, an ASU senior psychology major said: “These kids actually know a lot about the brain. They’re really enthused about it. I think this promotes higher learning in a fun way and lets them see that there’s more to life beyond high school.”

It is exactly this inspiration that drove Bimonte-Nelson to host a Brain Fair for Children at ASU: “The obvious goals are for the children to learn about science and have fun through hands-on exploration. Ultimately, we want them to leave with the bigger picture that college is fun.”

Five years ago, Bimonte-Nelson began a community outreach program during Brain Awareness Week and started visiting local elementary schools to speak about the brain. She and her students have also conducted programs at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix and Arizona Science Center. Her program gained so much popularity from children, teachers and parents alike, that she realized she couldn’t continue to cart microscopes and brain models from classroom to classroom. In a flash of genius, she decided to host a Brain Fair at ASU and bring the children to a university setting.

“I’m a brain scientist and it’s my specialty,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “The science of the brain really goes hand-in-hand with the message we’re trying to get across: You are responsible for making the decisions which will affect your future. The brain makes those decisions.”

Written by Chanapa Tantibanchachai.


Carol Hughes,">">


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences