VDEI sat down with Marc Marschark, PhD., Director of the Centre for Education Research Partnerships at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at RIT, Rochester, New York.
VDEI: We have all learnt a great deal from travelling with you over the past week and thought it would be a good idea to capture some of your impressions of deaf education in Victoria before you leave us tomorrow. So, with that in mind, what are some of the challenges that you have noticed here or questions that still need some research?
VDEI is clearly cognisant of the need to provide different kinds of support services to children and families, as well as to older students in order to be able to optimise educational access and outcomes.
My notion is that one size fits none (or at least very few). Probably the biggest challenge and one that I’m impressed so much that you recognise is the issue of individual differences; that from the very beginning deaf children have different strengths as well as different needs; that we can accommodate some of those but we are still living in the real world.
Still in need of investigation is everything. For example, we know that bilingual education is effective for some children, and not for others; sign language interpreting or real-time text in the classroom are appropriate for some children, but not others; individualised instructional methods may be an ideal but they are difficult to accomplish. The important thing is that we are aware of the need for adapting our materials and our methodologies again to match the strengths as well as the needs of our students.
What are your impressions of raising and educating deaf children in Victoria?
What has impressed me the most has been the flexibility of people, the ease of the various transitions that deaf children need to make, not only at a young age, but also even from secondary to tertiary education.
In many countries, in many places in the US, we don’t see the same kind of flexibility of trying to do what’s best for each individual child. It’s often easier and cheaper to do one thing and hope that most kids will be able to adjust to that.
Here, in contrast, there seems to be a lot of flexibility about trying alternative methods, recognising that one size doesn’t fit all and perhaps one size fits none (Knoors and Marschark, 2014). At the same time, nobody seems shy about having to change methodologies, not just language methodologies but teaching methodologies and support methodologies, if children are not thriving with them.
I really like the way that parents are apparently given full objective information about alternative methodologies. We try to do that in the US, but it doesn’t happen very often because usually parents are channeled into one methodology or another and even if they think they’re getting full information they don’t know what they don’t know so they often are unaware of alternatives.
In my work I share the philosophy of trying to tell parents, ‘Here are the alternatives. Here are our best guesses about outcomes for different kids if you adopt these different methodologies or approaches, and you need to be aware that they’re not for everybody.’
Then let parents make those decisions. But parents have to have complete knowledge about those alternatives, or at least the best we can do in order to be able to make an informed decision. Informed decisions are not just about information. It’s also about understanding that parents are in a sensitive period when they discover they have a deaf child, and at various points during the development of that deaf child, so that they may not hear everything that we tell them.
I’ve been very impressed by the recognition that we have to think about early paths. We have to think about where those paths are leading and not just take it one little step at a time but have a longer view of trajectories and the need for planning.
Taking that longer view and providing parents with information about the longer view is really important. The fact that you do that, even at the point of early intervention, is very impressive.
What are some of the other differences you have observed in Victoria, in contrast to other places you have visited?
Probably most apparent, as I mentioned, is the objectivity in early intervention to advise parents about all of the opportunities for their children. Another is training of teachers of the deaf. At least in the US, an itinerant or visiting teacher is just as likely to have students who are signers as opposed to speakers so that teachers of the deaf will all have some level of sign language skill as a prerequisite to getting their teaching degree. The notion that teachers of the deaf have to be very broad and flexible is a key underpinning of teacher education in the US and other countries.
We certainly recognise that the population of deaf children is changing, that thanks to classroom technologies, digital hearing aids, cochlear implants and advanced speech and language interventions that more children have the opportunity to acquire spoken language than ever before.
At the same time, spoken language is not for everybody. Sign language not only is the primary mode of communication for many deaf children, but the research clearly indicates that it can support the development of spoken language in children with or without cochlear implants.
Rather than requiring parents to make early decisions about one language modality or another, I’m impressed with the flexibility here in offering parents the additional alternative of using both.
It’s important that parents recognise that they may need to change communication modalities, school placements, and perceptions of hearing loss in order to optimise opportunities for their deaf children. I have been impressed with the emphasis here on ongoing assessment and evaluation to ensure that children are receiving the services and support that they need in order to succeed.