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Signs of the times for learning theories

Ground-breaking videoed and signed materials for deaf teacher trainees have been developed at the City Literary Institute in London by specialist teacher educators, interpreters and online technologists. They used British Sign Language (BSL) to create innovative resources to support a pre-service Award in Education and Training and an in-service Certificate in Education and Training.

The videos are part of a highly successful collaborative project with the University of Westminster and five of its partner colleges, which won an LSIS Phase 2 Research bid for £60,000 to produce blended learning resources for Initial Teacher Education in 2013.

There is long and rich history of deaf education at City Lit, which is a Special Designated Institution for Adult Learning. In 1919, after the First World War, City Lit started a Deaf Education department, to help servicemen whose hearing had been impaired, following shelling during the war. According to Action on Hearing Loss, there are now 3.7 million deaf people employed in the UK and one in six people in the UK have some form of hearing loss.

British Sign Language became a nationally recognised language and, by the 1990s, City Lit had developed a reputation for teacher training for BSL tutors. Although several organisations in the UK run deaf awareness, BSL and lip-reading courses, there are only a few filmed resources for Deaf teacher education and these tend to focus on practical tips and hints for teaching. The team at City Lit wanted to produce good quality videos in BSL which would encourage a deeper understanding of theories of learning and how these can be integrated into the teaching practice of deaf teacher trainees.

The video project was a fertile collaboration between teacher educators, interpreters, online technologists, film-makers and editors, says City Lit’s head of teacher education Khorshed Bhote: “The teacher training co-ordinator for deaf education, Olga Lamb chose interpreters who had done initial teacher training courses at the college, so they understood the educational jargon. The teacher education department had an advisory role and peer reviewed the videos suggesting changes and checking academic content”.

It was important to use practical examples from teaching. Although Olga Lamb works with Deaf teacher trainees who want to teach BSL, the teacher education department at City Lit also has Deaf teacher trainees in hearing classes who teach IT and Art, not just BSL. So the examples used related to SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed) learning objectives, thus matching several different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and linking to Bloom’s concepts of ‘mastery’ and developmental tasks.

Pitfalls abound in this kind of work: for example, tutors and interpreters had to find an alternative to the standard BSL representation of ‘mastery’ (having masterful skills or knowledge) and find an alternative to represent Bloom’s definition of ‘mastery’ (the notion that students must be able to grasp basic concepts or skills before they can learn more sophisticated topics or skills). Otherwise, one would be signing the exact opposite of the meaning one wanted to convey.

Teacher training co-ordinator Olga Lamb, who is Deaf herself, had already developed home-made videos in BSL to help her trainees. Initially, she had created short videos based on a revision pack which teacher educators Sandie Alden and Wendy Moss had written for an introductory course to teaching (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector – PTLLS). The course had been adapted to allow Deaf students to present their assignments in BSL, following fruitful discussions with the awarding body.

When an opportunity occurred to take part in a University of Westminster Consortium bid for LSIS research funding, City Lit’s teaching and learning manager Wendy Moss saw a way of developing more in-depth and professionally produced videos for the next stage in teacher training, a Certificate to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (CTLLS). The design of more complex videos for Deaf teacher training was one of five collaborative mini-projects.

Having to access class materials in English can make teacher education difficult for Deaf trainees. Like any language, BSL develops organically with regional variations and interpretations – as well as controversies and debates, much like those around British Standard English.

Wendy Moss sees the main benefit of making materials accessible in BSL as giving trainee teachers access to theory and principles in their first language. “I would like to have all our materials and courses in sign language”, she says. “It is a human rights issue. It was a battle for BSL to be recognised as a language in its own right and Deaf people are continually working in another oral language to which they often have limited access. I would like Deaf students to do much of their course work in BSL and put it on video for the CertEd/PGCE. This is expensive, because course teams need to assess the work and so need interpreters. But we already do professional discussions with students on the CertEd/PGCE and there is no reason why we could not do professional discussions using an interpreter.”

As with any translation process, there are issues of nuance and interpretation. For example, one question in the CertEd/PGCE Reflective Practice pack asks: ‘do you agree that self-confidence is not the same as self-esteem?’. Interpreter James Fitzgerald explains: “In BSL there is no one sign for ‘self-esteem’. Instead, the meaning of this term, in its context, is conveyed in BSL. In this situation, the challenge faced by the interpreter is the need to interpret the question in a way that shows the difference, linguistically, between ‘self-confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’ but leaves it open enough to allow the Deaf person to consider the difference – which is the requirement of the question being asked”.

Like all language, BSL evolves. A skilled interpreter may modify certain signs to suit the context and convey the intended meaning of the term. Sometimes there is a challenge in translating an abstract word or concept clearly into BSL, which is a visual language. For example, whilst there is no recognised BSL sign for specific terminology like ‘taxonomy’, a sign might be chosen such as the use of both hands moving upwards within a triangular space, showing different levels decreasing from the bottom to the top. The combination of these signs and hand-shapes then becomes the sign reference for ‘taxonomy’, as it gives the meaning of the term, whilst also providing a visual cue to the diagrammatic

Head of the Centre for Deaf Education, Marian Grimes, campaigns for improvements in Deaf education. She sees the videos as a good way of improving resources and revision materials for Deaf teacher trainees.

Marian explains that it is common for teacher training candidates, who want to become BSL tutors, to have low literacy levels. “This is because it is not possible for profoundly deaf children to acquire spoken language in the same way that hearing infants do – even with the aid of sophisticated amplification technology. Fluency in spoken language is intrinsic to the development of reading and writing skills, and deaf children persistently underachieve in literacy as they grow up, despite having a similar spectrum of non-verbal intelligence to that of hearing children”.

It is also rare for deaf children to have access to high levels of BSL at school or home, and therefore it is quite common for deaf young people and adults to develop BSL as a natural language later by choice, through constant exposure within the Deaf community. It is therefore possible for deaf individuals to acquire fluency in a signed language and to develop understanding of new concepts and theoretical knowledge in BSL which would be inaccessible in English.

A few years ago, at a meeting of representatives from City and Guilds, the Institute for Learning, LSIS and BIS, it was decided that to assess the knowledge and competencies of Deaf teacher trainees on ITE courses solely through written English was discriminatory. In addition, they felt that it would be unrealistic to assume that Deaf trainees’ English skills could be increased significantly over the duration of a teacher training course. The development of resources which defined and explained key theories and concepts goes some way towards levelling the playing field for this group of students.

Geraldine Davison-Gray, a Deaf teacher trainee at City Lit, says: “For me, it’s really good to have the Bloom video because I’ve read some theory, but I don’t seem to be able to absorb it well. A lot of the technical language is hard to follow and it’s a struggle to understand, whereas the explanation in BSL is clearer and, in a way, complements the book and helps cement the knowledge. Once I understand in BSL, it helps me access the book because I have that basic understanding. I really liked the way the presenters explained Bloom with the pyramid behind them. This was really useful as I could visualise this when I read the text book”.

The project followed an iterative process, as teacher training co-ordinator Olga Lamb describes: “Sometimes there was no sign representation for what we wanted to express, so we had to create it, providing the full meaning of the phrase. We created a draft presentation and invited Deaf Education staff and students as well as hearing BSL users, to give us feedback because that allowed us to have different perspectives.

“They told us which areas we needed to improve and whether, or not, the information was clear and accessible. We had to have a thick skin, but most of the time it was positive! We always involved Wendy Moss and Khorshed Bhote who had interpreters so that they could also give their opinion on whether the information was accurate”.

The team started with Bloom’s taxonomy as it can be linked to a number of elements in initial teacher education, such as writing lesson plans, assessing students at different levels and ensuring differentiation in class. In future, the college would like to cover other theories of learning and other theorists, not just at a basic level but in detail.

For one presenter to remember the content in sequence for the entire video was gruelling, even though the videos only last about 10 minutes. So the second video includes a signed dialogue, where one presenter asks a question and the interpreters give an explanation with real examples from teaching sessions. This is not the traditional role of an interpreter, but the City Lit interpreters were happy to work creatively on the project as part of a strong team.

Research in the 1970s (Conrad 1977) showed that deaf pupils left school with median reading ages of nine and poor speech intelligibility. Marian Grimes says: “These videos are the first signed materials, to our knowledge, which address text-based translations of these learning theories in an accessible and understandable form”, she says. “Our plan is to develop resources which respect BSL for BSL users. We underestimated the amount of time that even two videos would take and the number of times we had to review the materials. But we were lucky in the team we had who worked so well together”.

Rebecca Eliahoo is principal lecturer (Lifelong Learning) at the University of Westminster and co-director of the Westminster Partnership Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (CETT)

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