Cognition in the Classroom:
The Academic and Social Implications
An Interview with Dr. Brenda Schick

by Leeanne Seaver

Social isolation is one of the biggest fears families have for their children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Given the low incidence of deafness or hearing loss, many d/hh kids find themselves alone or among a small minority of students in a public school setting. What is the impact of a hearing loss on the child in that situation? What should parents and professionals alike be attending to when developing the child's IEP to make sure that social learning and social inclusion are addressed? Dr. Brenda Schick, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, in the department of Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, has studied this topic extensively and is preparing to publish a paper on "Cognition in the Classroom." She provided Hands & Voices with this interview on her research and insight on essential academic and social considerations for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Seaver: What was the motivation behind your research into this topic?

Schick: What I was interested in doing was looking into the classroom to discover what kind of cognitive challenges there are in that environment for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing. Just reading the literature on what hearing kids have to do in real classrooms, and what challenges there are for them, and then looking at that from a deaf perspective-through an interpreter-and how that might be difficult for the kids to access some of the real cognitive aspects of the classroom.

I'm not just looking at the skills of the interpreter, but where cognition breaks down for the student. Consider the kinds of things the interpreter might have trouble with-like knowing the teacher's underlying intention, or having trouble interpreting all of the discourse in the classroom-if the child is missing these things, they're missing a whole lot more than content knowledge. When the child is missing the teacher's intention, they're missing a whole lot of metacognitive information. I'm interested in knowing the impact of that.

Seaver: Share your definitions of 'cognitive' and 'metacognitive'.

Schick: Cognitive means the various ways of knowing, perceiving, remembering, imagining, judging, and reasoning. Cognition is the mental process through which all those things happen. It's about how we come to think about and understand our world and who we are in it. Through cognition, we develop our thought processes and theories; we store and retrieve everyday knowledge; we analyze and problem solve; and as we learn, we organize and reorganize our cognitive system. Language, vocabulary, and concepts are processed into organized systems.

Metacognitive refers to understanding the bigger picture

Seaver: If you've got the content, what are you missing?

Schick: In one of the cases we studied, the teacher was discussing civil rights issues and talking about the lynching of blacks in the south. One of the students asks, (imitated with strong inflection) 'did they really do that?' and the teacher said, (sounding incredulous) 'yes, that did happen.' Quite a few interpreters-when they'd get to that passage-actually ignored the question from the kid in class, and also they ignored the emotion of all the discourse-all of the intention. So what comes out is, Question: "they did that?" Answer: "Yes, they did that," -without the speaker's motivation and emotional response to the subject. That imparts a very different message to the students. In the one case, the hearing kids get that these events were outrageous, whereas the deaf kid gets a matter-of-fact acknowledgment. The deaf child is missing the teacher's attitude about it because they're watching the interpreter who's not conveying that aspect of the lesson. So, blacks were killed, but the deaf kid's not getting "atrocity," he's receiving the information as a basic fact. But that's the kind of stuff that's so essential to cognitive development.-the attitude, the emotion-the teacher putting it into some kind of context for the student. It helps the child develop a metacognitive understanding of how others think.

Seaver: So facts alone don't tell the whole story?

Schick: It's actually so interesting. I was reviewing some of our videotaped cases, and noted one where the teacher was doing a math lesson on rounding. One of the students raises her hand and says, "My mom taught me a new rule about subtraction." The teacher responds, "ok, thank you, Susie, that's really interesting, but we're rounding numbers now and we'll come to that later." It was the lovely way the teacher said it (using prosody or intonation) that basically said I acknowledge your comment, thanks, but let's get back on task. The interpreted message only conveyed the math lesson, and what got lost was the social message-the exaggerated patience in the teacher's voice. Those are two separate messages, and the social message was the most significant in that exchange.

Seaver: I'm thinking of times when the intonation and inflection of the speaker may make the meaning of a statement very different than the words used literally.

Schick: Exactly. Let's say the students are messing around and so the teacher says, "it's getting really close to recess," with a hint of warning in her voice. That statement means, "You'd better hurry up and finish your tasks before the end of class." Subtle, but clear. The deaf kid who doesn't get that is out of step with the rest of the students. I actually read a study where the teacher used the word "OK" with nine different meanings in the same class. Think about that from a deaf perspective.

Seaver: So these subtle cues can get lost, and that can look like a kid who isn't paying attention, or isn't really with it.

Schick: Very often, yes.

Seaver: When this recurs time and again for a kid with hearing loss, parents often are prompted to have their child tested for learning disabilities. But we should always start with the question, has the communication been effective for the student? Start with looking at what the child sees every day and ask if this information is being conveyed effectively.

What other impacts did you find?

Schick: The impact of having peers is critical. The research on hearing kids really indicates that having true, authentic friends, and having true, authentic interaction in classrooms, really helps their learning experience. There's some good data that shows that when kids get to interact about the material, they learn it better-now that's not interacting with the teacher-that's interacting with each other about the material. And there's also some good data that shows that when kids get to work with their friends on projects, they do better on the project. The quality of their work is more complex; it's more thorough and interesting than when they work with a non-friend. They're more likely to have real discussions.... disagreements. But with a non-friend they're more likely to be polite and just try to get the stuff done.

So peers are a great thing that provides kids with something they don't get from adults. With peers, children can argue, negotiate, and figure it all out. Some researchers have speculated that these life skills come more from peer interactions than through interactions with adults. And those language skills are absolutely essential.

Seaver: It makes total sense. Adults are not real big on arguing and negotiation with children. When I was growing up, you were "talking back" if you tried negotiating with an adult, and that was strictly not tolerated.

Schick: Right, but it's a communication skill that's essential, and kids develop this aspect of their ability through these interactions with each other.

Here's one example: a group of kindergartners were debating a topic until one child said, "well, my mom said this." And that was it.... end of discussion. To them, a mom was the ultimate authority. But if you try that when you're a 12 year old, you're going to look like a nerd. So you have to learn what kinds of evidence are legitimate...what debate tactics are acceptable, credible, and productive. That's a whole other aspect of what goes on in the classroom-kids being able to discuss with and negotiate with one another and build their information base and communication skills from those experiences. And it's another concern of mine because research shows that often deaf kids are not true members of those classrooms, and they're missing out on these experiences. (Ramsey 1997)

Seaver: As parents, how can we know if our kids are genuinely part of the class?

Schick: Ask the tough questions. Do they have real friends? Are they having real, interactive conversations? Do they know how to use an interpreter? What's the quality of the direct communication? How are they connected to all of the language and communication that is the real life of the classroom-all of the time?

Seaver: What are the peer considerations for a younger child?

Schick: In early elementary school, kids are making friends based on who's friendly. But about age six or seven, kids start analyzing their friendships and being more selective. The emotional connection goes deeper. It goes past physical play (like playing kickball) and into a reflection of the child himself. It's not just having peers, but the effect that having peers have on me and my own situation. "I like it when so-and-so is nice, I want to be nice, too. I don't like that bully, I don't want to be like that." The research shows that friend relationships can impact developing cognition...the understanding of who I am as a developing individual.

And what else we know about the importance of peers is that those interactions provide the opportunity for kids to process complex psychological events. It's not enough just to be in the presence of same-aged children-there must be meaningful interaction. Visual observation of peers is not enough to foster the development of verbal reasoning, or to open us up to divergent ways of thinking. We get such valuable experience from the earliest stages...the sociolinguistics of 'kid culture', the impact of our message on the to monitor, repair and revise our message accordingly. All terrific communication skills.

Seaver: What's the impact of missing out on peer interaction?

Schick: It is possible that our kids with a hearing loss may be missing out of some experiences that are essential to social cognition.our understanding of how to interact in complex and meaningful ways with peers and colleagues. They may miss conversations that help develop metacognition and problem-solving skills. They may not have authentic interactions that are the foundation to learning, not just social development. This is not to mention what social isolation and loneliness does to a child¹s social-emotional development.

Seaver: How do we address these issues in school?

Schick: I think it has to be part of the IEP. That child's social life in the classroom is as relevant to their learning and a healthy social/emotional adulthood as learning about biology. This has to be a priority. We have to recognize that friendships and meaningful interaction with peers have developmental significance. The quality of those relationships affects social cognition and learning.

A major philosophy of education is that social interaction is the medium of learning. You simply don't learn without social interaction. There are lots of learning theories that maintain that every bit of learning is within a social context. Many educational philosophies are based on the theories of Vygotksy, a famous Russian philosopher. He believed that cognitive skills and patterns of thinking are not primarily determined by innate factors, but are the products of the activities practiced in social interaction, grounded in a culture. Many educators believe that learning can be facilitated in peer discussions. Often teaching practices reflect this.

It seems reasonable that a child's IEP should reflect the goals that schools have for all children regarding social cognition and learning the language of discussion and debate.

Seaver: Still, most of the time, IEP conversations are focused mainly on academic goals-especially in this era of high stakes testing. It's hard to imagine having the time and knowledge as a team to construct an IEP that could create social success. Most of the time we just "contrive" the presence of social goals, but how can an IEP goal create real friendships? Where do we even begin to make this happen?

Schick: Well you can start by asking your school what its philosophy of education is. What do you think the hearing kids are doing in those classrooms? Elementary schools build in social interaction because they know it's so important for the child's development. This philosophy must be built into the whole educational dynamic in a meaningful way for a deaf kid.

So the social goals have to be a part of the classroom experience. Is there evidence that my child is an authentic participant in the cognitive and social life of the classroom? Can my child participate in discussions, sharing and understanding the opinions and beliefs of others as well as their own. Can he express his opinions? It may sound simplistic, but I think that the IEP team should talk about whether the child has real interactions. I think lots of people can recognize when a child is not a true participant.

The research is there to support why social interaction is important to a child¹s overall development. It's pervasive across all educational philosophies. I think we can make a good case for these goals being in a child's IEP.

Seaver: It seems like the key is in the placement of the student in a school where there are highly qualified teachers, appropriate services, plus certified interpreters if needed, all in a setting that affords him or her the best opportunity to have genuine friends and meaningful interaction with lots of peers. That's a utopian environment. If you're not there, do you think a change in school placement based solely on goals for socialization is justified?

Schick: I do...I honestly do. I don't know what it must feel like to some of these kids-and I know this isn't true for every deaf or hard of hearing kid-but some of these kids are completely disconnected to life in the classroom, they sit alone at lunch, and they're out there standing by themselves at recess. I don't know what kind of kid can handle that social isolation. I listen to deaf adults a lot, and I watch my deaf college students, and it's clearly hard for them. We need more research on the effects of social isolation on deaf and hard of hearing students.

For kids who have no opportunity for better school placement, then we'd better be using summer camps and every possible opportunity to connect these kids to other deaf or hard of hearing kids and adult role models. Schools need to share this kind of information with families, and families need to explore ways to connect their child to peers.

Seaver: The sad irony is that I think the system often works against this. "Least restrictive environment" has been applied to classroom environments that may actually be the most restrictive and isolating for many deaf or hard of hearing students. But if the school is willing to admit that the child is socially isolated, then the district could be financially liable for sending the kid to a summer camp where there are lots of peers, or even placing the student out of district at their expense. And there's a tendency to think hard of hearing students aren't "deaf enough" to have problems like social isolation-as if we could understand what every kid's experience is going to be and what they're going to need based on their audiogram! There's not a lot of motivation to own up to a student's needs and problems, and the resulting solutions, if the school chooses to misinterpret them, dismiss them, or has no money to fix them. But that's always the nature of the beast, both socially and academically.

Schick: But it doesn't mean we drop our expectations. We need to raise awareness of social issues, and the connection between social learning and academic success. Every child is unique so we can't apply one formula that will work for all kids. Certainly, there are hearing kids who struggle socially, too, and deaf kids who may not be struggling, but we need to understand what part of that struggle is germane to the deaf experience for many deaf or hard of hearing kids. Schools need to acknowledge that the child's social life is really important-it's intrinsic to learning-not an external process. We need to understand all of this better, and create systems that operate from this foundational understanding.

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