‘It’s complicated’ – Preparing ToDs to effectively mediate languages, communities, cultures and discourses in deaf education.

An ecological perspective on deafness and learning.

At Leeds University we encourage teachers of the deaf to take an ecological approach to their work rather than to compartmentalise aspects of deafness and learning into the separate entities usually presented in the literature (audiology, language development, curriculum, policy). An ecological model of learning acknowledges the complex set of influences on human development and we find this a useful way to envisage the learning issues associated with deafness and for planning learning interventions.

This model derives from Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems framework which identifies five socially organized environmental systems which influence human development and learning (figure 1). This framework helps us to think about deaf learners and the contexts of their learning in a way which encompasses the contextual influences (of the home and the classroom and the wider environment and culture). This model also brings into play the established constructs in the research and discourses which have thus far guided teaching and assessment approaches in deaf education.

Figure 1. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems framework

Figure 1. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems framework

In the ecological systems the microsystem concerns the developing person in close and face-to-face ‘proximal’ interactions with those closest to them in their environment (usually home and school) such as close family and peers. The person’s own biology may be considered part of the microsystem (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). The mesosystem refers to the interaction across a person’s different environments or settings and the bi-directional influences between environments such the effect that the home environment can have on school experience. The exosystem brings contextual factors into play which, although may be external to the individual, will have an influence such as the wider social network at home, the parents’ work place or the religious community. The macrosystem develops the characteristics of the environment further to include factors which are more remote from the individual but which provide the infrastructure for the microsystem such as cultural constructs of education, culture or community. The microsystem is embedded within the macrosystem and so as the macrosystem evolves over time this will impact on the microsystem. Consideration of time takes us to the next dimension which is the chronosystem that recognizes that individuals of course grow and change and also that time passes historically and the world changes.

The use of the ecological model serves as a useful tool for thinking about deaf children’s learning and to consider the role of teachers of the deaf as mediators within and across these different layers of influence. The use of the term ‘mediator’ communicates the particular complexities of the ToD role within these ecologies of learning which requires them to span, bridge, link and connect these layers of influence.

At the level of the microsystem teachers of deaf engage on a daily basis in face-to-face communication with and teaching of deaf learners. In this role there are constant decisions to be made about language use and teaching approaches to ensure a match with the learning needs of the individual taking into account the impact of deafness and individual language competencies. The ToD thus mediates between the learner and the learning environment at the micro level of communication. At the level of the microsystem the teacher is also managing relationships between the individual learner, parents and other professionals.

In the mesosysytem layer we see ToDs as a central and instrumental link between all the proximal and more distal networks of the individual. The ToD mediates between the individual and their learning environment and links across different learning environments to ensure appropriate and successful learning experiences. This might involve working between an inclusive and special school; connecting professionals involved in the children’s education (such as the speech and language therapist and teaching assistant or interpreter) and ensuring partnership with parents at all these levels not forgetting the child’s voice in the decision making processes. The way in which the ToD makes these links at the mesosystem level has a significant impact on learning. At the level of the exosytem the ToD mediates between the child’s home culture and life out of school and all aspects of the learning environment. In the educational context this will include the wider school community as well as the policies and practices of the setting such as the approach to inclusion, the language and communication, specific curriculum areas of focus or intervention initiatives. The ToD mediates between these aspects of the exosystem but also within them and between the exosystem and the mesosystem, – always with the individual at the centre-, with the goal of maintaining the stability and effectiveness of the microsystem. This entails an engagement with whole school or service policy as well as understanding of the cultural and community expectations and experiences of the individual.

At the level of the macrosystem the ToD seems to navigate more than mediate. This is perhaps the layer of the system where ToDs have less control and less agency. At this level their own ideas and actions will be influenced by aspects of the macrosystem at the same time as they navigate this with the learner at the centre. At this level we are concerned with the cultural and social constructs within we operate and the political, educational and cultural discourses of our daily lives. At the most fundamental level it concerns our understanding of what education and learning is. Finally for ToDs the influence of the chronosystem for their mediating role cannot be over-emphasized. The rate of change in educational policy as well as advances in hearing technology and digital learning is constantly changing development goalposts, educational priorities and research directions. Each child will also be changing and growing and learning and moving onto different stages of development with different learning needs and priorities. Successful mediation of these different influences is essential for the closer and wider systems around the child to facilitate their development and learning.

This analysis reveals the complexities of the learning context and the extent of the mediating role of the ToD. Operating at all these levels involves particular challenges for teachers and requires certain competencies. Teachers need to be able to critically navigate the different layers of influence which impact on the individual with awareness of their own agency as mediators as well as participants at all levels. Operating across these levels needs a full understanding of the language and learning issues for deaf pupils, how these issues interact with the learning environment and an engagement with the educational, political, cultural and social discourses involved. This includes an interaction with the priorities and dialogue in deaf education research and active involvement in linking these with practice. Teachers can be supported to develop the confidence and competencies to work effectively across these levels through training and professional development programmes in the first instance and, beyond training, through the establishment of research practice partnerships which foster a critical engagement with the learning and teaching process.

Professional development and training.

One way to support ToDs to develop these skills is through the extension of our understanding of teacher (adult) learning for training and professional development routes. Theories of adult learning popularized in the 1980s place the accumulated experience of adults as central to the learning process. Experience alone is not enough however and in Kolb’s (1984) influential model of adult learning it is reflection on experience that enables us to move to generalization, abstraction and experimentation, i.e. for an actual change or transformation to take place. For adult learners these moments of ‘transformation’ (the ‘ah ah’ moment) typically occur when our lived experience of the world is challenged (Mezirow describes this dissonance as a ‘disorientating dilemma’ (1991, p. 197), where the reality that we trust or take for granted is disrupted. From this disjuncture we begin a new learning experience. This is an ongoing process as we continually reshape and redefine perceptions of the world and what they mean.

Within our training and preparation of teachers we can create certain conditions which foster this transformative learning. An effective way to do this is to use individual experience as a starting point to raise teachers their own awareness of their own experience and to think about why they experience as they do and how it informs their actions. In our training at Leeds and through our research activities we have learnt that where provision is made to encourage training ToDs to work together on common issues; experience different points of view; be exposed to contradiction, tensions or unknowns and be encouraged to innovate, re-imagine and re-envision their work they begin to describe what we might call ‘expansive’ learning (Swanwick et al., 2013). This can be defined as transformative and boundary crossing learning through which people and/or organizations work with new ideas to learn new forms of activity (Engeström, 2001). An overarching goal of training should therefore be to create expansive learning communities which can adapt to unknowns, contradictions and new contextual influences or demands to create new ways of looking at deafness and learning and imagine new ways of working.

Transactions between research and practice

A second way to support ToDs to realize this multilevel working is to develop more effective transactions between research and practice. The potential of action research is proposed here as collaborative means of joint working which effectively combines the different skills and expertise of researchers and practitioners. The University of Leedsteam has over the last few years worked with practitioners to explore the use of an action research model to investigate their questions about reading comprehension in the first instance (Carter & Swanwick, 2012). From this initial small group working an action research culture has developed in a number of schools and services as a means of trialing and evaluating whole school and individual interventions. Importantly, this work is practitioner-led and the role of the researchers is to sustain the momentum of the activities, hold the shape of the projects and facilitate national and international dissemination activities. This way of working with practitioners has developed further productive research-practice partnerships and has opened up dialogue both nationally and internationally about new ways of envisioning transactions between research and practice in deaf education (Swanwick, Kitchen & Clarke, 2013; Swanwick & Carter, 2013).

‘Its complicated’

In the article we have proposed the ecological model as a useful way of examining learning and deafness and analyzing the complexities of the ToD role. We suggest that recognition of these complexities creates opportunities for   new knowledge and new practices which actually change the learning context or the learning ecology for deaf children The model of expansive learning that we propose assumes everyone is learning (the pupils, the researchers and the practitioners) and that this ‘multivoicedness’ arising from diverse perspectives and histories leads new conceptualizations and transformative thinking. The first conference on ‘Teaching Deaf Learners in Amsterdam March 2014 and the landmark volume of conference chapters to follow illustrates that we are poised to do this as we look again, and globally, at the learners and the teachers in deaf education and ask not what we do but imagine what we could do.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Carter, A. & Swanwick, R. (2012). Action research makes a difference: British Association of Teachers of the Deaf Magazine, March edition, 40- 41

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-15

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as a source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. : Prentice-Hall.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning.Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Swanwick, R. & Carter, A. (2013) Practitioners making a difference. British Association of Teachers of the Deaf Magazine, December edition, 6-7.

Swanwick, R., Kitchen, R. and Clarke, P. (2013) A design-based approach for research into deaf children’s reading comprehension Hillary Place Papers 1(1)http://hpp.education.leeds.ac.uk/

Swanwick, R., Kitchen, R., Jarvis, J., McCracken, W., O’Neil, R., & Powers, S. (2013). Following Alice: theories of critical thinking and reflective practice in action at postgraduate level. Teaching in Higher Education, 19 (2), 1-14.