Incidental Learning & The Deaf Child

To fully comprehend the crucial need for access to incidental learning,one must investigate the learning environment of the hearing child apart from the time spent in formal schooling.


Incidental learning might be defined as what a person learns through informal communicative interactions with others in public and educational settings. For children who can hear, incidental learning constitutes a major portion of their social development and world knowledge. However, for the deaf child, even though surrounded by this type of learning, it is often not accessible.

There is extreme naivety on the part of parents and many school administrators and teachers concerning the educational problems linked to communication access that is often denied to children who are deaf. The absence of access to incidental learning may well precipitate the continuing struggle that the deaf child encounters academically.

Accepting the fact that the hearing child receives the bulk of his educational, informational, and learning experience outside of the classroom, this conclusion is not valid for the deaf child who does not hear or only receives partial information through impartial hearing, unless a number of vital conditions are met, understood, and planned for. It is evident that incidental learning is far more important than is realized by many people, including the architects
of federal laws that call for an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In fact, the lack of any degree of focus on the out-of-the-classroom environment may be the missing link in deaf education.

To fully comprehend the crucial need for access to incidental learning, one must investigate the learning environment of the hearing child apart from the time spent in formal schooling. The child who can hear reaches a fairly sophisticated understanding of English syntax, use of idioms, and a full blown vocabulary before they ever set enter a school or formal classroom. During these early pre-kindergarten years the hearing child begins to understand counting, elements of set theory, and other mathematical concepts. They learn a great deal of history and geography from television, radio, and peer and adult conversations. They internalize facts and understandings about social codes and attitudes, health habits, and rules of games. Hearing children, provided there is adequate communication, tend to learn more by example than by precept, more from the world as it is than through admonition, lecturing, or demonstration. In short, they have access to this information because they can hear.

The hearing child’s total education is readily accessible 24/7. Innumerable teachers, such as the mass media, the home, the street, novels and other literature, self-instructional materials, and what he/she learns from their peer group influence it. Hearing children are able to use their language foundation that is fortified with incidental learning opportunities to expand their education and to extend their learning horizons both in and out of school. They are able to expand their worldview and knowledge. It is, after all, the community that performs the major role of education, not the schools.

For the deaf or hard of hearing child, one will logically ask, “Where is the community?” Where and how is this vital incidental language and access provided? Sadly, the community is often a physical presence, but a mental blankness. Deafness is invisible, so people rarely see beyond the surface. This is where parents, administrators, and teachers often demonstrate their naivety.

It is instructive for the parent, school administrator, and teachers to question the accessibility of the deaf child to incidental learning that occurs every day within the public school classroom. Does the deaf child have access to the language of incidental learning that occurs at the library or media center, during recess, at lunchtime, during formal classes, independent artwork and laboratory classes, after-school activities such as intramurals and varsity athletics, student body government functions and meetings, in extracurricular clubs such as debate, foreign languages, drama, chess, etc.? Far too often, the child is a wallflower, a member of the crowd, present and yet absent, a child with latent leadership abilities undeveloped and left dormant.

The opportunities for the hearing child to acquire knowledge and expand their world thorough access to incidental learning are rampant. For the deaf child in public school settings, this is often not the case. Even though federal laws have been enacted to provide a least restrictive environment and an appropriate education, the implementation of these laws have often not addressed incidental learning. Deaf children are often unable to access incidental learning when they cannot do the following:
• Hear the teacher
• Hear their classmates in front of, behind, and all around them
• Hear and participate in class discussions
• Hear the educational film presented in class
• Hear the principal over the public address system
• Hear the visiting speaker invited to class
• Hear the guide on a field trip
• Hear the peer interactions happening between classes
• Hear the friendly exchanges during recess
• Hear the news and gossip that happens at lunchtime
• Hear the countless happenings that occur as if by osmosis that others are absorbing

Certainly, a partial solution to the deaf child’s dilemma of acquiring incidental learning is a family that has opted to use visual communication so that the child will have better access to language and will be able to better make sense of their community/environment. Another solution is to provide the deaf child with an educational environment that offers a variety of peer contacts and adults who know and use appropriate communication modes, including use in and out of class of captioned films, videophones, and other visual technological advancements. While these positives will not cover the full range of missing elements in the access of incidental learning, they will go a long way in assisting the deaf child during his/her early, crucial years to build the foundations upon which he/she can further their education and use it as a springboard to move confidently into the greater world beyond childhood. Perhaps the most important solution is for the parents, administrators, and teachers is to understand the simple fact that the deaf child does not hear, and the problems outlined above can be remediated by assuring that the child’s educational placement be in a residential school or a day-class program where the child can experience easy and accessible communication that naturally embraces access to incidental learning.

If parents opt to not choose a residential program or a day-class program for their child’s education and instead choose a mainstreamed or self-contained program in a public hearing school, the following suggestions might be considered to assure access to incidental learning;

The research suggests that teachers and administrators in educational settings should understand the significance of incidental learning. Teachers should find ways to integrate incidental learning with structured learning, exposing deaf and hard of hearing students to as much of the incidental learning that hearing students are able to access. A good example would be to allocate classroom time for discussions on informal topics, such as where students like to socialize and why, favorite books, or what happened at the dinner table last night. Teachers can share information of their own as well, and then relate it to what they are teaching in their formal classroom settings.

The teachers can also set up a role play situation where hearing students portray a deaf or hard of hearing student in a crowd of hearing students or vice versa with the goal being to help each student understand the other’s perspective. Students, teacher, and other school staff should see that making an effort to include deaf or hard of hearing students in informal interactions will make a difference.

Incidental learning is a crucial part of the development of social skills, cognitive skills, and self esteem. Without it, deaf and hard of hearing students are potentially missing out on something as simple as daily gossip or as imperative as having access to social norms or educational topics that could impact their overall social and academic development. When it comes to incidental learning, the key is access.

J. Freeman King, Ed.D. is Professor, Deaf Education, at Utah State University.