Changes in Teacher Education Curriculum in Sweden

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The following was contributed by Shawn Mahshie at 5 Dec 1995, and posted to DEAF-L by earbear. Shawn is the author of "Educating Deaf Children Bilingually."

It is with some concern that putting the following information over the Internet could get translated into a rumor. I also am short on time and was not able to proofread this, so please excuse its roughness.

Before getting into specifics about the innovations I saw and went to study, I will tell you some overall indications that bilingual educaction of deaf children in Sweden and Denmark is still alive and well.

In Sweden, there have been MAJOR changes in the teacher training curriculum, which were first implemented last year. These changes are a result of the positive response to educating deaf children bilingually, and represent a significant and government-supported change in teacher education.

Teachers of the deaf in training now follow a course that is much like teachers of other students, acknowledging that -- given the bilingual nature of the teaching (which is not unusual in these countries) -- deaf students really need much the same kind of education as other students. In other words, there is a strong focus on content. In addition, these students receive training in aspects of bilingual teaching, of teaching Swedish as a second language, and in sign language linguistics. Because fluency in the language is also a given for bilingual teachers, candidates to the program are also required to have a high level of fluency upon entry. Some of their classes are taught by deaf teachers with no interpreters. IN other words, they do not enter the program and then start learning more about sign language and deaf people. (This starts at a B.A. level). Other courses are taken with other students who are studying to become teachers, taught by teachers from other programs, with an interpreter.

Additionally, curricula for teaching sign language as a subject to deaf students (k-12) is being upgraded for publication. A curriculum to guide teachers in presenting Swedish as a second language was already completed.

Teachers who are currently working in the system have mostly completed their one semester of complete release time to study sign language (started in 1990--20 teachers a semester from the 5 schools for the deaf were released to study sign language full time).

I think what people here cannnot fathom is the complete difference in attitude about sign language and the lack of confusion or discussion about signed codes as an attempt to represent the majority language. Yes, there is discussion and continued looking at how best to support interactive use of the majority language (more implementation of this in Denmark than in Sweden), but this discussion is always about kids who already have a strong first language in Sign Language, and about how best to build on their literacy and speech skills in using the majority language in contexts that support greater internal competence. I do not see discussion of signed codes as a model for the development of a first language, as there is such a clear understanding of the need for a culture of language-users to support a natural language. Yes, you will see teachers talking and signing at the same time, especially in older grades, but the language goal for them is still the sign language of the deaf and the mixture is a natural outgrowth of langauge contact--not an attempt to teach Swedish.

This acceptance and understanding of cultures and languages among all citizens represents a very different consciousness than we see here. SO to me, the contrast, even with the usual problems in implementation since the community of language users is so small, is still like night and day from here. People are not so confused about what it means to a human being to posses a very strong first language and cognitive/social basis for further learning, including the learning of second and third languages. Everyone in these countries learns 2-3 languages, and they often become fluent, even though they don't start till age 9. So there is also some patience about letting children develop a strong first language if they need the time before forcing the second language.

Within that context, they are having a big challenge from the cochlear implant movement. Still different than here, though. There are only 2 doctors in Sweden who do implants, and they recommmend that the family and child first learn sign language and become well-acquianted with deaf people and support from other parents before they proceed. The danger in that is that some of the audiologists are promoting a bilingual--sign language plus Swedish through implants--panacea. Which is it not. Careful study of the reserach shows that when separated out from post-lingually deafened children, the results for pre-lingually deaf implanted children show minute gains in small aspects of production and perception, but no evidence of intelligible speech or increase in mean length of utterance that is greater than that seen through maturation and training. Two Swedish reserachers have just surveyed the literature and found--as did Harlan Lane in his recent letter in the Journal of Otolarygology--that claims about implants in pre-lingually deaf children are very misleading. What is different there is that I see a greater level of outrage and involvement in fighting this threat among teachers, parents, and especially the deaf association. There is no question among those involved with teaching deaf children that they don't want cochlear implants to result in a denial of the linguistic rights of deaf children. Again, a sign to me that support for sign language is alive and well among those who have an opportunity to observe children growing up well-adjusted and increasingly more literate.

I will, as I did in the book, re-state that implementation, attitudes, and access vary a great deal depending on where people are in the country, etc.

But not nearly as much as in the U.S., because there is such strong support for bringing deaf children together, and because there are more schools for deaf chidlren within a smaller geographical radius, so children either live at home or are sent home every weekend, which keeps parents invovled, in touch, and knowing sign language to converse with their child. Compared to the problems we see here isolating deaf chidlren and their parents away from the kind of support and language they need to truly be together, away from the theoretical framework that helps them support early emerging literacy, and away from peers and supportive models, the kinds of problems they face seem minimal to me. Attitude and commitment to supporting both the families and the language rights of each child are, even in the settings that lack some important attributes, still very aware and very "humane," in my opinion.

The Swedish educational materials center has produced a new book in English about process writing and process signing, which I think is excellent. It is also accompanied by a video. This insight, into how to develop the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency and literacy levels in deaf children's first language is consistent with all the bilingual reserach (the highest achieving students are those who had their first langauge supported throughout their education and developed literacy in their first language as well as their second--in fact these children score higher levels in high school than monolingual children). This approach to teaching very young children to compose on video and do school assignments and creative "writing" in sign language, supports an easy switch to process writing (like writers workshops) in written Swedish and later English. I don't even see discussion of this methodology in the U.S., yet they have been using it long enough and with so much success that the book written by these two teachers was translated into English. Anyone who saw or talked with the Swedish presenters at the WFD conference in Vienna knows what I am talking about. They are REALLY state-of-the-art. They said they had hundreds of people at their booth every day desperately picking their brains about how to incorporate this methodology into their countries.

I spent almost a week in August meeting with the woman who developed "Adam's Bok," the text, video, and teachers' manual originally designed for introducing written Swedish to deaf first graders, which has been widely used by teachers of students of all ages throughout the country & is now being translated for use in Denmark. This teacher, Gunilla Christersson, has continued to work with the national curriculum development organization to develop a similar, but even more innovative, reading text for older students, called, "Sunday's Video." She worked for two years with a class of high school deaf students to get at the very heart of the kinds of problems and challenges they deal with and to have them compose (in sign language) and produce a remarkable video that consists of the weekly "diaries" of a teenage boy and girl (deaf). Then the text for development of reading was back-translated from the video and constitutes very high-interest reading matter. They are now producing the teachers' manual to accompany this on video disk--i.e. , the teacher can--on her computer--view segments of the video and the text and get hints about teaching reading and grammatical concepts from this discussion of how to get meaning from the text.

The materials catalog is now full of great materials--a set of poems and discussion of them for high school literature classes (sign language poetry, that is), as well as sign games for very young children, etc. etc.

They also bought a large number of copies of my book because they get so many requests for information in English from foriegn visitors, and are translating my book into Swedish now, because they feel it not only clearly documents what they are doing, but adds the theoretical dicsucssion which is based on much American reserach.

Seems to me that, within the challenges, ignorance, and financial challenges we all face, bilingual education has gained both official and experiential acceptance and continues to grow in these counties.

Shawn (who hopes that this clears up any misconceptions about the health of the bi-bi approach in Sweden).

Last update date: 
2005 Nov 30