Group work and the deaf, gifted learner

Maybe if Lei could work with people more like her, group work would go better.
Maybe if Lei could work with people more like her, group work would go better.

In the multi-purpose room all the fifth grade families are sitting at lunch tables, listening to a presentation that explains about the Big Group Project our kids are about to start working on. I am grumbling under my breath.

Group work is my daughter’s nemesis. This is one of the areas where the challenges of being deaf and gifted complicate each other so much that two plus two seem to equal five.

My daughter attends an International Baccalaureate (IB) school. Her school is great in a lot of ways – organic food, inquiry driven learning, top-notch IEP team – but all the emphasis on group work puts her right up against one of her biggest weaknesses almost every day.

As a young hard-of-hearing child, Lei didn’t passively absorb conversational skills like turn-taking and summarizing like hearing kids do. In conversations, especially in groups, she does what many hard-of-hearing people do: dominate. That way she knows what the topic is and doesn’t get lost.

And like many deaf and hard-of-hearing kids, she has some trouble understanding people. She doesn’t consistently get why people do what they do, what feelings might be behind their actions. I fantasize about sending her to acting school where she can ask herself, day in and day out, “What is that character’s motivation?”

Lei is quick to solve academic problems in her head, but has little patience with kids who aren’t. So here’s a kid with delayed social and conversational skills, a fantastic vocabulary, but can’t hear as well as the other kids. She’s lightning fast with the academics and frequently stumped by other people’s feelings.

During group work she tends to take over, tell everyone the plan of attack, then sit mystified while the other kids get mad at her for not letting them participate. Kind of a drag.

Naturally, during this upcoming Big Group Project, she will be graded largely on her ability to work in a group.

So I figured instead of just shaking my fist at the sky, I would do something constructive. On a recent weekend morning, as I lay in bed with the flu, I did a bit of googling. Here’s what I came up with:

Ten Things Teachers Need to Know About Gifted Students

5. They need opportunities to be with other students like them.

There is a strange notion that gifted students should be doled out like apples, one per teacher. This is counter to what research states about how gifted students learn. Gifted students need time to be with their same-ability peers. In fact, the typical approach to cooperative learning (mixed-ability groups of 3-5 students) often does an injustice to gifted students. An extensive meta-analysis on ability grouping conducted by Karen Rogers (1998) has revealed that:

  • Advanced students benefit from being grouped together.
  • Like-ability groups are academically beneficial to all students when compared to mixed-ability groups.
  • Pairing a low-ability student with a high-ability student academically benefits the low-ability student only.
  • Grouping of any sort without curricular modification does not produce academic gains.

Gifted Students Talk About Cooperative Learning

Rather than evoking the positive attitudes and appropriate social skill behaviors enumerated by the Johnsons, cooperative learning in heterogeneous groups appears to promote some arrogance, a lack of trust in classmates (to do the work to the standards of excellence gifted students feel are necessary), a tendency to take over the group rather than to provide shared leadership, and a lack of knowledge about how to work with other students (how to explain material to others so they will understand).

2e Students: Who They Are and What They Need

The needs of 2e students can be met through appropriate identification and an individualized approach to education. However, the classroom teacher must have support from both gifted educators and special educators to implement effective strategies. The best results are achieved where there is collaboration between the classroom teacher, gifted educator, special educator, parents, and the student.

Programming for 2e students must include strategies to:

  • Nurture the student’s strengths and interests
  • Foster their social/emotional development
  • Enhance their capacity to cope with mixed abilities
  • Identify learning gaps and provide explicit, remediative instruction
  • Support the development of compensatory strategies (Reis & McCoach, 2000, and Smutny, 2001).

Deaf Tec: Using Cooperative Learning Groups

Deaf Tec: Assigning Group Projects

We suggest you mix deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing students when:

  • Your goal is for students to learn about teamwork (as well as to solve a problem or complete a task). If so, there are benefits to having deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing students work together (even without an interpreter or captionist), because learning how to communicate with one another and function effectively as a team will teach all students about diversity and teamwork.
  • You want to create teams with a balance of skills and perspectives.
  •  We suggest that if your goal is to solve a problem quickly and efficiently then it is probably important to set up groups in ways that promote clear communication (e.g. have deaf students together or request sufficient numbers of interpreters or captionists in advance to be sure you can have one in each group).

Crossing the Communication Barrier: FacilitatingCommunication in Mixed Groupsof Deaf and Hearing Students

All students thought the whiteboard helped them learn the material. However, the hearing students were more varied in terms of how much it helped (Figure 1c). Additional examination of the data (not shown in the Figure 1) revealed that students who identifi ed themselves as hard of hearing on the survey were more positive about the intervention than those who identi- fi ed themselves as deaf with respect to communication and participation. Most students (75% of both hearing and deaf/hard of hearing) were willing to try this strategy again; the remainder indicated that they might be willing to try again (Figure 1d).

Update: Since I wrote this, Lei told me she feels she is getting better at group work. Her last group project was more harmonious and resulted in friendlier ongoing actions with the other members of her group. I’m glad she is working hard on improving in this area, and I praised her effort. I do think her improved hearing using one cochlear implant has made a difference as well.


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