Concept Development and Experiential Learning

A teacher responds to a student who shows her the dough stuck to his hands by signing
A teacher responds to a student who shows her the dough stuck to his hands by signing “dirty hands”.

Children who are deaf-blind, particularly those who are deaf-blind from birth, typically have significant difficulty developing concepts. Rather than learning about concepts incidentally as a result of continual exposure to auditory and visual information as most children do, they require the teaching of concepts to be a significant part of their educational programs.

Concept Development

National Center on Deaf-Blindness

Experiential Learning

In our earliest stages of development, all humans learn through the experiences we have with the people, places and things in our world. At first our world is very near and simple; we are mostly aware of our own bodies and feelings of hunger, thirst, safety, fear, and the very near things we can access through our senses. As we develop our senses and our ability to move about in the world, these concepts enlarge and are added to include things like the concept of mom, dad, doggie, bottle, cookie, etc.  Our initial concept of some words like “mom” or “dad” might include all women or all men at first. In the same way “doggie” might mean anything that has four legs, fur and a tail.

Concept development begins early and continues throughout our life as our knowledge and experiences grow. For most people who are sighted and hearing we learn our concepts through what we see and hear at some point. If we are deaf it may be through sight primarily. A child who is deafblind or visually impaired may have little or no access to information provide through vision or hearing. Their experiences with the world are largely through the senses of taste, touch, smell and proprioception. It only makes sense that their concepts may differ greatly from someone who can see and hear. 

In helping children who are deafblind or visually and multiply impaired from an early age, we must ground our instruction in experiential learning. This means instruction needs to be very hands-on and immersive for the child. As the Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.”

Concrete and Abstract Concepts

Row of green apples alternating with oranges.
Row of green apples alternating with oranges. Apples and Oranges
by MicroAssist

Some concepts are easy to teach because they can be tasted, touched, smelled or physically manipulated and explored. For example, I can give you an apple and an orange and you can tell the difference pretty easily. They each have distinct features that help you know one from the other.  It becomes harder to explain how a MacIntosh, Gala, Honey Crisp, and Granny Smith apples are all called apples, and for most of us we expand our understanding of the concept of “apple” through experiences we have eating different varieties of apples. These types of concepts are very concrete. 

Other concepts are not so easy to teach if your student does not have vision and hearing. For example, air, wind, sky, mountain, airplane. We can teach a bit about the wind, but only through experiencing the feel of the wind do we come to understand. We can go inside an airplane, but without vision do we really understand that the airplane travels through the sky and has wings, engines, seats, bathrooms, etc.? Concepts like these and others (e.g. colors) are more abstract.

Incidental Learning

A teacher of students who are deafblind pulls the top out of a pumpkin he is carving with his student while the student looks on.
A teacher of students who are deafblind pulls the top out of a pumpkin he is carving with his student while the student looks on.

For most children who are deafblind or visually and multiply impaired, concept development occurs best when the adults supporting the child take advantage of teaching concepts in the natural context. For example, going outside every day the child may feel a breeze, but the day when the wind is strong as a storm approaches helps the child understand “wind” in a new way. It gets his attention. 

So much of instruction for these students requires us to take advantage of what catches the child’s attention in the moment. We do provide instructional activities of an experiential nature daily, but we must also take advantage of incidental learning or learning in the moment. Teaching emotions is an example of when it becomes easier to teach sad, angry, happy, silly, when the child is experiencing that emotion.

Does the Child Really Have the Concept?

A photo of the night sky with a 5-point star drawn on it.
A photo of the night sky with a 5-point star drawn on it.

It is very important to continually check with the child to make sure his or her concept of something is correct. Here is an example. A student, who was very bright and articulate, talked knowledgeably about stars, planets, and other astronomical terms. However, after using his very limited vision to view a star through a telescope, he questioned what he was seeing. His concepts of stars were objects had five points. His concept of stars was attached to a shape he had learned, but lacked an understanding of what an actual star was.

Part of quality instruction for students who are deafblind or visually impaired, means regular checks on the child’s conceptual understanding of words used during instruction. This can become very critical, especially at higher levels of learning, when the individual’s understanding has to be drawn from print, braille, audio or video materials.