I remember specific times when I was encouraged to read something easier or 'better' for me, but I knew that that wasn't something I wanted to do.
Justin Small
Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Justin Small

Justin SmallUnderstanding the literacy gap in deaf students

Research on the reading levels of deaf individuals consistently shows 18-year-old deaf students graduating high school with fourth- and fifth-grade reading levels. While there's ample research on literacy in deaf education focused on language barriers faced by deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, University of Minnesota Duluth Ed.D. student Justin Small is taking a different approach to understanding this gap in literacy. His innovative research explores whether teachers' implicit theories of intelligence unintentionally affect how deaf students learn and prevent them from reaching their learning potential.  

A strong advocate for the deaf community, Small draws from his experiences as a deaf individual in mainstream education in his research. Until twelfth grade, he was the only deaf child in school, and he had no interpreter until fifth grade. In school, Small was confronted with obstacles such as doubt and discouragement from teachers.

"I remember specific times when I was encouraged to read something easier or 'better' for me, but I knew that that wasn't something I wanted to do," he says. In middle school, his teacher brought his class to a library and told everyone to find a book to read. While other students read The Boxcar Children or Goosebumps, Small chose Crime and Punishment. "It was funny looking at the teacher's face," he says. "I didn't care, I wanted to read it."

Small's research applies Stanford University professor Carol Dweck's theories of implicit intelligence, which refers to whether individuals view intelligence as a fixed or malleable trait. People with a fixed mindset typically have a natural intelligence, but their fear of failure and view of intelligence as unchangeable stops them from continuously striving to learn. Individuals with a growth mindset use their knowledge to make further efforts to learn. Through dedication and hard work, they believe their intelligence can improve over time.     

Small attributes his love of reading and his desire to go beyond what's expected of him to having a growth mindset. "I'm not going to stick with the status quo," he says. "People with the growth mindset know they can do more. They seek out opportunities for more knowledge."

Small's conventional school experiences made him aware of how teachers' views of intelligence can impact students. He hopes to change the possible correlation between teachers' perceptions of intelligence and deaf students' success. Small's research to date is not an area of research that he's seen in the deaf education field. "Incremental theories of intelligence has become more prevalent in education, how teachers praise and interact with children," he says. "It's an evolving field, and I'm trying to contribute something that I have not yet seen applied to deaf education."

For his dissertation, he plans to survey teacher-candidates in deaf education using Dweck's Mindset test, which determines how people view intelligence. Using the results, he will examine the connection between teachers' perceptions of reading and how they teach deaf students to read. "What's curious to me is whether teachers and implicit theories of intelligence are impacting how they teach reading," he says, "if there's a correlation between teachers' own implicit theories of intelligence and the reading levels of students."

Small is wondering whether teachers themselves may unknowingly be barriers to deaf students' learning. He says that teachers with a fixed mindset might teach deaf students up to a certain level that they think is the highest level students can reach, instead of encouraging them to learn more. He hopes to make teachers aware of their theory of intelligence so they can better understand their impact on students and be more effective educators to deaf people.   

"Justin is a gifted articulate speaker," says Mary Ann Marchel, an associate professor within the UMD Department of Education. "He is poised to conduct groundbreaking research focused on unearthing critical aspects of the literacy gap that exists within the deaf community."

Now in his last semester of coursework, Small wants to teach and continue doing research after receiving his Ed.D. He's also interested in exploring the math gap within the deaf community. He hopes to teach language and early childhood education. Fascinated with early childhood language development, he enjoys observing the vocabulary growth in his two young sons, who he raises with his wife to communicate in both English and ASL.

Small wrote his thesis for his master's degree in counseling on language techniques used in therapy for deaf children. He then worked as a mental health therapist for adults, during which he noticed how language can affect deaf individuals' psychological well-being and ability to engage in mainstream society, and can prevent them from securing employment. With the goal of contributing research to enhance Deaf education, he decided to pursue his Ed.D. at the University of Minnesota Duluth in Education and Learning.

For the past two years, he has taught American Sign Language full-time in the UMD Deaf Studies minor program.  Recently, he was nominated for an award from a campus honor society called the Last Lecture Series. He gave a lecture about the power of language and play.  "It was an honor," he says.

Small remembers high school counselors telling him to focus on learning skilled trades instead of pursuing higher education at a university. They assumed that he would end up in a trade job, exemplifying the potentially harmful impacts that teachers with fixed mindsets might have on students.

It's safe to say that Small has proved those counselors wrong. "They weren't sure if I would succeed in college," he says. "Now, I'm in the doctorate program."

-Lyra Fontaine