Big Turnout for Nordplus Seminar on Sustainable Integration Projects

An impressive number of successful Nordplus projects with a focus on integration were presented when Nordplus hosted a virtual integration seminar. This initiative is full of inspiration for future projects across the Nordic and Baltic countries.

By Joan Rask, journalist

The participants have taken a stand against poor integration, and they are eager to do more and to engage both students and teachers in the work to create equal opportunities for learning - also for citizens whose native language is neither Nordic or Baltic. This was a common focus across all the presentations when Nordplus hosted an online seminar on integration in April 2021. More than 60 people joined the presentations online and, with Nichole Leigh Mosty as their host, were guided through the tightly packed programme. She is bilingual herself, born and raised in the US and emigrated to Iceland when she was young. Today she is the director of the national Multicultural and Information Centre in Iceland. 

“Teaching became the key to my own integration and my success in Iceland. I am very thankful and honoured to be here today and to have this opportunity to cooperate with Nordplus,” says Nichole Leigh Mosty.

The organisers had made sure to include projects and networks that would give the participants experiences reaching far beyond the purely professional - this specifically meant cultural encounters across ages, nationalities and professions.

The presentations were driven by great personal commitment. All the participants wish to bring about greater integration, gain more insight into research in the field, acquire more knowledge on methods and tools and exchange experiences with like-minded teachers from other Nordic and Baltic countries.

SPICA - a truly Nordic network

Åsmund Aamaas is Norwegian and lead coordinator at the SPICA network, which arranges intensive courses every year for Nordic students who wish to become teachers as part of the Nordplus programme “Higher Education”. The students earn 5 ECTS points and both the students and their teachers take part in cultural mobility projects. The partnership has existed since 2006 and they often work across five different time zones. All the Nordic countries, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, are represented.

“More than 400 students and teachers have been directly involved in SPICA activities and we are very grateful for the opportunities that this partnership has given us,” says Åsmind Asmaas.

Johanna Lampinen is from the University of Oulu and is a teacher herself.

Video about the Spica network. Visit to Greenland 2019

“One of the most important things is of course the opportunity for greater cultural mobility and the possibility of going on an exchange to another university in a Nordic country. But it is also important that Nordic teachers can share the latest research. It gives us an opportunity to develop new teaching methods,” she explains.

A main component of any SPICA course is two preliminary online sessions. The two speakers explain how this ensures the students know each other in advance and that they have enough knowledge about the country and the area they are supposed to visit. When students and teachers meet physically the work can begin straight away - both the academic and the cultural work. Everybody feels like they know each other - just about enough to prepare them to be open and ready to collaborate.

SPICA has kept up with the times and its main focus is now on sustainability, diversity, democracy and citizenship in education. Both Åsmund Aamaas and Johanna Lampinen highlight the importance of research-based education.

“This network makes it possible to discuss teaching and to ensure that the focus is on what future teachers need to know,” says Åsmund Aamaas.

Integration and education go hand in hand

Mikael Olafson is a researcher from Stockholm University and he presented research that shows how teachers, no matter what grade they teach at, can best work with students with multicultural backgrounds.

“We should not dilute our teaching. We need to challenge students and we need to organise our teaching so that the bilingual students have the best possible opportunities to learn,” says Mikael Olafson.

It is crucial that Swedish teachers understand this, he explains. In Sweden, between 26-29 percent of all students are born in a foreign country or to parents who were born in a foreign country.

“This means that all schools and all teachers in Sweden will encounter students whose native language is not Swedish and therefore all teachers need to know how to learn a new language - but most importantly how to learn ‘in’ a new language,” says Mikael Olafson.

The bilingual students will learn nothing if the teachers do not understand this. This is how bluntly the Swedish researcher puts it.

He highlights three main parameters: interpersonal relationships, effective teaching methods and multicultural teaching environments.

“Interpersonal relationships are especially important for the group whose culture is different from the dominant culture in the school. The students will invest much more in their schooling if their identity is valued and appreciated and if their identity is validated,” Mikael Olafson says.

Research shows that a good relationship between teacher and student can make up for the disadvantages that bilingual students can have socially, economically and culturally. He also has some clear recommendations when it comes to teaching strategies and multicultural teaching environments, since it will not work to treat all students the same. The bilingual students have to be allowed to reflect on what they have learnt in their native language. Many have to learn both the syllabus and a whole new language at the same time as they, with their families, are trying to find their footing in a new culture.

Hard to get earlier education acknowledged

The participants were also introduced to “The Global School”, which is a Swedish sister programme to Nordplus, Atlas and Erasmus.

The goal is to prepare the Swedish educational system to teach and take responsibility for the development of teaching for all grades in a multicultural society. Here, teachers, educators and pedagogues in higher education, as well as in municipalities, can benefit, free of charge, from the centre’s knowledge and research and can apply for funding for concrete projects on sustainable teaching and intercultural research.

Amela Fific is regional manager for The Swedish Council of Higher Education and in charge of “The Global School”, and she is also a high school teacher. She has, amongst other things, worked in adult education for the UN in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Sustainability is a common theme in all the work but most important to the centre is of course the fourth UN global goal: to ensure quality education for all.

“We give our students insight into knowledge, methods and different types of teaching materials so that they can teach their students about the possibilities for active, global citizenship,” she explains.

One of the biggest challenges is that not enough attention is paid to the educational background of refugees when they enter the Swedish education system.

“The courses and the processes are too long and too standardised. As a consequence, many refugees lose their motivation,” says Amela Fific.

But it can be done. In Gothenburg, a partnership between all the parties involved resulted in jobs at the Volvo factory for many of the refugees. The only reason this worked was because the municipality and everyone involved worked together, and because the educational backgrounds and experiences of the refugees were taken into consideration. Some were, for example, highly skilled in maths. This is exactly the kind of scenario Amela Fific wants to introduce the other participants to when Nordplus hosts an integration seminar in Tallinn in autumn  2021.

Networking: Innovation and integration

The participants were also introduced to the innovation project “Extended Education, After-school Programs and Leisure Pedagogics in Scandinavia and the Baltics”. Here the different partners collaborate both across the different countries and also across different levels of education; here universities and colleges are equal partners.

The project was presented by Rakel Blöndal Sveinsdóttir Toubro, associate professor at University College Absalon. She is Icelandic and has lived and worked in Denmark for so long that she almost can’t tell what language she is most confident in.

The network is relatively new, established in 2016, and with help from funding from Nordplus it has been possible to establish strong exchange programmes and networking meetings since 2017.

“The funding from Nordplus has made it possible for us to plan networking meetings in the autumn where we meet in person to plan the upcoming intensive courses. We always try to meet in different countries so that we can see each other’s facilities, do field studies and visit institutions, etc.,” Rakel Blöndal Sveinsdöttur Toubro explains.

Participants at the Nordplus project "Extended Education - After School Programs and Leisure Pedagogics in Scandinavia and the Baltics. Photo: Rakel Blöndal Sveinsdíttur Toubro, Professionshøjskolen Absalon

She calls attention to one of the biggest advantages of the network, which is the possibility to share knowledge and experiences across degrees and education, teaching methods, courses and cultural perspectives. One of the areas discussed the most is the differences in cultural and ethical perspectives that appear when students and teachers meet together. And it looks like these meetings are going well since the students are very happy with the week of networking each year.

“Our main aim is to teach the students about immigration, permits, work opportunities and a variety of cultures - and of course to give them a better understanding of immigrants and how they got here, as well as the fact that different countries do these things differently,” she says.

The differences between the participants also become clear when it comes to the approaches to and opinions on leisure-time education and pedagogy, which vary a lot between Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Lithuania.

“One of the students told us she was embarrassed to admit that previously she was not very fond of immigrants, but that through the new knowledge and perspectives she gained during the course she was able to see things from the perspective of the immigrants - and now she does not have a problem with immigrants,” Rakel Blöndal Sveinsdöttir explains.

Some of the participants at the seminar

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