Education: Avenue into society for immigrant families

“Don’t ask students to leave their identity at the schoolhouse door,” insisted Professor Jim Cummins, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, at a conference on educating students with an immigrant background attended by researchers, policymakers and teachers from around the Nordic region.

Teachers have the power to create spaces for learning that promote students’ academic success and personal development. This is the point of departure for the project entitled Learning spaces for inclusion and social justice: Success stories from immigrant students and school communities in four Nordic countries, which held its concluding conference in Reykjavik on 15–17 October 2015.

The project’s researchers admit that they got tired of the negative focus on teaching students with an immigrant background, so they decided to concentrate on the positive stories from schools with a successful track record in this area. Pre-schools, primary schools and upper secondary schools are included in the studies.

Pre-school – an avenue into society

“Pre-schools are an intrinsic part of the Nordic welfare state,” said Anette Hellman, Senior Lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, when she and her Nordic colleagues presented the results from the project’s research on pre-schools and early care facilities. The researchers see that pre-schools clearly have great potential to serve as an avenue into society at large for children with an immigrant background, and for their families as well.

“The children might think they are just playing, but we as professionals know what we are teaching,” explained one of the pre-school teachers interviewed for the project. In order to develop effective learning spaces, it is critical to incorporate this knowledge into the institutions at a fundamental level, including across age groups, and to avoid becoming dependent on individual visionary teachers.

“The children might think they are just playing, but we as professionals know what we are teaching”

The researchers had long discussions underway about the concepts that form the backdrop for their research project, and these same conceptual challenges were also raised several times during the conference: Who are the “immigrants”? What constitutes success? And what is the meaning of “learning spaces”?

Bilingualism – a cost or resource?

Several participants also brought up native language instruction as a topic of discussion. On the one hand, the high cost of this type of instruction is often seen as a problem, and although several of the Nordic countries have legally established children’s rights in this area, in reality it is not always given priority. Towards the end of the first day of the conference, several of the panellists helped to look at this discussion from the reverse angle.

“Active bilingualism is important. Everyone seems to agree about that,” said Guðni Olgeirsson from the Icelandic ministry of culture and education. “It’s expensive to provide native language instruction, but my personal view is that it’s very expensive not to do it.”

Anne Tingelstad Wøien, a representative of the Norwegian Storting, agreed. “We encourage our own native students to learn another language, but this doesn’t seem to be the case for pupils with a minority background,” she pointed out. “Should we continue to talk about integration or should we talk about the fact we are part of a globalised world where we must utilise the diverse resources possessed by all the people who live in the Nordic countries?”

“That changes the conversation,” continued one of the conference’s main speakers, Professor Emeritus Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto. “Everyone agrees that we should teach the whole child. How can we then imply that they leave their culture and native language at the front door? We must promote attitudes that enhance how pupils with a minority background perceive themselves so that they have a better chance of viewing their bilingualism as an asset and something they want to pursue.”

Research as a basis for policy?

“They say that research results are too inconsistent to guide policy. Isn’t there anything we can learn from research?” challenged the discussion leader, Professor Lars Kulbrandstad of Hedmark University College and one of the team leaders in the Learning Spaces project. The researchers were given a clear message to play a more active role in the public debate.

“It’s always the same researchers who take advantage of the media,” said Anne Tingelstad Wøien. “I would like to encourage more researchers to become more visible in the media so their ideas can have an impact,” she said.


Photo left to right: Hanna Ragnarsdóttir, Lars Kulbrandstad, Anne Tingelstad Wøien, Ozan Yanar, Guðni Olgeirsson, Kriselle S. Cagatin and Jim Cummins.

Text and photo: Lisa H. Ekli
Translation: Connie Stultz/Carol B. Eckmann