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The key to an equal society lies in the classroom

Photo: Wavebreak Media Ltd/Bigstock.

Being respected for who you are already as a child lays the foundation for the individual’s self-perception. This is why our educators need to be equipped with tools that account for cultural and linguistic diversity in the classrooms. This is what Siv Björklund, professor of immersion and multilingualism at Åbo Akademi University, says.

“In how many languages can you list different animal species?”

Laura Olesen, class teacher at Vaasa Teacher Training School, asked her students this question and received answers in 36 different languages. In her class, there are students with very different backgrounds: some monolingual Swedish speakers, others with parents who speak different native languages but English between themselves, and some students who know one or more languages in addition to Swedish. Olesen’s own area of interest is multilingualism, and she plans to do her doctorate on the subject in the future. That is why she is happy to have a class where many languages are spoken.

“I think that all of us in Finland are multilingual, and I as see it, the whole class can benefit from the students getting to take part in other cultures. In our classroom, we often talk about never assuming that everyone does things like you do; instead, I encourage students to listen to how others act in different situations. For example, at Christmastime. Some decorate and light Advent candles, but what do the rest do? What do students know about each other’s cultures, what have they learned? I hope that it will be a given that the students are curious about their surroundings, not judgemental,” says Olesen.

Laura Olesen standing in the schoolyard.
In Laura Olesen’s classroom you can hear, for example, Hindi, French, English, and Finnish. Photo: Catrin Sandvik.

Her class is by no means an exception today—Finnish classrooms have become multicultural. This means that our pedagogical methods need to be developed accordingly, and for that reason, there is the EU project Listiac, which is led by Siv Björklund, professor of immersion and multilingualism at Åbo Akademi University.

“We have growing linguistic and cultural diversity in Finland, something we need to take into account in everything from early childhood education to adult education. The proportion of people who speak languages other than Finnish and Swedish is constantly growing. A particularly large increase came with the refugee wave in 2015, but we also have groups that speak foreign languages who come to our country in other ways, through, for example, labour migration,” says Siv Björklund.

Listiac, or Linguistically Sensitive Teaching in All Classrooms, aims to make teachers, both prospective and active, more language-conscious so that all students in Europe can achieve success based on their own background. Åbo Akademi University leads the project, and there are partners at universities around Europe. Three European Ministries of Education assist the project by implementing project results.

The very concept of being “linguistically sensitive” means that one considers the value in all languages that exist in a classroom. In the long run, this can affect how our schools and communities should look in the future.

But how, one might ask? Well, by treating all languages as equally valuable, one can reduce the gap between different groups, between the majority group and minority groups. If this is taken into account already in the classroom, we can make children more culturally aware at the same time as we make children from minority groups feel more included.

It is important for children to feel involved

A common problem facing Europe is growing marginalization. It has been established that there is a risk that children with a first language other than that spoken in school, children who cannot yet understand or absorb knowledge content completely, can easily feel that they do not belong to the context. This can lead to them taking the shortest educational path, failing to get a job and facing a future as socially excluded. Our school systems need to respond to and try to prevent such scenarios.

Björklund says that schools have previously mainly thought monolingually and have taken different approaches to treating different language groups, with varying success. In Finland, children are expected to go to school in either Finnish or Swedish, and with a little luck, students with another native language can get a couple of hours of teaching a week in their own language. Unfortunately, the situation is similar in all European countries.

Portrait picture of Siv Björklund.
Siv Björklund and the team behind Listiac work together with researchers and teachers around Europe to develop solutions that consider cultural and linguistic diversity in the classrooms. Photo: Åbo Akademi University’s image bank.

“A couple of hours a week is better than nothing, but it does not lead to equality. If we do not succeed in remedying this, we will move towards an increasingly polarized society. What we see in most countries in Europe is a growing knowledge gap between language groups. Unfortunately, we are bad at this in Finland as well—we see evidence of this through, among other things, the regular Pisa surveys. We don’t work smart, quite simply,” says Björklund.

In most countries, people are coming to the realization that support for a child’s own native language is important for the child to be successful, also in school subjects taught in a language other than the child’s native one. Björklund believes that, in order for us to succeed, a positive way of dealing with and respecting other languages and cultures must permeate all of school culture.

All educators need the tools

Rather than shifting all work with linguistic diversity to language teachers, the point is that all teachers need the tools to be able to fill in the gaps and include language awareness and language development in subject teaching in everyday schoolwork. Björklund believes that when children get the impression that their language and culture are not very valuable, it can lead to identity problems in the long run.

We jump back to Vaasa Teacher Training School and Laura Olesen’s class. Here you can hear, for example, Hindi, French and English, plus, that Finnish is strong in the group. So far, there has never been a situation where students with a native language other than Swedish have not understood at all. Tricky situations can often be resolved when working together. The students are happy to interpret and translate for each other.

“I think a lot starts with the teacher. In my own way of working, I let the students lead the teaching in general, I do not lecture but rather present a question that the students can figure out the answer to. My starting point is that you can do things in different ways without one being more right than the other; everyone should be able to feel included. For example, we celebrate different holidays and we have different customs and different ways of talking, and that’s okay. That is why we also say, for example, that we take winter holidays instead of Christmas holidays,” says Olesen.

My starting point is that you can do things in different ways without one being more right than the other; everyone should be able to feel included.

Although Olesen’s career as a professional teacher is not yet very long, she has had time to gain perspective on her own education and what skills are needed in the multicultural classroom. She points out that the curriculum emphasizes that all students should have the right to their own culture and language. Therefore, Olesen thinks that already in teacher education it would be useful to have courses that are adapted to this.

“I believe that all active and future teachers would benefit from attending compulsory courses where norm-critical pedagogy, gender and feminist pedagogy are addressed. Since my own special interest happens to be multilingualism, I have read up on it a lot on my own. On the other hand, I believe that all educators would benefit from being better equipped to work with multilingualism and language-supporting teaching,” says Olesen.

“Imagine if all educators were given one hour each week to work on basic values, then the leap to an inclusive environment with significantly fewer prejudices would be so much closer.”

In Listiac, the project group is looking to implement a way of thinking where awareness, language and culture are built into the education of teachers, and in particular, of class teachers. Meanwhile, Siv Björklund emphasizes that it must not go so far that schools are filled with only different languages; rather, it is a matter of finding the balance when it comes to the learning objectives in different subjects and the school’s language of instruction.

“Imagine, for example, a math lesson in an elementary classroom. Why not see how many languages the class can count to 10 in; ask if anyone knows numbers in another language? Or when reading fairy tales or writing, why not write together in several languages? Or see what the fairy tales are called in the foreign languages,” says Björklund, who believes that through the right short teaching situations, the teacher can show that the child’s own language and own background are important while the other students in the class get to take part in the diversity that exists but that may not have been made visible before in the class.

Why not see how many languages the class can count to 10 in; ask if anyone knows numbers in another language?

Björklund believes that there are many new issues that have become relevant in Finland in recent years. We have long been accustomed to having two languages in our society and in our classrooms, but now there are several. There are new body languages we do not necessarily understand, and there are children who do not understand our languages, social codes and body languages. A lot would be lost if we just locked these students into Swedish- or Finnish-speaking schools without considering their backgrounds.

According to Björklund, the responsibility for inclusion should not lie with the student; it is the educator who must be aware of the differences and take into account that the children come from different backgrounds. Björklund exemplifies that, in some contexts, you may want to hang flags to show diversity, but a flag may be linked to negative associations for someone who has been persecuted.

“The teacher may not always even be aware of all the languages that are in a class. They may know that someone is from India, for example, but not be aware of which language is the child’s native tongue.”

Conducting everything in either Finnish or Swedish in our schools is not optimal for everyone. In fact, if you are not allowed to use your own language as a bridge at all, you will have difficulty developing your Finnish or Swedish so that you can experience success in school.

Åbo Akademi University performs important work

Through its status as a Swedish-speaking university in Finland, Åbo Akademi University has extensive experience in working with Swedish-speaking schools and a significant history in pedagogy that highlights how Swedish and Finnish speakers can work together in different ways, for example, through immersion and tandems.

“We have lots of experience of what it is like when a Finnish-speaking person and a Swedish-speaking person meet and how it works in society. Now we need to think about whether the same methods can be applied to children who speak foreign languages, such as Arabic, or whether we need to develop new methods. The solutions we develop together with researchers and teachers and test in the field then become part of the teacher education. I hope that diversity will be a natural part of teacher education in the future.”

We have lots of experience of what it is like when a Finnish-speaking person and a Swedish-speaking person meet and how it works in society. Now we need to think about whether the same methods can be applied to children who speak foreign languages.

Björklund says that we can no longer take it for granted that everyone has the same background and values as those of native Finns, and this is something we need to be able to discuss without someone having to give up their identity, but instead be enriched.

“We need to see the diversity and its strengths. I think we need to find a balance so that you can be part of a country even if you have a different background—these should not be at odds. Most immigrants want to become part of Finnish society and culture. We must embrace that and give them the opportunity to do so,” says Björklund.