Finnish comprehensive schools provided mother tongue teaching in nearly 60 languages in 2021. A school’s general atmosphere and conversation culture play an important role in promoting the sense of belonging and learning of pupils with an immigrant background, writes Professor of Language Education Mirja Tarnanen, University of Jyväskylä.
Moving to another country and settling there may be a demanding and stressful process during which one must learn a new language or even several languages, and adapt oneself to new kinds of practices and belief systems. In the research literature and in various reports, many different concepts are used to refer to this process, including belonging, involvement, or integration as perhaps the most familiar one.
However, it is not a one-way but a two-way process where members of the receiving community are also adjusting to, adapting to, and negotiating new kinds of practices, while creating these with different stakeholders and learning new things.
School as an institution plays an essential role in promoting children’s and youth’s engagement and sense of belonging, supporting their learning, and lowering any barriers that hinder learning.
The cultural and linguistic diversity of Finnish schools has increased especially since the 2010s. For example, according to the Finnish National Agency for Education, mother tongue education for pupils with a migrant background was provided, relying on the special state subsidy, in 58 languages in 2021.
A relevant question is how school communities deal with social, cultural, economic and ethnic diversity and if they are ready to support everybody’s learning and prevent social marginalisation.
Research knows ways to promote involvement and learning
Current research suggests we are not ready but developmental multiprofessional cooperation is badly needed. In PISA studies, ninth-graders with a migrant background do worse than their peers in the native population, and not only in Finland but also in all OECD countries on average.
According to the findings of the School Health Surveys conducted by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, pupils with an immigrant background face bullying, loneliness and experiences of being an outsider, for example, because of their appearance, language or behaviour. In addition, their learning paths can be more fragmented than those of others in the same age group and lead less often to general secondary or higher education.
However, the goals to support involvement and learning can be promoted, for instance, by closer cooperation between different stakeholders, by improving teaching staff’s professional expertise, various learning aids, and agency-enhancing pedagogy, but also by the school’s general atmosphere and conversation culture.
In other words, what needs development is how the school community creates shared meanings, negotiates and challenges the collective image of who belongs to a group and what kind of people are considered different and outsiders.
What if we instead just talked about us, who are all different as well as similar in some aspects irrespective of our backgrounds. We should nurture and strengthen a communal culture where we meet each other, cooperate, question our beliefs, learn from each other as well as give and receive help.
The school communities are made of all of us.
The writer Mirja Tarnanen works as a professor of language education at the Department of Teacher Education, University of Jyväskylä, and also as the vice dean responsible for education in the Faculty of Education and Psychology. Her research interests include pupils with an immigrant background at school.
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