Is there a need to boost the generic skills of undergraduate students?

Is there a need to boost the generic skills of undergraduate students?

‘Climate change is not caused by humans, and it does not pose any threat to humans or the environment.’

Although there is widespread agreement among scientists that global climate change is real, and is caused by human activity, we often see and hear assertions of this kind. How can we differentiate between what is true and what is not, in an age when we are surrounded by real-time news and “fake news” distributed by traditional and new media?

This is where generic skills come into play. The list of generic skills is long, ranging from interaction skills to intercultural skills, and from leadership skills to emotional skills (Barrie, 2012; Tuononen et al., 2019; Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018). In higher education, generic skills typically refer to higher-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, and the ability to solve complex problems (Halpern, 2014). However, generic skills are important in all domains of life. Together with subject knowledge, generic skills help people to navigate daily life (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Hyytinen et al., 2019). They are also a means for continuous learning, and ultimately, for becoming informed global citizens.

Educational choices and growth environments matter

Photographer: University of Jyväskylä’

Our study on generic skills among Finnish undergraduate students (Ursin, Hyytinen & Silvennoinen, 2021) found that students showed substantial variation in the mastery of generic skills. Some undergraduate students displayed high levels of generic skills, and others had only a limited command of them. The differences seemed to be explained by factors in the students’ educational and socioeconomic background: undergraduate students with general upper secondary education, and whose childhood environment had encouraged reading, seemed to have the highest command of generic skills. Conversely, students with a vocational upper secondary qualification and whose early environment had supported less reading tended to have weaker generic skills. The findings highlight the benefits of a growth environment which foregrounds a culture of learning and reading.

To reach every citizen, generic skills should be taught from a very early age, and in various learning environments, but the improvement of generic skills should continue into undergraduate studies and beyond.

Enhancing generic skills in higher education

Photographer: University of Jyväskylä’

The life that one has lived does matter. Yet much can be done during higher education to enhance generic skills (e.g., Heijtjes et al., 2014; Hyytinen et al., 2019; Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018). They do not differ from any other skills: generic skills can be learned if they are actively practiced, comprehensively built into undergraduate programmes, and vigorously supported in teaching and learning.

It is important to bear in mind that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution or detailed step-by-step guidelines on how to improve generic skills in undergraduate studies. Conversely, the entire teaching-learning environment needs to be rethought and redesigned so that it better contributes to the development of generic skills. The learning of generic skills requires support, continuous feedback to students, and a combination of theory and practice in multiple course contexts (Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018). Learning occurs when the teaching of generic skills is explicitly embedded in several courses throughout the curriculum, along with feedback to students on how to improve and build their skills. Otherwise, the topic runs the risk of remaining incidental or isolated (e.g. Hyytinen at al., 2019; Jääskelä, Nykänen & Tynjälä, 2018).

Unfortunately, higher education teachers are not necessarily well prepared to teach and assess generic skills or not in a way that best supports the development of the skills (Barrie, 2012; Mah & Ifenthaler, 2017). Teachers need a clear understanding of what generic skills are and why they are essential. In order to develop generic skills in their students, teachers need support in gaining pedagogical competencies that will enable them to integrate the elements of generic skills in their teaching and assessment practices (Hyytinen et al., 2019; Jenert, 2014).

Implementation of generic skills in higher education is a joint effort

Successful implementation of generic skills in study programmes requires an active interplay between leaders, teachers, and students in higher education:

  • Leaders of higher education institutions must recognize the importance of generic skills in study programmes and provide support for teachers and students.
  • Teachers in higher education institutions must see generic skills as equally important as the subject they teach; hence, they must be willing to include generic skills in their teaching and assessment (Hyytinen et al., 2019; Virtanen & Tynjälä, 2018).
  • Students need to take responsibility for their own learning; hence, they must be willing to invest time and effort in the development of generic skills (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Evens et al., 2013).
Featured Image: Photographer: University of Jyväskylä’

Other blog posts on similar topics:

References and Further Reading

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. 2011. Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barrie, S. C. (2012) A research-based approach to generic graduate attributes policy, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:1, 79-92, doi:10.1080/07294360.2012.

Evens, M., Verburgh, A. & Elen, J. 2013. Critical thinking in college freshmen: The impact of secondary and higher education. International Journal of Higher Education 2(3), 139-151.

Halpern, D. F. 2014. Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. New York, London: Psychology Press.

Heijtjes, A., van Gog, T., Leppink, J. & F., Paas, F. 2014. Improving critical thinking: Effects of dispositions and instructions on economics students’ reasoning skills. Learning and Instruction 29, 31-42.

Hyytinen, H., Toom, A., & Shavelson, R. J. (2019). Enhancing scientific thinking through the development of critical thinking in higher education. In M. Murtonen, & K. Balloo (Eds.), Redefining Scientific Thinking for Higher Education: Higher-Order Thinking, Evidence-Based Reasoning and Research Skills (pp. 59-78). Palgrave Macmillan.

Jenert, T. (2014). Implementing-oriented study programmes at university: The challenge of academic culture. Zeitschrift für Hochschulentwicklung, 9(2), 1–12. Retrieved from

Jääskelä, P., Nykänen, S. & Tynjälä, P. 2018. Models for the development of generic skills in Finnish higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education 42(1), 130-142.

Mah, D-K. & Ifenthaler, D. (2017). Academic staff perspectives on first-year students’ academic competencies. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 9 (4), 630-640. doi: 10.1108/JARHE-03-2017-0023.

Tuononen, T., Parpala, A. & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (2019). Graduates’ evaluations of usefulness of university education, and early career success – a longitudinal study of the transition to working life. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(4), 581-595.

Ursin, J., Hyytinen, H. & Silvennoinen, K (eds.). 2021. Assessment of undergraduate students’ generic skills in Finland: Findings of the Kappas! project. Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland 2021:31.

Virtanen, A. & Tynjälä, P. 2018. Factors explaining the learning of generic skills: a study of university students’ experiences. Teaching in Higher Education, 24 (7), 880–894.


Dr Jani Ursin

Dr Jani Ursin

Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Dr Jani Ursin is a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. His research has focused on academic work, the assessment of higher education learning outcomes, mergers of higher education institutions, and quality assurance in higher education. He is a former Link Convenor of EERA Network 22 (Research in Higher Education), after which he represented all the networks on the EERA Council. His profile is at:

Dr Heidi Hyytinen

Dr Heidi Hyytinen

Senior Lecturer in University Pedagogy at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, University of Helsinki, Finland

Dr Heidi Hyytinen is a senior lecturer in university pedagogy at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, University of Helsinki, Finland. Her research interests include performance-based assessment, generic skills, critical thinking, self-regulation, and pedagogy in higher education. Her profile is at:

“Building back better” with Inclusive Learning Assessments

“Building back better” with Inclusive Learning Assessments

School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have threatened inclusion and exasperated the existing inequalities in education. Across the globe, children with disabilities are more likely to suffer from learning losses (OECD, 2020).

During this crisis, in Europe it was reported that limited guidance from international organisations was available on inclusion, measures taken immediately were sometimes inadequate, digital education challenged inclusion, and limited support could be provided to vulnerable children and their families.

Internationally, the term, building back better is being increasingly used in the global call for making recoveries in the economy and society in the post-COVID world. Our research shows, that in this context, education systems need to consider the role of reliable and rigorous learning assessment data in the education of children with disabilities. Education stakeholders will have a true picture of learning only when children with disabilities are included in all forms of learning assessment. On the ground, data will help teachers to target teaching appropriately so that every child progresses in their learning.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) countries, many of which are in Europe, have started including children with disabilities in the assessment programme. Despite an increase in the participation of children with special needs in PISA over the administration cycles, they still represent below 3% of the total number of participants (LeRoy et al. 2019).

Equitable Learning Assessment in the Asia-Pacific Region

Let us move beyond Europe and look at the Asia-Pacific Region, where countries have diverse policies, barriers, preparedness, and progress when it comes to inclusive education and inclusive learning assessments in particular. In the Asia-Pacific region, there has been a sluggish transition to inclusive education (Wu-Tien, Ashman, & Yung-Wook, 2008; Forlin, 2010). Most countries have a dual system of schooling where children with moderate disabilities study in general schools and those with severe difficulties in special schools.      

Our review Equitable Learning Assessments for Students with Disabilities found that learning assessment practices vary across countries in the Asia-Pacific. Countries with a history of participating in national and international assessments try to make their assessments inclusive through accommodations. The review reported the use of testing accommodations in Australia, Hong Kong (SAR China), India, the Philippines, and Singapore in the Asia-Pacific region. However, children with severe disabilities or children who cannot be accommodated are left out. Some countries assess students with disabilities through formative methods (Chakraborty et al. 2019). It has to be kept in mind that inclusive learning assessments are an outcome of developments in inclusive education and advances in learning assessment.

Ideally, a single assessment should measure the learning of all students without the need for accommodations (Douglas et al., 2016). But in most education systems, accommodations are used to make assessments accessible to children with disabilities. However, the use of accommodations needs to be normalised in every level of testing – classroom, national, and international assessments (Chakraborty et al., 2019).

National-level policies on inclusive education and assessment practices determine to what extent children with disabilities are included in assessments. For example, in Hong Kong (SAR China), the SAME (Systematic Approach matching Mainstream Education) system provides access to children with disabilities to the central curriculum (Forlin, 2010). Similarly, specific country level mandates on assessment will support the inclusion of children with disabilities in classroom, national, or international assessments.

Across the world, teachers continue to face challenges in assessing students with disabilities (Hussu & Strle, 2010; Brookhart & Lazarus, 2017). In the Asia- Pacific countries, not many teaching staff have been trained in inclusive education (Sin, Tsang, Poon, & Lai, 2010). This is even true for Singapore, which has a reputation for high scores in international assessments. The Singaporean education system has short and less rigorous training for special educators (Walker & Musti-Rao, 2016).

Teachers as Agents of Change

Our review suggests that teachers are powerful change agents in making inclusive assessment a reality, especially in middle- and low-income economies. To enable this change, development partners should prioritise the professional development of teachers in the complex topics of inclusive education and learning assessments.

This training should include all teachers from pre-service (student teachers), in-service (part-time/full-time school teachers), to special educators. Along with this, professional development courses should be designed to eliminate stigma and prejudices about disabilities. Moreover, school leaders should be trained regularly as they are responsible for setting the culture for assessment and inclusion in schools (Chakraborty et al., 2019).

Investments in research and projects on inclusive education, professional learning, and learning assessments are critical for making advancements in the field of inclusive learning assessments. As education systems are being reshaped to close learning gaps in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, strong partnerships between development partners, governments, and non-government organisations can contribute immensely to this area of inclusive assessment.

Anannya Chakraborty,

Anannya Chakraborty,

Senior Communications Officer, ACER India

Anannya Chakraborty started working in the international development sector after completing her Post Graduate degree in Social Development from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. In the last eight years, she has worked on various challenging social sector projects in the areas of research, knowledge management, and communications.
As a Senior Corporate Communications Officer at the Australian Council for Educational Research (India), Anannya works in global and Indian communications assignments along with commissioned research projects.
Before joining ACER, she has also worked on ethnographic qualitative research and social and behaviour change communication projects for international development.
Anannya has presented at international conferences and forums organised by the European Educational Research Association and UNESCO Bangkok.
Amit Kaushik

Amit Kaushik


Amit Kaushik has been CEO of ACER India and a member of the Board of the Australian Council for Educational Research (India) since 2017. He specialises in consulting, policy planning, programme design, implementation, project management, monitoring and evaluation. His research interests include school management, quality improvement in education, skill development, non-formal education, inclusive education, and girls’​ education. From 2001-2006, Amit was Director, Elementary Education, in the Ministry of HRD, Government of India, where he was associated with the development and implementation of various policies related to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, as well as India’s international commitments on Education For All (EFA). Among other things, he worked closely on the 2005 draft of the Right to Education Bill, based on which The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was passed in 2009. He has been a consultant to UNESCO Paris, Nigeria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as to UNICEF Iraq and Yemen, working with them from time to time on assignments related to literacy, planning for Education for All, non-formal education, accelerated learning and the Global Partnership for Education.

ACER India is an independent, not-for-profit research organisation providing world class research, educational products and services to India and the South Asia region.

Follow ACER India on social media:

References and Further Reading

‘Building back better’ may seem like a noble idea. But caution is needed

Building back better – a sustainable and resilient recovery after COVID-19

Building Back Better – achieving resilience through stronger, faster, and more inclusive post-disaster reconstruction

The Impact of COVID-19 on Inclusive Education at the European Level

Students with special educational needs within PISA, (LeRoy et al. 2019)


Equitable learning assessments for students with disabilities

Developing and implementing quality inclusive education in Hong Kong: implications for teacher education (Forlin, 2010)

Including Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disability in National Assessment: Comparison of Three Country Case Studies through an Inclusive Assessment Framework (Douglas et al., 2016)

The assessment of children with special needs (Hussu & Strle, 2010)

Formative assessments for children with disabilities (Brookhart & Lazarus, 2017)

Upskilling all mainstream teachers – what is viable? (Sin, Tsang, & Poon, 2010)

Inclusion in High-Achieving Singapore: Challenges of Building an Inclusive Society in Policy and Practice (Walker & Musti-Rao, 2016)



This thematic review Equitable Learning Assessments for Students with Disabilities has been funded by the Australian Council for Educational Research (India). The authors are grateful to Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP), UNESCO Bangkok for publishing the review.  

Full report: Chakraborty, A., Kaushik, A., & UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific. (2019). Equitable learning assessments for students with disabilities(NEQMAP thematic review).UNESCO Office Bangkok.

Read about ACER’s ongoing review of professional development programmes on inclusive teaching and learning:

Organising Global Conferences for Early Career Researchers

Organising Global Conferences for Early Career Researchers

Organising a global conference for Early Career Researchers isn’t a simple task. So we asked ERG  convenor Saneeya Qureshi to share her experiences in leading teams of ECRs on the design, organisation, and execution of two major conferences – the global EERA Emerging Researchers Conference (ERC 2021) and the UK National Postdoc Conference (NPDC21).

These conferences followed on the heels of the fourth year of the thriving Making an Impact Series, which she led for the University of Liverpool since 2018, and which has recently received the recognition of being shortlisted for the ‘Academic Engagement of the Year’ category in the prestigious UK PraxisAuril Knowledge Exchange Awards.

For each event, the ECR teams engaged 2000+ individuals across various associated activities and sessions. Each flagship activity is co-created and co-designed with a community of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and internationally recognised thought leaders.

So, what’s the secret of organising successful global conferences for Early Career Researchers? For Saneeya, the skills learned during her PhD were critical.


Working to such a scale, on time and on budget, juggling coordination with multiple individuals who are sometimes spread across continents, demands an entirely unique set of academic competencies for which my PhD had nominally prepared me. However, having now been the lead organiser for these exponentially growing events since 2015, it’s fair to say that I am now an old hand at the helm. In this post, I share my top tips for designing, planning, and executing conferences for ECRs, which I think are worth particular consideration by any conference lead – however small or large-scale an event may be.

Reflect on your Intended Return on Investment

Using the base of genuine co-creation and co-design of activities with those from whom they are intended, i.e. ECRs, it is advisable to ensure that all aspects of planning and organisation from the outset take into account the post-event benefits to participants and to their organisations/ research associations. Focus on the short-term and long-term outputs, outcomes and impact upon ECRs’ practice, knowledge, skills, and attributes. Allow time during a programme (and encourage post-event protected time) for participants to have dedicated time and space for reflections during and after an event – you could even provide your own self-reflection logs. These are examples of how to ensure that you plan for the best possible return on investment (Bromley & Warnock, 2021).

Consider Value for Money (but don’t compromise on quality!)

This is especially important in the post-Covid context of reduced financial capacities for institutions and educational associations. I am very aware of the expected versus final development cost per participant for all the events I lead. This usually involves discussions with session speakers and facilitators about pre-and post-session open access resources, along with a fair bit of pre-event negotiation about sessions with number caps, to account for high no-show rates.

With the advent of the online-pivot arising from the pandemic, and future hybrid and hyflex working approaches (Gaebel et al., 2021), it is worth being even more mindful of the pressures on ECRs’ time and the resultant impact on their abilities and best-laid intentions to engage with planned activities. This means ensuring that the programme design respects participants’ time and meets their needs simultaneously.

Shine a Spotlight on Accessibility and Inclusion across Every Aspect of the Event

The NPDC21 has been hailed as a sector-leading example of how accessibility, inclusivity and equity of access and engagement were at the forefront of every single aspect of the participant experience. This accessibility ranges from pre-event communications and networking activities to the manner in which speakers introduced themselves during sessions, and the use of sign language interpreters and professional transcription as the norm, to the post-event resources and sharing of best practices.

It is worth noting the difference between equity and equality (Hardie, Fernando and Turbill, 2021) – and that inclusivity considerations must also be reflected in the profile of the speakers and facilitators who lead sessions, and in the pre-and post-event resources that participants can access freely at any time, for instance, the NPDC21 Virtual Delegate Pack.

Don’t Lose Sight of Networking and Engagement Opportunities

Related to the above point about how time-poor we increasingly find ourselves, it is important to consider the immeasurable hidden benefits of conferences that result from ECRs’ networking and engagement activities (Merga and Mason, 2020). This includes not just the provision of opportunities for ECRs to network with each other and senior academics (such as this ERC 2021 session), but also incentivised activities that happen during and post-events, such as the EERA Best Poster Award and the Best Paper Competition.

Prioritise the Human Welfare Aspect

Mental health and wellbeing should be a cornerstone of any ECR event.
Johnson and Weivoda (2021) affirm that the “need to elevate and support ECRs at all stages to ensure they have access to peer networks, supportive mentors, mental health resources, information about alternative career options, and appropriate career-stage opportunities.”
Building on the excellent tips offered by Byrom et al. (2020), for the NPDC21, we created a Wellbeing Oasis that was signposted before, during, and after the event. These self-led resources include guided meditations, yoga sessions, relaxing music, nature observation, and more, coupled with active wellbeing sessions that were specifically facilitated during the event, showing participants how we prioritised their overall sense of wellbeing. We even included aspects of wellbeing in the Conference Bingo activity to ensure this priority message was communicated in different ways.   

Listen to the Voices of the Community

It goes without saying for any activity, organisers must put the individuals for whom the event is meant at the heart of all the planning, design, and execution. As one example that informs this aspect, the UK has recently witnessed a burgeoning focus on nurturing positive and inclusive research cultures and research environments. Indeed, the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers provides a framework around aspects of employment, culture, and environment, professional and career development for researchers.

To further bolster community voices, each event was led by a steering group consisting of a cross-section of diverse disciplinary, career-level, and geographically spread representatives who meet regularly to feed into and support every stage of the event from conception to post-event reflections.

Expect the Unexpected

It goes without saying that for flagship events, as lead organiser, you should have a backup plan for your backup plan! For me, part of the preparations involved:

Comprehensive pre-event briefing sessions with key stakeholders, speakers, and the wider team behind-the-scenes, supplemented with notes and useful resources that would help them add value to the overall event.

A regularly updated FAQ section to empower participants to troubleshoot any issues themselves first. We signposted the NPDC21 FAQs in every single communication that went out before and during the event, whether via email, social media or in-person meetings and sessions. We did the same for EERA’s use of the OnAir Platform via an eminently visible and accessible ‘Help’ Button, through which participants could video call a support colleague, or simply type in their queries for an interactive chat.

For wholly online events, plan for backup platforms, in case the main platform goes down.

A constantly-manned helpdesk and email address, which has a pre-scheduled auto-response message answering commonly-asked questions, and flagging the FAQ page.

And Finally, Enjoy the Event! 

A well-designed and well-prepared event means less stress for you on the day, and more opportunities for you to engage with participants, whether in person (via Zoom or face to face), or via social media. By having the time to dip in and out of all the 100+ Zoom-based parallel sessions during the ERC 2021, and the 30+ sessions of the NPDC21, I was absolutely delighted to meet participants, chat with them and understand even more about what the event meant to them.

It was, for instance, through conversations such as these that I talked with 3 ECRs who were between 7-9 (yes 9!) months pregnant, and who were so happy that the online programmes meant they could participate. Some sessions were also chaired by ECRs who themselves has small babies in their laps – upon whom I was able to bestow the titles of ‘Cutest’ or ‘Most Adorable’ or ‘Most Endearing’ ‘Baby EERA Emerging Researcher Award’!  

The impact of a well-organised and well-designed event is inestimable – not only on the participants and key individual stakeholders – but on the overall national and international reputational gain for an institution or national association. Having an engaged and committed steering group that makes teamwork and organisation easy is half the battle won, and I am constantly reminded of this quote,

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” – Helen Keller

As with a PhD, the most challenging parts of making any activity or initiative go smoothly are always the ones that are most satisfying at the end. Or in the words of the renowned  American opera singer: 

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills


On a closing note, there is no better last word to be had than by the participants themselves across these events. The participant feedback for the NPDC21 can be found in this MURAL Board.

For the ERC 2021, feedback could be summarised in this testimonial,


“The Emerging Researchers’ Conference was useful in creating bridges and connections between students, researchers, and teachers, promoting open and critical reflections, discussions, and dialogues about educational research. I think that the experience of participating in ERC was very rewarding, since I was able to share my Ph.D. research work in a free and plural environment of critical reflection and collective debate.”

References and Further Reading

Bromley, T., & Warnock, L. (2021). The practice of the development of researchers: the “state-of-the-art”. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Educationavailable at:

(accessed 26th October 2021).


Byrom, N., Jackman, P., Zile, A., James, E., Tyrrell, K., Williams, C. J., Haughey, T., Sanderson, R., Priestley, M. and & Cogan, N. (2020). Call to Action: How can universities support doctoral and early career researchers during COVID-19 (and beyond!), available at: 26th October 2021).


Gaebel, M., Zhang, T., Stoeber, H., & Morrisroe, A. (2021). Digitally enhanced learning and teaching in European higher education institutions. Survey Reportavailable at: survey report.pdf (accessed 26th October 2021).


Hardie, G., Fernando, M., & Turbill, J. (2021). Equity, Equality and Digital Inclusion: Evidence of practice from an Australian University. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2021, No. 1, p. 12677). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management, available at: 26th October 2021).


Johnson, R. W., & Weivoda, M. M. (2021). Current Challenges for Early Career Researchers in Academic Research Careers: COVID‐19 and Beyond, available at: (accessed 26th October 2021).


Merga, M., & Mason, S. (2020). Early career researchers’ perceptions of the benefits and challenges of sharing research with academic and non-academic end-users. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-15, available at: (accessed 26th October 2021).


Vitae Concordat (2019), “Concordat to support the career development of researchers”, available at:  (accessed 26th October 2021).

Saneeya Qureshi

Saneeya Qureshi

Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK

Dr Saneeya Qureshi is the Link Convenor of the Emerging Researchers Group for the European Educational Research Association (EERA). She is also the Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK. She is responsible for the University’s provision for researchers at all stages of their careers. She manages activities related to the University's European Commission's HR Excellence in Research Award, liaising with stakeholders regarding Liverpool's commitment to the development of its Early Career Researchers.

She holds a PhD in Inclusive Education, and has over 15 years of experience in teaching and educational management in the UK and internationally.

Since 2015, Dr Qureshi has been a co-opted member of the EERA Council where she represents emerging researchers' interests. She leads an annual programme of EERA's developmental and capacity building activities for emerging researchers, including the annual Emerging Researchers Conference. She is also an Editorial Board member and a reviewer for several international educational journals. She can be found on Twitter 

Similar but Different: Small Rural Schools in Northern Ireland

Similar but Different: Small Rural Schools in Northern Ireland

 As children returned to school after the summer break in 2021, five small rural schools in Northern Ireland didn’t reopen their doors. What that means for the former pupils and their communities has barely been given any attention.

What is a ‘Rural School’?

Many small rural schools in different European countries were also forced to close last school year due to declining pupil numbers and financial pressures. In our recent review of the European research literature, we found that small rural schools have been defined in different ways.

While many definitions relate to the number of pupils enrolled (typically between 70 and 140 for primary schools), in the Republic of Ireland, for example, they are defined as schools employing four teachers or fewer. However, north of the border in Northern Ireland (United Kingdom), there is no official definition of small schools despite a history of small and very small schools in the region, partly because of its rural character and the segregated nature of the school system. In fact, in 1964, there were over 450 schools with between 26 and 50 pupils, although by the early 1990s, there were less than 150 schools with such number of pupils.

In 2006, an Independent Strategic Review of Education (otherwise known as the Bain review) indicated that there was an excess of schools in Northern Ireland because of falling pupil numbers and the existence of many school sectors. The review argued that there should be fewer, larger schools, and established that primary schools in rural areas should have at least 105 pupils enrolled. So, in the context of Northern Ireland, we understand a small rural school to be a primary school situated in a rural area (i.e., settlements with a population of less than 5,000 and areas of open countryside), with 105 pupils or less enrolled.

Small rural schools in Northern Ireland

There is scarce research on small rural schools in Northern Ireland, as most studies have concentrated on schools in urban areas. Between April and July 2021, we conducted an online survey of principals of small rural schools in Northern Ireland. Out of 201 principals invited, 91 took part (86 completed responses and 5 incomplete). In this post, we are sharing three themes that emerged when analysing the survey data.


Northern Ireland society is segregated along ethno-sectarian lines between an Irish Catholic group and a British Protestant group. This is reflected in its school system, so most pupils from a Protestant community background attend Controlled (de facto state) schools (in which the Protestant churches have a formal role), and most pupils from a Catholic community background attend Voluntary Maintained schools, owned by the Catholic church. There is also a small number of integrated schools, which are attended by children and staff from Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as those of other faiths, or none.

From the survey results, it was clear that the 

schools were serving very segregated communities. Thus, the majority of Controlled school principals described the communities their schools served as mostly Protestant, and the majority of Catholic maintained school principals described them as mostly Catholic. Only a few described them as mixed or fairly mixed. Surprisingly, all three principals from integrated schools described their communities as mostly Catholic.


In both Catholic and Protestant rural communities, the churches appeared to have a significant role, with most principals (90%) identifying them as key institutions in the communities their schools served. However, we found a clear difference between school types. While 91% of Catholic Maintained school principals identified the sports association as another key organisation, only 12% of Controlled school principals did so. That is because in many Catholic communities, the GAA club is very influential. GAA stands for Gaelic Athletic Association, and it is Ireland’s largest sporting organisation (which promotes Gaelic games). Community voluntary groups and cultural associations were less likely to be identified by principals, and they were selected by a larger proportion of Controlled school principals rather than principals in Maintained schools.


According to the principals surveyed, the main challenges these schools were facing were similar to those found in other research in different European countries. The ones that were most identified by the survey respondents were:

  • financial pressures and lack of funding (selected by 74 out of 90)
  • staff’s intense workloads (72)
  • increasing numbers of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (47)
  • declining pupil numbers (45)
  • pressure or threat of potential closure (28).

However, in contrast with other studies, difficulties in staff recruitment and retention were barely ever selected as current challenges (just two principals did).

Some of the comments written by principals highlighted the main challenges they encountered:

“… Our school, that twenty-thirty years ago would have had 7 straight classes, now is struggling with 4 composite classes.  Our parents ARE supportive of our school but small numbers means we are struggling to survive in this community.  ….”

There is now so much paperwork and accountability not just educationally but from a health and safety and financial perspective that I feel the role of a teaching principal is no longer feasible.”

Unfortunately, the threat of closure is ever present and this has stopped some families enrolling at the school thus resulting in a fall in our enrolment numbers which are hard to recover from. Our physical site also needs a lot of investment but this does not fail to materialise because of question marks over our future which results in the local community not having faith that our school will remain open and so they choose to travel further away.”


The connection between the schools and the families and wider community was generally described as strong. Most principals (80%) considered the school as a key institution or organisation of the community they served. This is also clear from many of the principals’ open-ended comments:

“Our school is the heart of the rural community. Our families often have no other outlet or community-based organisation to support them. We offer support for parents and work closely with community groups to offer social events. Many of our parents do not drive and have no public transport, meaning they live isolated lives apart from their connection to the school.”

“The local community is very important. Pre-pandemic we had good contact and well attended events. We had a great Mums and Tots group.  Our PTA are fantastic at organising and promoting school events.”

“The school is a central part of our rural community. Enabling local groups to access our facilities assists local groups and clubs to exist.”

The most common ways schools engaged with the communities they served were:

  • Church/ religious leaders coming regularly to the school to visit pupils and teachers (78%)
  • Community leaders being on the board of governors of the school (77%)
  • Pupils being actively encouraged in the school to get involved with particular community organisations (63%); and
  • After-school (or outside of school hours) activities organised by community/sporting/religious organisations/institutions taking place on school grounds or being advertised by the school (64%).

We asked whether the pandemic had had an impact on the level of engagement of parents/families and the wider community with the school. As expected, most principals believed that the pandemic had a negative impact – 88% believed there had been less engagement between the school and the wider community, and 57% believed there had been less engagement between the school and parents/carers.

In conclusion, small rural schools in Northern Ireland face similar challenges as other small rural schools in Europe, but their situation differs mainly because of the segregated environment in which they are immersed. Also, small rural schools in NI are not a homogenous group. Some schools appeared to be experiencing more challenges than others, some have more resources than others or are considerably bigger/smaller, etc., and their community contexts are also distinct.

If you would like to find out more about our study, please visit our study blog.

Montserrat Fargas-Malet

Montserrat Fargas-Malet

Research Fellow

Montserrat Fargas-Malet is a Research Fellow at the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. Her background is in Sociology (BSsc), Women’s Studies (MA), and Education (PhD). She has over 15 years of experience in social science research and an excellent publication record.

Professor Carl Bagley

Professor Carl Bagley

Professor of Educational Sociology

Carl Bagley is Head of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast where he holds a Chair in Educational Sociology. He has held research posts at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Open University (where he obtained his PhD) and previously held a Senior Lectureship in Sociology at Staffordshire University, before Joining Durham University in 1999, obtaining a Chair in 2008 and serving as Head of the School of Education from 2013-2017.

Violence in Didactics – A Poem

Violence in Didactics – A Poem

The struggle for humanization has long been a concern of humankind. But today, it has become epistemologically exigent, giving voice to contemporary discourse of restructuring education for humanity. 

Many researchers argue that education systems as we know them today are broken. They lead students to careers that they do not resonate with, are not skilled for, and rather dislike. (Dore, 1976, Illich, 1971) They do not serve the humanistic need for social connections as they are competitive and emotionally unhealthy.(Kumar and Sarangapani, 2004, Kumar, 2016, Pathak, 2002) Most often, they serve the state’s political agenda of education. (Apple, 2004, Freire, 1970, Kumar, 1991) Thus, the rigid structures, limiting curriculums, disciplinary pedagogy of schools question the utility of education that they aim to provide.  

The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.7 Redefining Education for the 21st Century provides renewed focus on Education for Peace (EfP) to make education a way to re-store ‘humanity within humanity’.

Education for Peace not only intends to build competencies, values, behavior and skills to confront violence but becomes a practice where the purpose, i.e., why to teach, the content, i.e., what to teach and the pedagogy, i.e. how to teach become conducive to nurturing values of peace.

(Kester, 2010:59).


However, EfP’s aim to build peace through education is challenged by its incompatibility with its most formalized manifestation as schooling (Cremin and Bevington, 2017, Harber and Sakade, 2009). Historically, “schools have been known to endorse and perpetuate violence” and are an “obstacle in development of peaceful individuals and societies(Harber, 2008:1). Moreover, Schooling itself effectively counteract the very idea of peace education, and hence be harmful” reaffirms (Galtung, 2008:3).

Since Education for Peace (EfP) itself has been conceptualised as a space for vocalising lived experiences of violence, sharing vulnerabilities and stories (Kester, 2007), the following prose serves as a platform to capture violence inflicted by schooling, of which the author herself has been a victim. This prose closely examines the realities of Indian classrooms as they continue to evolve under ‘lingering colonialities’. (Williams, 2016:1) 

Violence in Didactics

Explicating ‘violence’ in didactics;

I lay open my experience candid


Perhaps violence exists more naturally than peace;

Hence I unfold the story in its anti-thesis


The teacher asks me to bite off more than I could chew;

While he was ready to teach me addition, I failed to hold numbers in lieu


He asks me to write home a ‘letter’;

While I struggle to write lines of ‘letters’ better                                     


Lost in the mechanics of the classroom, he is unconscious of my reality;

While we finish reading the story in the textbook, he fails to read the story of my existentiality


In this rushed academic training, he is even unaware of my poor pencil grip;

Not understanding, how violent must be this educational trip


The class lesson is not clear, his instruction also did not steer;

‘Waiting for the period bell to ring’, certainly conveys my desperation clear


He mortified my dignity under the garb of the lesson;

In that classroom that day, I remember losing not only my pencil but my self-possession


Sitting dazed, handicapped by his brazen instruct;

I was shunned as a black sheep and odd duck


Not only self-worth and self-image but also the loyalties of my peers shifted with my academic grades;

Encouraging me to look how friendships trade


I understand that the injuries to my feelings were not personal;

But he enacted from the consolidated structural


He made me mediocre chained to a routine;

He made me a stepford student, to elicit the conformist in me.


He incentivized my actions, he rewarded my compliance;

Being an echo, I soon realized that I lost my voice


In a mad rush from home to school every day, I missed on education;

Education can be a panacea, just that education needs education.


By Ashmeet Kaur


The author in the poem portrays herself as a ‘learner-subject’ who is controlled through fear, authority, hierarchy, and domination. It captures her anxieties as a learner in an Indian classroom.

Since violence shapes the definition of peace in her context, it encourages her to acknowledge the violence stemming from the very structures of her learning environment.  The author, through the systemic markers available in a classroom, explains various structures of violence which affects her learning process. She portrays herself as a quite shy and sensitive learner, someone few saw and even fewer acknowledged.

This, in turn, reflects in calls for teachers to treat learners as learners and not for their dis/abilities to be potential failures and successes – as dis/abilities are socially constructed and result in expectations from the environment. It is societal practises and norms which govern what are considered typical dis/abilities. Students like the author who learn differently stand out simply because they do not comply with the expectations teachers or educators have set for them. Hence, it reaffirms the importance of teacher agency, which is far more than teachers themselves are aware of.

The poem also bears reflections on cultural beliefs surrounding corporal punishment, e.g., that it encourages respect and socialises students towards discipline (Jones and Pells, 2016, Morrow, V. & Singh, R. 2014, Sawhney, 2018), and the moralistic vision of a sacrosanct bond of teacher and student. This belief suppresses voice and critical thinking, skills much in vogue in 21st-century educational reforms. This also raises questions on the challenges of non-western teachers as peace educators (Kurian, 2020) as the authority of non-western teachers’ is considered sacrosanct and have moral groundings. It is these normativities which potentially restrain non-western from encouraging informality; disrupting the expected image of a peace educator.

While the author reflects upon the bullying experiences at the hands of her teachers and the loss of engaged educational praxis, the poem peeks into the possibilities of the ideal.Education needs Education’ beautifully captures the central argument. It culminates into a message that what educational reforms are trying to correct has a lot to do with teacher education. It reaffirms that EfP seeks urgent need to ‘school teachers’ so that education can be directed towards peace

Ashmeet Baweja

Ashmeet Baweja

PhD Candidate (Peace Education) , TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi, India

Ashmeet Baweja is a PhD candidate at TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi, India working on mainstreaming peace education in K-12 schools. Her ethnographic research explores institutionalisation of peace education at an elite school in India. An academic at heart, her purpose is to create peaceful and SEL oriented environments as a way to create sustainable individuals and communities. Her research interests include peace education, elite schooling , sociology of education and qualitative research methods.

Peace Educator I Education Sociologist I PhD Candidate I Mountains are home I Period lifestyle enthusiast

Find out more about Ashmeet's professional journey at

References and Further Reading

Apple, M. W. 2004. Ideology and Curriculum, London, Routledge Falmer.

Cremin, H. & Bevington, T. 2017. Positive Peace in schools: Tackling Conflict and Creating a Culture of Peace in the Classroom. London: Routledge.

Dore, R. P. 1976. The Diploma Disease: Education, Qualification and Development. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Galtung, J. 2008. The form and content of Peace Education. In: (Ed.), M. B. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Peace Education. North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

Harber, C. 2008. Schools, Violence and Peace Education. The Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Charlotte,NC: Information Age Publishing.

Harber, C. & Sakade, N. 2009. Schooling for violence and Peace: How does peace education differ from ‘normal schooling’? . Journal of Peace Education, 46(4), 171-187.

Illich, I. 1971. Deschooling society. New York: Harper and Row.  

Jones, H. & Pells, K. 2016. Undermining Learning: Multi-Country Longitudinal Evidence on Corporal Punishment in schools. Innocenti Research Briefs, No.2016-06E. Italy: UNICEF Office of Research, Innocenti, FLorance.

 Kester, K. 2007. Peace Education: Experience and Storytelling as Living Education. Peace and Conflict Review, 2(2), 1-14.

Kester, K. 2010. Education for peace: Content, form, and structure: Mobilizing youth for civic engagement. Peace & Conflict Review, 4(2), 58-67.

Kumar, K. & Sarangapani, P. M. 2004. History of the quality debate. Contemporary Education Dialogue, 2(1),30-52.

Kumar, K. 1991. Political Agenda of Education: A Study of Nationalist and Colonialist Ideas. New Delhi: Sage.

Kumar, K. 2016. Education, Conflict and Peace. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.

Kurian, N. 2020. Kindness isn’t important, we need to be scared’: Disruptions to the praxis of peace education in an Indian school. Journal of Peace Education, 17(2), 186-207.

Morrow, V. & Singh, R. 2014. Corporal Punishment in schools in Andhra Pradesh, India: Children’s and Parents’s Viewsa. London: Young Lives.

Pathak, A. 2002. Social Implications of schooling: Knowledge, Pedagogy and Consciousness. New Delhi: Rainbow Publishers.

Sawhney, S. 2018. Tokenisation of children’s right to safe and protected environments: Indian teacher’s perspectives on corporal punishment. In: G. Sainz, S. I. E. (ed.) International Perspectives on Practice and Research into Children’s Rights. Mexico: Center for Human Rights.

Williams, H. M. 2016. Lingering Colonialities as Blockades to Peace Education: school Violence in Trinidad. In: Hantazopoulos, M. B. M. (ed.) Peace Education: International Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Human Rights Law – The Speckled Bird of Educational Research?

Human Rights Law – The Speckled Bird of Educational Research?

In human rights law, education is a big deal. A really big deal. It appears in all the major human rights treaties, from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is said to act as a multiplier of rights, meaning that all other human rights can be enhanced when it is enjoyed fully and impacted negatively when it is not. It is also unique because it is the only right that is compulsory, another indication of how important it is considered to be.

Human Rights and Educational Research

In education and educational research, human rights, particularly children’s human rights, do not enjoy quite such an international ‘Rockstar’ status.  While there are a few scholars (none better than EERA’s Network 25)who work explicitly in this area, there is quite a lot of ambivalence and, in some cases, antipathy to human rights (Lundy and Martinez Sainz, 2019). This shows up in the use of language like ‘legalistic’ to dismiss what is often just a sound legal analysis or ‘normative’ to imply that something has no theoretical foundation. And, for the record, what’s wrong with being ‘normative’, especially when those norms are grounded in values derived from centuries of moral philosophy?

An ongoing concern is that there are still those who deny that children can, have, or should have human rights when they would never deny that adults have human rights. I have been told of educational researchers saying that they don’t believe in human rights for children – like they are the tooth fairy. Clearly, they are a legal fact, but a worrying consequence of the resistance to the idea that children have rights has been that the language of children’s human rights can become diluted, substituted and truncated with seemingly ‘safer’  alternatives such as well-being and the SDGs used instead (Lundy, 2019).

A further common response is to talk about how human rights or rights language has been deployed for nefarious purposes or in ways that trivialise their remit and purpose. That is undoubtedly happening (e.g., I am told regularly by teachers that some parents will  claim that their child has a ‘right’ to a chocolate bar in a school with a healthy eating policy). However, a sound legal understanding would show that the problem is not the human rights in themselves but a flawed understanding of them. A common example of that in practice is the claim that the rights of the many ‘outweigh’ the rights of the few, particularly when one child’s behaviour is disruptive in a classroom. (Gillett-Swan and Lundy, 2021).

Of course, this is not to say that the human rights laws are perfect articulations of all that we would expect of education.  Valid criticisms of human rights law (feminist, post-colonial, neo-liberal etc.) abound. Most come from within our own field, so much so that those of us whose work focuses on children’s human rights have been coined as ‘critical proponents’ Reynaert et al., 2009).  Human rights laws are politically negotiated compromises, thus providing fertile soil for critique. The right to education is no exception. States tend not to over-promise, and one result, for example, is that the commitment to free education only applies to primary education, although states should always be striving to improve their provision. Critiquing the standards and therefore the sometimes less than ambitious commitments of governments, drawing in educational research on best practice, is a thriving area of human rights research.

Using human rights law in educational research offers a bounty of other possibilities. For a start, they can provide a conceptual framework for analysis and critique of education policy and practice. Children’s rights policy is distinctly different from childhood policy in substance and in process (Byrne and Lundy, 2018). It demands that the researcher puts their gaze on the child’s interests and entitlements (not just those of the school, teachers, or parents). It is also naturally intersectional – human rights data must be disaggregated, as the focus is always on finding those, particularly those in groups facing discrimination, whose rights might be infringed.

Human rights standards can also be applied to methodology.  We have pioneered an approach to research that is guided by the UN Statement of Common Understanding of human rights-based approaches (Lundy and McEvoy, 2012).  One consequence of this is that we always work with children as co-researchers, getting their advice on what to research and how to research it.  For example, in the recent CovidUnder19 initiative, we took advice from over 270 children across the world about what to ask in a survey of their lives.  The children stressed the need to ask about the consequences for examinations and testing in the questions on the right to education. Only children can know what is most important to know from their perspective (Lundy et al., 2021).

The Great Speckled Bird

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

In 2004, I moved from a law school to an education school within the same institution. This was not the ‘done thing’.  A senior colleague in law warned me that it would not make me a better lawyer. I replied that it would make me a better academic. And I think that we were both right. When I arrived in education, a senior colleague there described me as a bit of a ‘speckled bird’.

In the wave of excitement and optimism, I took it as a compliment, understanding that it meant that I was an interesting addition to the flock. When writing this blog, I decided to investigate the root of that phrase.   It turns out that it comes from a southern US hymn and that being a ‘great speckled bird’ is, in fact, not such a good thing:


“Desiring to lower her standard
They watch every move that she makes
They long to find fault with her teachings.”


In truth, sixteen years later, the description of the speckled bird actually makes more sense.  Yet, while I work across many fields, and have recently taken up an additional chair in the School of Law at University College Cork, I continue to find a home in the educational research community, benefitting from the fact that education is uniquely and genuinely multi-, inter- and trans- disciplinary.

The Lundy Model – Giving Young People a Voice

The first education conference that I attended was ECER 2004 in Crete. And it was a result of discussions at that conference that I formulated the rights-based conceptualisation of student voice (space, voice, audience, and influence) that is now widely known as ‘the Lundy model’ (Lundy, 2007).  

Human rights law, imperfect as it is, won’t be for everyone, but it has a role to play in understanding why and how we provide education, what it should and shouldn’t look like and how students themselves experience it and can and should shape it. Would we want a world in which there were no human rights, no children’s rights?  If not, then we need scholarship that strives to understand its underpinning theory, its content, its limitations and its (lack of) implementation.

Professor Laura Lundy

Professor Laura Lundy

Professor of Children's Rights, Queen's University Belfast: Professor of Law, University College Cork

Laura Lundy is Co-Director of the Centre for Children’s Rights and a Professor of Education Law and Children’s Rights in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast.

She is joint Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Children’s Rights. Her expertise is in law and human rights with a particular focus on children’s right to participate in decision-making and education rights.

Her 2007 paper in the British Educational Research Journal, “’Voice’ is not enough” is one of the most highly cited academic papers in BERJ and on children’s rights ever. The model of children’s participation it proposes (based on four key concepts – Space, Voice, Audience and Influence) is used extensively in scholarship and practice.

The “Lundy model” has been adopted by numerous national governments and public bodies as well as international organisations including the European Commission, World Health Organisation, UNICEF and World Vision.

References and Further Reading

Watch Professor Lundy’s keynote address at ECER 2021 here 


Irish National Framework for Young Peoples Participation in Decisionmaking

The Framework is based on the child-rights model of participation developed by Professor Laura Lundy, Queens University, which provides guidance for decision-makers on the steps to take in giving children and young people a meaningful voice in decision-making.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The role of law and legal knowledge for a transformative human rights education: addressing violations of children’s rights in formal education. Lundy and Martinez Sainz, 2019

A Lexicon for Research on International Children’s Rights in Troubled Times. Lundy, 2019

Children, classrooms and challenging behaviour: do the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few? Gillett-Swan and Lundy, 2021

A Review of Children’s Rights Literature Since the Adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Reynaert et al., 2009

Children’s rights-based childhood policy: a six-P framework. Byrne and Lundy, 2018

UN Statement of Common Understanding of human rights-based approaches (Lundy and McEvoy, 2012

#CovidUnder19 – Life Under Coronavirus: An initiative to meaningfully involve children in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. CovidUnder19

Life Under Coronavirus: Children’s Views on their Experiences of their Human Rights. Lundy et al., 2021

‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Lundy, 2007)

How Broadening Horizons leads to the Development of Intercultural Competences

How Broadening Horizons leads to the Development of Intercultural Competences

I would like this post to inspire emerging educational researchers. That’s why I’m going to include a lot of my own experiences.

Currently, in Poland, intercultural competences are developed only during philological studies. While learning a foreign language, we can understand what these competences are and how they are supposed to work. What about the rest of society? Should only foreign language students be ‘citizens of the world’? There are Erasmus type programs that allow all students to study abroad. However, not everyone knows how to take advantage of them.

From an early age, children should be accustomed to diversity and taught that nothing is better or worse. Everyone deserves respect and love. We all have similar needs, despite the colour of our skin. Meanwhile, there is still not enough content like this in the educational programs for the youngest students. When it appears in older classes, it is associated only with the culture of the country whose language they are currently learning.

Beginning my intercultural journey

I started my adventure with interculturalism by volunteering in Vietnam in the small village of Sapa. I taught English there and conducted art classes. A young Vietnamese Hmong couple ran the Homestay. In exchange for working with the local children, I spent quality time with their family, participated in all celebrations, and had meals with them. I met people from different countries and even continents every day. It was an extraordinary and fascinating experience for me.

After a month’s stay, I returned to Warsaw. Nothing was the same as it was before I had left. Even the tea lost its flavour. I felt a huge thirst for travel, and I was hungry to discover, taste and admire new things. I felt a terrible hunger for knowledge. Only then did I understand how much we lose by closing doors and surrounding ourselves with people from the same cultural circle. If it weren’t for this trip, I would not have realized how diligent and hungry for knowledge these children are and how much they care about learning. They can truly appreciate it. Unfortunately, the region lacks English teachers with intercultural experience. The teachers I encountered had little awareness of the use of English in different cultural contexts.

Thanks to my stay in Vietnam (apart from trying durian, drinking fresh coconut juice, making my own spring rolls), I experienced Milton Benett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity myself. I have gone through all the phases, from Denial (Ethnocentric stages) to Integration (Ethnorelative stages). I believe that I will remember this process for the rest of my life.

Exploring the Concept of Intercultural Sensitivity 

It was the beginning of my doctoral studies, and I was eager to explore this concept. So I started looking for universities that interested me in terms of the research they conduct, hoping to complete a short internship or a study trip.

I was able to find a university that not only suited my needs scientifically but was also willing to accept me for a short stay – the first Center for Cultural Psychology in Europe, which was then at the University of Aalborg in Denmark.

The stay in Denmark exceeded my expectations. I cooperated with scientists from all over the world in meetings, seminars, conferences and workshops, which provided a lot of inspiration. At that time, I also had the opportunity to communicate in English on a higher level than before. I met people not only from Europe but also from South America, Asia and the United States. Every Wednesday, a ‘kitchen seminar’ was organized. That was the name of the meetings of scientists from around the world where we discussed one given topic every day. 

Imagine discussing one specific scientific topic from different cultural perspectives. This experience enriched me​​ scientifically. I am still very grateful to the scientists who are developing this Center, who took me under their wings. I think that was a milestone in my scientific development.

ECER and the Emerging Researchers’ Group

Shortly after defending my doctoral dissertation, I learned about the opportunity to participate in the European Educational Research Association Conference (ECER). The Emerging Researcher group was of particular interest to me. I imagined how wonderful it would be to be among young scientists from all over the world. Those are the young people who want to change the educational space. They are brave, and they look at the world with trust and openness. They have broad horizons, and they want to keep learning and improving.

 I learnt that there was an opportunity to receive a conference scholarship. I decided to apply. I was happy to find out that my application was accepted and that I could go to Hamburg!

The organization of the entire conference was excellent, starting with critical, interesting comments that I had the opportunity to hear, to various workshops and events that were organized to fill the time fruitfully. Everything was arranged on a world-class level. During the ERG and EERA conference, I had the opportunity to meet fantastic people from all over the world. We were all one big family.

One of the most interesting events for me was the exchange of personal experiences with women of my age in a similar scientific situation (facilitated by the ERG). Long conversations about our experiences during meals or while sightseeing around the city provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on our lives and goals. The exchange of scientific understanding is always invaluable. Communicating with people so culturally different teaches us humility and greater self-awareness.

It also allows you to understand your location on the map of the world and in space. Finally, it teaches that what is objectively good is not always good in reality. And what’s bad is not only bad. Indeed, there is more than just gray.


Forging lasting friendships through intercultural experiences 

What is the result of all these experiences? First, I teach Intercultural Competences at my university, The Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw. It is in the form of workshops and is aimed at students of education of all years and nationalities.

Apart from fruitful intercultural cooperation, I have gained unforgettable experiences and friendships. I discovered that there is more than a Polish educational space, that dumplings are not only eaten in Poland because they can also be eaten in Argentina (as Empanadas). The concept of marriage can vary between continents and countries, and collective memory has become an inspiring research topic. 

It is impossible to develop intercultural competences without experience with OTHERS. We will never know who we truly are without exposure to foreign cultures. We will never appreciate our country and culture without knowing others. If you want to be an outstanding teacher or scientist, you must have intercultural experience.

Developing intercultural competences through communing with others is a beautiful relationship. Maybe a bit turbulent at first and bringing a bit of fear, but in the end, giving a great sense of satisfaction, security, and fulfilment.

Dr Maja Wenderlich

Dr Maja Wenderlich

Assistant Professor in the Department of Supporting Human Development and Education, The Maria Grzegorzewska University, Warsaw, Poland

References and Further Reading

What is Erasmus+? European Commission:  (05.06.2021)

Curriculum for Primary School in Poland:   (09.06.2021) 

R. Flowers, Ethnic minority education in Viet Nam: challenges and opportunities during COVID-19 outbreak, (04.06.2021)

E. Pachina, My Vietnamese Experience: Challenges for English Learners in Vietnam, (05.06.2021).

M. J. Bennett, 1986, 1993, 2002, 2005, 2011, A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, The Intercultural Development  Research Institute:  (05.06.2021).

AAlborg Univeristy, Denamark: (05.06.2021).

Promoting Emerging Researchers: (05.06.2021)

M. J. Bennett, Becoming interculturally competent. (In): J.S. Wurzel (Ed.), Toward Multiculturalism: A Reader in Multicultural Education. Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

Gu, Intercultural Experience and Teacher Professional Development, (in:) RELC Journal; Volume 36, Issue 1, April 2005, pp. 5–22.

Further Reading

Bennett, M. J., & Wiseman, R. (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The Intercultural Development Inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27(4), 421-443.

Koester, J., & Lustig, M. W. (2015). Intercultural communication competence: Theory, measurement, and application. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 48, 20-21

Martin, J. N. (2015). Revisiting intercultural communication competence: Where to go from here. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 48, 6-8.

Minzaripov R. G., Fakhrutdinova  A. V.,  ,Mardakhaev  L. V., Volenko O. I., ,Varlamova E. Y. (2020) Multicultural Educational Approach Influence on Student’s Development.  International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, 9, 1-5.

Savicki V. (2008). Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation: Theory, Research, and Application in International Education, Stylus Publishing; Illustrated edition.


Fostering Cultural Creativity in Foreign Language Classrooms

Fostering Cultural Creativity in Foreign Language Classrooms

As language is one of the prominent ways in which people express their cultures, language classrooms cannot be isolated from the teaching of cultures. In addition to four basic skills of language, which are listening, speaking, writing, and reading, culture is suggested to be regarded as the fifth skill of language classroom (Kramsch, 1993). Culture can be defined as concepts carrying historical roots represented through symbols, characters, or interactions in the daily lives of people (Geertz, 1973).

Culture comes from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate, which implies developing and pursuing common goals. It entails being a part of a group that shares a mutual past, collective thinking, and a language (Kramsch, 1998).

Using language activities to help student develop a multicultural understanding

While the main emphasis of the language lesson is generally on the culture of the target language, providing a perspective through students’ own culture helps them to develop multicultural understanding. When the students recognize and evaluate the values of their own culture and the target culture, they can better adapt to cultural differences and do not have a sense of intimidation or alienation (Byram, Lloyd & Schneider, 1995; Byram, Holmes & Savvides, 2013).

UNESCO (2017) highlights culture as one of the key steps to consider while developing textbooks and materials. Knowing the culture helps the learner gain perspective and better communicate out of the classroom context. However, developing cultural awareness is not a task that can be handled quickly through a few activities, books, or exercises when limited exposure to language is taken into consideration during foreign language learning. Cultural diversity needs to be represented through content, images, depictions of genders, races, and religions. If teachers design materials themselves, they need to pay attention to such inclusive elements.

Using digital tools in foreign language lessons to improve cultural awareness

Increasing use of digital media positively affects learning about culture in language classrooms as students can work on the target language while practising their 21st-century skills. Language classrooms may not always have a multicultural structure if the students come from the same background. By integrating multimedia and web tools in the classroom, learners can reach out to peers from different countries, share their experiences in practising the language and overcome some of the challenges they face while learning. Interactions through social networking platforms, emails, web 2.0 tools, recordings, and video conferences with target language speakers are among contemporary ways to improve cultural awareness and connection (Murray & Bolinger, 2001;Wu, Marek & Chen, 2013).

Teachers can help the students get to know the culture and provide a network to make them witness a culturally diverse setting. Teachers should pave the way for creating a harmonious classroom, as is indicated in the photo above, welcoming all races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, and disabilities.

Practical tips for teachers to promote cultural diversity in foreign language classrooms

Nowadays, language teachers try to focus more on communicative techniques and blend them with process and product-based instructions (Richards, 2006). Projects, portfolios, learning journals, and collaborative works are popular in designing learner-centered lessons. While giving such assignments, teachers can encourage the use of authentic materials that represent different ways of life and communicative styles. Even if there is no access to technological resources, adapting lesson plans, curriculums, and materials to implement cultural teaching can be a good solution.

In addition to using coursebooks or teacher-made instructional materials, integrating different teaching resources allows student autonomy to have dynamic learning of culture in language classrooms.

Here are 12 simple ways of familiarizing students with cultures and fostering cultural creativity: 

  • greeting each other in various languages in the morning
  • reading about or bringing realia like food, clothing, crafts or any kind of daily objects from different cultures
  • playing music from other cultures and doing some dictation activities with lyrics
  • bringing in authentic materials like newspaper or magazine articles, posters about the lesson topic of the week and creating a bulletin board in the classroom or a page on portfolio websites
  • encouraging students to display learning journals, diaries or making posters out of them to display on the bulletin boards or portfolio websites
  • inviting or video conferencing with a native speaker or a target language speaker who also has proficient knowledge about the culture
  • communicating online with penpals from the target culture
  • introducing and practising cultural etiquettes
  • practising non-verbal cues like facial expressions or gestures from the target culture
  • writing collaborative online blogs, recording podcasts or videos about cultural elements
  • celebrating the special days or festivals of target cultures along with the ones in local culture to embrace diversity and awareness
  • organizing a cultural day in which students introduce concepts or materials from the target cultures

Teachers often want to focus on teaching culture, but they may not know how to implement the cultural content in the lessons or may experience other constraints like lack of material, time, or planning (Castro, Sercu & Méndez García, 2004; Young & Sachdev, 2011). Taking simple steps to engage in activities like the ones suggested above can help boost interest in cultural topics and raise cultural awareness. Such a positive classroom atmosphere and the dynamic between students and teachers promote cultural awareness for improved interaction.

Dilara Özel

Dilara Özel

PhD Student and Research Assistant at Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, Turkey

Dilara Özel is a PhD student and also a research assistant in Guidance and Psychological Counseling program at Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, Turkey. She received her master’s degree from the same department in METU with a master thesis titled An Examination of Needs and Issues at Refugee- Receiving Schools in Turkey from the Perspectives of School Counselors. She is an alumnus of the Faculty of Education Bachelor’s Program in Guidance and Psychological Counseling department at Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. She worked as a volunteer at several projects and trained in peace education, conflict resolution, and human rights. Then, she gave short training sessions on negotiation and mediation techniques. Dilara worked as a school counsellor at a private college with preschoolers. Her research interests are peace education, multicultural education and refugee studies.

Ayşegül Yurtsever

Ayşegül Yurtsever

English teacher, Bursa, Turkey

Ayşegül Yurtsever is an English teacher in Bursa, Turkey. She completed her master’s degree in English Language Teaching from Hacettepe University in Ankara with a thesis titled A Teacher Inquiry into the Effects of Teacher’s Motivational Activities on Language Learners’ Classroom Motivation. She holds a B.A in ELT from Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. She previously worked as an assistant language teacher in Belgium. Her research interests include the psychology of language learning, self and group dynamics.


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Byram, M., Lloyd, K., & Schneider, R. (1995). Defining and describing ‘cultural awareness’. The Language Learning Journal,12(1), 5-8. doi:10.1080/09571739585200321

Castro, P., Sercu, L., & Méndez García, M. C. (2004). Integrating language‐and‐culture teaching: An investigation of Spanish teachers’ perceptions of the objectives of foreign language education. Intercultural Education, 15(1), 91-104. doi:10.1080/1467598042000190013

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (1998). Language and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murray, G. L., & Bollinger, D. J. (2001). Developing Cross-Cultural Awareness: Learning Through the Experiences of Others.TESL Canada Journal, 19(1), 62-72. doi:10.18806/tesl.v19i1.920

Wu, W. V., Marek, M., & Chen, N. (2013). Assessing cultural awareness and linguistic competency of EFL learners in a CMC-based active learning context. System, 41(3), 515-528. doi:10.1016/j.system.2013.05.004

Richards, J. C. (2006). Communicative language teaching today. New York: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO. (2017). Making textbook content inclusive: A focus on religion, gender, and culture. Paris

Young, T. J., & Sachdev, I. (2011). Intercultural communicative competence: Exploring English language teachers’ beliefs and practices. Language Awareness, 20(2), 81-98. doi:10.1080/09658416.2010.540328

Further Reading

Byram, M. & Grundy, P. (eds.) (2002). Context and culture in language teaching and learning. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters