09 Dec 2019
by Jan Springob, Jan Veldscholten

Mobility in teacher education: a plea for figures



Today in Winter Forum Week, we investigate an under-studied item on the internationalisation research agenda: mobility in teacher training. Do teachers-to-be have access to international experiences, and if so how does it impact their intercultural sensitivity?

The title of this article may seem naive: too short and too simple. We aim to show, however, that figures can be a fruitful starting point to introduce, promote, reflect on and rethink measures that could be – and may already have been – taken to claim the necessary space for the idea of internationalisation as a major aspect of teacher education.

The importance and benefits of intercultural sensitisation have until now been largely neglected in this field. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, only two modes of ‘best practice’ exist to send students abroad: first, students of a modern foreign language are expected to spend at least 90 days in another country; second, students are offered the possibility to complete a practical phase in a school abroad, for which they will receive six credit points (a Bachelor’s degree comprises 180 credits.) Although these two approaches are a good start, they are by no means sufficient.

First steps

The Centre for Teacher Education at the University of Cologne (UoC) has been collecting data on its students’ international mobility since July 2015. With all students completing a short survey upon finishing their degree, more than 5000 records have already been obtained. In a nutshell, students are being asked if they went abroad and, if so, where, when, for how long and in what context. Initial evaluations are in line with other major surveys – such as that conducted by the German Academic Exchange Service in 2015 – and show that only one quarter of all trainee teachers go abroad. Most of these study a modern foreign language, which means that their stay abroad is mandatory. It is therefore clear that very few students venture abroad on a voluntary basis as part of their studies. After further scrutiny of the data, we were also able to identify certain age ranges and subjects within teacher education that provide an extremely low number of outgoing students, such as primary school education and the (sadly infamous) STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Therefore, taking a closer look was worthwhile.

Based on these findings, crucial questions include: Why don’t more students go abroad? Can obstacles be defined that keep future teachers from going? Or, looking at it from a different angle: Is it even necessary for students to go abroad, and do they actually acquire crucial intercultural competencies? Many students in teacher education are concerned that a stay abroad is more time-consuming than profitable. Generally, it cannot provide them with as many credits as they would have obtained if they had stayed at home. This results from a general lack of international curricula in teacher education programmes in higher education worldwide, which hampers the exchange of students in the first place. Moreover, the complex and somewhat inflexible curricula at UoC often prevent staff from recognising students’ accomplishments abroad.

An increasing number of outgoing and incoming students is not in itself a mark of quality

Some initial ideas have already been set into action to counteract this tendency. A stay abroad should pay off on a personal and academic level and should not be considered a loss of time. The International Office and the Centre for Teacher Education at UoC are providing support to bring together the main players in teacher education – namely the faculties and their respective departments – and connect them jointly to other universities around the globe. The aim is to ensure that study-related stays abroad (ideally combined with an internship at a partner school) will ultimately provide more credits that will be recognised ‘at home’. Due to the inter-faculty degree programmes in Germany, this process is a challenge.

Quantity and quality

On a quantitative level, we are reliant on a continuous supply of data generated from the survey to get a deeper notion of all the aspects that might prevent students from going abroad. On a qualitative level, it would be highly interesting to try to measure the level of intercultural competencies that students acquire at home and abroad. It would also be interesting to see whether the duration of a stay abroad had a noticeable effect on these competencies. In addition, we have to accept that it can be perfectly reasonable for a student to stay at home. In this regard, we must focus more on how and to what extent we can improve the idea of Internationalisation at Home. Seminar-based concepts, summer schools, international conferences, guest lecturers and an increase in the number of lecturers and students with migrant backgrounds are areas that are already being explored.

We need reliable numbers to generate an overall picture that will allow us to gauge the ratio of supply and demand (and potential) and map out a realistic future outlook. Ideas for qualitative assessments will emerge from this process. This article could be taken as an incentive or even as an illustration of best practice – not least because UoC’s approach has already borne fruit in the ongoing internationalisation of the institution’s teacher education programmes. Ultimately, an international, intercultural and diverse classroom is not an idea of the future but a reality that we have to face and that we can use to our advantage now, to provide future teachers with “the necessary skills to work with a diverse body of students including ethnic, religious, linguistic and sexual minorities; as well as students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those with special educational needs”. The internationalisation of teacher education should play a major role, but all participants have to constantly test its value. An increasing number of outgoing and incoming students is not in itself a mark of quality; reliable and detailed figures are needed to enable constant and profound evaluation.

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