Diversity is the new normal in Finnish schools

Increasing intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity in schools is an equality issue. In the long term, the goal is to help students from different backgrounds to integrate better into the Finnish school system and society.

Tapani Innanen, university lecturer in religious education, leads the Faculty of Theology’s KuKaS project, focused on developing teaching and counselling on sensitivity towards cultural and religious differences.

According to Innanen, Finnish schools should help their pupils view culture in more flexible and diverse terms.

 “There are many different kinds of worldviews: cultural, religious and those in between. The most delicate cultural areas and concepts are typically very much tied to the ethics of the related worldview.”

According to Innanen, Finland has a highly educated teaching body, able to react deftly to new situations.

 “However, events such as the 2017 stabbing in Turku and the consequent judicial proceedings for what is believed to be Finland’s first trial for a terrorism-motivated crime, pose a tremendous challenge for discussing the news in a way that is sensitive to differences between cultures and worldviews,” Innanen muses.

What is intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity?

Intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity means the willingness and ability to reflect on one’s own cultural background, worldview and concept of humanity while engaging in understanding interaction with people of different cultural backgrounds and worldviews. Sensitivity to different worldviews also means being sensitive to the different ways individuals interpret and practice their beliefs. Even though sensitivity fundamentally means a positive and understanding attitude, it does not mean that everything should be accepted. Instead, sensitivity provides tools for negotiating issues which relate to intercultural and inter-worldview factors.

Intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity not just an immigration issue

One of the central duties of the KuKaS project is to examine what the shared values in our schools are. In other words, which aspects of Finnish tradition are important and worthy of preservation, and which could be replaced with new versions?

 “Asking that schools promote cultural diversity is not a statement against preserving things which are considered traditionally Finnish,” Innanen emphasises.

“Schools also have a prominent duty to socialise their pupils. They pass on the prevalent cultural values and traditions of the surrounding society,” he continues.

Major regional differences within Finland pose an additional challenge. For example, there are localities outside large urban centres which even today have upper-secondary schools where ethics, the subject focusing on worldviews beyond Christianity, have never been taught.

On the other hand, Finland has always been culturally and religiously diverse.

”Pupils with a Greek Orthodox background and the large number of Russian immigrants are a prominent feature in eastern Finland. Then we have the Sami issue in northern Finland, and there are villages in Ostrobothnia where the population is either significantly or entirely made up of members of the Laestadian or Awakening Christian movements,” explans Innanen.

Schools in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area can also be very different. In some areas, it’s still rare to encounter diversity, while in others, the number of pupils whose native language is not Finnish is increasing rapidly.

“In some urban areas, fewer than half of the population subscribe to Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Christianity,” says Innanen.

Aiming to make diversity normal in schools

According to Anuleena Kimanen, a postdoctoral researcher working on the project, the challenges surrounding diversity issues in schools are typically of a very practical nature. For example, they may relate to language, communication or the organisation of types of teaching which some pupils cannot attend.

“We offer teachers tools to address any diversity-related conflicts that arise, and to prevent such situations. For pupils, we want to increase their capacity of understanding difference.”

Ultimately, the project promotes equality in education.

“We want to support the integration of various minorities into education and employment. In that sense, our goal in a nutshell is to build a better society,” says Kimanen.

The project has shown that there is a high demand for academic experts in religious studies: schools need support for understanding every kind of belief.

“We’ve received more requests for cooperation than we’ve been able to answer,” say Innanen and Kimanen.

Recognising one’s own cultural connections key to addressing prejudice

When intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity in teaching is discussed, many are of the opinion that schools should avoid addressing all things that run counter to the beliefs of certain groups.

According to Kimanen, such an approach renders difference invisible, meaning that students who feel different may feel increasingly uncomfortable.

“As there is a great deal of diversity in schools, we must be able to discuss any topic. Erasing issues causes more conflict.”

Based on quantitative studies, schools and their teaching staff represent a broad range of opinions regarding the recognition of diversity.

“Even people used to multicultural and multi-religious environments may have blind spots, as they don’t realise they are looking at the situation through a cultural lens they consider normal,” Kimanen emphasises.

− “We should bear in mind that some people hold extremely conservative values and opinions, while others may be highly secular and consider religion only marginally important.”

KuKaS – Developing intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity teaching and counselling

The KuKas project for intercultural and inter-worldview teaching and counselling uses scientific knowledge to plan, provide and evaluate educational modules which support the development of intercultural and inter-worldview sensitivity. Such educational modules are carried out in the basic and continuing education of teachers and counsellors.

Project goals:

  • Help teachers and counsellors become increasingly aware of the impact of their own cultural background and worldview. In other words, they become conscious of their own assumptions and values and their relative nature.
  • Expand the repertoire of teachers and counsellors to help them see more alternative interpretations and procedures in situations where different cultures or worldviews interact in schools. Provide theoretical categories of, e.g., different concepts of humanity or styles of learning, but avoid associating them too closely with specific cultural groups.
  • Encourage teachers and counsellors to use reasoned solutions based on self-reflection.
  • Support teachers and counsellors in using alternative interpretations to process any negative emotions that may arise when cultures and worldviews interact.

The KuKaS project cooperates with the Teachers Can! project of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences as well as the DivEd project of the University of Turku.

The training and research are coordinated by the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology, the Faculty of Educational Sciences and the University of Jyväskylä’s Department of Teacher Education (Faculty of Education and Psychology).

Next autumn, a compilation/summary of the research results from the project will be drafted. The intention is to apply for further funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Read more: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/kulttuuri-ja-katsomussensitiivisyys/in-english/