PhD defence: Teachers and school exchanges in the Dutch-German border area

Date of news: 27 October 2021

With cross-border exchanges between secondary school students, the focus so far has been on the design of exchanges, the students, and their learning processes. Within the school exchange project Nachbarsprache & buurcultuur, Jana Hermann investigated the perspective of the teacher. On 28 October she will defend her thesis.

School exchange

In 2017, Radboud University Nijmegen and the Universität Duisburg-Essen received 3.4 million euros to stimulate secondary school exchanges in the German-Dutch border region. The aim of the Nachbarsprache & buurcultuur project was to promote interdisciplinary and cross-border cooperation through school exchanges and to prepare young people for life in the multilingual and multicultural society of the Euregio Rhine-Waal, the largest of the five Dutch-German Euroregions in terms of population.

By now, more than 6000 students, 130 teachers, and about 50 school leaders from Germany and the Netherlands are involved in the project. ‘During exchange meetings, a mutual exchange is not only brought about by simple contact’, PhD student Jana Hermann explains. Exchange situations - even if they seem so 'easy' in the Dutch-German border region - do not necessarily lead to rapprochement or communication. It is very important how the exchange meetings are organised. Teachers play a major role here, as they are the ones who organise the meetings and accompany the students. The success of cross-border encounters also depends on the support of the participants by the teachers. In other words: without teachers, there is no meeting and no exchange.’

New emphasis

Although the added value of teachers is recognised, teachers and their experiences are hardly addressed in research on exchanges. With her research, Hermann brings a new emphasis to the field. Hermann: 'The subject of school exchanges is hardly ever addressed in teacher training. For a stronger embedding of exchange didactics in teacher training, the perspective of the teachers involved in the school exchanges is essential. What skills do they need and what is their vision of exchange?'

To investigate the perspective of Dutch and German teachers on school exchanges, Hermann conducted interviews with 31 teachers participating in the project in combination with a survey collecting socio-demographic and other biographical data relevant to the exchange. In addition, insight into practice was gained through the analysis of 37 observation protocols of the encounter situations. By analysing the data obtained, the different views of teachers regarding their vision of the exchange, the competencies required during the exchange, and their vision of their role during the school exchange were identified.

Exchange model

Hermann compiled all the findings into an exchange model for teachers in cross-border school exchanges. The special thing about this model is that it was created from the teachers' perspective and the exchange practice’, explains Hermann. The detailed content analyses showed the variety and diversity of teachers' views on exchange and the competencies they believe are necessary for school exchanges. In addition, it emerged that they not only take on a role during the exchange but also, depending on the situation, switch between active, participating, and passive accompanying roles, which go beyond the 'conventional' role of a classroom teacher.

Hermann's research makes it clear that regardless of the different backgrounds (nationality, subjects taught, type of school, proximity to borders), the Dutch and German teachers share a basic attitude: from the point of view of the teachers participating in the Nachbarsprache & buurcultuur project, school exchanges are something personal. Hermann: ‘They are a matter of the heart and an enrichment for all involved, with learning together, understanding each other, and meeting each other in the foreground. The results indicate that further development of the content of the school exchanges is needed and that teachers of subjects other than (foreign) languages can also be involved. The teachers develop their own competencies and see exchanges as an opportunity for their further development.’

New insights

The statements of the interviewed teachers contribute through both additional and new insights to the expansion of previous studies on exchanges and teacher competencies, says Hermann. ‘The (further) training of teachers can be extended to enrich the extracurricular and classroom exchanges. The exchange model can serve as a basis for future cross-border exchanges for interested teachers of foreign languages as well as for teachers in other subject groups. My research focused on the situation of Dutch-German school exchanges in the border region, but the results can also be applied to similar cross-border exchange situations and can also serve as a basis and orientation for other cross-border projects.’

Jana Hermann will defend her thesis on 28 October.