Youth, Partnerships, and the Future of Educational Change: Q and A with Kolbrún Pálsdóttir

This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview presents a conversation with Kolbrún Pálsdóttir about her work inside and outside of schools. Pálsdóttir is the Dean and an Associate professor at the School of Education, University of Iceland. Before becoming a teacher and researcher in 2007, she was an educator and department leader at Reykjavík and took an active role in the development of out-of-school centres for young school-aged children. The LtC series is produced by the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research AssociationJennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

LtC: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with anti-racist, equity, and justice-oriented systems. To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities.  Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?   

Kolbrún Pálsdóttir: I strongly believe that the educational system(s) created within societies are the key for a better future. In fact, that is one of the main reasons why I was drawn into the field of education, as a student, a professional, an educator, a researcher, a teacher and a collaborator. Looking at our education system in Iceland during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is apparent that vulnerable students were hit the hardest (Pálsdóttir, 2020; Pálsdóttir et al., 2021), as they were unable to access school resources and support during pandemic restrictions and school closings. Although very few K-12 schools had to close in Iceland, due to effective pandemic responses, access to both schools and leisure-care programs were more limited as were the services they provided. 

I am an extended education researcher and a leader, and through my professional life I have always explored how individuals flourish and develop in both formal and non-formal social settings. As a research field, extended education focuses on the important role out-of-school and extra-curricular activities play in children’s and youth’s learning and development. In my work, I have set out to examine how partnership can be developed between educators from different professions, such as teachers and out-of-school-personnel, and their practices can become aligned to better serve students on their education paths. A cross-disciplinary approach is, in my view, the most fruitful way forward for us, both as individuals and communities, to tackle and develop realistic responses to serious local and global challenges. As a professional in out-of-school programs in Reykjavík, I quickly realized how important the informal setting of the out-of-school program was to support the social inclusion of all children. My research shows that participation in the out- of-school programs is particularly important for students who, for myriad reasons, struggle in school, for example because Icelandic is not their first language, or because they have strengths that are situated on the periphery of formal school learning (Pálsdóttir, 2012, 2017). These challenges are particularly important to educators today as Iceland has transformed into a multi-cultural society within the space of few decades. For example, since 2000, the immigrant population in Iceland has risen from 2.6% to 13.5%. We now have schools in Reykjavik where the majority of students for whom Icelandic is not their first language. 

When it comes to educating educators and teachers, it is important to “walk the talk,” practice what we preach. Equity is one of the guiding values of the University of Iceland (UI), and at the School of Education (SoE). We are proud of our increasingly diverse student population. Our educational two-year diploma program for young people with intellectual disability is one of a kind in Iceland and creates a dynamic and critical dialogue on both educational access and the essence of higher education (see Stefánsdóttir & Björnsdóttir, 2016). The SoE also offers both an undergraduate and graduate program in International Studies Education which is taught in English. It is a popular program drawing students from all over the hemisphere as well as Icelandic students with immigrant backgrounds (Halldórsdóttir & Gollifer, 2018). Our teacher education programs have a growing body of immigrant students, particularly in early education and pre-school staff in Iceland include many with an immigrant background. Currently, our aim is to offer Icelandic courses as a part of our five-year teacher program. A new law on teacher education (2019) stipulates that certified teachers should be able to teach in Icelandic. Given the dire need to create a more diverse workforce within our schools, it is a priority to make teacher education more accessible for immigrant students.

For example, the way some of my pioneer colleagues at the University of Iceland managed to create access to higher education to a student group previously excluded, (i.e. developmentally disabled students), is amazing and transforms our ideas of higher education, making it an inclusive social practice. Of course, there are obstacles and challenges to consider and overcome. An important first step is to look at education more holistically than the “conventional” process of schooling, and to involve students and their families on their own terms in the educational endeavor.

Lead the Change: A theme in your work is the need to listen, respect and respond to children’s voices in their educational experiences, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience? 

KP: Since my own experiences as a student, I have been concerned with how educators can be better equipped to help every individual flourish. Like many, I have witnessed countless unused opportunities to empower young people, whether in or outside the classroom, and I argue that many of those missed opportunities can be traced to adults tending to see young people as incapable and/or not skilled enough to be involved in decision-making. As a doctoral student, I became fascinated by the idea of how childhood is socially constructed and changes over time and place (see for example James & Prout, 1990/2015). Childhood studies became one of the theoretical lenses through which I explored the socially contextual practices of out-of-school programs in Reykjavík and its connection to schooling. Thus, children were one of my main sources of information as they gave their accounts, both verbally and through drawings on their experiences of leisure and school (Pálsdóttir, 2012; 2019). In retrospect, I could have taken an even more radical approach to involve the children in the research process, for example by becoming co-researchers. Today, participatory educational research with children is an acknowledged method and increasingly used to inform educational policy (see for example Cohen et. al., 2020 from the US context). 

At the time of my doctoral thesis, however, it was considered progressive, at least in the Icelandic context, to consider children’s perspectives as a valuable part of educational research. I have learned that it is hard to move forward and create a dynamic and effective educational process without considering the perspectives of young people who have skills, experiences, and insights that are of great value. Young people tell us how they navigate sometimes unequal education paths through our school system, how social media shapes their lives and experiences, and how the current global challenges, such as global warming, migration, poverty, and war, affects their understanding of themselves and their place in the future. Bringing young people to the table is not only a way to get their views, but also a method to empower them and develop their character and social skills.

It gives youth a sense of belonging to have their voice heard, something that students too rarely experience within school but more often in out-of-school programs, as was evident in my doctoral research. This sense of purpose, sense of belonging is one of the pre-requisites for believing in yourself and achieving one’s goals (Pálsdóttir et al., forthcoming).

“Bringing young people to the table is not only a way to get their views, but also a method to empower them and develop their character and social skills.”

LtC: In some of your recent work responding to the COVID-19 crisis, you call on the educational community to embrace innovation and inventiveness to “strengthen the fabric of society.” What might this look like in action? What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students to facilitate a better path forward?  

KP: The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly tested the core fabric of our global societies and local communities. It has been fascinating to witness the collective responses of professionals, whether within health, welfare, or education, all of whom who have been under tremendous pressure during this time. There are three areas where educators and scholars should focus to align their resources and build foundations for the future:

Community partnerships are the key to strengthen our institutions and set up holistic support for our students and their families. I am proud of the Icelandic education system and the way government, health authorities, and the education sector joined forces to minimize the disruption of students’ lives and their education. One of the positive learnings that can be drawn is that education and learning can take place in various ways as many teachers used digital and social mediums to connect to their students and create multi-fold learning platforms. I was also proud of the Icelandic education academic community who set up a response coalition webpage in April of 2020 to provide recommendations and tools on how parents and educators could support the learning and well-being of children during the pandemic.

Educational practices need to be made relevant to students and revolve around current issues, rather than remote future skills. For many reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic creates new opportunities to rethink our current practices. During the pandemic, some upper-secondary students reported they had more opportunities for independent study and felt empowered to use diverse mediums and learning sources for their school projects. Thinking about what really matters and what ultimately is the goal of education: to empower each individual to flourish and become an active participant in society – should encourage teachers to listen to students´ voices and use both formal and informal methods to activate and support individual learning. One important pandemic lesson is that Teachers need to be flexible and adaptive and continue to use diverse platforms for interactive learning to take place. This is such a complex endeavor and becomes impossible without government support, local resources, and professional authority and freedom of teachers and other educational professionals. 

“Teachers need to be flexible and adaptive and continue to use diverse platforms for interactive learning to take place.”

Educational innovation is crucial to better equip our students and teachers to set up creative solutions to current and future challenges. Here we need to think about not only digital and technical innovation, but also about social innovation, which includes restructuring our organization of previous social practices, developing new approaches and organizational structures, such as setting up educational infrastructures (alignment) between schools, out-of-school programs and homes. My main worry centers around how we can prevent the “system” from sliding right back on its previous path. It is important that we do not spend time trying only to fill in blanks from 2020. Rather we need to focus on what our students learned during the pandemic, not least about our global context and collective humanitarian issues.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

KP: First and foremost, I think educators need to be ambitious and courageous to go in new directions and that educational administrators´ key role should be to create a culture and infrastructure that fuels professional learning, teamwork, and innovation. Such a culture rests on the professional leadership of educational professionals which needs to be respected and nurtured through continuous professional development and collaboration as part of the work duties. In my leadership role as dean of the School of Education, I consider it my core duty to work with my colleagues to set up partnerships between diverse stakeholders: students in Iceland, parents, teachers and educators, municipalities, industries, the government, and the public. By collaborating with Reykjavík educational authorities, we have linked researchers and professionals to collaborate on research, innovation, and development projects in education; we have set up collaboration with a non-profit association who organizes educational programs for young people with mental health issues; we have organized educational programs for parents with the National Parent Association; and more. Our gains from these partnerships are tremendous and are clearly visible, as we have had an increase in student attainment. Study programs too have been enriched with the expertise of educational professionals who have joined our forces to invite students to get to know the current challenges and opportunities of our schools and community programs. 

Creating this reciprocal relationship between academics and those currently engaged in educational practices at different school levels, in leisure programs, and other social contexts has been at the heart of our mission and will continue to be so.

Education research is an interdisciplinary endeavor and calls for researchers with diverse academic and professional backgrounds.The researcher´s role is to shed light on and analyze the educational system, the educational process, students’ outcomes, and social and cultural contexts. The findings of this interdisciplinary research should feed into policy and practices through multi-faced processes and both formal and informal partnerships. The implementation of change should come from within the educational system and is mainly in the hands of teachers, educators, and school leaders. 

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future? 

KP: There has certainly been an increase in global awareness of the importance of the education system for societies to flourish, as international comparative databases such as PISA, have been developed and OECD countries compete for higher rankings. Comparative data on student learning outcomes creates an incentive to discuss student outcomes, but also to discuss the educational system and the overarching goals of education. However, at the same time the strong global push towards managerialism, accountability, and efficiency PISA has created in education is questionable, to say the least. It has fed an illusioned belief that there exists one model or one method out there, that can fit all students and their needs. 

It is often overlooked that educational “truths” need to be interpreted and explored through social contextual lenses, such as cultural structure and values, and through the realities and experiences of people and communities. It is important to remember that the core aim of education should always be to help every individual to flourish and to be able to participate in society. We are facing complex challenges that call for both global and local responses. The pandemic has certainly reminded us that nature can uproot our daily lives and change them in unexpected ways. Many nations are also facing complex challenges stemming from human and/or natural causes. Icelanders, for example, need to be prepared to adapt their lives to earthquakes and eruptions, and we are now witnessing our magnificent glaciers melt away at an extreme rate due to global warming. My hope is that we continue to strengthen our education institutions to foster the multifold and amazing capabilities of our students, so they can sensibly and passionately work together to create better societies.

Reference

Cohen, A.K., Ozer, E.J., Abraczinskas, M., Voight, A., Kirshner, B. and Devinney, M. (2020). Opportunities for youth participatory action research to inform school district decisions, Evidence & Policy, 16(2), 317–329, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15649816542957 

Halldórsdóttir Gudjonsson, B.E. & Gollifer, S.E. (2018). A view towards internationalisation at the University of Iceland: Lessons learned from the International studies in Education Programme. Netla, https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11815/1623

James, A. & Prout, A. (Eds.) (1990/2015 2nd ed.). Constructing and reconstructing childhood. Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. Falmer Press.

Pálsdóttir, Kolbeinsson and Gunnþórsdóttir, (forthcoming). Belonging in the school: Factors affecting the perception of primary school students. Netla.

Pálsdóttir, K. (2020). Lessons from a Pandemic. The Educational System Evolving in the Time of COVID-19. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 86(5), pp. 7-9.

Pálsdóttir, K., Arnarsson, A.M & S. Kristjánsdóttir. (2020). Reynsla stjórnenda félagsmiðstöðva og frístundaheimila á tímum samkomubanns vegna COVID-19 vorið 2020. [The perspectives of leisure-program leaders at the time of restrictions due to COVID-19]. Netla, http://netla.hi.is/serrit/2020/menntakerfi_heimili_covid19/08.pdf. DOI: https://doi.org/10.24270/serritnetla.2020.15

Pálsdóttir, K. (2019). Connecting school and leisure-time centres. Children as brokers. In Dockett, S., Perry, B. & Einarsdóttir J. (Eds.). Listening to children’s advice about starting school and school age care (pp. 99-115). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Pálsdóttir, K. (2017) Integrated learning in schools: An Icelandic case study, Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 2(4), pp.215-228.

Pálsdóttir, K. & Kristjánsdóttir, K. (2017). Leisure-time centres for 6-9-year-old children in Iceland; Policies, practices and challenges. International Journal for Research on Extended Education, 5 (2-2017), pp. 211-216. https://doi.org/10.3224/ijree.v5i2.08

Pálsdóttir, K. (2016). Hin hugsandi sjálfsvera. Formlegt og óformlegt nám skoðað í ljósi heimspeki Páls Skúlasonar. [The Reflective Being-for-itself. Formal and informal learning examined in the light of Páll Skúlason´s philosophy]. Netla, https://netla.hi.is/serrit/2016/menntun_mannvit_og_margbreytileiki_greinar_fra_menntakviku/009.pdf

Pálsdóttir, K. (2012). Care, learning and leisure: The organisational identity of afterschool centres for six- to nine-year old children in Reykjavik (unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Iceland, School of Education. http://hdl.handle.net/1946/16754

Stefánsdóttir, G.V & Björnsdóttir, K. (2016). ‘I am a college student’ Postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15017419.2015.1114019

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