Reflections on the IAP during COVID-19
Jenny Cui (Queen’s University)

May, 2020

After many months of preparation, Nord University was excited to welcome the first cohort of Teacher Education students from Queen’s University who were selected to complete their International Alternative Practicum (IAP) credit through a CANOPY-led mobility program. Collaboration with with Principal Even Ågnes and Practicum Supervisors Katrine Lekang Eiterjord and Ida Engan from Bankgata Middle School in Bodø had finally culminated in a lively month-long itinerary of classroom placements and capstone project development work.

Unfortunately, the scheduled start of this exchange—15 March 2020—coincided with the sudden onset of the global COVID-19 crisis, forcing all mobility activities to be cancelled for an indeterminate period.

Queen’s University student, Jenny Cui, shared her unprecedented experience with an alternate International Alternative Practicum.

Bankgata Middle School, Bodø
– March 2020 –

I have just flown halfway around the world. I am three days away from commencing an exciting practicum opportunity, hosted by Nord University and Bankgata Middle School in Bodø, Norway, for my Teacher’s Education Program at Queen’s University. Before this placement, I took a week’s vacation and travelled for a few days in Barcelona with another IAP student and we are now in Paris, France. My phone chimes – it’s an email:

IAP (International Alternative Practicum) in Norway – Cancelled

I learn that schools and universities in Norway have closed and that practicums have been cancelled. Stunned, and with heavy hearts, we immediately book our flights home. Thus, our journey had ended before it could even begin. I am devastated.

– Rewind Three Months –

I am scrolling through Facebook when I see:

Still looking for an Alt-Prac opportunity? We have a new partnership with Nord University in Norway with a $500 stipend per student. Interested in the opportunity? Email the International Coordinator for the Faculty of Education at Queen’s.

As I was still in the process of choosing my IAP preferences, I reached out to learn more. I was provided a brochure with all necessary information to apply. The more I read about the program and placement, the more attracted to it I became. The 2020 CANOPY (Canada-Norway Pedagogy Partnership for Innovation and Inclusion in Education) theme of Educational Leadership aligned perfectly with my concentration in the Teacher’s Education program: Leadership in Schools. Its focus 

on innovation, in particular, drew me in because I believe that teaching students to think innovatively is a valuable skill for the twenty-first century. As educators, we lead everyday. The alternative practicum reflected my personal interests and looked like it would provide me the opportunity to further explore first-hand, and to better understand, pedagogy in Norway. I was excited about the prospect of being immersed in its deep history and culture and had high hopes of seeing the northern lights in person!

– Fast Forward to Today –
What began as whispers of a possible virus outbreak in Wuhan, China has now become the pandemic known as COVID-19—a virus that has affected the whole world socially, culturally, and economically in ways recently unimaginable. One especially difficult impact has been widespread school closures across the globe that forced students, educators, and pupils out of classrooms and into Zoom rooms. It has now been five whole months since I landed back in Toronto and the adjustment to the (hopefully) temporary changes to everyday life remain a difficult situation for many.
Online meeting with supervisor Dr. Nayr Ibrahim from Nord University

Disappointed by the cancellation of my IAP, I reached out to Heather at Nord and Erin at Queen’s – the two administrative coordinators of the CANOPY Project – in hopes of pursuing a remote placement from my home in Ontario, Canada. Both universities were enthusiastically on board! In place of the original plan, an independent research project of my choice, under the supervision of Associate Professor Dr. Nayr Ibrahim from the Faculty of Education and Arts at Nord University, was put forward. This process involved regular online calls which began with us brainstorming research topics for creating a questionnaire and which concluded with a write-up about the practice of innovation in education in Ontario—whether it be teaching innovation or innovative teaching observed by pre-service teachers at Queen’s University. Although I was unable to experience firsthand the education system in Norway, this collaboration helped me gain an international perspective on how relativity plays a role in how we view education. It was interesting to discover the distinctive factors embedded in the Norwegian curriculum, including, but not limited to: a focus on the interdisciplinary topics, that is, heath & life skills, democracy & citizenship, as well as on sustainable development, where the teachers ultimately have full control over what is taught in the classroom and over choice of materials.

Even though I was initially disappointed in not being able to partake in a teaching experience abroad, I learned a lot from this research project which has provided me with a new perspective on education. There is a need for more conversation surrounding what innovation in education is and how we can achieve it in the classroom. I found, through qualitative data, that pre-service teachers had different notions of what was considered to be ‘teaching innovation’ based on their unique experiences with the education system. Increased collaboration between educators, targeted teacher training, and interdisciplinary teaching are needed to move forward. This has since made me reflect on my own teaching practices and experiences.

In the near future, I see myself teaching and working towards becoming a Department Head, with an aspiration to pursue further education in the field of curriculum development. There are various ways to approach pedagogy. For me personally, I would like to incorporate innovation in my teaching through theme-based learning, deep learning, interactive/experiential approaches, increased collaboration between staff, students, parents, and more. Educators play a huge role in the development of an individual, and I hope to create more student autonomy in how they learn.

Like many others, I hope to provide learners with the materials and resources they need to succeed. I wish to push students to WANT to learn, to inspire them to continue to research, to continue to search for knowledge independently beyond the walls of a classroom.

Cultural competence is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry. This understanding informs and expands teaching practices in the culturally competent educator’s classroom.

— National Education Association

In Canada, the student population is very diverse and it is important to be able to reach as many individuals as possible. It is imperative for people in education to understand how other cultures and countries approach learning through their core values and beliefs. Cultural and intercultural competence is a valuable skill to have as educators in order to serve the students and families who may not have shared similar experiences with teaching, learning, and education. Student mobility between the two countries offered by the CANOPY Project allows aspiring educators to experience an international perspective on education, as well as providing them with an opportunity to apply what they have learned from their home country in a new setting. It plays as a mutual exchange of knowledge and enhances learning experiences for all across a broad scope.

It is without a doubt a valuable experience for pre-service teachers to gauge their teaching and learning experiences with that of the partner region helping them cultivate intercultural awareness, craft self-reflexive pedagogy, and assemble a broader network of colleagues and mentors. Even if I did not experience the northern lights, I still learnt a lot about Norway and about education beyond my region. I would like to thank the CANOPY Project and my supervisor Dr. Nayr Ibrahim for allowing me to explore the Norwegian curriculum and for guiding me through this research project. For those who are interested in this opportunity, it is worth every second!

Jenny Cui, Queen's University Teacher Education Student