04 SES 08 E, Working With Refugee Students: New Directions And Some Reflections
The rising numbers of refugees in Germany particularly affects school systems, as a great number of refugees are of school age and have to be provided with adequate schooling. According to the Geneva Convention 1951, all children are guaranteed the right to education (Mafaalani & Kemper, 2017). Refugee children and young adults are seen as a vulnerable group with a diverse range of special needs. At the same time, many of them possess prior education and academic knowledge (i.e., rich multilingual knowledge), as well as exceptional resiliency resulting from their life circumstances (Seukwa, 2006). The concept of risk is especially relevant in the context of refugee students as they can be marginalised or excluded based on various aspects, such as learning difficulties, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and cultural background.
As a reaction to the enormous increase in immigration in recent years, separate classes—called Internationale Vorbereitungsklassen (International Preparatory Classes [IPCs])—for new immigrant children and young people with little or no German language skills have increasingly been established in most federal states (Brüggemann & Nikolai, 2016). IPCs are supposed to prepare immigrant students for admission into German mainstream classes. Apart from German language lessons, students also receive subject specific lessons in mathematics, English, science, etc. After a period of 12 months, students are usually transferred into mainstream classes and receive additional German language support for a few hours per week. In Hamburg, special classes are increasingly being set up for refugee students, in which they are specifically prepared for secondary school exams. These are usually designed for a duration of one to two years and lead to a formal degree (Behörde für Schule und Berufsbildung, 2019). In this case, students are not included in the mainstream classes, but are schooled for another one to two years in separate classes, before they have the chance to enrol on vocational training, at upper secondary education and so forth.
Studies have shown that on the macro level, the German school system makes it more difficult for new immigrants to gain access to a successful educational pathway and thus does not do justice to the appeal of inclusion. The separation of students into mainstream classes and IPCs is particularly problematic, because the students are considered only under the criterion of differences (Panagiotopoulou & Rosen, 2017).
I draw on an extensive discussion on the teaching and learning of mathematics in multilingual classrooms that highlights social, cultural, and linguistic aspects of mathematics education (Barwell, 2009; Gorgorió & Planas, 2001; (Barwell, 2009; Gorgorió & Planas, 2001; Moschkovich, Wagner, Bose, Rodrigues Mendes, & Schütte, 2018) and the need for continuing studies in terms of inclusion, equity, and social justice in mathematics education. Others researchers highlight the socio-political dimensions of mathematics education and how students are excluded due to social, cultural, class, gender, and race reasons (Jablonka, Wagner, & Walshaw, 2013).
This leads to the following questions:
1) What do refugee students need to succeed in school and what are the barriers to their success at school, particularly in mathematics? How do they overcome these barriers?
2) Which risk factors of successful mathematics learning can be derived from this?
It is of mayor importance to develop an inclusive educational environment that tackles any kind of barrier that could affect the children’s right to education of high quality in mathematics and beyond. As risk is a professional dimension involving not only threats and dangers but also opportunities and positive results, students were interviewed about their needs and their strategies to overcome potential barriers.
The study is embedded in the project ‘Mathematics and Refugees’ at the University of Hamburg, a subproject of the state-funded research network ‘Hamburg Numeracy Project’. The research network focuses on (adult) numeracy practices and their use of everyday mathematics, focusing on particularly vulnerable groups (e.g., refugees and asylum seekers, the over-indebted, and disabled people). The subproject focuses on the mathematical education of refugee students in IPCs as part of a basic mathematical education, which enables them to be numerate in (young) adult life (Geiger, Forgasz, & Goos, 2015). The presented explorative study is oriented towards the grounded theory (Corbin & Strauss, 2015; Flick, 2014). The sample of the study consists of teachers (n = 7) and students (n = 13) from three comprehensive schools. For the data collection, I used different methods such as classroom observation and guideline-based interviews with teachers and three to five students from each class. The interviews were transcribed and qualitatively evaluated using software. As described above, this paper emerges from a larger research project. I focus particularly on the students’ perspectives on the teaching and learning of mathematics in IPCs. (The teacher interviews are addressed in my forthcoming paper ‘Beliefs and practices of teachers in mathematics classrooms with refugee students’). The interviews focused on the students’ experiences with mathematics in their country of origin and in Germany. Furthermore, they were asked about their experiences in mathematics classrooms, their needs, and possible barriers that they have to deal with, as well as their strategies to overcome these. The sample consisted of refugee students from Syria and Afghanistan with ages ranging from 13 to 18 years, who were schooled in IPCs that prepared them for the secondary school exams. All of them had sufficient knowledge of German to enable them to participate in the interview.
The classes mentioned here are part of an exclusion process on the macro level (school organisational level), as immigrant students are taught separately after they have already acquired knowledge of German. This also reflects students’ opinions as some students mentioned that they would rather be schooled in what they called ‘normal’ classes (mainstream classes) with German students. This statement is based on constructive notions of normality that contradict diversity and seem to be internalised by some students and make them feel excluded from the mainstream school system. Furthermore, the study seems to indicate that from the students' point of view at the classroom level, language and mathematical content are perceived as a central barrier in mathematics teaching in IPCs. The students especially refer to the language as a barrier to understanding problems in the mathematics books adequately, particularly when they have to do homework or work alone. Some students also emphasise that it is difficult to understand oral explanations from the teacher. In addition, students describe that they have developed their own strategies to meet their needs and overcome the challenges: they use their mobile phones to translate the language, watch YouTube videos that explain mathematical content, and participate in extracurricular tutoring. The outcome of the presented study is twofold: On the one hand, the first results indicate a structural exclusion, as refugees are taught separately from German students in mathematics and in general. On the other hand, there are barriers at the teaching level, such as language and unfulfilled needs, including more understandable mathematics teaching materials from the perspective of the students. Since students describe their own strategies for dealing with these risks, it is also necessary to further monitor the extent to which these risk factors affect students’ school performance.
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