Experiences of cross-disciplinary cooperation

The year 2019 was one of diverse cooperation and peer activities. Cooperation was also planned, implemented and continued across the boundaries of languages and disciplines. Below are three examples of such teaching cooperation in 2019.

Cooperation and co-teaching in a course on Nordic culture

When talking about the necessity and benefits of teaching Swedish in Finland, Nordic cooperation and the opportunities provided by Nordic languages are often brought up. In reality, those who have studied Swedish only, or former students who have already entered employment, may find it challenging and intimidating to speak Swedish with the speakers of other Nordic languages. The University of Helsinki Language Centre has for several years now offered a two-credit course in Nordic culture, taught by Sara Leppänen, university instructor in Swedish. The course has aimed to give at least a superficial glimpse of the other Nordic languages.

Johanna Toivonen, a long-time Danish teacher at the Language Centre, was again a guest lecturer on this spring’s Nordic course, acquainting the students with the Danish language and her work as a Danish translator. Now the course will be expanded to increase the role of the Nordic languages and provide students with more opportunities to practise not only Swedish, but also Danish and Norwegian. As of spring 2021, the course will have a scope of three credits, of which Sara will be responsible for two credits and Johanna for one credit, and the course will be implemented collaboratively and, in part, through co-teaching. The course will also include teaching in Norwegian. Plans have been made to organise an excursion to Copenhagen and Odense as part of the course in spring 2021. The destination chosen for spring 2020 was Stockholm.

Both of us, Sara and Johanna, are teachers and translators very interested in the Danish language and in Nordic projects. Our shared interests provide a good basis for cooperation. It is great that we can use both our contacts when planning trips and visits. Moreover, we are both comfortable with plans changing or having to oversee new types of situations. Our language combination feels natural and easily approachable. However, for a successful course or project, we believe that it is more important that the teachers are on the same wavelength than that the language pair is a predictably perfect combination.

Text: Sara Leppänen ja Johanna Toivonen

A bilingual course challenges the concepts of language skills and the teacher’s professional identity

“A fun, brilliant idea – and I have no idea how to put it into practice.” This is what Tia Patenge, university instructor of German at the University of Helsinki Language Centre, first thought when she heard about the idea of a bilingual language course. Patenge is one of the two teachers offering the course, scheduled to begin in the 2020–2021 academic year. This course will use an approach known as ‘translanguaging’ to teach students both German and French. The other teacher planning the course is Suvi Kotkavuori, university instructor of French.

Kotkavuori and Patenge aim to develop a course open to students studying German and French. The students will not be taught grammar, but encouraged to interact and communicate orally. If a student has reached the level of independent proficiency (A2 level) in either of the languages, they need not be as advanced in the other language. Thus, students have the opportunity to learn and experience two languages within the time period of a single course. Students are also supported and encouraged to help each other in language learning (cf. Vygotsky: scaffolding).

According to Patenge and Kotkavuori, language learners now need skills related to plurilingualism or translanguaging, as also stressed in the companion volume to the CEFR (2018, in Finnish). With Finland’s national language reserve continuously dwindling, attention must also be paid to foreign languages other than English. The teachers cannot yet say much about how they will teach the course in practice. What is certain, however, is that the two languages will not be taught separately, for example by splitting lessons into parts, but in parallel in various learning situations. Students will get used and exposed to hearing the languages in practice (see van Lier: exposure). The course will focus, in particular, on oral language skills.

Language Centre teachers have been eager to implement this type of a course for a long time. The final push came in autumn 2018 from Heini Lehtonen, the Language Centre’s senior lecturer in university pedagogy, whose research interests include translanguaging. Preliminary plans began to be made with Lehtonen’s support in 2019.

The teachers believe that the approach will encourage students to communicate. The concept in question is called intercomprehension: the learner is exposed to another language and comes to terms with not understanding everything at once and not relying on English. Translanguaging is the other key concept. Research and practical experience in this area remain scarce at institutions of higher education, but positive experiences have been obtained from comprehensive schools.

Both teachers have completed some courses in the other language to be taught. Suvi the French teacher has studied German, while Tia the German teacher wishes to refresh her French skills through the upcoming course. But neither of them purport to be experts in the other’s language. Both are interested in cooperation and co-teaching in the German-French language pair. The teachers say that they must be willing to take risks and tolerate uncertainty because it is impossible to know who will take the course and what their level of language skills is. The situation is authentic, and the students may include language experts. The teachers must, to some extent, relinquish their authority and control.

Also significant for the course is the fact that French and German belong to different branches of the Indo-European family of languages. But Kotkavuori and Patenge believe that the language choice actually makes a lot of sense.

“Despite the differences between the languages, the two countries share a great deal of history. They are the heartlands of Europe. So why not try this kind of approach? We are interested in developing as teachers by using a new approach in which neither of us masters the other’s language. We wish to open doors to several languages, make it easier to learn them without having to master one language perfectly. Research also shows that even partial skills are valuable,” they say.

Heini Lehtonen, senior lecturer in university pedagogy at the Language Centre and a sociolinguist who has studied the parallel use of languages as well as translanguaging, points out that the aim of the course is not just to learn a single language, but to acquire skills needed in our multilingual world and, for example, language learning.

“I have long thought that language awareness and general linguistic capabilities can be taught and learned, as can interaction in an environment in which students’ language skills vary. The notion of ‘good’ or accepted academic communication and interaction largely relies on the norm of monolingualism, although the world is multi- and plurilingual. It’s good to challenge prevailing notions,” Lehtonen says.

Text: Janne Niinivaara, Heini Lehtonen, Suvi Kotkavuori ja Tia Patenge

Integration of academic communication – Taking the plunge with a colleague

“When talking to colleagues in the same discipline, you are sometimes too close to see the wood for the trees. Now that I am working with Riikka, I often notice that a topic in my writing course also relates to speech communication, and then I ask her for her thoughts as a speech communication specialist. Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of pretty interesting themes,” Hanna says.

“When someone asks you about something you know, you have to verbalise your thoughts and even think about the matter again, which means you also learn,” states Riikka.

University instructors Hanna Kosonen and Riikka Järvelä.

The two teachers and colleagues ponder above how to summarise the fruits of their cooperation. Hanna Kosonen, university instructor of Finnish as a native language, and Riikka Järvelä, university instructor of speech communication, both from the University of Helsinki Language Centre, have co-taught a course integrating courses in speech communication and interaction as well as academic writing. Their course is part of the compulsory degree studies in Finnish as a native language, worth at least three credits. The course was provided at the Faculty of Social Sciences, where the degree requirements include two credits of studies in speech communication and two credits of studies in academic writing.

The initial impetus for designing the course actually came from the Faculty’s students. Hanna and Riikka taught their separate courses at the Faculty and occasionally their students mentioned what they had done in the other teacher’s course. The two colleagues began to discuss the course objectives, tasks and pedagogical solutions. They came up with the idea of organising a joint integrated course, and did so for the first time in spring 2019, integrating their two two-credit courses into a single four-credit course.

“The idea for this first version was to take content from both of our courses and incorporate it into a new course. When we actually started teaching together, we understood that many phenomena can be examined from the perspective of both disciplines. Argumentation, feedback, reflection on who the audience is, communication apprehension and the concepts of text and message in general are major phenomena of language and interaction. So the next time we organise the course, we will address topics from a more phenomenon-based perspective, blurring boundaries between disciplines,” the teachers say.

The secret behind successful integration and co-teaching seems to require both the blurring of boundaries between disciplines and the sharpening of discipline-specific perspectives.

“The students see two experts reflecting on matters and engaging in a discussion with each other and with students. Everyone learns from each other. The perspectives used include multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, which are professional skills and fundamental to social scientists,” Hanna notes.

“Many people think that the fields we teach, written and spoken communication, are something that everyone masters. But I have learned during this course that I am a total novice in Hanna’s field, I don’t have the kind of broad perspectives on the field that she has,” Riikka adds.

The teachers underline the importance of cooperation, particularly across disciplinary boundaries, in all pedagogical work.

“When you work together, you are forced to consider what it is you are actually teaching and doing. That is something you do not necessarily consider in depth when working alone. And when both parties are experts in their fields, they do not hesitate to share their knowledge and develop and question practices. In your own field, everyone is in the same bubble so it may be more difficult to take the plunge,” Hanna notes.

What then is required for successful cooperation between two teachers of different fields? At the very least, they must share the right attitude.

“Our first answer to everything is, ‘why not?’,” Riikka says, smiling.

Text: Janne Niinivaara