Week 5

Personal Blog
19th – 26th February

Amongst many of the reasons why I’ve decided to take part on the Erasmus programme and leave home to study in another country for a semester is to develop as an individual and learn more about myself. This I can say already has most definitely been the case.
Our classes here uphold a very relaxed and open atmosphere. Most of the learning we do is through group work or discussions and personally I feel I am more confident in contributing to these discussions with independence of thought and personal opinion more so than I would at home. In thinking about this it puzzles me; I questioned whether it was because I don’t know the people on the same level as I know many of the people in my class back in Stranmillis or because the atmosphere and environment fostered is more inviting and respectful of one’s opinion. In any case from these experiences and others contribution, our discussions have been very engaging and interesting. I can say I have learned a lot and been stimulated to question and deepen my thinking.
With this in mind we also had a class on ‘Learning about Learning’. It was taken by one of our teachers who is an educational psychologist and has conducted a lot or research in this area especially with student teachers. According to her theory there are five ways in which we learn as student teachers. Inactive/survival, closed reproduction, open reproduction, dependant meaning or independent meaning (Oosterheert 2003). I was able to conclude that at present I see myself in the third stage. I am able to process theory when it is provided but I do not seek it out, ‘keep’ or ‘forget’ attitude and learning is predominantly on the surface, not asking ‘why’. The ideal stage is Stage 5, one where we have a deep independent use of sources, critically process, perceiving our current practice as a continuous ‘research area’ as well as being aware of limitations in our own intuitive knowledge. In any case these stages are not static for the individual and one could progress to becoming independent meaning orientated as they develop as an individual which is a very achievable goal.
We’ve also been taking a Dutch language course since we arrived in The Netherlands. I must admit this has not been the easiest, I never thought learning a language could be so difficult. The approach the teacher has adopted to teaching the language is obviously contrary to my learning style as it has been highly unsuccessful so far! Rather than starting with the usual vocabulary and useful phrases, we dived right with the grammar. I am determined not to leave without some Dutch so I shall persevere on with the help of Google and its wonderful translators and hopefully I’ll be able to master some.
This failed attempt so far made me consider and empathise with many learners in today’s classrooms.  Reflecting on my school practice in both 1st and 2nd year I questioned whether I had provided sufficient provision for all the types of learners within the classroom as well as building on what they already knew in order that each individual would be able to succeed in what they were doing. (Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences and Piaget’s Constructivism) Given this experience I am confident that it has impacted my thinking and in turn I will put much more careful thought into all aspects of planning lessons.
So I can assuredly say this has been a personal learning experience so far, one which I hope will impact me in many ways when I return home.


Week 4

Cultural Reflection
12th - 19th February

It’s been four weeks now since I first set foot on Dutch soil and what a fantastic first month it has been so far; making new friends, exploring Dutch culture, beginning class and adventuring around different parts of The Netherlands! Adding to this, we spent the weekend with our class on a ‘Tour to the West’ which was organised for us by the university as part of our programme.
We left on Thursday morning and travelled westwards making our first stop at Zaanse Schans, a quaint little village on the banks of the river Zaan. On arrival most of us were pleasantly surprised as this was our first experience of the typically Dutch windmills. This is a very beautiful place portraying what a Zaanse village would have looked liked in the 16th and 17th century. In the village there were charming green wooden houses, small humped backed bridges at the entrance of the houses, tradesmen’s workshops and at the heart of village were the windmills that are still fully functional today. We had the opportunity to take a tour inside the sawmill windmill where we were able to see the very detail of its construction in mastering many tasks yet using only wind as its source of power.
Given the century these windmills were originally constructed in made me ponder upon the innovation of their creation and the length of time it would have taken to construct and assemble each piece necessary to make it function inside and out with only the hands of talented and skilled labourers.
From here we travelled through the flat countryside to The Hague where we stayed in a hostel for the weekend. On the following day we had a tour of the city with a difference which was a lot more fun than a guided tour. We were split into groups of 4 with each group being given 11 envelopes and a map. Basically we had to find our way to various pieces of architecture, monuments and museums around the city based on the information in the envelopes. At each place we were able to read about its historical significance as well as finding an answer to a question in order to win a prize at the end if we got the most right. We also visited the parliament buildings and the Escher museum both of which have fascinating architecture and history.
Despite the fact it was a bitterly cold day, I learned a lot about the rich cultural heritage of The Hague and would recommend a visit to this beautiful city.
On Saturday we took a trip to the nearby city of Delft the home of the famous artist Johannes Vermeer as well as the place where William of Orange resided during the time he fought against his Spanish occupier. We visited The Old Church and The New Church which is the burial place of William of Orange. Personally it was an enriching experience to see the stark contrasts in the places of worship between the Protestant and Catholic denominations. Although I have been in Catholic places of worship before I was surprised by the sheer amount of lavishness and decoration in this church. In my opinion it was overdone and took away from the very heart of what a church is for. Being a Christian, it was somewhat disheartening to see idols of Mary being worshipped as well as images of The Trinity being portrayed given that nowhere do we know what God looks like physically.
Each city that I have visited so far in the Netherlands has a market day and so was the case in Delft on Saturday. At these markets you can find almost anything yet the most prominent stalls seem to be flowers, cheese, fruit and vegetables and fish. After a little dander around the Delft market I must admit the highlight was seeing Stroopwafels actually being made. These are a type of wafel that are typically Dutch, made with two thin layers of biscuits and a layer of caramel in the middle. Well worth a taste!
We left the hostel on Sunday morning and on our journey home we visited Kinderdijk. This is another village in the Netherlands famous for its windmills, 19 in total. It is set on a polder and the windmills were used to pump the water when it gets too high out to the sea. Although this is done with electric powered engines now, the windmills are still functional and are used when water levels rise very high. Given that the windmills can only pump water a certain distance they are all at different levels working together to pump the water up.
Kinderdijk is a very picturesque place with much wildlife and habitation. As Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands once said “Nature is under control but not disturbed”, this can be seen at Kinderdijk.  Without being able to control the water levels it is evident that much of the surrounding areas which accommodate a lot of industry would be under threat.
In all it was a fantastic weekend spent with great people but also one in which I learned a lot and was able to see where traditions of Dutch culture originated from. As Pavlov (1935) once said, don’t become a mere recorder of facts but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin.

This experience has made me consider my knowledge of my own culture back home in Ireland. We've had the experience of telling our classmates about our countries and the culture we have but truthfully I feel I don't know very much about the deep rooted historical origins of our culture and heritage, something of which I am now inquisitive about.


Week 3

Professional Blog
5th February – 12th February

For my university study here in Nijmegen I am enrolled as part of the ‘Tomorrow’s Education Today’ programme which we undertake in the Teacher Training College at PABO which is a faculty of HAN University. In Stranmillis we are used to having the Erasmus students in our classes but this is not the case on the TET programme. Our class consists solely of 30 Erasmus students from countries all over Europe. In some ways it is relieving to know that all our classes are in English and given that this is our mother tongue we have no excuse not to understand, but it also means we do not get the opportunity to interact with the Dutch students in the college apart from social events.

Classes are now in ‘full swing’, having a maximum number of three days class per week so far! This will soon change when we start placement which we will have for 2 days a week also. The first class of the day begins at 8:45am, not a good time when we have a 30 minute cycle to get to university. It may be a good way to get us used to the early mornings; apparently schools open at 8:15am in the morning!

University life is in some ways very similar to home and in other ways remarkably different. Teachers are called by their first name and like home there is a very open relationship between students and teachers. They are willing to help and answer any questions we may have. I have noticed that they dress very informally and in my opinion this adds to the relaxed atmosphere that is fostered in all classes. On Friday afternoons the ‘PABO pub’ opens and this is a place where teachers and students go and socialise together after classes. Given the reactions from most of our class they had not seen such a sight either. I could not imagine all the Stranmillis students and lecturers heading to the union on a Friday afternoon to relax and socialise after classes. It made me think about our lives in Ireland and in a sense it reflects the busyness in our lives and attitude towards university. We all rush off after class whereas the Dutch seem to view this as an important part of everyday life spending time with educators and fellow peers in the positive atmosphere of the university.

So far we’ve had classes on Children’s rights and Diversity in Education. The main aim of these classes is to develop a better understanding of this dimension of education through sharing our experiences in these areas and learning from others. We have had no lectures so far and to my knowledge I don’t think there is even such a place as a lecturer theatre in PABO. In these classes we have taken part in a lot of paired and group work, sharing and discussing and reflecting and concluding activities. I have really enjoyed these classes as they have been highly interactive and there has been a sound sense of supportiveness where all opinions are welcomed and fostered.

From my participation in these classes it has made me realise how important it is for children to be fully engaged in their learning, working with others to construct meaning within a positive and supportive environment. For me Johnson et al (1991) sums up the environment in which learning should take place. They say learning is a social process that occurs through interpersonal interaction within a cooperative context. Individuals, working together, construct shared understandings and knowledge. From my teaching experience I have seen that this is the case in Northern Ireland and is evident in the majority of classrooms that have embraced the Northern Ireland Curriculum. Through my participation in these experiences already I can see how I have been challenged in my thinking, gained confidence in sharing my opinions and learned from others in order to construct a better understanding. Essentially this is what I aspire to foster in the learning environment I will create as a teacher. As the Northern Curriculum (2007) states, “children learn best when learning is interactive, practical and enjoyable”.


Week 2

 Cultural Reflection
29th January - 5th February

As I reflect on my cultural experiences and learning over the last two weeks and I can say it has been most fascinating and interesting. I came to The Netherlands with the stereotypical view that is painted in most people’s mind of the Dutch culture; windmills, bicycles, cheese, tulips and the notion of ‘going Dutch’ etc. Yet beyond these facts there is so much more to their culture and way of living that I have only became aware of through participation in Dutch society and communicating with these Dutch people. As well as this, living with people from around the world has also deepened my understanding of other cultures.
Bicycles take centre stage in Dutch society. There is nearly 19,000km of cycle paths in The Netherlands and over twice as many bicycles as inhabitants. We all have our own bicycles now and it has become a part of our daily living too. We leave 40 minutes before class starts to cycle the 7km journey to university. It still amuses me as to how much priority cyclists have over other road users.  On our first journey to class we experienced our first roundabout which we were negotiating on a bicycle. Not only was I confused as to which way the cars were coming as they drive on the other side of the road but when I came to the junction all traffic approaching just came to a halt in mid flow of going around the roundabout to allow me to continue my journey. If this were at home I’m sure I’d have been run over by now given the road rage most Irish drivers have. This is most certainly one dimension of Dutch culture that has been a real learning curve for me. Although I have noticed Dutch drivers just like the Irish have not quite understood the concept of the zebra crossing. Just like home it’s always safer to look left and right and cross when there are no cars coming.
In our first ‘Diversity’ class we compared and discussed how people greet each other in each of our cultures. This class was most interesting; we were able to conclude that for most cultures there are different words for saying hello, these being formal and informal. Yet the Irish do not differentiate between different people with different greetings, they prefer to use body language to signify formal and informal. The Dutch like to greet people they have not seen in a while with three kisses. Quite frankly I can’t imagine the Irish adopting this tradition, a hug is about the closest you’ll get!
During introduction week we had group creative assignments presentations. In groups with others from the same country we presented to the rest of the class what are countries are like, the values we focus on and what our culture is like. Personally I gained a lot from this, not only did I learn a lot about the different countries and cultures of my classmates, I had to reflect on the Irish culture and together with the others in the group decide how best to present the Irish culture. It was a great opportunity to reflect and appreciate my own country as well as comparing it with other countries. Many people in the class commented on how Ireland was their favourite and they’d love to come and visit. I think we did a very good job promoting the Emerald Isle!
For me I feel Nehru (1889) sums up my experience of culture so far. He said culture is about the widening of the mind and of the spirit. Personally I feel this has been the case, already I can say I have a much more broadened view of other cultures, one that goes beyond the conventional thinking of the majority who have not experienced it firsthand. As well as this I have been able to reflect on my own culture and develop a real appreciation of it.

I feel what I have learned will be of great benefit as a teacher. Before coming to The Netherlands I had adopted the stereotypical view of the Dutch but as I have noticed there is much more to Dutch culture and society. Within the multicultural classrooms that I will be engaged in, I have been made aware that we cannot make assumptions of individual’s cultures. After all as Hollins (1996) states, “Culture is an integral part of human existence.” In any case culture is part of who we are and as a teacher we aim to develop pupils as individuals to their full potential. Therefore it must not be assumed we are a common culture even within the same country.