International pupil mobility in secondary schools: a growing educational phenomenon

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International mobility of pupils is not a new phenomenon: since the end of the Second World War, it has been promoted by political institutions and NGOs with the aim of fostering international understanding, peace and intercultural dialogue. But what is pupil mobility? What do pupils learn through it? How do we assess it? In this article, Mattia Baiutti of the Fondazione Intercultura briefly answers these questions.

What is pupil mobility?

Pupil mobility is a cornerstone of the internationalisation of school education. Although an extremely varied phenomenon, pupil mobility can generally be understood as “a set of educational programmes that provide temporary international physical mobility for one or more pupils”. In other words, it is a stay abroad undertaken for a predefined period of time and with a well-defined educational purpose.

Thousands of European pupils cross their national borders every year to study and live in another country for a period of time. For instance, in the 2017-2018 school year more than 15,000 German pupils and in 2018-2019 more than 10,000 Italian pupils studied abroad with a programme longer than three months. Once the pandemic is over, this movement of young people is likely to increase, in light of the European Education Area initiative.

What are the outcomes of pupil mobility?

In addition to the expectation that pupils will develop academic competences, proficiency in one or more foreign languages, and personal growth, one of the main expected learning outcomes of their study abroad is that they will develop intercultural competence. This competence is “the set of values, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and understanding that are needed for understanding and respecting people who are perceived to be culturally different from oneself, for interacting and communicating effectively and appropriately with such people, and for establishing positive and constructive relationships with such people.” This is one of the crucial competences required to become a citizen who actively promotes a more just, harmonious and peaceful world.

Pupils, however, do not necessarily develop intercultural competence by simply participating in a mobility programme. Researchers’ and educators’ communities agree that immersive experiences abroad should be combined with non-formal education activities and support to foster intercultural growth.

The discussion around pupil mobility outcomes has traditionally focused on individual gains. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to seriously consider learning outcomes for the entire school community. Indeed, when schools give value to mobility and the experience is shared with peers, teachers, staff and families, it may have an intercultural and international learning impact on the whole school.

How to assess the learning outcomes of pupil mobility

The assessment of learning outcomes is one of the more challenging aspects. Fondazione Intercultura, in collaboration with the University of Udine, has developed an assessment framework specific to individual long-term pupil mobility programmes, namely the Intercultura assessment protocol (IAP). The IAP is composed of a set of tools (e.g., logbooks, reality tests, observation forms, rubric) and follows a multimethod, multiperspective and longitudinal approach. The IAP can work as both a reference and a toolbox for educators, teachers, researchers and other stakeholders who wish to design and implement intercultural learning outcomes-based assessment.

Is pupil mobility recognised by schools?

In Europe, there is a variety of legal provisions (where they exist) and practices concerning pupil mobility. Mainly, there is a lack of recognition of its learning outcomes. This is one of the main barriers to further promoting pupil mobility in secondary schools. In order to overcome the current situation, the European Commission has published a Recommendation which deals with the automatic mutual recognition of upper secondary education and the outcomes of learning periods abroad. Additionally, the European Commission has entrusted a Consortium composed by EFIL, EIESP and CESIE with contributing to the implementation of this recommendation. This is an important practical step in providing an overview of recognition of learning periods abroad in general secondary schools in the EU Member States and drafting a proposal for a European framework for recognition.

Mattia Baiutti

Mattia Baiutti Ph.D. (Doctor Europaeus) [@MBaiutti] is a researcher and trainer at the Fondazione Intercultura (IT). His work focuses on internationalisation of school education, pupil mobility and its assessment. He has worked as a consultant with the OECD PISA and the Council of Europe.