Skip to Content

Celia Skaarup (left) and Katrine Weber (right) presents the study at a workshop. /Photo: Michael Voss

World of research

Small things that make a difference

Authors: Michael Voss Published:

Celia Skaarup (left) and Katrine Weber (right) presents the study at a workshop. /Photo: Michael Voss

Celia Skaarup from the Danish Adult Education Association explains the findings of a study of the barriers and the good practice of integrating migrants and refugees into Danish adult education.

Why did the DAEA decide to conduct this study?

“We think that adult education can make an important contribution to the integration of refugees and migrants in Denmark, in the sense of teaching language, cultural habits, democratic and political life and job-related skills, and not least in the sense of integrating migrants and refugees in the everyday life of Danes and Danish local associations.

At the same time, the local AE schools and associations have made great efforts in trying to attract this group of people. Some have devised special courses for refugees and migrants. Others have tried to mix them with ethnic Danes, but still Danish adult education is extremely “white”.

Our focus in the study was to look for the factors that have actually been in play in cases with success and potential. To be able to do that, we of course also had to identify the barriers and challenges that might prevent activities of inclusion.”

Celia Skaarup

  • is a development consultant at the Danish Adult Education Association (DFS/DAEA).
  • has a Master’s degree in Sociology.
  • The DAEA is an umbrella organization of 36 national associations, working with non-formal adult education.
  • Together with student worker Katrine Weber, Skaarup recently finished a study of the legal, financial and socio-cultural barriers and good practice in including refugees and migrants into adult education schools and associations.

What do you consider the most important finding of the study?

“That would be the role of the intercultural communicator. A municipal integration consultant defined it as a person who masters several cultures, knows the rules of the game and can navigate in the intercultural space.

There are so many ways that Danes, migrants and refugees can misunderstand each other. We call them the invisible codes. Danish punctuality is a well-known integration problem. In Denmark, the teacher expects you to arrive at a scheduled time – or five minutes ahead. Some migrants and refugees do not consider that important.

One of the roles of the intercultural communicator is to make both the Danes and the migrants aware of this difference, not just to assimilate the foreigners into Danish habits, but also to make the teacher relax a bit on this punctuality.

As an example, a teacher asked refugee students to tell about their spare time activities. The students did not know what to answer. They were used to working most of the time and just socializing with family, friends and neighbors the rest of the time. They did not know the concept of spare time activities.

Another role is to facilitate safe passage into the unknown for people from different cultural backgrounds. We underestimate the sense of uncertainty that can occur when one is trying out something or somewhere unfamiliar.

The intercultural communicator may be an AE organizer or a teacher with insights into the background of refugees and migrants. It is often a migrant, who has been in Denmark for some time.

The teacher as an intercultural communicator knows the importance of inviting the participants to contribute, for example by saying: ‘I know that one of you is very good at this. Will you show us how?’”

Personal relations are what makes non-formal adult education different from municipal authorities.

How was the study conducted?

“We made 41 semi-structured interviews. Eight of them were with people of special knowledge in this area. 17 were involved in adult education activities with migrants and refugees. Five were members of associations of ethnic minorities, and 11 were municipal employees working with integration. We also did some “participating observation” at activities.

We structured the study around three levels of inclusion in AE: contact, participation and co-creation.  Co-creation is when migrants or refugees take part in development, planning and the facilitation of activities.

In the report, we identified some financial and legal challenges. Most important was the problem of paying ordinary fees and the related expenses for participation.

The AE institutions also called for special funding for developing the competencies needed for their employees and volunteers. The municipality integration officers expressed a similar wish of having extra resources to prepare AE institutions working with activities of inclusion.

”Were there some unexpected findings in the study?”

“We were a little surprised at how important personal relations are, when we want migrants and refugees to join AE activities. Of course, it seems safer to join a course if one of your friends will attend too.

Even when contact has been made and they show up for the first time, it is so important to establish personal relations between the migrant newcomer and the teacher or the organizer or other students.

Personal relations are what makes non-formal adult education different from municipal authorities, the migrant office or the department that may or may not grant refugee status.

You have to realize how estranged a refugee may feel in Denmark. As one of them said: “Sitting in a train just after I arrived, I kept looking for other people with black hair – to feel safer.”

That is why it is important to make the first breakthrough and recruit a few foreigners. Then the rest will be comfortable joining. Gatekeepers and pioneers make a big difference. Danes may however do as well. At some of the activities, some participants were “buddies” that made special contact with new refugees or migrants.”

“This also has to do with the atmosphere that you create at courses, meetings or other activities. A room may be open for everybody, but that does not mean that everybody feels that there is unhindered and direct access.

Make it family-like and cozy. Ask the participants to decorate the room, or ask them to bring a cake they have baked. It was obvious that such activities made participation safe and attractive.

It also helps to break the ice between “the authority” of the teacher or the organizer on one side and the migrants and refugees on the other. In such activities, language can become less of a barrier.

Finally, I will point to another related point. We call it “the common third”. By that, we mean practical activities done together by the Danes and newcomers. Often popular integration activities revolve around telling the foreigners about Danish culture and habits and then the other way around it.

Instead, you may focus the activity not so much on “us and them”, but on doing something together. Then you share an interest and a goal. You create a much more equal relationship. When that is established, there will be a lot of time to tell about your own life and experiences.”

One of the highlighted conclusions in the report you call “the extra 5 minutes”. What is that about?

“That is the advice of one of the municipal integration officers. She warns her colleagues and other people involved in such activities: do not stick too strictly to the usual guidelines and routines, and do not expect migrants and refugees to know what a Danish citizen would know.

Use the five extra minutes to explain what is going to happen or to ask how they understand what was just explained from their perspective. The five minutes is also about integrating the personal: ask about how he or she feels today. Has he or she been in touch with family lately?

This makes a world of difference.”

Share the article


Michael Voss is an information officer at the Danish Adult Education Association. Contact: mv(a) Show all articles by Michael Voss
Back to top