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This blog is written by LEARN! academics. The contributions present our take on current issues in education and social science, and reflect some of the highlights from our extensive programme of research.

Views are our own and aim to inform, debate and shape our thinking.

Blogs and publications

  • Blog from Paula Dekkers-Verbon Supporting the child-caregiver attachment bond through a specially designed playmat

    Blog from Paula Dekkers-Verbon
    Supporting the child-caregiver attachment bond through a specially designed playmat 

    Parents can struggle with connecting to their young child with visual disabilities. Therefore, the ‘Social Relations and Attachment’ Academic Lab Bartiméus-Vrije Universiteit has, in collaboration with Eindhoven University of Technology and By-wire.net, developed a playmat called the Barti-mat. This multisensory, interactive mat provokes child-led play, which helps parents engage in sensitive and responsive interactions with their child. Eleven child-parent dyads participated in an effect study last year. Results were promising: children showed elevated joy and improved arousal while playing on the Barti-mat, and parents displayed more sensitive mirroring behaviour. In this blog, Paula Dekkers-Verbon, scientist-practitioner at the ‘Social Relations and Attachment’ Academic Lab, describes the rationale behind the Barti-mat and its evaluation. 

    The need for special play material

    Child-leading play is an easy and enjoyable way to connect to young children. Caregivers can, for example, mirror the baby in movements or sounds, like clapping or parroting sounds. Through this mirroring play, the child recognizes itself, feels understood, and the dyad experiences joy. Also, sensitive and responsive parents naturally mirror the inner world of the child by voicing what the child is experiencing and feeling. This mirroring of the affective states helps the child to regulate its emotions and to feel safe. However, parents of a child with a visual impairment have more difficulty exhibiting these sensitive and responsive behaviours, due to the scarce and confusing signals the child sends out. For example, a blind child turning its ear towards the sound of the parental voice is a sign of paying attention, but the parent can interpret this ‘looking away’ as a signal of lost interest in the interaction.

    Sharing (or joint) attention also connects young child-parent duos. Making eye contact, looking at the same object and pointing, are all behaviours that are less (or not) possible for children with visual disabilities. Joint attention in a child with visual impairment is more subtle (e.g., a child turning its body a certain direction) and therefore requires more effort and sensitive responsivity of parents. The increased difficulty in connecting to a child with visual disabilities leads to a greater chance of developing an insecure caregiver-child attachment relationship.

    Meet the Barti-mat

    The Barti-mat was developed to help parents playfully connect to their child with visual impairment. This large, colourful mat with different textures is appealing for young children to explore. The mat allows parents to follow up on the child-led play that naturally arises. The soundbox is programmed with eight sets containing four sounds (e.g., nature sounds, deep-sea animals). A sound can easily be triggered by gently touching one of the four big coloured blocks with integrated sensors. The volume is customizable, and the 3D-printed sound box with magnets can be removed for cleaning the mat.

    Effect study and implementation

    In the spring and summer of 2020, eleven child-parent dyads were willing to test the Barti-mat in their home setting. Dyads were requested to do eight rounds of 3-minute-play together, alternating between the Barti-mat and their own toys. Aged 9 months to 4 years with a maximum developmental age of 3 years, children generally enjoyed playing on the mat and laughed frequently, even more than when playing with their own toys. Children were also in a more optimal state of arousal while playing on the Barti-mat: they were less under- and over-aroused.

     Four out of eleven children had a developmental age of 6 months or younger. Parents already displayed many sensitive and responsive behaviours to attune to their child’s needs. However, when playing on the Barti-mat, parents generally were even more able to voice the affective states of children. This finding can be explained by the type of play the Barti-mat elicits: the sensory-stimulating, open-ended play facilitates parents to engage in sensitive mirroring behaviours more compared to playing with other (mostly individualistic) play material. Interestingly, parents themselves did not realize they showed more mirroring behaviours, emphasizing the subtleness and subconsciousness of sensitive responsivity. 

     Twelve Barti-mats were adopted by two expert organizations on visual impairment (Bartiméus and Koninklijke Visio) and are integrated into the home-based early intervention sessions for young children with visual impairment. The interactive playmat is widely applicable. Due to the open-ended play, there are no age restrictions for the Barti-mat. In addition, the Barti-mat can be used by parents who are proficient in relationship-focussed play but also by parents that are novice to this kind of interaction. For more information on the Barti-mat, please visit: https://www.by-wire.net/barti-mat/

     Dyzel, V., Dekkers-Verbon, P., Toeters, M., & Sterkenburg, P. S. (in press). For happy children with a visual or visual-and-intellectual disability: efficacy research to promote sensitive caregiving with the Barti-mat. British Journal of Visual Impairment.

  • Attachment measures and feasibility of use in clinical practice by Lianne Bakkum

    Attachment measures and feasibility of use in clinical practice by Lianne Bakkum

    I recently passed my PhD defence at the University of Cambridge. During my PhD, I dived deep into a widely-used instrument for measuring adult attachment representations: the Adult Attachment Interview (George et al., 1996). This hour-long semi-structured interview includes questions about relationship experiences with parents and other caregivers in childhood. My research focused on the category of “unresolved loss and trauma”, which describes disoriented or confused discourse about past loss or childhood abuse, such as irrational beliefs that a deceased person is still alive in the present.

    Becoming a certified coder of the Adult Attachment Interview

    To become a certified coder of the Adult Attachment Interview, one must take part in a two-week training institute and complete three rounds of reliability tests. The reliability testing process takes about 1,5 years, assuming that the coder in training passes each reliability test. Coding an interview may take up to 10-12 hours, depending on the length and complexity of the interview. In addition, the interview needs to be carefully transcribed according to specific guidelines. As Van IJzendoorn (1991) mentioned about three decades ago, the Adult Attachment Interview is probably among the most labour-intensive instruments in the behavioural sciences.

    Thesis research: Discovering ways to develop a less labour-intensive version of the “unresolved state of mind” coding system

    One of the chapters in my thesis described a study on the psychometric validity of the indicators of unresolved loss and trauma. The coding system has initially been developed on the basis of 88 interviews with caregivers and has been used by researchers for decades. However, the indicators of unresolved loss or trauma have not been psychometrically validated in independent study samples. In my research, I explored the extent to which these indicators contributed to the overall classification. Using individual participant data from the Collaboration of Attachment Transmission Synthesis (CATS), we pooled together a dataset of more than 1,000 Adult Attachment Interviews..

    Using machine learning techniques, we investigated the contribution of 32 individual indicators of unresolved loss and trauma to the overall classification. It was of great help that LEARN!-colleagues Chris van Klaveren and Ilja Cornelisz brought in their expertise for this paper. We found that two indicators contributed strongly to the classification, and that 22 out of 32 indicators did not occur frequently enough to be included in the analyses. Of these rare indicators, seven occurred only once in the entire sample of 1,009 interviews. We concluded that it does not make much sense for coders to keep looking for these rare indicators in interview transcripts, and emphasised the need for future methodological innovations to develop and validate optimised versions of the coding system. While the use of secondary data comes with many benefits, new data are needed for prospective hypothesis- and validity testing.

    Other studies: Making attachment measures feasible for use in clinical practice

    Optimised versions of attachment instruments may contribute to the feasibility of training and coding,and make the use of these measures less time-intensive. Another benefit of cut-down measures is that they may be more feasible for use in clinical practice. A recently validated, cut-down attachment measure is the Atypical Maternal Behavior Instrument for Assessment and Classification, brief version (AMBIANCE-Brief, Madigan et al., 2018). This assessment for disrupted caregiver behaviour originally contained 150 indices and is coded based on video-recorded caregiver-child observations. The brief version has been reduced to 45 indices and can be coded live (e.g., during home visits). The AMBIANCE-Brief has recently been tested for use by community practitioners, who underwent a 2-day training and a 3,5-hour reliability session. Eighty-nine percent of the participants met reliability standards (Madigan et al., 2021).

    Within our own section of Clinical Child and Family Studies, Mirte Forrer (scientist-practitioner) has been working under the supervision of Mirjam Oosterman and Carlo Schuengel on an application (OK! Opvoeder-Kind Interactie; English: caregiver-child interaction) for professionals working with families, to aid assessment of caregiver sensitivity during home visits. The app presents professionals with a decision tree, including questions such as: “Do you find the caregiving behaviour more insensitive or more sensitive?” and provides an outcome of caregiver sensitivity. Professionals can use this as a direction for further conversations with the caregiver, and for professional reports. The OK! app has been tested for reliability and validity and will soon be ready for implementation.

    To conclude, the next steps for the field of attachment research would be to investigate and validate optimised versions of attachment measures to make these more feasible for professionals working with children and families. Ways of optimising these measures may be discovered using large (secondary) datasets and rigorous methods, and optimised versions may be validated through repeating cycles of collecting new data and reliability and validity testing.

    Lianne Bakkum’s research page

  • Mariëtte Huizinga speaks about her research on executive functions and her current projects

    Mariëtte Huizinga speaks about her research on executive functions and her current projects

    Since the beginning of her academic career, Dr. Mariëtte Huizinga has been dedicated to studying the development of goal-directed behavior in children and adolescents. More specifically she examines the development of executive functions and their role in educational achievement. While she started with fundamental research, she is currently focusing on interventions to improve executive functions. In her position at the VU as an associate professor, she works on two large research projects. In the interview, she tells us more about those research projects and her motivation to study executive functions.

    Your main research focus is the development of executive functions. What are executive functions and why are they important for learning?

    Executive functions are a highly complex construct. It is an umbrella term that describes various cognitive processes to carry out goal directed behaviour. Our executive functions allow us to adjust rapidly to changing situations. It is therefore especially important for demanding and novel situations in which we can’t use automatic behaviours. Core functions that fit under the umbrella of executive functions are for example, working memory, inhibition, or cognitive flexibility. A frequent misunderstanding is that we cannot see executive functions – they are brain processes. What we can see however, is the behavior as a consequence of executive functions. If your executive functions are well developed, you are for example capable to plan your homework, show up on time or stick to deadlines. Deficits in executive functions on the other hand, can negatively affect your school success and can cause difficulties in your social and cognitive development. Those functions are consequently, very important for success in school and that’s why also teachers picked up on this topic.

    What is the critical age for developing executive functions?

    We can see that young children find it more difficult to show goal directed behaviour but the older they get, the better they become in using these executive functions to guide their behaviour. The development of executive functions takes long, into late adolescence and young-adulthood. One hypothesis is that this has to do with the development of a particular brain region. Research showed that the development of the prefrontal cortex is related to executive functions. Compared to other brain areas, the prefrontal cortex develops slowly – all the way into adolescence. That is one of the reasons why we think that executive functions develop so slowly.  However, recent research has shifted the attention towards the influence of environmental factors. Especially, to the role of school and classroom environment as a developmental context for promoting children's executive function and, in turn, their cognition and behaviour.

    You are currently working on a research project to study the effectiveness of different interventions to foster executive functions. What are you doing there exactly?

    I am co-advisor in some projects of a colleague from KU Leuven (Dr. Dieter Baeyens), in which we examine the effect of teacher-student interactions on the development of students' executive function skills. Many interventions/programmes were developed to foster executive functions and we can see that most of them are not effective – they lack durable and transferable effects. However, the quality of teacher-student relationship is related to the development of EF. Still, we do not know the direction of this association. To investigate this, my colleagues and I first did a large literature review of experiments and interventions that aim to improve children's executive functions by manipulating the teacher-student interaction. We are about to start the next phase of the project.

    What do you mean by ‘manipulating the student-teacher interactions’?

    In a design, so-called microtrials, we directly and briefly investigate theoretical hypotheses concerning the effect of teacher-student interaction on specific executive functions. Microtrials are randomized experiments with focused environmental manipulations to investigate specific mechanisms of change. An important topic encompasses the investigation of which dimension of teacher-student interaction (i.e. emotional, instructional or organizational support) holds the potential to improve executive functions. So, we teach teachers to focus on one specific method and subsequently observe the quality of the interaction between the teacher and student. With the help of these observations and questionnaires, you subsequently investigate how the executive functions in children improve. We are currently setting up our own microtrials in which we hope to go a step further. In the end, we aim to study if different combinations of dimensions might be more effective for some students than for others. We hope that with this research we can align the interventions more to individual needs and differences to improve the effectiveness of the intervention. 

    You are also working on a project focusing on study choice of VU students. What is this study aiming for?

    As part of the matching procedure for arriving students, the VU uses a questionnaire. However, the results of this questionnaire don’t really give good insight into the match between the student and the study chosen and in the meantime 20% -30% of the students drop out or switch after the first year. I am the project leader of a new project with the main aim to develop a new questionnaire, the so-called Study Choice Check. We want to get better insights into - among others - the interests, motivation and goal-directed behavior skills of the students. By having more insight, we hope to increase the quality of the match between the incoming students and the studies they have chosen thereby decreasing the number of drop-outs or switching students. We have just finished the data collection and are about to start the data analysis. I am very curious about the results which we can hopefully present at the beginning of 2022.

    What inspires you to study executive functions and keeps you motivated?

    I find it very interesting to observe children and adolescents in their development to become their own selves. I did my Master with one of the pioneers in the field, Dr. Marilyn C. Welsh. Her research really inspired me and motivated me to pursue a PhD on the development of executive functions. At this time, my research was very fundamental. I find it also very important to make this fundamental knowledge more applicable and useable in a classroom setting. To do so, together with Dr. Diana Smidts, I for example developed the Dutch adaptation of the Behaviour Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF) for children between ages 5 and 18. We also wrote a book on the development of executive functions, especially for parents and teachers. To examine ways to foster childrens’ and adolescents’ executive functions – and thereby their behavior and cognition - is very rewarding.

    Where would you be if you wouldn’t have pursued a career in academia?

    I don’t know if I wouldn’t have ended up in academia anyway. In the early nineties I ended up in Psychology – a study that I greatly enjoyed. If I would have been 18 years old by now, I would have been very attracted to the interdisciplinary study Conservation and Restoration at the UvA. Here you combine academic knowledge and technical skills to preserve art. Art has always interested me, especially the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of art. So yes, this study would have been a serious competitor. In the early nineties, it did not yet exist in this form. So that’s why it was and still is Psychology.

  • Blog Melvin Vooren

    About me 

    Melvin Vooren is a post-doctoral researcher in the field of education sciences at ACLA since June of this year. Melvin has a background in economics, specifically education economics. On January 21st, he will defend his PhD thesis entitled “Essays on Human Capital Formation and Active Labor Market Policies” at the University of Amsterdam. Together with Chris van Klaveren and Ilja Cornelisz from ACLA, Melvin is working on the Comenius Project “Plan for Success”. This is a joint project with VU analytics and the study advisors from the Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences (FGB) and the School of Business and Economics (SBE). The goal of this project is to give FGB and SBE undergraduate students more autonomy in their study planning. In this interview, he will explain more about the project, as well as his research interests.

    What is the Comenius project about?

    Dutch universities have been struggling with attrition and study delay for years. Since the end of the 1990s, Dutch universities have been using academic dismissal policies (in Dutch: bindend studieadvies) in the first year of bachelor programs to reduce attrition and delay in later years. The idea behind this is that by dismissing poor-performing students during the first year of the program, this will decrease attrition and delay in later years. However, interventions to improve study success in later years are scarce and evidence on their effectiveness is limited.

    How is the Comenius project going to improve study success?

    The aim of the Comenius project “Plan for Success” is to increase study success in later years by giving at-risk students more autonomy in their study planning in year two. At-risk students are students who have failed one or more courses in year one. The idea is that by giving them personalized predictions on the probability of passing a course, at-risk students can make a more informed decision on the number of courses they take up at the same time in year two. Our hypothesis is that taking more than two courses at the same time decreases the probability of passing the individual courses, because students will have to divide their time over more courses. In addition to the number of courses to take up, students must decide which courses they prioritize in year two. The Plan for Success platform helps students in their study decisions by feeding back a personalized probability of success for each course in each study plan. A study plan is a combination of courses in a specific period. This feedback is visualized as a percentage ranging between 0 and 100 percent.

    How are these personalized predictions computed?

    Through VU analytics, we have access to a range of data on the student level. Next to several personal characteristics such as age, gender, and information on the student’s previous education, this includes data from the student enrollment and grade administration. This includes performance indicators in year one, such as grades on the individual courses and the number of accumulated credits. We have developed a Machine Learning model that estimates the probability of passing a course. This model has been trained using data from earlier cohorts to provide out-of-sample predictions for the current 2021-2022 cohort. These out-of-sample predictions are calculated with personalized data from the participants. The participants can select courses from a set of courses that includes those from year two and the courses from year one that they have not yet successfully finished. When they select their courses, the participants get to see their personal predicted success rates based on their own personal situation.

    What other research projects are you working on?

    My main research interests are causal inference and out-of-sample predictions. I am interested in health, educational, and labor market outcomes. Currently, I am also working on a project about academic dismissal policies during the Covid-19 crisis together with Chris van Klaveren, Ilja Cornelisz, and Martijn Meeter from ACLA. I am also collaborating on a project about informing workers about their retirement plan through online seminars at a large Dutch pension fund.

     

    Contact details

    Melvin Vooren

    FGB ACLA

    M.Vooren@vu.nl

  • Widening participation in the honours programme

    Honours programmes (HP) are widely offered across the Netherlands to talented and motivated students. Unfortunately, only students with a higher GPA are eligible to participate in the honours programme [1]. There is an assumption that talented students are alike, but starting points are not the same for everyone as some of the students come from less privileged backgrounds and lack of diversity could affect the motivation and participation of such students [2,3]. Selection process like in HP hinders the process of fostering diversity and equity within education. A recent article published at advalvas.vu.nl, titled ‘wie is er bang voor de culturele barometer diversiteit?’, touches upon this issue. The article has stirred conversations on fostering a more diverse and equitable population within the education system.

    Programmes like HP could help in widening participation not only in terms of the number of students but also equal representation from under-represented groups (those from lower-income families, ethnic minorities, first generation students (first in the family to participate in higher education)). Therefore, the student’s selection process for HP needs a re-evaluation to make it more effective, diverse and equitable.

    Why honours programme?
    Honours programmes aim at providing high-achieving and motivated students additional educational opportunities ‘that are more challenging and demanding than regular programs’[4]. Most writing in the field of honours programme premised on the fact that all talented and motivated students will pursue the honours programme. Studies have shown that the honours programme strongly contributes to the research and skills development of the students [5].  It helps the student to build critical thinking skills and creativity.

    But the report shows that there is a lack of representation of students from a non-traditional background in the honours programme. This indicates that the process of fostering intellectual diversity and creativity, which is one of the aims of the programme, is being affected [4]. Therefore, further research is needed in order to examine what factors are playing a role in motivating and demotivating students from participating in the programme. This will also help us to get more insight into what is needed in order to make the programme more accessible and equitable.

    Honours programme research
    In our, Motivation for Honours programme research project, we examine honours students motivation for participation in the honours programme at two universities, VU and UVA. The research especially focuses on the motivation of non-traditional students for the honours programme. Non-traditional students are those who are under-represented in higher education and whose participation may be limited by the lack of socio-economic resources [3].  They include first generations of higher education students (first in the family to participate in higher education), students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, male and ethnic minorities. This research aims to provide an in-depth understanding of how inequalities and lack of diversity are further marginalising the vulnerable section of society. The findings from the research could be valuable to make effective interventions.

    Who do we want to interview in our research?

    • Honours programme students from VU and UVA.
    • Both students with traditional and non-traditional (as defined above) backgrounds.
    • This will help us to show and compare motivation and factors involved in participating in the honours programme in both groups.
    • Students who were eligible to participate in the honours programme but did not enrol.

    The current COVID-19 pandemic might influence the research interview process, therefore we are flexible in conducting both online and face-to-face interviews with the students at their convenient time.

    For more information, please visit our survey, available at: https://vumc.datacoll.nl/sulkrdclpw?l=en

    If you have any questions or would like to participate in our interviews, then we suggest that you put your questions directly to the research team via this email: onderzoekvanonderwijs@vumc.nl

    [1] Wolfensberger, M. V. (2004). Qualities honours students look for in faculty and courses.

    [2] Wouters, A., Croiset, G., & Kusurkar, R. A. (2018). Selection and lottery in medical school admissions: who gains and who loses?. MedEdPublish, 7

    [3] Wouters, A. (2020). Getting to know our non-traditional and rejected medical school applicants. Perspectives on medical education, 9(3), 132-134

    [4] Wolfensberger, M. V., Eijl, P. V., & Pilot, A. (2012). Laboratories for educational innovation: Honors programs in the Netherlands.

    [5] Jansen, E. P. W. A., & Suhre, C. J. M. (2015). Factors influencing students’ perceptions of graduate attribute acquisition in a multidisciplinary honours track in a Dutch university. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), 1138-115.

  • Blog Martijn Meeter & Van Vu: Academic motivation: so many theories, so many words

    Blog Martijn Meeter & Van Vu: Academic motivation: so many theories, so many words

    Psychology has too many words. Usually, wordiness is not that bad of a thing (like Trump claiming to have the best words in the world), but for psychology, it is a curse. This is because psychology’s words do not refer to things, they refer to concepts that, with so many of them, can become nebulous. Do short-term memory and working memory refer to the same thing, or not? Articles tend to refer to the one or the other, but is that just preference or do those papers actually investigate different things? This has become such a fog that investigators themselves have resolved to just ignore the distinction. The same holds for selective attention and spatial attention, grit and conscientiousness, temporal preparation and temporal attention, and surely more examples exist.

    It also holds for the field of academic motivation, which has proven very apt at recruiting new words. These may refer to the same thing as other motivation terms, but that may also denote something else. The driving force behind the recruitment of words is theoretical progress – which is of course in and of itself good. To take the first example given above, the term “short-term memory” was introduced when a new framework for short-term remembering was introduced, Baddeley and Hitch’s (1974) working memory theory. The introduction of a new term was apt because Baddeley and Hitch had a wholly different idea about short-term memory than was common before. However, the old term did not die and after a decade or so one needed history lessons to understand the difference between the two.

    The same occurs in the field of motivation. Whereas early versions of self-determination theory (SDT) popularized the earlier distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, newer iterations focus more on that between autonomous and controlled motivation. While for students of SDT the relation between these two dichotomies is clear, others at more distance may observe four terms being used with unclear meanings. The word ‘motivation’ itself is also not as clear as it seems – already in 1981 102 definitions of it had been proposed in scientific papers (Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981 ).

    What makes the situation for academic motivation worse than that in other fields, is that the delineation of what should count as a theory of motivation is fluid. In a consensus definition, motivation is that which energizes behavior (Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981). So academic motivation would be that which energizes academic behavior – i.e., learning and studying. Being interested can drive a student to learn, so theories of interest formation are arguably theories of academic motivation. Similarly, attribution theories of motivation describe factors that can strengthen or impair one’s wish to study (i.e., attributing success to work vs attributing it externally), and therefore would count. The case for metacognition theory as a theory of motivation is somewhat less clear-cut. Metacognition is thought of as a set of skills, not energizers, but these skills do affect whether one studies or not. They have therefore been included in reviews of academic motivation theories (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002 ).

    For a recent paper, we made a list of theories that others have treated as prominent ones of academic motivation. It can be found here, with for each theory a short summary. In all likelihood, it is highly incomplete, and we’d welcome any suggestions for additions.
    What is already clear, however, is that many theories have used words that denote overlapping concepts (technical term for this problem: Jingle-Jangle fallacies; Marsh, 1994 ). Such as self-efficacy and self-concept, interest, flow and intrinsic motivation, locus of control and attribution of success. Yes, they mean subtly different things, but is scientific progress served by keeping those distinctions alive until one needs a history lesson to grasp them? As researchers, we’d probably do ourselves and educational practice a huge favor by going through our vocabulary with a thick broom.

  • What it's like to study school climate in the US

    What it’s like to study school climate in the US

    Nicolette van Halem & Alissa Postpischil

    Crossing borders can result in great discoveries. Although the travel restrictions with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic are still in place, researchers are crossing borders on a daily basis; not only are they crossing the borders of different disciplines, but also the borders of different cultures. Disciplinary and cultural diversity can encourage us to think more creatively and to come up with ideas that bring us as a society forward. How do we keep this international exchange ongoing, how can we promote it further?
     
    We, as the research institute LEARN!, promote it by celebrating our international research in a series of conversations with researchers who research outside the Netherlands. On the 15th of April, Nicolette van Halem reflected on her experiences during her research on school culture in an urban fringe district in Southern California and how this international exchange helped her to grow as a person and as a researcher. Although the US and the Netherlands are both western cultures and do not appear too different at first sight, Nicolette experienced several cultural barriers and found out quickly that those would affect her research plan in surprising ways. When looking into theory, Erin Meyer states that the US and the Netherlands diverge mainly on the cultural dimensions of evaluating, deciding and disagreeing (see Figure below). In the conversation with Nicolette, we discussed these cultural differences in light of her own experiences.

    Figure 1. Erin Meyers cultural dimensions (2018). A comparison between the US and the Netherlands. 

    The difference in giving and receiving feedback and the importance of a good relationship
     
    Before arriving in the United States, Nicolette had her research plan sorted. She started the collaboration with the impression that her American colleagues were on the same page. Only after arrival, she realized that the research partners were hesitant about sharing particular data, which substantially impacted the initial plans. While she was used to direct feedback from her supervisors in the Netherlands, she experienced first-hand that in the US the feedback was more indirect and a contrasting opinion would be covered in compliments. At the same time, the same communication style allowed for constructive conversations about shared research interests and seminal directions for innovative and multidisciplinary research. It also shifted the attention to the benefits of the partnership on the long term.
     
    What showed from Nicolette her experience is that the specific context of the University and the schools in Southern California also deviate from the global trends described by Erin Meyer. Erin Meyer describes in his cultural dimensions that both the Netherlands and the US tend to be very task-oriented and not as much relationship-oriented in the workplace. Nicolette experiences are rather different. To illustrate, she was invited to a thanks giving party of the chair of the department before they started talking about research. Another example is the strong emphasis on moving in the pace of the schools (instead of the research planning) to ascertain deep levels of trust with the school leaders. It was of great importance to her colleagues to first build a warm relationship and a foundation of trust before moving on with the work. The focus in the department on researching culture, climate, and relationships in school may have contributed too.
     
    Race on the forefront of the US research agenda as well as in daily life
     
    Another topic that was discussed in the conversation with Nicolette is a difference in how researchers in the Netherlands and the US sensitize towards issues related to race, culture, and ethnic background. These issues are at the forefront in the US and were regularly topic of discussion in the department that Nicolette visited. An example is the acknowledgement of land and the attention for the inclusion of native Americans in Higher education. Another example is the ‘Partners at Learning’ project that connects students with underrepresented primary and secondary school pupils. If you are interested in reading more about these topics, you can look up the research of the faculty at the Department of Education Studies at the University of San Diego, California.
     
    Receiving funding to start your own collaboration with US colleagues
     
    Nicolette received the funding for her research position in the US through network activities and shared contacts. Meeting the US partners at an international event was a first important step in discussing the opportunities, timing, and financial resources available to start a research collaboration. A shared passion for school improvement efforts and research-practice partnership catalysed these conversations. About 6 months after meeting each other, concrete preparations for the 12-month period abroad were set in motion.
     
    If you plan to start a collaboration with US colleagues on a research project or conduct research in the US, try to find a local partner first. Local partners can provide you with a network of schools and sometimes have possibilities to finance projects. But even if they do not have the financial means to support your project, US foundations look for projects that include local partners. Whether you would like to apply at the Steve Jobs foundation, Bill & Melinda gates foundation, Spencer or William T. Grant foundation, it will increase your chances when you apply together with a local partner. If you are planning to do a research trip to the US, the Fulbright Schuman foundation or the Marie Curie fellowships are good starting points.
     
    If you are interested in starting a collaborative research project in the US, contact Nicolette van Halem or Prof. Melanie Ehren as they can provide you with many more tips to make it a success.

    Authors: Nicolette van Halem & Alissa Postpischil