The Netherlands are famous for cheese, windmills, tulips… and for a rigorous decentralized education system. Dating back from 1917, the Dutch schools have autonomy to hire (but not fire) staff, design curricula and spend means as they please. The government’s role is to facilitate, by suppling funds (the ‘lumpsum’), leaving the rest to the school management. The learning outcomes are checked by the inspection of education. Bad schools are warned, or even closed. Good schools are rewarded. This is our ‘liberty of education’ in a nutshell.
There are pros and cons to this system, as there are in any other. The lumpsum has led to the clustering of schools, creating large-scale semi-private organizations, with a thick management layer that consumes a considerable proportion of the lumpsum before the revenue flows to the classrooms – where it is intended to be going.
As a teacher, however, I truly appreciate the advantages of this system. The pioneering school where i’m working, the Hyperion Lyceum in Amsterdam, has a unique curriculum. My school focusses on critical thinking skills, global citizenship and ownership in learning. We believe we can harness the creativity and intrinsic motivation of our students by providing autonomy, trust and sense of competency. Our motto is ‘nihil volentibus arduum’ (nothing is impossible if one wills it). Despite the fact we are a young ‘startup’ and we are still very much a work in progress, this vision is strongly attached to our pedagogies and our curriculum.
No achievement comes without a relationship. This is the cornerstone of any sound vision on pedagogy. Learning starts with the relationship between student and teacher. From this relationship autonomy, trust and a sense of competency emerge. Trust is the result of always staying ‘connected’ to the student (lets not forget their parents!). Autonomy is achieved by trust. We teachers then coach our students on their competencies, by providing hands-on feedback and formative assessment. At least, thats the idea.
In terms of curriculum, we get to design our own courses, projects and modules, which are aligned with the school’s vision. This is not only a most rewarding activity, but also a key prerequisite for creating a dynamic learning environment. At Hyperion Lyceum, we teachers come up with exciting new ideas for projects that will help our students to face the challenges of the 21st century. An equally important as urgent task, as this century seems to be getting ever-more intertwined and complex.
An example. This past week, we have been evaluating and redesigning a module on artificial intelligence for our third grade. A.I. is already a major factor in today’s world and is most likely to affect even more aspects in the lives of our students this century. We need to equip our students on dealing with artificial intelligence. Program or be programmed. This module focusses on different perspectives on A.I: historic, philosophical, psychological, linguistic. Students collaborate in research teams, solving stimulating problems on the matter. We criticize movies on A.I., like last year’s release Ex Machina, we debate ethical and moral issues, we challenge them to design and program their own intelligent system. Students can pick any of the research questions we provided, or to come up with their own questions. Thus providing a sense of autonomy and ownership.
I have been fortunate by both an education system and a school that recognizes the power of bottom-up innovation. This has proved crucial in empowering my own students with the cognitive skills and competencies to be tomorrows changemakers. I realize not all teachers are blissed by these levels of professional autonomy. Global and national policymakers need to trust and support teachers to come up with own innovations and plans, like we intend to do with our students at Hyperion.
As we say: Nihil volentibus arduum.