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  • Juliette & Iseult

Teaching differently: the story of a unique school

We met Caroline in Utrecht (Netherlands) in July: she was our first pioneer interview. We met her in a ‘special’ place called the Social Impact Factory. This place welcomes a lot of companies that aim to have a positive impact on social issues & the environment.

At that time, Caroline was a teacher at a school called UniC. She introduced us to a very interesting way of teaching: guiding the students to autonomy in a fun way (for both the teachers & the students). We loved it and thought it would be interesting to share it!

Picture: The Social Impact Factory in Utrecht.

  • UniC is a public school that gathers students from 12 to 18 years old, the equivalent of ‘the collège’ and 'the lycée' in the French system.

  • It was the headmaster ‘radical’ vision that started UniC in 2004. He wanted to get rid of the national exam (=baccalauréat in the French system) and build a school for learning entrepreneurial skills that would provide full autonomy to the students.

  • The Dutch school system: between shortage of teachers and making a decisive choice at 12 years old.

  • HOW UniC is unique.

  • WHY teaching differently?

  • She was an English teacher at UniC

  • She also was responsible for coordinating the mentorship of students at UniC

  • She works in 'business' for 10 years before coming back to her passion: teaching

  • She is originally from Belgium

To fully understand how and why UniC is unique, let’s start by understanding the Dutch school system, which is not an easy task...

First the shortage of teachers. The job has a bad image in the Netherlands. Teachers are not well considered compared to others and within the first 5 years they have a good chance to leave. They have to teach in class on a weekly basis 26-24h a week. My mum is a teacher (Juliette) so I am well aware that the hours you spend in class are not the only work hours you have. You have to add to that number the numerous hours of test correction and the preparation of the lessons which at the end of the week is a lot. The result of a lot of work hours without society acknowledging it is that 25% of teachers end up burning out.

On the other hand, the school system is very different from the French one in terms of structure. At 12 years old, when you finish elementary school, you have a test. With this test result and your teacher's recommendation you have to choose between 3 paths:

  • VMBO which can lead to a vocational education, you can either choose a specialty (graphic studies for example) or choose after 4 years of studies, at 16 years old.

  • HAVO which can lead to a ‘college’ education which is usually 3 years after the end of ‘high school’. College is different from university, it leads to shorter studies generally a bachelor degree.

  • VWO which can lead to university. It is considered as the most prestigious path.

The illustration below represents the difference between the 3 paths.

At a very young age you are responsible for making a decisive choice for your future. It can seem odd for a non-Dutch person but Caroline explained that parenting is different there. What we understood is that the child is not really treated as such and is involved in his/her own decision making at a very young age. For instance, her daughter chose at what school she wanted to do her VWO cursus and she did not question it.

However, when I look back at my 12 year old self, I would not have made the same decision I made when I was 17 (the age when you take the national exam in France to decide which studies you will do). I personally think 12 years old is very young... Caroline added something else: this system can widen the gap between well-educated parents and those who are not.

Indeed, those who are well aware of how the system works want their children to go to a HAVO or VWO path. So, they hire tutors or they negotiate with the teachers so that they give good recommendations to their child. Now, when you just arrived in the country or when you are not aware of how the system works, you just follow the teachers' recommendations or the exam result.

While the system might not seem perfect, it has an interesting component to it. It is mandatory in the Netherlands that every class has 1 hour a week of mentorship. Teachers are responsible for the mentorship.

For instance, at UniC it is 15mn per week per student which helps the student plan his/her week or his/her future and give him/her studying skills.

They also took things a bit further.

They mix HAVO & VWO students for the first 3 years from 12 to 15 years old. The first year focuses on ‘who am I’, the second year on 'what am I good at’, and the third year on ‘what I want.

The goal is to guide the students to find their path at the end of those 3 years. The first year is also dedicated to helping students become autonomous, planning their week with their homework...

I only remember having one guidance counsellor meeting at 16 that was basically useless. Back then, I would have loved to go to a school like UniC where you try to discover what you like. When I chose my study field, my teachers or my family would tell me that it was good because 'it would keep my options open for my future job'. Basically you will discover along the way what you like and finally make a decision. Well, 10 years later I am still trying to figure out what I like...

But HOW do they teach differently?

They don’t have books, they produce their own material which is linked more to real life stuff.

Caroline is an English teacher so for example she invites native speakers, and then her students have projects with people all over the world.

She told us about one important project. The students had an online role playing: you were born as a random person in the world (based on real life data), and you had to write a diary in English.

So you could be an Indian girl and you had to make choices. You want to go to school, but it is not possible because only a few Indian girls have access to education in that region. Caroline underlined the importance that, as a teacher, you have to get students in touch with things they would not run into in their own bubble. You have to open their eyes to the rest of the world.

They also have ‘entrepreneurial’ challenges. When they go on to their upper years they have challenges that match their profiles because eventually you have to find your path. For example you have to design the city of the future for students who want to be architects. For students who wish to create their own business, Dragon's Den it is. (A British TV show where you pitch your business ideas to investors)

UniC is a school for entrepreneurial learning. To put things in perspective, in the Netherlands, there are a lot of schools which operate with the same principles than UniC (although they were one of the first public school to do it).

As we seen, there is a shortage of teachers in the Netherlands and a lot of burn outs. Along with it, most of teachers might be reluctant to experience new things. They don't want to mess with a child's future, the stakes are high.

Caroline's goal is for both the children & teachers to have fun again. It is not fun to teach from a book. Often teachers take the governmental educational plan as the ‘law’. It is not a law, it is open to interpretation. Along with that, traditional books are outdated, artificial. They are not linked to ‘real’ life.

The interpretation of the government plan gives freedom to the teachers, and it is much more fun. Caroline uses TED talks for example. It combines listening skills and speaking skills for the children. She adds inspirational talk with reading materials. She is in charge of the material she uses.

It is a combination of: What they need to know + what I would like to teach them.

Because in the end, it is always better to do a job where you have fun along with your students.

This meeting changed our perspective on how we were taught at a very young age to be non autonomous. The schooling system will be later replicated in the companies we worked for. A pyramidal structure where your boss has the knowledge and explains you how to do your job. Maybe we have to start by reinventing education, to reinvent organizations?



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