Maurice de Hond gets attention – in conversation, at a dinner table, and in national and international media. After a few minutes in de Hond’s company, the forces of both his personality and intellect assert themselves.
No wonder then that de Hond has taken on nothing short of the structure of public education in the Netherlands as a project in founding “Steve Jobs Schools” throughout his country.
Steve Jobs Schools have ambitious plans to change the structure of the school day and year, allowing students to meet required curricular outcomes via virtual school spaces, apps, and coaching from a team of teachers in and out of school. Currently, the schools must adhere to Dutch regulations requiring a uniform length for the school day, but they have been able to consider 10% of the school year “virtual”, according to de Hond, ostensibly reducing the amount of time students are required to attend school in person.
We visited one of several Steve Jobs schools operating since August, 2013. A full day trip, a group of international school teachers traveled from Amsterdam to Sneek by bus, regaled with Dutch history and geography, and informed about the history of this project by de Hond as we went.
Once we arrived at the school in Sneek, a small, nicely designed school in what appeared to be an economically diverse area, we were free to wander and speak with anyone we wished. I witnessed lots of normal behavior for any school: students read books, filled out worksheets, had conversations, played on and off the iPad, got shushed by teachers, got coached by teachers, and gawked a bit at their visitors.
I also saw plenty that was interesting. Students have an individualized learning plan with goals created by the teacher, parent, and student working in concert. Students learn language, math, and science in classrooms during 20 minute blocks, then retire to a central common area to work. In these classrooms, kids of all ages appear to be learning together. Students come and go independently, reminded by their iPad’s calendar when to move. This was all pretty impressive.
In the common room, the teacher in charge worked with two assistants to keep kids on task and to help out when needed. This teacher reported enjoying his new job a great deal, stating that it was both more fun and fulfilling than his prior position because he could help each student individually via their “Learning Talks” and goal setting.
Clearly, the Steve Jobs Schools are a response to the current lockstep curriculum of the Netherlands, in which inspectors enter a certain class on a certain day, expecting to see everyone working on the same page of the same book. EDIT: Maurice de Hond shared via email that these inspections are less rigid than I described here, stating that ” of course the tests are forcing many in a rigid system.” As an option to what could be a stifling academic environment for some learners, de Hond’s project makes good sense.
But these schools are fledglings, with a palpable sense of running on enthusiasm inherent to such a new, attention-grabbing enterprise. Teachers are working long hours compared to their previous jobs, and the personalization level they hope to reach is not currently in operation – eventually, they plan to have each child’s iPad set up around her goals. Currently, the set-up is the same for all the kids. Ever greater personalization will lead to more hours, I imagine, particularly if the school is responsible for organizing such a set-up, rather than transferring responsibility to the child.
Additionally, succumbing to the fantasy that being busy is the same thing as learning can be intoxicating, at least as alluring as the classic teacher fantasy of controlling learning. Watching a child swipe randomly minute after minute across number and mathematical operator symbols to arrive at an answer was unnerving. I saw many abacus apps, and a good deal of app jumping. However, I also saw kids using blocks and good old analog manipulatives, sand tables and books. In this quick, drop-in tour, my biggest take-away was that this was a school, working like a school, with a good deal of learning and some healthy mucking about taking place simultaneously.
At lunch following the visit and on the ride home, de Hond shared his vision of education freely and his hopes for his organization, O4NT (Education for a New Era). We visited the Sneek school because it is currently the most compete realization of the organization’s vision for Steve Jobs Schools, but a handful of others exist, employing recommended strategies to varying degrees. De Hond didn’t express an interest to force schools to conform to a standardized approach, but he can see a time in the future when some adherence to basic norms – once more well-established than they are now – is necessary.
I went into the Steve Jobs Schools fairly skeptical of what I might see – personalization as a playlist of worksheets or more old things done in new ways. However, this iteration of Dutch schooling as an innovation on the past and on existing regulations has potential to offer variety for students turned off by traditional schooling.
Future challenges exist. Is this model exciting enough to help teachers and students maintain their energy and enthusiasm long term? Can O4NT keep personalization and community relevance at the fore while demanding some sort of brand standardization for Steve Jobs Schools, or will this lead to stronger echoes of the existing system of education? Once finely-tuned, what relationship will the O4NT suite of virtual school apps have with Steve Jobs Schools, and to what degree will such apps drive educational, curricular, or pedagogical decision making?
New approaches in education are few and far between, with much that is new or reform-minded providing little more than a fresh glaze over last century’s progressive-isms (many of which featured great ideas). De Hond and his Steve Jobs Schools are executing some thoughtful concepts and forging a clearly welcome path through the community of Sneek, engaging kids in the process. And de Hond seems to bring enough energy to the project to keep it steaming along for some time.