Claire Boonstra is a former technology pioneer who found her calling in transforming education systems. Among her many projects, Claire is the producer of the Education film “Wat is het doel van Onderwijs?” (What is the purpose of education), developer of the series “Onderwijsvragen” (Education Questions/ Questioning Education), founder of “School van Schoolleiders/ Expeditie Leiderschap” and co-author of the book “Het Onderwijsvragenboek” (The Educational Questionnaire).
This is a guest post from Claire, originally published on LinkedIn on April 18, 2020.
The corona crisis forces education to make a sudden and radical shift in both form and function. Within a few weeks or even days, we were forced to let go of almost everything that we used to take for granted in education, things that gave us something to hold on to and gave us certainty (even if it was sometimes a false certainty):
The school building, classrooms, lessons by a teacher in front of the class, school books, the timetable, whether or not to redo a school year’s standardised (final) exams and maybe even the summer holidays. All this stirs up a lot in – and around – people in education, and in the families and parties involved. From fear and frustration to hope and (re)discovering the things that really matter in life.
The situation allows us all to look at our education in a different way. It provides new insights and at the same time invites us to shed light on these teaching practices from all sides, to test them against the values we have. It compels us to think about the usefulness and necessity, the why and the purpose of our education:
What is really the intention of education and what does that mean for how we want to deal with it from now on?
It seems more and more that corona is – or at least could be – the catalyst for the transformations that education and society have been facing for much longer.
In the coming weeks, we will share insights from the social discussion that has arisen around education in a series of articles from the Operation Education community and we will consider a number of characteristic elements that may no longer be so obvious.
The media is currently full of concerns about the major “learning disabilities” children that face during this period and what to do about them. To answer this question correctly, we first have to dig a little deeper:
- What do we mean by learning arrears?
- (With whom) is there actually a learning disability?
- How bad is it?
Below, I will go into each of these, especially the first question. We first zoom out on the whole and go to a somewhat more fundamental level, then return to the question itself. And we end with the question: what should we do with the summer holidays?
What do we mean by learning arrears?
Learning deficits can only exist if there is a standard by which you can determine ‘lead’, ‘no difference’ or ‘disadvantage’. The question is: what is that standard? Without thinking about it, most of us have an idea: the standard is the curriculum that we are supposed to complete, the classification of the curriculum with which we achieved the goals set for that year’s class at the end of the school year.
This program usually consists of the chosen teaching method that we are expected to complete in a certain order, after which it is determined on the basis of tests whether sufficient progress has been made. On the basis of this, it is determined whether or not a child can continue to the next year, or whether or not s/he can continue to further education. The line of the program has been established based on what an average child is expected to know and can do in a given grade.
For example, at the end of group 3, the average child is expected to read at level E3 and must be able to read and write numbers up to 100. If the child can do more, he or she has a ‘head start’ and if he or she can ‘only’ count to 10, he or she is ‘behind’. The teaching methods are geared to this and in finishing the method you can therefore even choose between a ‘sun’, ‘moon’ or ‘star’ route.
Either way, you are satisfied if the teaching method is finished at the end of the year and the corresponding tests are completed with an above-average result. The last example is from primary school, but you can apply the principles to almost all forms of education and development, from recent years (including measurements at the consultation office) through primary and secondary (special) education to MBO and higher education.
This view of development requires a lot of assumptions, of which we have to ask ourselves if they are true, if they are true, if they do justice to what we know about full human development, about life. The assumptions are:
- There exists an average, an average child, the average human being.
- On the basis of that average, that standard, we can classify children as ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; as ‘further’ or ‘less far’ in their development. Above-average is better than below average.
- We can standardise this development and divide it into, for example, year classes.
- The development is mainly cognitive – i.e. focused on language and arithmetic or separate subjects such as biology, geography and English.
- If you have not achieved the learning objectives appropriate to your year group, you are better off staying put and repeating the year.
- The hour standard sets how many hours you need to run the program. If you don’t make it, you’re running late.
- Teaching methods are necessary to keep track of whether we are on the right track and need to be (fully) finished to make progress.
- Testing and giving grades (including the final test and the final exam) are a useful way to determine whether a child is doing well or not, whether they are ready for further education.
In our Educational Question Research and the resulting Educational Question Book, we investigated these and other assumptions about education and development. We formulated each assumption as a question: why is it so? Why do we have year classes, why do we give figures, why is there an average? For each educational question, we looked at history (how did it come about?), the advantages and disadvantages (what is known about it in science and practice?) and possible alternatives (can it be done differently?). We did this in close cooperation with a large community of educational professionals, specialists, scientists and other parties involved.
You can look at the analysis and conclusions we drew from the links above, but ask these questions to yourself and to each other, for example in an Educational Question Session.
In order to be able to answer these questions in a meaningful way, especially when it comes to the pros and cons, we first have to ask another question, because nothing is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of itself. The answer only acquires meaning once you have made it clear to yourself what the actual intention is.
What is the purpose of education and development?
This is perhaps the most important question we have to ask ourselves during this time. It is only on the basis of the answer that we can say whether there really is something like a learning deficit. We also need to answer this question to be able to test whether what we are doing makes sense now – during the corona crisis – but especially when we are gradually going back to school, and we are heading towards a ‘new normal’, a new reality.
If the question is ‘what education for’, is the answer:
‘to score as high as possible on tests in existing school subjects, to be able to achieve as high a level of further education as possible in order to end up as high as possible in society’
Or is it something else after all…?
It is fascinating that in this day and age we are being thrown back on – and confronted with – what really matters. With almost every message and conversation we ask about each other’s well-being and health and wish everyone the best in that area. We call on each other to take good care of ourselves and each other. Stay healthy. Take care of yourself. We can do this together. We are there for each other. We need each other.
In addition, we are very concerned about the economy. Loss of jobs means loss of income for individuals, thus for the greater good including joint (social) services that are essential for a healthy society. But many conversations are also about the fact that this time is probably very good for our planet. That this full stop, this reset, might be exactly what we needed to realise that we weren’t working well with each other on all levels and that we could probably do with less travelling and consuming, even if it hurts a lot.
Clearly, it’s what matters the most. That we put the wellbeing – in the broadest sense of the word – of individuals, of society and of the planet centre stage. And that we must do everything we can to ensure it.
With our project ‘what is the purpose of education?‘ we have been focusing on this question for years (and we still do, at every meeting, all masterclasses, keynotes, expeditions and meetings).
The thousands of times we have asked this question have received many tens of thousands of answers from all layers of society, all possible backgrounds and religions, countries and cultures, inside, beside and outside education. The answers all lead to something that is apparently universal, which is about how we (want to) be human in relation to our environment. The answers we received were all our own variations on – and own unique formulations of – something we all know deep inside of ourselves, with a capital K.
These are the words we distilled from it – but please formulate your own answer to it:
- Learning to discover who you are, what you stand for and where you want to go in life – learning to unleash your own unique and full potential.
- Learning life together and learning to live together.
- Learning to take ownership of your own life and of the society we strive for: peaceful, happy, healthy and sustainable.
“Learning is finding your way in new situations. And that’s what we all do now, including all the children. Pippi Longstocking said ‘I’ve never done it before, so I think I can do it.'”
– Eric Molenveld, responsible for the wide range of education in Amsterdam
What is ‘learning disadvantage’ in this context?
Now back to the original question: if you compare the concept of ‘learning disadvantage’ with the intention of education and development as stated above, then the issue becomes much more nuanced, but also broader and more complex.
If school – education – is a place of training for society, where the development of the above is the goal, then there will be many children for whom all this was less possible than before, simply because their context at home does not lend itself to this. Others will have been able to develop much more in the above aspects than they were ever able to do at school.
“Maybe we should first think about what’s really important right now. Then what’s the backlog? Which children are we really worried about and why? Do we keep thinking from the current system and try to fill the children with what?”
– Yvonne Rozeman, Director Paterjansmitschool, Heerhugowaard
(For who) is there a learning disability?
I find this question interesting both from the ‘narrow’ definition of education (as stated in the first assumptions – it’s about turning off the programme) and from the ‘broad’ definition (developing the well-being of the individual, society and planet).
Experts are now trying with all their might to establish how large the backlogs are, but there is little point in focusing on this before we have taken extensive measurements (read: tests), while we also need to discuss the desirability of such measurements at this time. So we can only say something anecdotal about it.
It is striking that the differences between individuals within groups (classes), between teachers and between schools are enormous. Both with my own three children, with their teachers, and what I hear from others, I notice that everyone reacts to and deals with the situation that has arisen differently. Even teachers within the same school have totally different approaches.
For example, a primary school teacher from Helmond says: “I still work thematically and then I can gather a lot of material. My kids make vlogs about what they have learned and then I check what they have picked up. But we also have colleagues who put a parcel in the mailbox and don’t know if anything is being done”.
There are also children who benefit enormously from this situation. For example, I heard from various professionals and parents that pupils who were normally less involved – or even not at all, and usually absent – are now suddenly blossoming.
“‘Backlog’? My children have never worked so hard, they say they work harder at home than at school. They’re ahead of me.” – Ciske van Oosterhout, mother and care & education innovator
“There is some delay in the curriculum, but an unmistakable leap in the development of individuality and making choices that suit the person in her situation. Says the #lecturer in MBO #nursing #courses about students who do an internship in times of Corona and follow online classes” – Lieke Huijbregts via Twitter
“It is a concern if I look at what the PTA says should have been done by now. On the other hand, they also learn more independence, discipline & planning.” – @boerdeboer via Twitter
“I think it’s also about an educational point of view. I was discussing with my principal that our fear is that children will end up going to school and that after two days they will all have to do 5 days of CITO’s because we all think it is so important to put them in the right cognitive pigeonhole. This is just the time for reflection, connecting and coming home.” – Tijl Koenderink, Director of the School of Understanding
“I’ve got that ghost, too, Tijl. The first morning the children tell us what they’ve done, then we take the rest of the week for tests to determine who is behind on what” – Tol Swinkels, Vice Principal of Our Lady Lyceum School
Is it bad?
“Consider a backlog not as a backlog but as a new starting situation.” – Ellen Wolkotte, Site Director for Primary School Pope John XXIII
“We can only talk about a backlog if we work with standards… and that has to end now. You compare a child to himself and then you can track the current development. That’s how education should always go. Tune in to diversity and don’t act as a tutorial machine in the field of skills. Learning is more than that (knowledge, insights and attitudes).” – Karin van Zutphen, Director of Wittering.nl
“Catching up, recovering lost time… These are expressions of how much we are in an educational crisis in the Netherlands. School is not just a social safety net in which inequality in society has to be erased through programmes and interventions. The corona crisis is part of life learning… there was always education… at least if you dare to think in development and experiential learning. We have to stop seeing school as an economic cog. The value of school does not lie in the production of students! Yes, we have to focus attention on children who are having a hard time… that was already true. That assignment doesn’t change. Stop brushing up, overtaking, lagging tests… The only interesting thing from the Education Council’s advice… is summer schools… at least if you offer them as a time in which children can play, experience, share, celebrate, discover and have lots of safety and fun with plenty of room for broad development.” – Maarten Jacobs, Director of De Stroom Child Centre
We have to keep asking ourselves what is important for learning, how we can optimally support children in their development and how schools can complement what home can’t offer. It is a fact that there are children and families for whom this situation is downright disastrous, and we must pay maximum attention to this and continue to do so.
Fortunately, I feel that this attention is there now, even more than before. We used to send children home six weeks before the summer holidays, even in complicated home situations, without a blink of the eye. We hardly asked ourselves or each other whether that would be all right. Now, we do. Let’s at least hold on to that.
This brings us to the last point: the summer vacation.
What about the summer holidays?
The summer holidays. The compulsory free period set by the government (at least for schoolchildren) during which everyone in and around education can recharge their batteries, relax, let their thoughts run free and do nothing at all. It is also the period that forms a hard break and thus not only causes a kind of natural ‘end’ and ‘beginning’ but also a lot of stress. After all, everything has to be finished before that time. After that, everything comes to a standstill.
In the many studies into the effect of the summer holidays carried out in the Netherlands and abroad over recent decades, it has been found that almost all children show a decline in learning outcomes. The so-called ‘summer dip’ or – in English – the ‘summer learning loss’. However, this summer dip has turned out to be extra-large for children from families with a lower socioeconomic status. The summer dip, therefore, contributes to increasing the inequality of opportunity. For more background on this subject, see the Education Question: Why do we have long summer holidays?
This is precisely why a number of schools in the Netherlands are already open 50 or even 52 weeks a year – to keep up with the children who need education the most. To be able to offer them the continuous and ongoing development that we have laid down by law but is still not a reality for many children.
At these schools (such as Laterna Magica, De School and Mondomijn) parents, teachers and pupils discuss what wisdom is, when the rest moments and holidays are built-in. Of course, the teachers also get their well-deserved holidays: there is a joint discussion about what is needed and with that who is present or free when.
It was not easy – until the corona crisis – for such schools to stay open all year round: all kinds of artistic and aeronautical work had to be done. Some of these schools (such as De School) were covered by the “flexible teaching times” experiment that had recently been abolished – with all sorts of consequences for the school. Thanks in part to a lot of effort on their behalf, including many discussions with the government and politicians, new regulations have been put in place that allow them and other schools (in principle) to continue.
And then there was corona… and suddenly everything became liquid. On social media, teachers were suddenly talking about voluntarily giving up a few weeks of holiday for children in vulnerable situations, who normally considered the summer holidays sacred. There was more and more talk about the possible extension of the school year and about moving the start to January. This made the next ‘holy house’ of education suddenly debatable, although the advice of the Education Council advocated a shortening or (partial) abolition, which led to a lot of fuss.
And rightly so. I don’t think we should impose such gigantic interventions from above, especially when we don’t yet know exactly how big – and what – the problem is.
But I’m glad we’re having this conversation en masse now. It seems obvious to me that we are creating maximum possibilities for all kinds of education and development during the summer holidays, in the broadest sense of the word. After all, physical, sporting, social, emotional and cultural development has also been on the minds of many in recent months, with all the associated implications.
Let us talk about this in detail with one other and build a meaningful and valuable education together, during and after corona.
I would like to hear your considerations and additions in the comments below! And we’d love to talk to you if you want to take steps to get your education moving, but you don’t yet know how or where to start or how to take the right steps right now.
Many of the quotes in this piece are from (former) participants and contributors to our Expedition Leadership program.
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