Benjamin Franklin has said that “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”. This is especially true when it comes to education. Though education is crucial in basically every part of life, getting people to understand it and invest in it, however, is actually the real challenge. The latter can in some cases cause hard-to-believe phenomena, such as having the newest wave of employees to be less educated than their parents and while individual data looks promising, by saying that current generations are on track to perhaps become the best-educated generation yet, early school leaving is a problem everywhere, in every nation and educational system.

So, here’s a challenging question: do you think it is possible to boost the interest of the today’s generations in education by taking a different approach in teaching them like getting rid of class scheduling, the separated classrooms and the single study desks? No? We didn’t think so either, until Mr. Cooten changed our mind.

Spoiler alert: it is not only possible, but it is already in use!


Ayri Memishev (AM)

Let’s start off by introducing yourself really quickly. Who are you and what you do?

Martijn van Cooten (MC)

I’m Martijn, Martijn van Cooten. It’s a difficult Dutch name. I’m one of the deans of the IT & Media department at the ROC Da Vinci College (Dordrecht, Netherlands). We have one goal, one vision which is to make wonderful education in а non-traditional way.

AM

How did it all start? Was it your idea and is it only you working on this? You mentioned that it took about six years to come to get to this. Tell me a bit more about that.

MC

When I was at school I had a good time, but it could be better. Actually, I was one of the dropouts and I tried several studies. The school system must be an example for you, but it also has to be a copy of the society in some way. And I was discussing all of this with a friend of mine, I think, 10 years ago. And it turned out that he also shared my vision. I said “Wow. So why don’t we create education in that way?”. It was really not my goal to be one of the managers in here, but four years later I became a dean, because when you want to change something, you have to be in another position to do so. Then, then we worked together.

Then we shared our vision and we discussed it a lot and we really thought that this is the best way for school students specially to work on. We started six years ago to share our plans with my boss and the director. And initially they would say “No. You can’t try that, we don’t have money for it, we don’t have teachers for it” and things like that. But we really wanted to prove that this is working because we’ve already piloted it in the classroom: about four years ago, we had the first goal with 50 students and two classrooms. So, I asked them to just give it a try. I told them “You can fire me if you want, if I can’t reach my goal”. My goal was to also bring the dropout rates (early school leaving) down 12% to 5%. And here we are now, a few years later and we have a dropout rate of 1.5%. I still think that 1.5% is high because they’re always people dropping out. But everybody must get the possibility to learn. So, when somebody is dropping out you have to ask them “How can I help you to come further in your education? What do you need?”.

AM

Well, why don’t you tell me more about this vision of yours please?

MC

Yes, sure.

Firstly, we decided to get rid of the schedule. Normally, at the traditional school, there is one teacher, one class, one schedule, one lesson from 9:00am to 10:00am, from 10:00am to 11:00am, etc. And we said “Okay, we want to get rid of the schedule”. Like companies, you start at 9:00am and you stop at 5:00pm or 6:00pm something like that. So, in our case we don’t make students stay until 6:00pm, but we stop at 3:00pm.

The second thing we changed was, that we ask students to come in one workspace. Teachers are also there with all of them. So, while you have five classes, you have five classes in one space and also five teachers in one space. One of them can provide the knowledge or some expertise and the other four can be there like a coach or to help the others or to simply listen. So, they do everything in one whole class and can use each other’s expertise.

And there’s another big thing because it creates time. It creates time for teachers to do something else like work on their own skills, to work on making new lessons, to prepare some conversations with parents, for example. And after three o’clock, when the students are gone, there is plenty of time to do all the other things. To discuss with colleagues, to call the parents, to organize things.

So, you can really work as a team of teachers and use each other’s expertise. And that really worked out because there is almost no stress on the work floor anymore. Students feel comfortable and you are very flexible in giving the lessons. For example, when there is a question about some course and 10 students have a question, you can just take the students outside or still go to a classroom and tell them something specific about the subject.

The next thing is that we say “Okay, they follow a course, a subject content.” Sometimes, not always. But most of the times it’s secondary. Skills are very important. So, when they graduate, they graduate on skills like how to communicate, how to solve problems, how to find your way in the society and many, many more. And that is very important right now for all of us, because as future software developers for example, they have to know some technical information, know how to develop software, but even if you accomplish that part, you can still be an individual who can start like a beginner in the working society. You can collect all the skills you need for a course, but why always on the course you are doing at that moment? Why can’t you learn communications in like the IT department or the media department?

So that is the point where we are now, that students can choose that way of a learning path.

AM

Do students still have a certain amount of time that they need to spend in school? Do they still have a number of years necessary to graduate?

MC

Yes. We still have to fulfill the qualification requirements, which in most cases is around 3 years. So normally we say “Okay, in three years, you have to do that course”. In reality however, sometimes students can do it in 4 or 5 years and for some students, it goes very fast like 1 year or 2 years and both ways are fine, as long as they can prove that they are making progress in developing their skills. The latter is crucial, so that’s why every week we talk about the progress and how you progress is different than the progress of your friends, for example. After 10 weeks in the course let’s say, we have a lot of time to have a personal conversation with students. And we don’t look at the subject to say, “Okay, you have to do exercises 1 to 10”. No. Why should you do that? Because maybe you learn much more in two exercises than the other person does in 10 exercises. So, when you have 300 students for example, you can have 300 individual learning paths and that makes us very flexible for everybody. All of this of course, is a work in progress.

AM

Okay. So, it’s individual for every student when to graduate and you don’t have a certain date where you want them to have like a final exam?

MC

It is three years. And after three years there is an exam. We have to prepare them to finish in three years.

AM

And they could still do it earlier or later depending on what?

MC

Yes, they can, depending on how they develop personally. And in reality, you’ll see that most of the time it fits between the three or four years.

AM

Doesn’t having multiple teachers at the same place and not having walls and allowing students to graduate within the three or four years create bit of chaos at some point?

MC

No, not at all. That’s what we thought in the beginning, but 80% is still about walking the regular path. So no, it’s not chaos because the good thing is that every student comes here and is capable to learn on their own way, on their own tempo and in their own speed. That makes the intrinsic motivation very big. We tell them “You come here for yourself. You can choose your own path. You are totally responsible and we help you to be responsible for your own learning path”. Then there are some care workers on the floor, that help them with planning, help them with their wellbeing, help them with their problems at home and help them with all the things they see in the society. So that helps them to really learn here and to see the school as a safe place.

And actually, there is a VET department at the Dutch government and we are one of the partners in the discussion over there. Some schools are adopting this: there are 3 schools now and we are walking in front. They [the government] say that this is the way that all the VET schools are going to be in 2030, and eventually maybe even all schools, to follow this way of education.

AM
That’s ambitious.

MC
Yes, it is. But there is this regulation from the Dutch government now and it says that this is going to be the new plan for the 2030 agenda and all the schools have to follow this plan   
and in eight years they all have to be ready to make the transition.

AM
So it goes on a national level in 2030?

MC
Yes. Actually, it is about the students and about giving them opportunities. The transformation of education to give students a better way to be educated.

AM
I really like what you said earlier that everybody deserves a chance to learn.

MC
Yes. Actually, as part of our vision, we used a list of 3 guiding questions that are very important for us:

  1. The first question is “Is what you’re doing good for you?”
  2. Second question is “Is it good for your students or your colleague or for the others?”
  3. Third question is “Is it good for the company or is it good for the school?”

You can ask this set of questions on many levels e.g. from our rectors to the facilities to everybody. And if you can get a “Yes” answer to all three of them, then you know you’re on the right way. So, we started with the three questions, then it became a document and now it’s just a vision anymore, but a whole school area supported by the Dutch government.

It doesn’t matter if you’re poor or rich, gray, yellow, you know. Everyone has got a chance at education.

AM
I think that’s a nice end to this. Thank you very much!

MC
You’re welcome.

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