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From iPads to English, Are Dutch Schools Becoming American?

Date: Sunday, February 2, 2014
Category: Blog

Have you ever been to one of those Dutch historical museums, where you can see Dutch classrooms as they existed years ago? I visit one every day. It’s called ‘My Kid’s School.’ While Dutch society may be progressive in many ways, Education is not always one of them.

I was wacthing a speech at the symposium called TEDxEd. It was about Dutch classrooms. The speaker showed images of his youth in the 1950s:
Phones were clunky. TVs were new. Classrooms were classrooms.
His first kids went to school in the 1980s:
Phones were wireless. TVs were color. Some classrooms had computers.
Flash forward to 2014:
Phones are smartphones. TVs are flatscreens. Classrooms? ‘Some have computers.’
How can today’s schools be so far behind? Of course kids are bored! Or – according to the speaker – students think of school as: ‘7 hours a day pretending there’s no such thing as Google.’ To be fair, some classrooms do have an upgraded ‘Digiboard’ system. And when it crashes, the kids are there to show the teacher how to use it.

The speaker at TEDxEd was Maurice de Hond, and I know him. Most Dutch people know de Hond as a self-made statistician/pollster. I know him as my colleague. Together with Pep Rosenfeld, we hosted the Boom Chicago comedy show, ‘Political PARTY.’ One of our guests on the show was Dutch politician Lodewijk Asscher, who was then in charge of Education in Amsterdam. De Hond asked Asscher if he would allow home schooling for kids who were already learning more on their iPad than in the classroom. Better yet, were there any plans for integrating iPads into the classroom? Asscher’s response was ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ If de Hond was serious about starting up an iPad School then Asscher would arrange accredidation. I was present at the creation of what is now called the ‘Steve Jobs School.’ Maybe Dutch Education is more progressive than I’d thought?

Meanwhile, meet my 9 year-old son. So far, he’s a dedicated underachiever. Until you put an iPad in his hand. He’s taught himself chess. He taught himself filmmaking. He’s teaching himself algebra with great apps like ‘Dragon Box.’ But at his school, he’s falling behind. His class is full. His teacher had a burn-out. Now the school is suggesting he might be ‘Dyslexic,’ for the simple reason that his test scores are so low. We were afraid he’d be sent to a special class. But – lucky for us – that’s unlikely. Why? Since the latest round of budget cuts, the ‘special needs’ kids are being lumped into the same classrooms as everyone else. This trend now has a new term: ‘Plofklassen.’ Remember the Word-of-the-Year 2012, ‘Plofkip?’ Some Dutch people are now looking at growing class-sizes as critically as they viewed the hormonally bloated chickens.

We started looking for a different school. To be fair, there are many options in the Dutch system, from Dalton School to Waldorf to Montessori. But they’re full. When we heard that there was an iPad School being planned in our area, we went to the Information Day. We waited in line to speak to someone, and who did we get? Maurice de Hond. We listened as he explained the basics. What he explained was not only progressive. It was radical. Yes, the classes would take place in a school. But the coursework would be flexible. The school times would be flexible. The school vacations would be flexible. My first reaction was ‘That’s crazy.’ Until – as a parent – I realized: ‘Maybe I’d love it.’ Will it actually work? We’ll get back to you on that.

In the meantime, Dutch Education is getting more progressive with a new initiative to encourage bilingual education. Did I mention that my kids were part of a research project on Bilingual Education? Not long ago, the prevailing theory of Childhood Development was that children suffer from learning a second language too early. But, more and more, there’s proof that children thrive in an environment with multiple languages. Part of that proof came from research done at our house. You’re welcome.

Another encouraging initiative is the emphasis on ‘Video Literacy.’ While my generation was learning the ‘5-Paragraph Theme,’ my kid’s Dutch high school is teaching ‘The 3-minute Video.’ More and more, Dutch students must learn how to use images to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Frankly, I’m jealous. My 9 year-old made a rambling, 8-part ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ video, and it has more views on YouTube than I do.

Personally, I find that the new Dutch initiatives on Bilingual education and Video Literacy are encouraging. But the spontaneous initiatives like iPad schools are more exciting. Of course I’d think that, I’m American. But I realize that, traditionally, Dutch innovation has a way of rewarding collective action, instead of lone-gun radicals. Will my son be able to go to a ‘Steve Jobs School?’ Stay tuned.