Tervuren, Friday afternoon. There are still a few hours to go before the redemptive school bell heralds the start of the autumn holidays, the longing for it is in the air. The students here listen to names such as Caitlyn, Clément, Victor, Fenne, Eden or Alexis. The playground, the Halloween decorations, the rules posted everywhere, the refectory, the hallways and last but not least the typical smell: at first glance it feels like an average high school here. But that is exactly what KA Tervuren does not want to be. The GO! atheneum of the Scoop school group has been pioneering remarkable ‘subjects’ for several years now.
‘About seven years ago we decided with the entire school group to spend an hour a week on “Tools for Life”’, says deputy director Patricia Coulange. ‘That can be about group formation, bullying, dealing with being different, but it can also be about things like making your plan – literally learning to draw up a plan – and financial literacy. From the second grade onwards, the latter is still a separate subject.’
“Society is changing very quickly,” says director Bram Bartholomees. ‘Before you know it, you’re lost as an 18-year-old. Everything used to stop for our students at 4 p.m., today they are online 16 hours a day and the rush only stops when they go to sleep. They face many stimuli, influences and expectations. How do you deal with that? How can you block that? We must also provide that to them. And sometimes we even have to extend that to the parents. That’s how far education goes these days.’
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Bartholomees does not give the example by chance. Today an XL version of Tools for Life is on the program in the first grade, as the start of a project on social media. The director takes us to ‘learning lab 3’, where teacher Sammy Van Daele challenges his students to think about their clicking, liking and viewing behavior. When ‘the people of The standard‘ enter, there is some nervous laughing and shifting, but the students turn out to be surprisingly open-hearted. “A lot of likes is good, few are sad,” Kamelya (14) posits. “Who feels bad if he gets few likes on a post?” asks Mr. Van Daele. “Come on, be honest!” More than half of the group raises their hands. ‘Is a like from a friend worth the same as a like from a stranger?’ Anne thinks the latter is more important. ‘Then I feel famous.’ ‘Why do you think people on the internet react so strongly?’ “Because they’re jealous.” ‘Because they are hungry’ (hilarity), and so it goes on. About influencers, not caring about the opinions of others, about what you do and don’t post, about hate speech, misplaced emojis, pedophilism (sic.)and girl power.
The setting shows that Tools for Life is not a one-off chat. The group discussions in the learning labs take place in a specially designed corner – called ‘parliament’ in KA Tervuren. It does indeed look a bit like the hemisphere, with the teacher as speaker of parliament at the front. “We also try to implement our vision in our buildings,” says director Bram Bartholomees. An example: because the language teachers literally bumped into walls, the corridor between the classrooms was turned into a ‘language corridor’ with extra benches. Students can isolate themselves there if things are going too fast or too slow in the classroom.
‘Everyone – every student, teacher, parent, school administrator or policymaker – has a vision of what education should be,’ says Bartholomees. ‘And if you want, you as a school can implement something new every day. It’s about making choices. We have anchored this in our strategic plan KAT2030, so that everyone remains on the same page.’
The KA Tervuren has resolutely chosen, for example, to include everything related to ‘citizenship’ under history. This frees up space to teach subjects such as Tools for Life or a module such as ‘Loep’ (learning, discovering, experiencing, presenting) in the first grade. Loep starts from a research question such as ‘What influences our purchasing behavior?’, ‘What influence does art have on our brains?’ or ‘How can we create a challenging escape room ourselves?’ ‘In the past, such a research question was something that you as a student only had to deal with in the third grade,’ says Coulange. ‘With Loep we take that to the first degree. It bears fruit: students learn to plan for themselves at an earlier stage, to use sources critically, but also to deal with self-reflection and feedback.’ ‘Talent Lab’ is another subject that is taught within the normal 32 hour week, although only to students who are not taking Latin. It serves to make them eager to learn and better oriented towards a course that fits them like a tailor-made jacket.
The pioneering work of KA Tervuren does not go unnoticed. Teachers from a Brussels high school will soon come to see how they are doing in Tervuren. What Bartholomees likes to mention is that in the first grade, time and space are made for ‘personal learning coaching’ within the lesson hours. Every student has a learning coach he can contact, and there is also student guidance. ‘For us, it consciously consists of three psychologists,’ says Bartholomees. “The well-being of the students is an important pillar here,” he concludes. ‘That has nothing to do with fun pedagogy, but with preparing our students to participate in society. We constantly look for the balance between well-being and learning gains, but also dare to invest in teaching hours that revolve purely around that well-being. As a school you have quite a lot of autonomy. We choose to fill this in a future-oriented way, because we are convinced that this way our students will be stronger to make choices later. ‘What do the students themselves think of it? Well, as is the case with students, they are not concerned with the philosophy behind their subjects. Everything that is not pure instruction is by definition fun. ‘Tools for Life? Chill!’, says Mr. Van Daele’s class. ‘Because then we don’t really have lessons and we can just chat with each other.’ Look, that’s quite something for the smartphone generation.