Schoolmakers have been involved in strengthening and innovating within schools and the broader educational field for almost ten years. According to managing director Bert Smits, there is another school battle going on today, with the freedom and identity of school boards at stake. ‘The central question is: how do you ensure quality education? By recording as much as possible in the final objectives and centralized regulations? Or by having confidence in school boards and giving them the necessary autonomy?’
Parallel to this, there is tension about the content of the curriculum. With on the one hand the defenders of ‘classical knowledge education’ and on the other hand those who want more attention for the well-being of students and new needs that arise in a changing society – sometimes scornfully called the ‘fun pedagogues’ by the first group. . “Unfortunately, we all too often get bogged down in either-or thinking,” Smits regrets. ‘Either you teach the children to write without mistakes, or you focus on their happiness and personal development. Wrong! All studies and experiences show that a both-and story is possible and works best. Another apparent contradiction is that between knowledge and skills, where the both-and story also applies.’
Just start it as a school. There are only 32 lessons in a week, and students must still be provided with enough basic cognitive knowledge.
‘That’s true. Many schools feel suffocated by the strict straitjacket of final objectives and minimum goals, curricula (sometimes even manuals), agreements within the school group, guidelines from the umbrella organizations, fear of appeal procedures, and so on. They feel that freedom of education is being closed down “from above”, by “the structures”. That is why we at Schoolmakers insist that it is important that school boards, management and teachers take up more space again. Because innovation will not come from policy, but from strong schools.’
‘You can take that freedom by abandoning old thinking patterns and shifting with time and space. Divide time into instruction time, time for independent work, consultation time, feedback time, development time for the student or learning time for the teacher. Why would you teach history one hour a week for an entire year? Nobody says you have to. You can also teach the subject in the third grade for a whole week at a time, for example during a project week. It is also good preparation for higher education. You can also be creative spatially. Why do all classrooms look the same? Create differentiation in spaces, also look outside the walls of the school building.’
Many schools are looking for a new interpretation, but what is the best matrix?
‘It depends from school to school. There is no one fits all. Look at your target audience. The needs in a primary school in Brussels are different from those in a secondary school in Bruges. And be creative. Team teaching and project weeks are already becoming quite established, as are CLIL subjects: students are taught geography in English, physical education in French, and so on. This way you combine two goals in a new course unit. But it is new in itself not important, it must be well thought out and match the learning objectives, taking into account the specific context.’
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What does that mean in concrete terms?
‘The final objectives focus purely on substantive objectives, not on how you design the lessons. Students are expected to have a certain sense of citizenship, but it does not specify how this subject should be organized. Should it be a separate subject? Or are we going to integrate it into multiple subjects or into a project week? A good example is the super-diverse school in Brussels that wants to get the most out of its students. She notes that they grow up in a language-poor environment with little structure. The school pays extra attention to this before, during and after school, with a strict educational organization with a lot of attention to peace and discipline. She also provides linguistic leisure activities and homework guidance before and after school with partners.’
‘If you don’t think about the organization, so-called “innovations” are in danger of being pure cosmetics. When digitization was in full swing, the policy forced every student to have a laptop, but at the same time they did not dare to say goodbye to the books. The result? The average high school student’s book bag is twice as heavy as it used to be.’
And in the meantime, our country is falling in almost all education rankings.
‘That’s true. Let’s take this really seriously and let it encourage everyone involved in education to dare to innovate. We will certainly not achieve the results of the past by offering the education of the past again. We will only get there with the necessary courage from school boards, management and teachers who dare to innovate. An example: Belgian children score poorly on reading. They read far too little. And look, there are already schools that focus on this and set aside two or three hours a week to let them read during school hours. Isn’t that a valuable addition to the curriculum?’