Cees, a teacher in Amsterdam, is the sixth participant in our 10-week #TeacherTuesday campaign. He describes some of the teaching and assessment methods that help children in the Netherlands achieve some of the world’s highest scores in international surveys.
How much children learn varies hugely across the world. In the Netherlands all primary school age children learn the basics in reading and mathematics. In Niger, at the other end of the scale, just 8 out of 100 primary school age children are able to acquire basic reading skills.
Such glaring disparities between countries show that where children are born determines their opportunity to learn – and point to the need to make special efforts to bring education to the poorest and most marginalized.
Even among rich countries, performance varies considerably. The Netherlands is representative of most rich countries in having ensured basic learning skills in both reading and mathematics for almost all primary school age children. But in Spain, while most have achieved the basics in reading, 8% have not reached the minimum learning benchmark in mathematics by the end of grade 4.
In the Netherlands, in fact, 15-year-olds score higher than the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science literacy. So how does one country achieve such good results? Cees, who teaches in a secondary school in Amsterdam, says: “I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands is doing so well, because what do grades mean? To which countries do you compare?
But there are several clues to the Netherlands’ high performance in his answers he gave to our questions about how he does his job. They reflect many of the strategies to provide the best teachers that we outline in latest EFA Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving quality for all, including getting enough teachers into school; training teachers to meet the needs of all children; including the disadvantaged; providing teachers trainees with mentors; and providing ongoing teacher training and professional development.
Small class sizes: “I’m working at a secondary school called Spinozalyceum Amsterdam for 12- to 18-year-olds. There are 1,100 students in our school and I have several classes with an average of 26 students. I’m a history teacher. It’s my sixth year and my second school.”
The status of teaching: “Teaching was not seen as a good profession but right now there’s a lot of attention in politics to say let’s improve the level and appreciation for it.”
Teacher training: “We have a professional education for teachers, if you want to teach in the Netherlands you need to get your papers. That doesn’t mean that everyone who’s teaching has the right papers, because of the shortages in the offer of teachers.”
Professional development: “We have a certain amount of teaching hours and all the extra tasks that brings – preparing and following up – and from 5% to 10% of your time is reserved for professional development every year – courses and training. 10% is a big amount. It’s a lot of time.”
Helping children with difficulties: “We have also a lot of training in how to go along with problem kids – the pedagogical side – and that training is really moving because it tells you a lot about your own personal difficulties. That’s another thing that the educational system in Holland passes on. Lots of 360° reflections on yourself. Thinking about ‘what does this problem I have say about me’.”
Feedback from pupils: “One other reason for why we are able to improve ourselves as teachers is the pupil enquiry lists in which pupils give their opinion about you and your lessons. It’s a very confronting way and big motivation to improve yourself. You want satisfied pupils! Of course these tests are an input for the evaluation with your boss about functioning properly.”
Teachers contribute to policy: “National exams are always in a certain dialogue. We have an organization of history teachers who are always working with policy makers so there is a way to influence the curriculum.”
Student-focused learning: “I am teaching at a school where it is very student-focused. Students are the masters of their own learning process. You teach them how to cooperate, how to be self-supporting, and to make their own decisions how to learn things. We know how to deal with all the learning styles – the doers, the thinkers, the dreamers – we have training in how to manage the different levels in our class – it’s called teaching on demand.”
A multicultural approach: “We have the label of being a school for immigrants. We have a really nice mix of those pupils who have disadvantages and those who have the advantages of really educated parents and it’s positive for both. We have special courses for Islamic cultures and those from other background in our training to understand about them. We aim at teaching to all levels in our class. We have lots of tools for that. If you have problems then you can always get training.”
Mentors for teachers: “During the training we have supervision and mentors and I had two coaches – one for supervision on the psychological reflection and one for more general studies. Now when you’re new at the school you have a special coach. When you’re not new anymore, you don’t have a coach, but in every school you find five teachers who are equal and you share your experiences – what you can’t cope with and what techniques you use. You can reflect on that. It’s really helpful for things you can’t cope with.”
What are Cees’s hopes for the future of teaching in his country? “I am really hopeful about technology helping us to improve the organization that is needed to implement student-centered learning. Last Friday we had a mind-blowing presentation of the Dutch educational entrepreneur Bob Hofman that introduced Peerscholar (invented and used by the University of Toronto) to Europe. This computer program is a very good example of how teachers will be able to help students really reflect on each other’s work, and which will improve their responsibility to their own learning process. Less focus on grades and more on the content and the reflection of how they are learning.”