Education Safari – a teacher’s journey around the world

What is the best school system in the world? Do the Finnish pupils have no homework? Why the Dutch students do are so happy. And what is the risk of having privatized education? We met with Erik Ex, a history teacher from Utrecht, together with his brother Luuk, who traveled for a year to explore schools from Finland to Singapore to figure out once and for all – do the statistics about education are true?

What brought you to exploring different schools around the world?

Many people have asked me that, there is more than one reason. First of all, I wanted to travel and I had the financial means to do it, and for not working for a year. The second thing was that I was always curious about education in general, and in what is happening in other countries. I was really intrigued by the educational comparison lists that are made, intrigued by the idea that education can be done completely differently. These lists often focus on differences rather than on similarities. So I wanted to know if this is really true. And you know, if you read the literature about successful countries in education, like Finland and Singapore you get a much more nuanced picture than these general comparison lists.

I will give you another example, Michael Moore, the filmmaker, created a series called “Where to invade next”- he highlighted in every country something that is very good that the Americans should take and embrace. He made a story about Finland, saying that they have the best educational system in the world and he stated:In Finland- there is no homework, no testing and kids are very happy and they learn a lot, while not having homework. It seems to me a bit generalizing. Then I started reading about that and realized there are lots of tests in Finland and they do have homework. Perhaps from an American perspective, he meant- there is not much homework in primary school. From a Dutch perspective that’s not very extraordinary. I also didn’t have homework in primary school. However, often people in The Netherlands think that in Finland there is no homework and no tests. But there are. So, to get a complete picture, you better get there yourself.

After visiting in so many schools, what do you think is the one thing needs a change in the system?

I believe that one of the biggest problems in the field of education is the privatization of education. What I almost saw everywhere is private schools. Or, what we call “shadow education” which is private lessons. That means people will have to pay extra, and that means that rich kids get better or more than poor kids. And I think one of the central themes in education should be that everybody has the same opportunity. I think we should fight that, and prevent that from happening. In addition, private schools are able to pay teachers more and what happens is that you get good teachers teaching wealthy kids. While I think, what is needed, is that the best teachers will teach the most difficult learners. If you can teach these kids, you are truly a good teacher.

Does the same phenomenon of “Shadow education” happens in the Netherlands?

Private schools are almost non-existent in the Netherlands, because of regulations and laws, from more than 100 years ago and all sorts of education are financed by the government. What we do see is a growing trend among parents and schools to send children to get private lessons, and the reason for that is that education seems to be a competition. If education becomes a competition, then there are winners and losers. And most will become losers.

What is the biggest problem of the Dutch education system? How do you think it should be fixed?

I think we have a very good and balanced system, but there are obviously some problems. I think the biggest problem in Dutch education is the early selection. At the age of eleven, the end of primary school, children are placed in different streams-vocational, professional and academic, based on a test and their general results in primary school. They generally stay in one stream and don’t switch. In practice, children of more wealthy or intellectual parents tend to go to the pre-university streams. In this way, different ‘social classes’ still go to school together, just as it happens in systems with a lot of private schools. Upward social mobility becomes difficult because children do not tend to switch to different streams. Because it happens so early, they identify with their stream. It is also something quite unique for the Dutch system.

Very important part is equal education and equal opportunities. That is a problem in the entire world for many educational systems. Or you have a division to streams, or you have a private education. In both cases, you create classes by education.

In what, in your opinion, the Dutch school system excel in?

For example, we have very low unemployment for youth, the lowest in the world, after Iceland. That has to do with the fact that in the vocational stream, students are prepared very well to the job market, and there is a very close connection between school and jobs qualifications. Furthermore, In Dutch education, we can be very proud of the autonomy schools have. And by that, many schools can be very different from each other, which is a great thing. As a kid, you have a choice where to study- if you prefer a school that is more strict, or you can go to a school that is freer, a school that is open to dancing and arts, or school which focuses on Science. If you live in a big city in the Netherlands, you have all the options open for you. That’s beautiful, and you don’t see it in many countries. Dutch school are also very good at taking care of the children, there is the least amount of bullying in the world, according to international research done by the OECD. And Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world. that combined with quite high results in the international testing, is quite impressive.

There is a lot to learn from other educators in other countries, but not every teacher can spend a year travel to explore these teaching methodologies in person. What would you suggest to other teachers, How can they learn from other teachers and share their learning?

If they speak Dutch, they can watch our videos. I think it’s not that difficult. From my experience, teachers in different countries are very welcoming to other teachers and if a teacher is visiting in another country, they can definitely try to visit a school. I used the connections of history teachers association in Europe, EuroClio, to get in touch with different teachers. There are many of these organizations, and teaching profession exists everywhere. I would advise other teachers to get in touch with other teachers. Not only in other countries where education is highly ranked but also in other countries with an average education. Because you can learn from every teacher. I believe you don’t actually need to go to other countries, but you can also learn from other teachers in your school. The best ways to learn is to attend a lesson from your colleague.

If you want to demand your professional space you need to tell your manager, that you need time for this. We have the right to develop ourselves because in the end, we are alone in the classroom and it is up to us.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned? Can you give us some examples from different countries?

I think we should really value and realize is that teaching is always an encounter between a teacher and students. And that should be the center of every lesson. It sounds easy, but there are many things that can get in the way of this; when you have too many students, you can not make a connection with every student, if the teacher is not giving the freedom to make the connection, for example, needs to teach too much or is stress out, you can not make a real connection. Another problem is ‘personalised learning’ through computers as a sole learning tool and “as teachers”. it mechanizes learning and the human connection gets lost.

Our biggest community of users are from Finland, what can the Dutch system learn from the Finnish Education system? What would you advise them to learn from the Dutch?

I think both countries can learn much from one another, the first thing is that the two systems are quite similar. The way we think about education is similar because we place the children in the center. We focus on equity and happiness among children, also good learning outcomes, and focus on growing children to become autonomous identities in our society. That is something we all value a lot. I wanted to focus first on similarities because often we focus on differences.

I think there are many things we can learn from the Finnish education. I wish we would value teachers the same way as in Finland, especially in primary schools. Also, Primary school teachers get paid more in Finland. Secondary school teachers are paid more relatively to the average income. For example, if you are in a bar, and you say you are a teacher, you get a very different reaction in Finland than in the Netherlands. Believe me, I can vouch for that, cause I have done both. This example indicates how teachers are valued in different countries, more than how they get paid.

IAlso, in Finland, they do 15 minutes break between every lesson. In the Netherlands, we teach more than 1000 hours a year, in Finland it is 700. So this is something we can learn from the Finnish- take some more breaks and longer summer holidays, and by that, taking the pressure off and giving the students a bit more free time. Another thing I noticed is that in Finland, students usually get very high marks compared to here. I think it is a good way to motivate young children. Here, we are almost never giving a 10, and we need to remember that positive feedback works better than negative feedback

On the other hand, It seemed to me that teachers In Finland are working as individuals in the school. They can use different textbooks in the same school, whereas in the Netherlands we work together more.

Also in Dutch schools, because of their autonomy, they tend to experiment more. Finnish education is very good, and if Finnish teachers want to learn from the Dutch they should come andsee all these wonderful experiments in school. And that is actually great because you don’t have to do these experiment yourself. Dutch schools are always looking for ways to make education different, new and to make it better. There is always a sense that the way that things are done at the moment is not the perfect way, and we need to look for changes, all the time. I think it has to do with the fact that in Dutch culture people tend to say they are very happy but also tend to be very critical.

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