Interview: Marian Siepel – Directeur Primary Schools CBS Boterdorp & De Regenboog
I am sure you have seen the memorable Ted Talks of Sir Ken Robinson [i] about education? If you have not… well what are you waiting for? In short, Sir Ken says that the industrial thinking that has shaped education systems worldwide kill children’s creativity.
His description of what is wrong with schools fits perfectly with the primary schools I attended as a child. We were grouped in age cohorts (Conformity), compared week after week against a standard testing scale assessing our quality as knowledge recipients (Standardisation), moving through a system that stigmatised mistakes or deviation from the norm (Compliance). I don’t know about you, but I really suffered in the school of conformity, standardisation and compliance. And viewing Sir Ken’s talks, I thought all along “He’s right,” schools do need to be radically transformed…
But how, Sir Ken, how?
To get some answers, I went to interview Marian Siepel, the director of CBS Boterdorp [ii], my daughter’s primary school.
Marian is shy, but it does not show. 20 years of experience in education, most of it in management and/or director positions, do make a difference. But I would have ignored the depth of her vision, had I not asked for a more personal conversation. She and Sir Ken are very much on the same page.
For Marian, industrial schooling is designed to reassure… adults. Parents want to know their kid is doing all right, at least compared to the others. So, in comes standardised testing. Standardised testing requires standardised school curricula which means that all kids need to learn the same thing at the same time, so they breed conformity. And how can we allow a child who is not learning quite like the others, maybe slower, or faster, or kinaesthetically [iii], to disturb the class? Because that would disturb the teacher who can’t cover the curriculum (stress) and worry the parents that their kid is not learning at the right level (more stress!). And there comes compliance, rearing its ugly head. Industrial schooling therefore takes for granted (or wishfully thinks) that all kids learn in the same way at the same age and the same linear rhythm, assumptions that we all, teachers included, know to be wrong.
Unsurprisingly, it does not work, for children. It does not work for teachers either, mind you. Sacrificed at the bureaucratic altar of an education system that has made controlling everything the hallmark of quality education, they toil, sometimes against their innermost beliefs, and they burn-out, en masse [iv]. Marian disposes of this sorry state of things in one simple statement:
There isn’t such a thing as an average child. Point.
And she pursues. If there is no average child, then the one and only way to provide great education is to start from what each child needs, each one different from the next. So, here are five important things that CBS Boterdorp does to ensure a needs-centred learning experience [v].
One. Psychological safety.
For Marian all kids share one important foundational need: psychological safety. That means an "environment characterized by interpersonal trust, and mutual respect, where they are comfortable being themselves" (Edmonson) [vi] (It turns out, adults need that too! [vii]). In 1999, Marian started in a new position both as Internal Mentor (IB) [viii] and interim school director. She worked first on implementing a common language between the teachers, and between teachers and children, to talk about learning. This helped teachers explain their expectations, children explain whatever difficulty they had, and teachers passing that understanding to one another. Through this common language, children gained clarity. They understood what was expected of them but could also ask for adaptation to their specific needs, and their world started making sense.
The role of the IB is not to standardize the content of education, but to create a language to describe the schooling experience and make it more personal.
Two. Creativity through everything.
We know little about the world of tomorrow. So, if there is one cardinal competency our kids will need, it’s that of creativity. At CBS Boterdorp, they have decided that creativity is no longer the thing you do two hours a week in art class. Creativity is the way every subject is approached by children, something greatly aided by a specific curriculum (See: Four.).
Three. Find the right questions, not the right answers.
We had questions and we would go to the library looking for resources to find answers. Our children don’t. They access and use information in ways radically different from ours. They have all the answers they need at their fingertips. What they need to learn is to ask the right questions, like: Is this answer or source trustworthy?
Helping children asking the right questions is a challenge for teachers, because it’s no longer about acquiring knowledge. It’s about acquiring the competencies to apprehend the world around us. It’s far more diverse and ambitious. So, they too, need to learn how to ask themselves the right questions.
Four. Implement an experiential and competency-based curriculum.
Since 2017 CBS Boterdorp and its sister schools of the Spectrum group [ix], have adopted the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) [x]. IPC introduces a competency-based and experiential education approach, through a vast array of teaching themes, and learning goals within each. The IPC library is over-abundant, so teachers must choose their own learning content and objectives, carefully exerting judgment on which will best fit their class. At the closing of each themed study period, which lasts for a few weeks, the school becomes a live exposition of the theme related work created by and parents come to visit.
IPC turns teachers into moderators of the learning experience, and learning happens at the initiative of the child. The goal is no longer that they all read the same text, it is that they go and experience, research and share what they have found, at their own pace. The moderator-teacher loses the detailed control of what a child learns and when. But what they get in return, is that children build knowledge that is formed as a coherent and meaningful network of facts and notions, cemented by the strong and fun memories of collaborative working, and associated with the emotions of a multi-sensory assignment (Touch, read, discuss, feel, etc.) [xi].
Five. Decouple age and curriculum.
At CBS Boterdorp, kids are in age groups. But age only determines that: who their school friends are. For what concerns learning, the material, books, and teaching of any age or level can be used. A child who reads two years ahead of his class might go in another class for reading time, or even help other children with their assignments. CBS Boterdorp is an early adopter of digital learning. By doing assignments on a laptop or a tablet, children can go as far as their level will allow them. Teachers are kept abreast of progress through an app, and everybody can keep learning at their own pace, be it slower or faster. For precocious children, an inter-school class called “Prisma class” gathers groups on a weekly basis for activities that are outside of their class, and essentially project based. Since they learn faster anyway, they can catch up easily what they have missed. The Prisma formula is both challenging and very successful.
So these are the five things.
I had not even realised that right under my eyes, the very nature of school had shifted so far and so fast. For sure I thought my girls were attending a fantastic school, because they’re always happy to go, and come back happy as well. I just did not know why. Now I do. And now I have the answer to my how question: Do it like that.
I also realise that it is possible to propose an education system that delivers by design an individualized learning experience. It is organised as a system, that delivers standard outcomes, but using organic processes. The idea that an individualized experience would require a teacher per child is nonsense.
Individualised learning does not mean tailormade.
An organic learning system is one that offers psychological safety, makes creativity the approach of everything, not a subject of its own, looks for the right questions, more than the right answers, offers an experienced and competency based curriculum, and finally decouples age/class and curriculum. Yes, when you say it like this, it sounds like an ambitious journey of transformation, but many schools do it well.
For a shy person, Marian initially ambitioned a rather challenging career as a writer and comedian. Along the way, she realised however that her quest was not to entertain, but rather to trigger thinking. She likes to bring out that ah-ha moment, when her counterparts go silent, put a finger to their lips… thinking. I can imagine no better field for her, than that of being a school leader, where she has been, year after year, alongside many teachers, parents, civil servants, and other directors, waging a war of attrition against industrial schooling.
I suppose Marian did reach her goal with me… She got me thinking.
[i] Sir Ken Robinson has held 3 Ted Talks, the first of which is the single most viewed Ted Talks since these are put online. Do schools kill creativity? , Ted2006 (62M+ views), Bring on the learning revolution , Ted2010, How to escape education’s death valley, TedTalks education 2013, Changing education paradigms, RSA animate, 2010.
[ii] CBS stands for Christelijke Basis School (Protestant Primary School). Dutch schools come in different religious flavours, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic or non-confessional, and many different teaching flavours (IPC, montessori, etc...).
[iii] The VAK/VARK model codifies learning styles, that is the ways we prefer and feel most comfortable being imparted information. Whilst we are all capable of using all our senses, we always have one that we privilege. Visual learners are prevalent (60-65%), less are auditory learners (30%), a minority (5%) are kinesthetic (like me), that is they learn best by associating the learning experience to body movements and emotions.
[iv] Between 2011 and 2015, primary education is one of the sectors that reported the highest levels of burn-out in the Netherlands, with a rate oscillating between 18 and 21%.
[v] The Dutch also had a system based on conformity, compliance and standardization but somehow started branching out of it. I believe one of the ways the Dutch have overcome educational rigidity, is by avoiding dogmatism. Marian says school directors and teachers have always had lots of freedom in teaching methods, and no matter how standardizing the ministry of education was in its ambition and policies, individual schools were not disciplined to the point of blindly following policies they did not approve of. The Dutch are very pragmatic about education and will frequently pilot new approaches to try and understand whether they are interesting. Successful approaches are then taken up by schools attracted by the innovation. This mentality has for example led to the deployment of IPC schools (Up to 300 hundred today), the Technasium, created 10 years ago, to more than 95 high-schools in the Netherlands. On a smaller scale but no less promising, I have witnessed the launch of a schooling-without-marks approach in one high school test class.
[vi] The concept of psychological safety is defined by Amy Edmonson as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”. In other terms, and to apply Edmonson’s definition to schools, children need an environment “characterized by interpersonal trust, and mutual respect, where they are comfortable being themselves”.
[vii] Duhig, Charles, 2016, What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team, The New York Times Magazine, The Work Issue. Project Aristotle is a research study covering over 180 teams at Google. It showed that psychological safety was the factor that differentiated the most productive teams from the others. Psychological safety does not come out of a fixed or best practice set of rules for life in a group it can be achieved with a great variety of rules, so long as they all contribute to the same result: allow each person to be him- or herself.
[viii] 25 years ago, experimentations started with what is now a fixture in every school: The Interne Begeleider (IB) or Internal Mentor. With the idea of an IB, the slow but steady push toward the individualization of teaching was started. The IB helps teachers craft individualized learning experiences. Their role encompasses that of remedial teacher, instrumentalist, consultant for the teachers, and pedagogy expert.
[ix] Spectrum is a group of 8 schools gathering around 2,200 children in the region of Rotterdam North: https://www.spectrum-spco.nl/.
[x] IPC stands for International Preschool Curriculum. Created in 2008 by an international team of specialists, it puts educational content in the cadre of a globalised world, seeking to develop world citizenship. Launched in 2012 in the Netherlands, it has met strong success. On May 29th, 2018, IPC Nederland celebrated its 300th certified school. www.ipc-nederland.nl
[xi] The school recently finished a theme on clothing. Through collecting clothing and bringing it to school, children found out that it is made of many different materials and comes from many different countries. They discussed the meaning of fashion and using old family photos, compared clothing of various times. The older ones learned how to measure clothes in sizes, centimetres, and explored the meaning of units. They discovered a country named Bangladesh, found it on a map, and realised that clothes were often made by kids like them... They will always remember this.