Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Gesinus Hospes – School Directeur – Melanchthon Bergschenhoek & De Blesewic
Kirsten Lems – Teacher – Dutch – Melanchthon Mathenesse High School
Fun fact: did you know that the cost per kilogramme of a nuclear submarine is between € 130 and € 250 ? It’s a very crude measure [i], but since they weigh thousands of tons, you can easily see how extraordinarily expensive they are. Ok that’s out of the way.
Now, onto the story that brings me on your screen today.
This year, my oldest daughter went from primary to high school, joining one of the nine schools in the Melanchthon School College [ii], so we discovered Dutch high school [iii], and curious to know more, I joined the parents’ council [iv] (Ouderraad). I liked it immediately [v], and I asked Gesinus the director to give me a tour. Gesinus is nothing if not passionate about education. For 45 minutes we walked the 5 floors and he regaled me with an uninterrupted flow of enthusiastic descriptions of this and that feature of the building and how everything works.
I was awed. I remembered in contrast with sadness my own high school, a place where the building was just a neutral vessel for teaching activities. It had anonymous classrooms, very little or no decoration, built to work, but not to enjoy the work.
Melanchthon Bergschenhoek started in 2005 with 88 students in a bunch of prefab modules dropped on cinderblocks. From these modest beginnings the pioneers moved in the spring of 2010 to a brand-new building. Today they are almost 1,100 studying there, and the building has been expanded twice to offer additional capacity.
Roaming the corridors, I could feel how much art and science went into designing a learning experience.
At the Advisory Council [vi] of the Melanchthon school college, I met Kirsten Lems [vii]. Whilst Gesinus presides to the destiny of a rather upmarket high school in a comfortable neighbourhood, Kirsten teaches Dutch at the Melanchthon Mathenesse, an establishment that is at the other end of the academic and economic spectrum. Whilst in France some high school professors may go to great lengths to avoid being assigned to establishments in a “Quartier difficile”, Kirsten wanted to go and teach there, which already surprised me a bit. So I went to visit Mathenesse as well, wanting to see if there was a perceptible difference. There wasn’t.
The two schools are different of course, because they address different audiences, but they radiate the same confidence in a brilliant future for their charges, they exude the same trust-based comfortable, almost leisure-like atmosphere that is conducive to learning in the best conditions. They are both fitted with good looking teaching equipment and digital whiteboards.
Both schools feature lounge-like spaces where silence is a rule, and where students can do homework. It is spacious, comfortable and clean, really inviting. At Mathenesse the great hall-cum-auditorium where students eat lunch and hold school events would look big and cold if it weren't for its walls and ceiling, panelled with wood, giving the whole space a warm tone and helping with noise reduction. On the wall opposite the entrance, a great banner with students’ portraits claims:
“You are from the world and the world is yours”.
Because many students at Mathenesse do not have very friendly home environments, they stay at school after classes to socialize or work, and the school invites and encourages it. In Bergschenhoek, where Latin and Greek are also taught, the school motto “Non scholae sed vitae discimus” is engraved on the high walls of a patio overlooking an olive tree.
We do not learn for school, but for life.
The olive tree is there to materialise the heart of the schools atrium, a square, a place where people gather and meet. Classrooms in both locations are often separated by sliding walls, so their size can adapt to various uses. Mathenesse has been experiencing joint classes where 2 teachers will address 2 classes mixed in the same open space, each teacher standing at a different end of the room. This affords them full flexibility when creating groups of different levels. It also creates an eerie feeling of freedom: You study because you want it, no wall or door is preventing you from running away.
In both schools, classrooms are delineated externally by glass walls. It creates this transparent atmosphere where all activities are shared between all school dwellers, teachers, staff and students alike. On the glass wall, at the height of a seated student’s head, a large band of translucid tape runs along the glass panes, to ensure that when seated, students are not easily disturbed from outside.
Transparency and focus. See-through walls also mean that no trouble in the school corridors will go unnoticed thus contributing to a safe environment. Bullying does happen sometimes but is actively prevented and tackled in both locations[viii].
Both schools feature a fully equipped professional kitchen where students of all curricula will learn cooking.
Those who have retained arts as a subject throughout their cursus, will paint, draw or collage for their graduation exams. To my great surprise, the Bergschenhoek school gives them a space to decorate as part of their exam. Sometimes it’s a pair of doors or a pillar. And the painting is applied directly on the concrete or wood! The school does not shy from offering its own wall space….
Because gaming is so important to their students, Mathenesse has decided to embrace the trend and equip itself with a top of the range gaming room. Competitions and games can then be used for teaching, projects, or simply to reinforce camaraderie.
At Bergschenhoek, there are no bells ringing between the lessons. Students and teachers self-regulate to be on time, and it adds to the system that little bit of flexibility that makes all the difference. In both locations the architecture, furnishing, design pieces, artwork hanging from the wall, everything is designed to be silently reinforcing this same message again, again, and again:
“You are free and responsible to construct your life”.
Who would not want their kids to go there? Then we got to the Bergschenhoek Technasium, and my head and heart kicked into high gear. The Technasium is a label of technology education [ix] and a direct bridge from school to entrepreneurship. Students get assignments from partnering businesses, or the municipality, and work semi-autonomously to propose a solution.
They will for example study a lighting design for a poorly lit area of the city-centre or perform water analysis in a pond before fishes are reintroduced. The assignments are real, and there is no lack of creativity… Regularly, parents and clients gather in the auditorium in the evening to hear students presenting the ideas they have come up with. Some get approved, funded and implemented.
Finally, Gesinus took me to the music room, and I very nearly cried. My old music room was a sorry looking basement. All there was in way of music instruments was a carton box full of disparate percussion objects and some old tambourines with a hollow sound. Each of us would have to bring a flute, which we would then play every year for 4 years. I hated it. The Bergschenhoek music room is full of instruments in perfect playing state. It features 3 recording studios equipped with a mixing table, and a standard set of electric guitars, bass, keyboard and a full drum kit. Classes learn rhythm by sitting at one of the drum kits or playing the djembe. If you are going to love music, you might as well feel like Phil Collins, Lady Gaga or Bruno Mars! Regularly the school organises lunchtime gigs and these are standing room only events.
Around lessons, both schools organise evening parties and music gigs, and many other day and evening festivities along the year ensuring that students can bond and associate their school experience to joyful feelings. They consider that social life is fully part of the school experience and seize the legitimate desire of the youth to have a good time, as an opportunity for partying in a safe environment. This way they are learning stuff as well (Like how to party without smoking or drinking). Upon joining, my daughter had a full two days of “Learning how to learn” before starting lessons in earnest, and then they all went to a 3-day camp, to make sure that the group would acquire sufficient cohesion to study together in good intelligence for the 6 years ahead.
There is such a fragrance of enthusiasm in both schools that you just can’t help but think: "Life is great, kids are great, the world is great."
And if you were in a thinking or pondering mood, you could come and rest a bit under the breathing sculpture that hangs above the Bergschenhoek atrium, which adapts its breathing to the level of activity in the building, or at the foot of the climbing wall in the Mathenesse sport hall.
In the background, the pedagogy has also evolved. It is not yet as revolutionary as the ESBZ School in Berlin [x], but the team is looking for ways to steer the students towards more and more autonomy, to help teachers to see themselves less as people who impart knowledge, and more as facilitators who inspire students to acquire it in the best way they can.
No, it is not perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what I had, and I am excited that my kids get to go to such a school. I have asked around, and parents of other adolescents who have gone to other schools have as much to say about theirs… It’s not just Melanchton then.
That’s just how high school is in the Netherlands. I have a feeling that the whole system is in a decided movement to try to inspire children to grow, instead of forcefully growing them.
And now, to conclude.
The Dutch government contributes € 6,000 of taxpayer money per student per year to the school budget (There are additional subsidies from the municipality, but that’s a lot less), there is no tuition to pay.
With the same € 6,000 you can afford 25 to 45 kg of Nuclear Submarine. It’s not a lot of submarine. If you are picky and you want to buy a piece of the coolest gear around the block, like a piece of the most recent Barracuda class French submarine, you’ll end up with just about 22kg of it. So the whole submarine costs enough to give a fantastic high school experience to 217,000 Dutch students.
I am not arguing that we should scrap all submarines to build better schools, because that would be a bit too simple and naïve. But I am saying that in any country with a decent defence budget, granting € 6,000 per high school student per year is realistic. Then if any parent think that their kids are getting sub-par education, the problem is around education methods, and definitely not money. Finally if your country has great nuclear submarines, and underfunded schools, you’ve got your priorities wrong.
So get involved in your schools, get protesting in the street, because awesome education exists, I have seen it!
About Kirsten and Gesinus
Kirsten Lems studied human resources at the Haagse Hoogeschool in Den Haag. Along her current professional career, she continues studying part-time for her Master in sociology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which she will complete in 2020. She has worked as a volunteer, recruiter, as a planner in student rentals, and as a job-coach helping people on the way back to work. For the past 4 years she has been teaching Dutch at the Melanchthon Mathenesse School in Rotterdam.
Kirsten is passionate about the concrete ways in which we can create a world offering fair chances to all, and about how to adapt our education methods to a fast evolving world. She lives in Rotterdam with her husband and children.
Gesinus Hospes studied biology at the university of Utrecht, and taught in highschool in the centre of Rotterdam for 20 years (mavo-havo-vwo). As part of the management team of the just founded Melanchthon Bergschenhoek school in 2004, he enjoyed the opportunity of shaping the school culture and approach according to his own vision of education. After obtaining a master in Educational Management in 2014 (NSO Amsterdam: School voor Onderwijs Management), he became director of the school. In 2018 he added the Melanchthon de Blesewic High School to his responsibility and has been sharing his time between the two locations since.
Gesinus is passionate about education and has already dedicated more than 30 years of his life to making education move forward.
[i] It depends mostly on which generation of submarine you are looking at, whether they carry nuclear weapons or not, and the number of units that were built in that particular class.
[ii] See: https://www.melanchthon.nl/scholengemeenschap/ . The Melanchthon School College is a group of 9 high schools, grouping around 5,400 students for secondary education journeys of 4 to 6 years, in one of the 4 main educational curricula proposed by the Dutch school system.
[iii] My wife and I grew in our respective countries of origin and have not studied at all in the Netherlands.
[iv] Parents’ Council of the Melanchthon Bergschenhoek Middelbare School (The Melanchthon Highschool of Bergschenhoek). A wide range of subjects are discussed in this consultative council, from the adolescents’ pervasive use of smartphones and social media, and the unexpected consequences this has on discipline, through organizing the next open parent evening, the tactics that the school has mobilised over several years to eradicate smoking, to some finer points of the admission process. Because of the extensive use of acronyms, I got slightly confused when offering my application. I ended up being appointed as liaising parent for the Advisory Council of the whole 9 schools’ college as well (Medezeggenschapsraad). So, on somewhat of a misunderstanding, I got more than I bargained for and joined not one but two representative bodies at once See also [vi].
[v] It works like the board of directors of a business. Formalism does not hamper the quality of the debate however, thanks to the Dutch trademarked reputation for mixing conviviality and directness, school management gets to hear unfiltered feedback.The cliché about the Dutch being direct is 100% exact, they do speak candidly to one another. Dutch candour stems from their valuing honesty as a virtue, and they too sometimes suffer from their own directness, but consider that a bruised ego is a price worthy paying to hear a potentially useful (No, this dress does not look good on you) or lifesaving truth (There is a breach in the dike). I imagine it comes from their protestant heritage and is reinforced by the peculiar situation of their country, living under the permanent existential threat of massive flooding. Whilst it is an aspect of Dutch culture that is not particularly easy to get used to at first, it has definitely grown on me, because there is something liberating about being able to just speak your mind and expect others not to take offense… After all you are just speaking your mind.
[vi] The Advisory Council of the College is called medezeggenschapsraad in Dutch (Pronounce Medzer’srap’srad, and do not forget to hang the “r” deep down in your throat). If you are able to say medezeggenschapsraad perfectly 20 times in less than 1 minute, you are entitled to a Dutch work permit, no other questions asked! The College Advisory Council is consultative or decision making depending on the subject. Whilst it is not exactly like a board of directors (Which also exists in parallel) it gathers parents, teaching and non-teaching staff representatives, and management, and its duties are stated by law.
[vii] That is no small feat. The French language has around 200,000 words, English 300,000, and Dutch… 600,000. Whilst it has an approachable grammar, and rigorous syntax, prescribing where in the sentence each word is supposed to fall, it offers an overabundant vocabulary. Some verbs are combined in so many ways with prefixes, suffixes, prepositions and other conjunctions, that just knowing the definition of the verb itself is of no help sometimes to understand the sentence, you have to know all its different idiomatic derivations…
[viii] See here the very detailed policy applicable to all Melanchthon schools to prevent and address bullying.
[ix] The Technasium, a concatenation of “Technology” and “Gymnasium” is the Dutch response to the accelerating pace of change in the knowledge economy: blur the boundary of school and work-life. It is a label that more than 90 schools in the Netherlands have adapted and offer to their students. More about Technasium: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technasium, https://www.technasium.nl/wat-het-technasium
[x] The ESBZ school in Berlin was featured in many articles, and in the book of F. Laloux, Reinventing Organisation, for the breakthrough methods for self-directed learning that it pioneered. https://www.ev-schule-zentrum.de/aktuell/