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What Dutch schools can learn from international education

International education in the Netherlands is growing. Both the number of schools and the number of pupils have been increasing for a number of years. Within B&T the question is: Which lessons can Dutch education learn from international education? We asked Marieke Folkers, head of International School Utrecht. “I definitely think that Dutch education can draw inspiration from us.”

By  Sandra Kamminga and Marieke Reuter, educational advisors at B&T. This article was translated by Ingrid Schmoutziguer, communications advisor at International School Utrecht. Please find the original article in Dutch here. Pictures from various Dutch International Schools.

Folkers has worked in education all her working life. Among other things, she was the director of a local secondary school in Curaçao for four years and rector of the Stedelijk Gymnasium Utrecht for four years. For the past two years she has been working at the International School Utrecht (ISU), which offers the International Baccalaureate in all grades. In short, she is well acquainted with various educational formats and systems. “The International Baccalaureate, the IB curriculum of the international schools, can perhaps inspire Dutch schools to develop themselves in a different way. For example, within Dutch education there could be more room for project-based and more interdisciplinary teaching and learning. An international school is a strong community that wants to connect both inside and outside the school. Parents and students want to become part of the community as quickly as possible; global citizenship is the basis of our existence and is integrated in everything we do.”

Project-based learning

Folkers acknowledges that fundamentally there is a big difference between international and Dutch education. “The IB focusses on skills, while Dutch education focusses on knowledge. Learning through discovery and finding out for yourself how to best learn something new, gives students independence and agency. We advocate positive education. We look at the talents of our students and encourage them to develop these. They learn to respect each other and the environment and at the same time gain a lot of self-confidence. By offering more project-based learning, Dutch education can also ensure students gain confidence, for example by looking at different project roles. This also dovetails nicely with developing talent; everyone is good at something, so everyone can take on a different role with a project. At the same time, you could pay attention to the different aspects of (world) citizenship for each project.”

Student-oriented education

A special feature of the IB is that it has been purposefully designed around a student-oriented competence profile – the IB learner profile – and modern educational insights. The IB has no prescribed methods or a standard pedagogical-didactic approach, schools are free to choose their own approaches. The IB curriculum has different subject areas from which students can pick subjects they like. In addition, there are cross-curricular components in the programme for secondary, such as Theory of Knowledge, the Personal Project and Creativity, activity and service. In Theory of Knowledge, students learn critical thinking, which is then reflected in all subjects. Participation in Creativity, activity and service (CAS) is mandatory and stimulates students to provide social services in all kinds of projects inside and outside of school. For example, students can organise a school event or help out at a retirement home. This is citizenship at its best.

Ten underlying principles for global citizenship

Students at International School Utrecht, like at all IB schools anywhere in the world, acquire and work with ten basic principles. These principles form the core of the IB and thus of global citizenship. Students strive to be open minded and curious about knowledge, they learn to ask questions and are encouraged to dare stepping out of their comfort zone. It is also important to be honest, to respect others and to only make decisions after you have thought it through. Finally, students are taught to be caring towards others, to find balance between work (school) and their personal life and to reflect and learn from their mistakes.

The ten underlying principles are consistently implemented in all lessons and activities throughout primary and secondary education. Students learn to become the owner of their learning process; they don’t get handed everything they need to know by their teachers. They inquire into their own learning question and this way they become respectful world citizens. Marieke Folkers: “Everyone belongs at our school. It is striking how loving and respectful all students are towards each other and towards their teachers. This proofs that the educational concept of the IB works.”

positive education

Folkers continues: “Students often succeed in acquiring knowledge. The challenge, however, is to teach them the skills they need and to teach them that it is allowed to make mistakes. Students can fail; they learn a lot from their mistakes. We believe that every student has talent, things that they are good at and this believe is embedded in the entire curriculum. This is called positive education, a derivative of positive psychology, with appreciative inquiry as a way of working. Incidentally, we are seeing more and more Dutch schools embracing positive education, in which you start from talent and strengthen what students can already do. Children then learn through play or discovery. For example they learn what  what numbers are and then that they find out that numbers recur everywhere, on a clock, on classroom doors, on a calendar etc.. In short, they acquire the skills to discover things: How do you do something? How do you learn a language? How do you learn to count? There is never just one correct answer on these questions.”

Holistic approach

The IB logo is a circle with the learner profile at its hearth with questions: Who am I? What do I want? What can I do? This clearly shows the holistic approach and ideas of the IB. Folkers: “That is the main difference between IB and Dutch education: the holistic approach of knowledge, skills and world citizenship. Dutch schools could really learn something from this approach. Looking at the talent that children have, but also at their motivation. The fact that you are good at something, doesn’t mean you automatically care and if you don’t care, you will never really excell. It’s about: how do I relate to myself, the other and the world? Music is also very important here at International School Utrecht. We see music as a language and offer it for all ages, also as an exam subject. For us, this is also part of the holistic approach.”

Growth international schools

There are 31 international primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands with a total of around 20000 students. The schools are spread across the country, from the Randstad to Groningen and Maastricht, mainly in urban regions. Both the number of students and the number of schools have been growing for a number of years now. The International School Utrecht started ten years ago with 60 students, had an enrolment of 560 students in 2017 and had over 1,000 in January 2023. The school is expected to grow to 1,200 students in the coming years at a new location. The IB Diploma is recognised by universities worldwide. Quality assurance for the IB is provided by the IB Organisation, which is based in The Hague.

Want to know more?

Over the years, B&T has developed unique expertise and experience within international education in the Netherlands. For example, we have been an advisor to the Dutch International Secondary Schools, the group of government-funded international secondary schools, for many years now. In addition, we support local and regional governments with policy explorations on the development of international education. And we provide Dutch schools with advice in the field of international education. For more information, please contact Marieke Reuter, Jos van Elderen or Florence Luger at B&T.

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