Universities all over Holland claim teaching excellence. Is that
claim justified? Having studied for two years in Holland, I have my
doubts. Most of the courses I attend in lecture halls along with
100-200 fellow students. Eight weeks you watch teachers flipping
through their PowerPoint-slides. At the end of each period you sit
a multiple-choice exam. Even if you get 39 out of 40 correct
answers, you ask yourself, 'Did I learn anything at all?'
This superficial learning is widespread, but not a must. I
needed one learning lab and one book to see why. The Learning
Lab 'Pioneering in Leadership Learning' was one of the courses
I choose in addition to my regular program; the book was The Meaning of Learning and Knowing a
recent Ph.D.-thesis by Erik Jan van Rossum and Rebecca Hamer. The
course was taught in a small group of 20 students from all
disciplines (from Neurobiology to Economics) and nationalities
(from Serbia to Brazil) and approached the term 'leadership' in a
way that no other university course ever did before.
My experiences with this course were intense and
meaningful, however only later having read The Meaning of
Learning and Knowing I was able to put its features into
context. In this book, Van Rossum and Hamer elaborate their
six-stage developmental model describing at which levels learning
and teaching can occur.
Stages 1 till 3 entail reproductive learning. Information is
simply memorized, e.g. for examination purposes later on. Most
university education is based on those first three stages. Higher
education, however, should entail more than superficially
memorizing information. Van Rossum and Hamer see a watershed
between stage 3 and 4 where students shift their concept of
learning from reproducing knowledge to constructing meaning. In
stage 4, students develop the capability to think within a
scientific theory and gain a critical awareness of its
But only at stage 5, students start to expand their thinking
beyond disciplinary borders and apply their knowledge to give
meaning to their reality. This involves teachers functioning
predominantly as guides who are specialists in their respective
fields. The topic is explored in group discussions where professor
and student represent equal partners. Such teaching techniques lose
their relevance once teaching proceeds to stage 6. Van Rossum and
Hamer state that here the focus shifts from 'learning-to-know' to
'learning-to-be'. Students develop an increased self-awareness and
see learning as key element of answering the question 'Who am I?'
In order to achieve this stage, professors have to truly find their
'inner voice' and create an atmosphere of mutual trust and sharing
in their class.
Reaching for Deeper Understanding
Studying The Meaning of Learning and Knowing gave me a
clearer picture of what happened during 'Pioneering in Leadership
Learning'. While most teachers like to resort to classical teaching
techniques involving PowerPoint-slides, standard literature and
multiple-choice-examinations, our professor, Thieu Besselink, broke
with this teaching consensus.
The course was spread over four months with the first half being
shaped by Besselink and the 2nd half being organized by
the students themselves. We started off with a series of sessions
meeting with society shapers. They proved to be people who truly
connect to what they do ultimately finding their inner voice
corresponding to stage 6.
Being taught by such pioneers is inspiring, but only by
reflecting what they said and how it applied to us in our everyday
decisions made us learn in a deeper way. For this purpose, we were
granted time and space in group discussions as well as in our blogs
online where we analysed decisions we made and why we made them
reaching a higher level of self-awareness. To make this happen, it
was crucial to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and openness
referring to stage 6 in Van Rossum and Hamer's model. Sharing and
opening up to the group meant exposing a weakness which was only
possible in a safe environment.
Together we explored concepts like using inspiration and courage
to unveil value with zero resources. Input was given by leading
pioneers we met as well as by Otto Scharmer's 'Theory U'. What made
these lessons stick was the fact that at some point in the course
we took charge of our own learning progress and put these ideas
From Hierarchical to Natural Leading
One memorable experience for me was the day the harmony in our
group came to a halt. During the session before, we had the idea to
create joint initiatives, one of which being Geeds - a platform for
good deeds worth spreading. Being part of the team that came up
with the idea, I felt responsible, but lacked time to do something
When we met again it became clear that Geeds had not made any
progress at all since nobody took the lead. A tense discussion
started with our whole group of which a few did not want to join
Geeds in the first place. Some of these people stood up and left
the group. Amongst this chaos I made an attempt to lead the
discussion back on track. Finally, I was even physically standing
up while my classmates remained in their seats. However, this type
of leading did not do the trick and I finally sat down again.
What had happened? I decided I wanted to talk with somebody
about this experience. Part of the course was to find an inspiring
mentor to reflect on leadership. So I gave it a shot and contacted
Herman Wijffels, former CEO of Rabobank. He told me that especially
in an environment where group members are equal, one cannot simply
lead by claiming leadership artificially. This corresponds to a
leader in a hierarchy that I was going for by physically standing
up. Instead, members of a group would only follow if a person comes
up with the best concepts directing the path the group would take
in a natural way.
Over time, I encountered more situations where my view on
leadership was challenged. Sometimes these lessons were painful but
then even more rewarding. Besselink managed to create an
environment in which he would not simply make us memorize
knowledge, but empower us to build the very capabilities we need to
lead. I became more self-reflective and also aware of others. I
realized how crucial for success it is to be courageous to seize
opportunities and keep group members connected to an idea.
In other words, I encountered true learning which is exactly
what 'excellence' in universities aims for. It is not about
the mere reproduction of given knowledge. Far more it is about the
empowerment of a student in an academic environment such as the one
created in the Learning Lab.
So coming back to the question, 'Did I learn anything at all?'
'Oh yes, sir, more than ever before!'
"To the sleeper, the teacher is the wake-up call of birds at
sunrise. To clay, the teacher is the potter, sculptor, and trainer
in self-shaping. To the wanderer, the teacher is a knowing guide.
To the developed mind, the teacher is colleague, listener,
friend." - Gerald Grow, 1977