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  • Harvard meets Roosevelt Academy

    - Wat betekent excellentie in het onderwijs? Twee experts op dit gebied van het Derek Bok Center van Harvard kwamen naar de Roosevelt Academy (RA) in Middelburg om dit te laten zien. De belangrijkste les: de juiste filosofie is essentieel in het opleiden van excellente studenten.

    One of the speakers, Michael Burke, Head of the Academic Core Department at RA, stressed that universities had to catch up in terms of focusing on quality teaching versus research. Currently, "teaching is extraordinarily undervalued, while research is overvalued". Universities would often push their academic staff to publish research papers instead of preparing classes properly. Their institutions look for reputational gain by being more visible in the research world while students are only second priority.

    "Teaching? Only if you got time…"

    By shifting their focus to students, universities could create more sustainable prestige. Those students that are educated in an excellent way will always be connected to their former school and serve as ambassadors of their alma mater. Consequently, Burke calls upon universities to draw lessons from the Veerman report and allocate more resources towards excellent teaching.

    Right now, a professor who asks to put greater emphasis on teaching would hear "Teaching? Only if you got time…" as a response from their faculties. This phenomenon is even more aggravated by the fact that "university teachers are the only ones who aren't taught how to teach". The regular training of professors does not include any didactic or pedagogic education per se which, after all, is mandatory for elementary and high school teachers.

    This would result in a teaching attitude where professors facing students ask themselves in every class: "How do I get my notes here to your notes there - with as little brain interaction as possible?" Such an approach, however, would degrade professors to "talking textbooks". Instead, Burke calls for teaching to be understood as "a conversation with students, not a performance".

    Orchestration of Learning Experiences

    Terry Aladjem, lecturer at Harvard, concurred with this view and emphasized that teachers should understand themselves as "creators of learning experiences". By using 'reverse-engineering', teachers should ask themselves "not what they want students to know, but what they want them to do with that knowledge later on." Accordingly, course syllabi would become less an enumeration of topics deemed important by the academic world and more an "orchestration of events to achieve the goal of true learning".

    This philosophy already sets in at the level of course design. In "syllabus workshops" Harvard would bring together both representatives from the "teaching and learning community" in order to let students have a say in what they are going to learn. René Diekstra, lecturer at RA and Haagse Hogeschool, added that such feedback from student to teacher is seen as most impactful according to a wide range of studies. Essential for establishing such a relationship between student and teacher is building an "atmosphere of safety" where students are invited to "co-construct the course together with the professor".

    Putting it into Practice

    All these aspects refer to a fundamentally different way of teaching. Thieu Besslink, creator of the Learning Lab at the University of Amsterdam, Free University and Amsterdam University College, put this new philosophy into practice. During the Day of Excellence, Besselink stressed that to make these new approaches work universities had to give teachers more leeway in trying out new concepts.

    In his opening speech, Hans Adriaansens, dean of RA, stressed a similar point that it is finally also the responsibility of the universities themselves to offer the right context for excellent teaching. "If you throw Messi, Cruyff and me in a swimming pool, you will see that they also won't be able to play better soccer than me because this is not the right place where they can show their talent." It would require a "supportive organizational context" for students and teachers to excel.

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