Thursday, 26 August 2010


This one I recommend. It always works, if you believe in it yourself. It can be done only if the number of students is even. If not I suggest you give someone the runaround. Certainly the headmaster needs urgent information, whatever.
Act like the severe strict teacher the kids know you can be. Pass on sheets of paper, one per pair of students. Tell them to clutch hands. Do glare fiercely at the two boys who don't like sharing hands until they follow suit.
Explain that each couple now has one pair of hands available, a left one and a right one, right? Tell them you are going to show how to fold a paper air plane. They are to co-operate with their pair of hands to copy your procedure.
Turn a blind eye to students who swap now: left-handers have to be expedient in a right handed world.
Be sure to be able to show how to fold a paper plane model that is somewhat beyond their ken, that they haven't seen before. I f you have never folded any paper plane, then leave this post. Try something more serious.
Of course, as the teacher you are, you understand that you have to demonstrate this above your head against the blackboard or whiteboard with your back towards the class, to prevent any confusion about what's done left and right. Don't crick your neck when looking over your shoulder to synchronize the moves. End with counting down for take-off.
I believe I invented this activity myself. But I'm not too sure about that. As an artist I am an expert in nicking ideas unconsciously.
This year I started with a cover lesson. A colleague of the maths department had taken ill. There is a lot of mathematics in folding paper planes. I bet you can come up with that yourself.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Engine of Culture

Michelangelo Buonarotti,
The Creation of Adam, 1508-1512, detail.
This post was triggered by a post Art as Salvation or Education on Joanne Jacobs' blog and was partly published as a comment there.
We stand on the shoulders of the likes of Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo Buonarotti and Siddharta Gautama. The engine of human endeavour is revved up by three disciplines: Science, Art and Religion. These main strands of our expertise cannot be circumvented when devising a curriculum in secondary edation.


To start with the latter: even when you are an atheist like I am, you have to come to terms with the meaning of your life, or the futility of your death. The quest for the answer is a religious journey. Atheism, Islam, Christianity, or Zen, all those different ways to solve the riddle of our just being here for a short time only are all intricate patterns of do's and don't s, procedures, and systems of thought. They are bodies of knowledge and their findings should be communicated in the school's curriculum, not to foist a particular religion on the students but to have the question of meaning at the core of the curriculum. You may call it philosophy if you distrust the term religious studies.


The impact of science on our world is obvious. I suppose that's why politicians and administrators emphasize the importance of science and maths in education. I agree with them completely.


Piero Manzoni,
The Artist's Shit,contents freshly preserved shit, produced and tinned in 1961.

Visual artists have been asking profound question's about our cultural codes throughout the twentieth century. Their weird art works cannot be frittered away as just "shit." It is the art teacher's job to clarify the thoughts underlying such a work to make it understandable to the students.

source image
Art is epitomised by its products being rendered seemingly effortlessly. The sparkling colours of the painting, the high pitch of the trumpet, the terse prose in the novel, the beauty of the chair you sit on, the accessible design of the website, the wonderful proportions of the building, all these riveting expressions of art seem to come naturally and with ease. I guess that's why art is often underestimated in education when decisions are made about budget and curriculum.

The artists who perform these acts are experts in their disciplines. They don't want you to feel obliged because they worked so hard to attain this level. They just thrill you with their skills.
Be sure: they have worked doggedly for many years to make you feel enthralled. And they need you. They need an educated public that perceives their colour combinations, discerns the melodic line in the symphony, recognises the style of the chair, and appreciates the post modern whimsical approach of the architect. Above all they need the applause or jeers that tell them what is ugly and without merit and what is beautiful and contributes to our well-being.

That's what we do as art teachers in secondary education. We teach the audience for the artists. Every so often we have a talented artist among our students and we will show him the way to a profession as an artist. But that is not the main thing. Neither am I very interested in developing hobbyists who take up art for leisure at a later stage in their life, though such a thing is not to be sneezed at. Art classes are not about making lovely art only. We teach creative procedures, artistic principles, art history, and the making of art to create a knowledgeable audience for the artists. Thereby we rev up the engine of our culture with a divine spark and advance the quality of our lives.

Friday, 20 August 2010

About dogs, kids and standardized tests

Can we compare the kids we meet in our class room with dogs? Are we trainers or educators?
Source image

Jason Flom has posted a highly peculiar metaphor at Ecology of Education. He has been on vacation to Scotland and has admired the remarkable skills of the Border Collie.
This leads him into thinking about a crucial dilemma in education. Shouldn't we accept that some children are inept at maths or science, or history?
It isn’t that many different breeds can’t be taught to herd, lead high-altitude rescue efforts, or kill foxes. They can. It’s just that teaching all dogs to do things which one particular breed can do better than any other doesn’t make much sense.
We accept the reasonableness of that argument for dogs. We reject it for kids.
His observation of dogs shepherding in the Scottish highlands triggers Jason Flom into rejecting standardised tests.
Think a promising trumpet player shouldn’t be kept out of the school orchestra or pushed out on the street because he can’t remember the date of the Boxer Rebellion?
This is a lousy metaphor. It is based on poor ethology. It results in detrimental ethics.

I have had a happy dog for sixteen years

Dogs are bred to demonstrate predictable behaviour to meet to their master's wishes. Being descendants from wolves, domesticated by mankind, they love to follow the leader of their pack, which happens to be a human being. That's why dogs are eager to show their innate qualities and don' t need to overcome their flaws. Dogs are not aware of their flaws. Don't teach your dog to overcome his dependency, it will result in a mean companion. You can train your dog to do tricks based on his natural behaviour, retrieve a stick and so on. That's all.

There is a difference between training and education

Humans are educated to enable creative versatile behaviour with which they can react to unpredictable circumstances independently and thereby pursue their personal happiness and shore up the common good of their tribe. They may heed the chief's stance, but only if it makes sense.
That's why they need a broad knowledge and understanding even in those fields in which they are not that talented. They need to learn a lot of things. Being able to learn a lot of things is the quintessential talent of our species. Homo sapiens is a far better learner than Canis lupus familiaris.

You do not own your classroom, you owe it to the world at large.

Secondary education must guarantee that everyone can participate in society and contribute to the survival of the species. That's why everyone has to attain a basic curriculum. On top of that everyone has to develop his natural talents for making a living as an expert, as a plumber, a rocket scientist or as a trumpet player. We need all those special skills and talents.
But we definitely need the excellent trumpet player to have also an educated opinion on matters of science: he has to vote on legislation which deals with environmental issues, for example. We don't want daft voters, do we? We don't want to treat musical talents like dogs who are rewarded with a cookie or hug when showing their tricks on request of the master, do we? We don't want the plumber to be invoked as a politician's running gag “Joe the Plumber,” do we?

No education without testing

Standardised testing guarantees that students push themselves to pass muster in a broad range of subjects, not only in their favourite activity. Without standards they would be too lazy and bail out. The trumpet player might get his applause but the world will collapse

I don't get it

I do not understand my fellow teachers from The United States. I only ran into this contentious issue while blogging. I am ignorant about “No Child Left Behind” or “The Common Core Standards.” I am a humble teacher from The Netherlands, who has been dogged for years and years by the standards of our national exams. But looking at international comparison of efficacy of education, I can only conclude that The Netherlands rank perennially in the top ten, if not the top five, while the United States lag way behind. Albeit, we, Dutch teachers, we are embarrassed, because we used to be in the top three. Apparently we have a problem and we are enviously looking at Finland: number one. Their secondary school concludes also with a nationally graded matriculation examination, devised in the ninetenteenth century, just like our national exams. They keep their exams up like we do.

Dear fellow teachers from The States: heed your chief's caution: you need standardised tests. You need national exams. It makes sense!

By the way

It goes without saying that any promising trumpet player who can memorise an intricate musical pattern is capable of remembering the date of the Boxer Rebellion. If he is too lazy to work at it, then just send him on the streets to busk. He may earn his bread and butter while other people decide on his future.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Life's a Carnival–the Education Buzz #2

The second Education Buzz Carnival is up at Bellringers! The funniest post in this carnival deals with posters newly arrived college students embellish their rooms with. Apparently Van Gogh's Starry Night, Salvador Dali's surrealism, and De Toulouse Lautrec's poster designs appeal to youngsters just as much as those icons of yesteryear did to my generation fourty years ago.
Another item that struck me when viewing all those dorm room posters to avoid was the visual rhyme between Mick Jagger and Albert Einstein. Having such a poster in your dormroom at least reminds you to speak your mind.

Images: Einstein. Mick Jagger

Exchange through Art

Self portrait done by a fifteen year old Dutch boy in my class room. Matthias borrowed my beret to decorate his head with for this work.

Today I started working on “Exchange through Art,” an eTwinning project in which students from various schools across Europe will publish their works of art and communicate about it, in English. So far a wonderful Bulgarian art teacher and an amiable Turkish school administrator joined the party. It would be nice to have a fellow teacher from an English spoken country in the project. So if you would like to show off those imaginative drawings, highly decorative ceramics, crafted chair designs, riveting paintings, stunning photographs that your students are going to produce in your art room this year, and have your students write about it and look at works done by students abroad, then please contact me.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Why we matter much more than we think

I have never read a more succinct description of the teacher's job than ”Why you matter much more than you think” by Justin Tarte. Have look at it! It made my day!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Standardized tests

Hundreds of students at Ulenhof, Doetinchem, The Netherlands are focussing on their national exam. At the very moment candidates of all Dutch secondary schools do exactly the same test.

Reading all those wonderful educational blogs it strikes me that so many teachers are outraged about standardized tests mandated by government.

Just some examples out of many:

J. at A Teacher's Viewpoint complains that

"The first thing that absolutely must be done is to abandon the absurd notion that anything useful is gained from the current misuse of standardized tests."

Joe Bower propounds abolishment of all grading:

"Ironically, it is the skill & drill kinds of learning that standardized test measure that are taking precedent over real learning. This is exactly why parents need to be concerned when they see rising test scores."

In The Netherlands general secondary education is dominated by the national exam with which students conclude their school career. I wouldn't have it otherwise.

The results for the exam are proof of the student's level per subject, regardless the school where he has studied. The results of all students per school give relevant information about the school's efficacy. And I have to accept that the results of my students at the national exam for my subject gauge the quality of my teaching.

It goes without saying that school has to offer more than just a highway towards an exam. The exam result is only one of many features that make a good school. But our national exam definitely makes the teacher accountable for intellectual attainment measured with a yardstick that is not homespun.

I do not trust teachers, nor schools, for that matter, to devise their own goals and have them decide which level is sufficient. I would not entrust myself with such responsibility.

I have to deliver the goods and services that society needs. School is not a playground in which we are given leeway to implement our best intentions for the benefit of other people's children. Education at school is an essential part of the real world.

The real world can be harsh. A student who fluffs his exam has to resit it next year.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Bilingual Education

More interesting examples of Dunglish are to be found at

Two weeks from now I will meet a new group of first formers. They are eleven years old. I will start my art course with a self-portrait task. This will teach them the words for the details of their face: eyes, nose, ears and so on. Second lesson: types of hair do, curly, wavy, crew cut etc. They have to learn a lot of words for items in the classroom, for the stool they sit on, the desk they work at, the mirror in which they study their features, and the pencil to draw with. All these words cannot be taken for granted. Eleven years old and I am to teach these words? Yes, these Dutch students are taught about art in a foreign language.

Bilingual education

In June my school's curriculum with respect to language education was assessed by the European Platform. We passed muster as a TTO-Junior School. TTO is a Dutch acronym, “Tweetalig Onderwijs” means Bilingual Education. We have a stream of students who have chosen for the challenge of being taught in English in most of their subjects, or, more likely, their parents have chosen this wonderful opportunity.

The TTO-program has run now in The Netherlands for fifteen years. Hunderd and fifty-odd schools are offering bilingual education now and the number is steadily growing.

Foreign languages

It goes without saying that all Dutch students are compelled to learn foreign languages. At the age of fifteen years students in secondary education will have had lessons in French, German and English. Every student has to include at least one foreign language in the exam program, mostly English, most students will conclude their secondary education at the age of sixteen or seventeen with a basic or an advanced knowledge of two foreign languages.

On top of that the TTO-program aims at a proficiency level by immersing the students in a foreign language. Not only do they get language lessons by qualified language teachers, they are being taught in English by teachers of other subjects as well, e.g. mathematics, science, history, geography, P.E, Art. Most schools offer a curriculum in English, two schools only have chosen to do so in German. The rationale behind this choice is that English is the lingua franca of science, politics and international business affairs.

The English spoken classroom.

As a consequence I have to teach Art in an English spoken classroom. I am even supposed to correct poor English, spelling, pronunciation, grammar, the lot! As most of my fellow teachers involved in this program, I am not a native speaker of English. Of course I have passed the Cambridge Proficiency Exam, without such a certificate I would not be allowed to teach in English, however, this hardly guarantees impeccable English by the teacher. I bet you have already stumbled on some erroneous constructions while reading this post, if not being disgusted by stilted language. Teaching art in a foreign language means to convey most delicate content while feeling clumsy lacking the subtle modes available in the mother tongue. So the whole endeavour seems rather pathetic. It is.

Three strata: three languages

Nevertheless we are forced to teach in English, for better or worse. We prepare our students for partaking in the global community. I suggest that command of at least three languages is needed to be successful in life. Those languages are connected with three social strata in which we are to function:

  1. The mother tongue is needed for the family, the street and/or the region. I was raised in Low Saxon, a rural language rooted in a feudal agricultural local setting. I had to learn Dutch at school, my parents never managed to speak it properly. Though Low Saxon is endangered, it still is a must while communicating with elderly people in the region.
  2. The national language, which you need to understand the tax form. Dutch is a wonderful language, with a rich heritage of writing, however only twenty-two million people across the word speak the lingo.
  3. The international lingua franca gives access to the global community. In mediaeval times Latin enabled international correspondence, in the eighteenth century French was all the rage in Europe, now it is English that is ubiquitous, Mandarin may be the next international language.
    I guess the Dutch fluffed their chances when they traded Manhattan for Surinam in the treaty of Breda (1667). What if the United States had chosen Dutch for their national language? Dutchmen have been trading goods and services all around the globe for hundreds of years. We wish to uphold this national pride.

The Anglo-Saxon world can afford to be self-contained. For a lot of people living in England or the U.S. the three strata are served by one language only, with minor inflections. The speakers of other languages cannot be complacent, they have to wheel and deal using a foreign language.

Language is the crux

The language problem is particularly acute for immigrant students. Their native language is not fed any more by the environment outside the family, they are struggling to cope with school education in the national language which for them is their second language, on top of that they have to learn third languages within that system.

Dutch students face a peculiar problem. English and Dutch are related languages. So they tend to translate word-by-word from Dutch into English, which results in Dunglish. We can't have that, can we? This is not only about language, it is about culture as well. You have to think in English, you have to be English. So they meet a teacher who is quite formal and polite and unwilling to accept any churlish Dutch way of communication.

Grappling with teaching in a foreign language has learnt me that the language problem is the crux of education. Whatever subject you teach, it is predominantly communicated in words that may be completely incomprehensible, if the language is taken for granted. This awareness has made me a more versatile teacher, even when teaching in Dutch. Next to that, teaching in English has made me a very humble teacher. Being corrected by students is not what you wish for after a long career. I have to work my head off to compete with them.

By the way, I would be very grateful if you pointed at my Dunglish in this post. List the blatant errors in a comment, I will correct them a.s.a.p.

This post was triggered by Profiles in Greatness Ep. 4, a wonderful story by Mr. McNamar about his teacher of Spanish, Senora Mosely.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Education Buzz Carnival #1

Hurray, hurray, Bellringers did it! Months after the wonderful Carnivals of Education carriage got stuck somewhere in the swamps of the blogosphere she has whipped the coach out of the mire. Have a look at The Education Buzz Carnival. You may discover a most humble crocodile dancing on one of the passenger seats! Hurray! Giddy up!!!

Source image:

Monday, 2 August 2010

Guided instruction versus Independent Learning 2

A four-leaved clover only will be found when knowing what to look for

Mr Teacher commented on my last post about “Guided Instruction versus Independent Learning":

Without going in to specific details, surely the best option is an appropriate balance between the two?

Spot on! But what is being balanced?
The content of the lesson cannot be left to the students' inventiveness, as followers of constructivist learning theories all too often will have it.

A politician's ideology

In the Netherlands teachers have been harassed by a fierce lobby for constructivist learning theories during the last decades. This has lead to a thorough refurbishment of our secondary education, aiming at independent learning, the “Studiehuis,” in which supposedly the teacher's role shifts towards coaching students instead of directing students. This is epitomised by “De Nieuwste School,” a school whose curriculum is integrally constituted by students' questions.


I have been an ardent follower of these ideas, and I am backpedalling.

Firstly, I have become disappointed too often with the results of learning arrangements in which students have to study more independently.
Most students cannot come up with relevant questions or topics that lead into effective research, or interesting art work, for that matter. Questions are the result of perception. You have to see that something weird is happening before asking yourself what is going on. Wonder about the relation between phenomena is impossible without actually experiencing these. Alas, perception is the result of learning and training.

Another fundamental problem is that questions can't be answered properly without a method of inquiry. Methods are related to disciplines, scientific systems, artistic disciplines, or professional procedures. The subjects traditionally taught at school offer training in these methods. Students' questions often tend to spring the boundaries of these subjects, which may be very interesting. However, these questions do not lead to a coherent learning process in which students really have to think deeply. Especially when expertise pertaining to the question is not available at school the research is bound to be shallow. I am fed up with copy cat answers from the internet, as I am with cliché art work.

Constructivist theories are being outmoded by neuroscience

Secondly, recent research has contradicted shallow constructivist ideas about learning independently. This was mentioned in my post.

Lastly, it has been made clear that the brain is developing at least until the age of twenty. Young students cannot cope with adult learning strategies, planning as adults do. Learning at secondary level cannot mirror the university system. Young students cannot plan their studies. they must be guided.

Between a rock and a hard place

So, what is being balanced? I am not going to ask my students what they want to learn. I know what they need being taught. The content of the lesson is my province, and I aim at the exam programs that run in my country. They need their diploma. That certificate guarantees a certain level of attainment. I may not agree with it completely but I have to comply with it and so must my students.

This content must be balanced with my didactics. Aiming for an exam program not necessarily means teaching to the test. By the way, the program is not that simple, as mentioned, it even asks for proofs of independent learning. At all cost I must prevent these students being bored by education. I need their rapt attention, which means that I have to fulfil their needs, I must give them ample opportunity to express themselves, to wonder, to ask any question. I need all my expedience to guide them cleverly by showing them where to go. Otherwise they get lost in meaninglessness.