Driven to despair by how my smart and sensitive eldest son was suffering from increasing stress and depression by the mind-numbing rote-learning and non-step testing regime at his apparently top secondary school in the Netherlands, I googled in Dutch “education without tests”. Up popped the page of a tv documentary about a school in Roermond called Niekee where they had been experimenting with an approach called Agora. As I read the interview with one of the co-founders, Sjef Drummen, my eyes filled with tears as I recognised the secondary education of the future that truly honours and liberates the wholeness and potential of our children. The old system is broken and it’s breaking our kids. I was determined to do what I could to bring it to my home town and so earlier this week I visited Sjef and his amazing school. I feel immensive gratitude for the vision and courage he and his team have shown in actually manifesting a working example of how it could be done differently. As he repeated a number of times to me, “what we care about is what is good for the development of the child”. Below is some more information about Agora that I have translated from various Dutch sources, and some photos of the children’s working spaces (that they get to design themselves).
Agora Education in the Dutch media
Agora is a far-reaching form of personalized learning developed in the Netherlands for all students from VMBO (vocational stream) to VWO (university stream). The Agora approach brings with it much more freedom. Students themselves have a great deal of control over the learning process, with coaches who support them.
There are no school subjects, no tests, no homework, no textbooks or methods, no classroom instruction. Sjef Drummen, one of the co-founders of the Agora school in Roermond, the Netherlands, says “We work fully personalized. That is, every student has his or her own learning path. You can compare it to the medieval guild system where every master had four students, fellows. Every child learned in a different way. That’s a fantastic system. Because of all the new technology we have today, we can also work that way again. Knowledge is everywhere, inside and outside the school. But everyone has a different pathway to that knowledge. Teachers are there to support students in that quest.
“We invest in the personal development of children in the early years. They must feel safe, free. We teach them to look at the world, to wonder, to develop. Wow! The world is so beautiful! But also: what’s my role in it? The modern world calls for people who are flexible, creative, inventive, people who can make choices themselves, people with a high degree of adaptability. We strive to help children embrace the uncertain future of tomorrow. “
The final state exams still have to be taken for now, even at Agora. “After two or three years of Agora, the children are so motivated that they are willing to learn. We explain it this way: ‘Kids, the system in the Netherlands is so designed so that we have a little challenge to take together. That challenge is the final exam. After that you get a diploma. You have to do silly things for it. But after that you can head out to meet the future.’ “
It is a school where children of all levels and ages work together – where subjects, tests, timetables and homework don’t exist. It is a school that does not assume that children ultimately understand things by acquiring knowledge, but the other way around. Agora encourages students to discover the world themselves, so that they get acquainted with it. It’s about developing self-confidence, a sense of security, particularly in the first years. The result: motivated students who want to learn in their later years.
The starting points are clear. Drummen: “First, you need to use your common sense. For example, the fact that boys and girls are different, and learn differently. Secondly, teachers must get space to use their intuition. So the regulations may dictate that the approach has be a certain way. But if you find that this does not fit the child, shouldn’t you do something different? Teachers should always be able to make a choice for the student. Thirdly, it is essential that teachers know how children learn, how the brain develops. And if you involve science – six university professors have helped us to develop our concept – then you know that qualification test are for example awful for children. Whether it’s level or age. You must not put children in a cage. You’ll see,” Drummen explains with a twinkle in his eye, “If you don’t put children in cages they don’t act like rats. Suddenly it does not seem necessary to keep children under the thumb. Keeping order – what rubbish! The children create their own order. ”
Categorising children by their educational level is an abomination to Drummen. “What is that, a ‘havo’ learner? How can you know that at 12, 13 years of age? It is well known that the brain is only mature when children are well into their twenties. Why would you give them that stamp now? I am convinced that every child is able to reach any level. In fact, every child can go to university. Not that they should. Not at all. I am only sure that it is possible theoretically if the educational conditions were good. All children want to grow, want to get better, want to progress. Motivation problems? The Agora students do not suffer from this. There are even students who are disappointed when we reach the weekend or holidays. That’s how much they want to be here. It’s really their place.”
Here are a few aspects of their design.
The first seven weeks a student spends in Agora is a “brain bootcamp” where they “de-school” and “un-learn” the children from all the expectations they have of a school. “We are not going to teach you. You are going to learn to teach yourselves”.
The children belong to groups of 15 which are looked after by a coach. The coach’s job is to help the child follow their learning passion, make explicit what they are learning and invite them to complement areas of their development to make it more holistic.
The groups meet at the start of every morning and the discuss an item that is in the news. There is also 30 minutes of silence each day.
All their learning happens through “challenges” which they determine themselves (examples I saw were about how to create a tropical fish tank, to the pyramids of Egypt to understanding lucid dreaming). The coach documents the competencies they are developing and demonstrating in a rigorous digital platform that parents also have access to.
At the start of their time at Agora they are given a guarantee that they will pass the exam they want to pass in the traditional number of years it would take, or less.
The Agora track has been running for four years within the innovative Niekee school and next year they are going to convert the whole school of 600 to the Agora approach.
For reports in Dutch, including a glowing commendation from Paul Rosenmoller who heads up the Dutch organization of secondary schools, and from the government’s educational inspectors, see http://www.agoraroermond.nl/nieuws-media/.