What do you do when you see a school system stuck in the past, failing to prepare students for a modern, digital future? You start a new one.
That was Dutch entrepreneur Maurice de Hond’s reason for founding the Steve JobsSchool in August 2014, a school that embraces the use of iPads – hence the name – to bring education into the 21st century.
Dubbed ‘Education for a New Era’, 22 schools across the Netherlands now operate as Steve JobsSchools. That’s over 4,000 students being taught in a surrounding that embraces gamification and personalised learning, where teachers are ‘talent coaches’, and children choose their own six-week lesson plans.
OEB News Editor Annika Burgess spoke with de Hond about the positive impact the school is having on attention deficit disorder (ADD) sufferers, how he’s proven critics wrong, and what it takes to get a digital school off the ground.
You don’t have a background in education, so how did this all come about?
I have a daughter who was born in 2009. I saw her with the smartphone when she was six months old, because I downloaded an app for babies. Then I saw her with the iPad when she was one and a half years old and I was very impressed by what she was doing. So it didn’t make sense to me that at home children are in the digital age and when they go to school they are stuck in the past. They are being prepared for the past instead of for the future.
Through my work I have a lot of contact with politicians and one day in a meeting with a politician involved in education in Amsterdam, I asked: “How do I keep my daughter at home? I don’t want to send her to a school that’s a museum of the past rather than a place that’s preparing her for the future.”
He told me it’s difficult in the Netherlands; you basically need to start a religion and based on that religion you’re not allowed to send your children to school, or you can start a school yourself and make it how you think a school should be. In the Dutch law, if people want to start a school, and you are within specific guidelines, then you have the possibility to start a school financed by the government.
Was it difficult to get others on board?
Well, I didn’t start with other parents, instead I started getting in contact with people who were experienced in education but who did things in the digital direction. There was one person I knew from the past and three new people. After three months we made the manifesto outlining what we wanted to do and the principles for the new school. We then went back to the politician and he made a press conference to announce that we wanted to start the school in Amsterdam – close to my house for my daughter – and also to show off to people what’s possible.
To our surprise, a lot of people came to us and said ‘that’s a great idea we want to do it too’ or ‘we want to support you.’ So, it became a type of small movement.
Was there much criticism?
There was a lot of criticism, especially from people involved in education. They were almost disgusted. They had a strange view of what we were going to do; they thought we were going to give children an iPad at four years old, then run away and come back when they are 12 and ask: ‘Ok, what did you learn in that time?’
They were saying it’s antisocial, that children won’t talk to each other anymore and that it’s bad for their eyes. But, you could say the same thing about books, that they are antisocial.
The school opened in August 2014 but, even before then, seven other schools had adopted our approach – existing schools. A school up north, for example, was moving into a new building and with that new building they also wanted a new approach. The board decided with the principal to adopt our approach, but about a quarter of the parents weren’t happy about it. So, they went to the press saying that they didn’t want their children to be guinea pigs of a new system. The press made a big fuss about it but this ended up being good. About one month later there was an open house and because of the big fuss a lot of people came to the open house and instead of 60 or 70 children, they had 125. And, after about two or three months, one of the parents who had initially complained wrote a letter saying they were wrong and apologised. They had seen how happy the children were and how well it was going.
How would you describe the role of teachers?
The iPad is available now to completely change the system and approach to the school, whereby the function of the teacher is also to coach children. Every six weeks they have a meeting with the parents and the child to discuss their past six weeks and goals for the next six.
The second function is being a specialist in a field. You provide help with assignments and a child’s personal progression only in your particular field. So, they don’t need to prepare a whole day with six or eight different topics, but you are the one who is responsible for your subject.
They also don’t need to take home work to mark as this happens on the iPads in an adapted way. We take an approach that isn’t class centred but more child centred – that’s the big difference.
Where do you source content for the iPads?
We use what’s on the market. A mistake that I think a lot of people make is that they try to build everything themselves.
We make it possible to give, perhaps, three different approaches to different children because one child may like certain apps better than others. We have Math Garden in the Netherlands, which has 40,000 assignments and is completely adaptive, covering the 15 main fields in maths. Teachers have a dashboard and they can see where the difficulties are for each child and can give specific assignments based on which areas they need to improve.
Students are required to complete the same statuary assessments as other Dutch schools – are they prepared to do so?
Of course, but we not only try to fulfil what’s in the national assessments but also incorporate things like teaching them how to code. There are five-year-old children who have already starting learning the basic principles of coding.
We meet the requirements of the national assessment but what we don’t do is say, ‘ok, this is the national assessment and because you’re eight years and six months old you must now start learning fractions.’ No, we know that in a specific moment in time you need to know this and this but the time and the way we do it is that we adapt to the learning style of the child. Maybe he will do fractions when he’s seven or when he’s nine and a half.
We also don’t just give them the one book on fractions, we offer several ways. If one child likes cooking we teach them fractions using examples with pizza, and the other child who likes repairing bicycles we do it in a completely different way. That’s possible because we don’t have a class of 25 children where the teacher has to do the same thing at the same time with all the children.
What surprising outcomes have you discovered as a result of learning with iPads?
The engagement is a big factor. When people visit the school the first thing they notice is how quiet it is. If you look in the classrooms you see it’s because the students are very engaged.
There are a lot of affects that we didn’t expect that surprised me. I was approached by a parent after two or three weeks who told me: “My son is very dyslexic and to my surprise, for the first time at home in his life, he has been reading books at home. I’m flabbergasted.” When she asked him the reason he explained that at his old school, because he’s a slow reader, he would be left behind and the other children would make fun of him. He was insecure about it. But at our school he’s going at an individual level and pace, and the iPad also lets you hear what you read. The other children are not even aware that he may be going at a different pace.
I’ve also had feedback from parents who have children who were diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and they said it’s gone. They don’t notice it anymore.
What I think is happening in these schools where children are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD is that it’s due to being bored with what the school is offering them. They are accustomed to what happens at home from day one: a very visual and stimulating environment. When they go to school and can’t concentrate on what the old system shows them then the system says they have a problem. But, the real problem is the system not the child.
If you’re curious to hear more, Maurice de Hond will appear as a Spotlight speaker at OEB 2015, taking place Berlin, December 2 – 4, 2015.