Dutch education reform controversies

And the issue of how to develop critical global citizenship

This post discusses the possible contribution of the systems approach, whether in the form of critical heuristics or otherwise, to the development of critical global citizenship as a key skill to be taught and used in secondary education, in The Netherlands or elsewhere. The perspective is that of a Dutch geography teacher (Mr. Rob Adriaens) to which I have added a few musings of my own. The background is formed by a controversial proposal for Dutch education reform that was published in January 2016. I patched together (no, carefully designed) another of my concept maps to summarize what the Dutch education reform proposal is about and used it to highlight some of the key ideas of Mr. Adriaens. It is all based on an article that was published in last Saturday’s edition of Trouw – possibly the best Dutch newspaper in the world.

Dutch education reform         In January 2016 the latest reform proposal was published by the Platform Education 2032 (report) after 2 years of protracted, wide-ranging and in-depth discussions with all possible stakeholders. It proposes: (1) a core curriculum of English, Dutch, math, digital/computer literacy  accompanied by the mandatory development of (2) general ‘interdisciplinary’ skills such as learning skills, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and cooperation. All (3) other subjects (geography, chemistry, physics, French, German, history etc.) will be so-called ‘elective’ components to be designed according to the interests and requirements of the school and the individual student. The Platform further says that this knowledge should be divided into (4) three clusters or domains: social studies, science, and language & culture. Students will acquire in-depth knowledge of selected topics within each domain.

A geography teacher’s critique     Mr. Adriaens is one of the three founders of Geo Future School, an initiative of the Royal Netherlands Geographical Society (KNAG).critical global citizenship learning At ‘Geofuture Schools’ students work on assignments,  which are designed by external partners in both the private sector and civil society and encourage students to combine their knowledge in fields such as geography, business economics, science and history to arrive at good solutions. In Mr. Adriaens sees two major problems: (1) the emphasis on politically desirable citizenship for the Dutch situation at the level of the core curriculum instead of critical global citizenship as needed in an increasingly complex, globalized world; (2) the inadequacy of the proposed clustering framework for an area such as geography, which straddles two or three clusters. Furthermore, there is the general worry that future students will lack the proficiency in subjects such as biology, chemistry or French as they had with the old curriculum. This is likely to pose problems when they go to polytechnics or universities as many will.

A systems buff’s critique         …(that is if I qualify as a systems buff, having co-authored a practical book about the systems approach). My main criticism is simply that not even a single mention is made of systems thinking as a key thinking skill. This criticism applies to both the Platform report and the Geo Future school manual (all only available in Dutch, I am sorry to say). There is mention of complexity, though: 5 times in the manual, once in the Platform report. The latter rightfully points out that “if students are to consider complex issues from various perspectives they must learn to adopt an interdisciplinary approach in both thought and action,” yet still fails to mention systems thinking. Perhaps this is because the systems field covers such a vast array of approaches and methodologies that the authors feel they must refrain from becoming specific. Or because they don’t know very much about systems thinking. No matter what may be the case, in my experience such topics as geopolitics and sustainability are highly suited to a systems approach, especially of the type as originally developed by Churchman in the 1960s and 1970s since it has such broad applicability, which means that, once mastered, it can be applied across a wide range of domains and all sorts of human problem situations, whether nationally or globally. Having some experience in the matter, I see no reason why this couldn’t be implemented in the upper classes of secondary schools.

Enemies of the systems approach     … have never been in short supply (Churchman dedicated an entire book to the subject, see also post on anti-planning). A common argument (by those who defend the old subject-based curriculum against a more interdisciplinary one) against the use of interdisciplinary tools and methods such as the systems approach is that students will first need some knowledge of the subject at hand before these methods can be of any use. At first sight this seems a perfectly legitimate objection. However, it doesn’t take into account the enormous amount of learning that can take place under conditions of non-expertise, not unimportant in an educational context, where non-expertise among the learners is the rule. Besides, there is the third principle of deception-perception, which says that “there are no experts in the systems approach. The public always knows more than any expert [SH: or education policy advisor]. The problem of the systems approach is to learn what “everybody” knows [SH: so why not students?]. At the same time, the real expert is still Everyman, stupid, humorous, serious, and comprehensive all at the same time.” (Churchman, 1968; p. 231-232).

The proof of the pudding       The systems approach does what the Platform report requires of it: it enables students (and everybody else, including policy makers) to  learn to adopt an interdisciplinary approach in both thought and action so as to consider complex issues from various perspectives. There is very likely unawareness among education policy makers and subject teachers alike of how the systems approach could be used in practice. Considering the philosophical and organizational foundations and logic of the systems approach it seems highly unlikely that there exists another approach that would fit the bill equally will. A major additional argument in favour of the systems approach is its general applicability (as long as there are contrasting perspectives, which is more often than most people want to admit). This means that students can continue applying it throughout their lives and in their work. This is important considering the ‘learning for life’ or ‘learning for school’ question. In my view the systems approach is an interdisciplinary marvel with enormous potential that waits to be discovered. A trial or pilot as part of an in-depth assessment should be enough to make this potential more visible to students, teachers and decision-makers alike. Think about it!


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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