Marian has a passion for education, but teaching isn’t her calling

Het ComeniusNetwerk 17-08-2022
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Marian Kat-­de Jong is an educational innovator at Avans University of Applied Sciences. She’s overseeing Avans’ transition on a content­strategic level and strives to embed successful innovations in the school’s curriculum.

‘The decision I made in 2012 to become a teacher was a very conscious one. I had been ‘circling’ higher education for years as a policy researcher, advisor and project leader, and I felt it was time to experience teaching for myself. So I became a lecturer in Life Sciences & Communication at Avans University of Applied Sciences. I was fully committed to that for three years. While developing a writing curriculum, I discovered how change and innovation work in education, and that they require cooperation and persuasion. Since then, I’ve been focusing more and more on educational innovation. Finally, two years ago I made the switch to the Learning and Innovation Centre. (Laughs.) I don’t want to become one of those managers who’s still going ‘I also spent three years in front of the classroom’ two decades from now. That’s why I find it important to keep venturing outside the policy bubble.’

Recognition and confidence

‘The ComeniusNetwerk has played a major role in my professional development. Together with my team, I received a Teaching Fellow grant in 2018 to create and implement the writing curriculum we developed in our laboratory courses. The name of the project was SchrijfGOED (WriteWELL), where GOED stands for Ge­ personaliseerd, Open En Digitaal (Personalized, Open And Digital) – we came up with that over pizza one evening. As a result, I became a Teaching Fellow, which felt like a nice bit of recognition for my innovative approach, perseverance and way of thinking – I was going to absolutely make sure we’d end up with a well­ founded and well­written plan. 
Around the time we wrapped up the project, another opportunity came along. Through one of my networks, I came across a job opening for a position as teacher professionalization liaison for the National Acceleration Plan Educational Innovation Through ICT. I read the job description and thought: bingo! This is me! It was all a bit impulsive, but I applied and ended up getting seconded from Avans for two days a week. I worked together with a ‘zone’ of about twenty people from various institutions, looking at questions like: What do teachers need to reap the benefits of digitization? How do they learn? What are their preferences? What are they insecure about? I stayed with that project for three years and had an amazing time. Just like in the ComeniusNetwerk, it brought to­ gether innovators who knew the sector well and who were enormously motivated to be of service to education. Another parallel with the ComeniusNetwerk was that the funder, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, had a great deal of confidence in the project. That allowed us to deliver something substantial.’

The next step

‘After working on the Acceleration Plan for a year, I started feeling out of place at Avans. One day I’d have a meeting with the Minister of Education, and the next I was sitting down with my teaching colleagues trying to figure out the exam sys­ tem. Education is all about students and teachers, I will always believe that, but I needed focus instead of constantly having to switch between those big themes and operational questions. So I tentatively inquired about the possibilities of transferring from my school to the Learning and Innovation Centre (LIC). I was a bit anxious about it, but I really want to urge anyone who reads this piece: if you have a good idea, go out and pitch it, because you can make a difference! When you stick your neck out like that, someone might still say, ‘That’s not such a good idea’ or ‘Have you thought of this?’, but if you don’t talk about your plans, your ambitions will never be rewarded or recognized. The response to my ques­ tion was very positive. My supervisors understood that I wanted to take that next step.

The LIC is a large unit within Avans, functioning as a partner and strategic director when it comes to education and research. I first went to work as a policy advisor in the field of blended education and, after a little less than a year, became coordinator of the team of education experts that helps teachers and the directors of our schools create good education. For a while, I was actually fulfilling two roles in that position, which proved to be too much. A few months ago, I handed over my responsibilities as team lead, and now I focus on the content­strategic side of the innovations we’re working on.’

Higher education in transition

‘Avans – like many higher education institutions – has big ambitions. We want to offer flexible, modular education that is well aligned with the field and supported by digital applications. We are moving towards curricula in which students no longer go from point A to point B and then get their degree, but instead take dif­ ferent routes while being allowed to take longer to complete their studies. They’re getting more freedom of choice in putting together their course programme and tailoring it to their level. This requires a new educational design, and teachers will have to start viewing education differently. If you’re teaching a second­year course, you won’t be able to assume that every student in your class has already taken subject X or Y in the first year. I’m trying to help organize that transition. Which steps do you take first, and which steps do you take after that? How do you make sure the quality is good? What’s our definition of high­quality education anyway?

'I don’t want to become one of those managers who’s still going ‘I also spent three years in front of the classroom’ two decades from now. That’s why I find it important to keep venturing outside the policy bubble.’

The plant has to keep running

‘A friend of mine works in the chemical industry. Once every few years, they do a turnaround at her plant: they shut everything down and do maintenance on all the pipes, motors, gears, plugs – everything. Sometimes it takes months before they restart. I said to her, ‘We’re also doing a turnaround, but our plant has to keep running.’ Educational transitions are quite tough. There’s not a lot of room for manoeuvre in teachers’ daily schedules, so you can only make incremental adjustments, and that requires vision and strategy. But that’s really the only way to do it. You can’t design education on a drawing board, you have to try out small adjustments to see what works. That sometimes puts teachers in a position where they feel insecure, but in my experience they’re professional enough to handle that.’

Fountains of change and clear standards

‘I see our transition as a fascinating interplay of top­down directing on the one hand and letting innovations emerge on a small scale on the other. Mario Kieft, an expert in organizational change at the Open University, calls the latter ‘small fountains of change’. In an organization, you need groups of people who will just go and do something new. You set the course top­down, but those small fountains are what drives change. As a bridge builder, I’d say the real trick is bringing those two things together – to make sure those fountains can flow freely and be of use to other people as well. Because they shouldn’t just benefit the happy few. It’s important that we set standards together during implementation: if a student takes module A in programme X or module B in programme Y, there must be a certain uniformity. This means, for example, that we use the same terminology, follow the same educational principles and bring consistency to the provision of information. To keep people on board during a transition, you also need to be persuasive. That’s the political side of the process, which I find very interesting as well.

We want to achieve our current ambitions at Avans before 2025. There was a slight delay because of Covid, but all in all it’s a manageable timeframe. Still, the goals you set and the path you take will always change along the way. I love that dynamic! (Laughs.) I would find it much harder if someone said, ‘Here’s our plan for the next five years – it’s set in stone.’

Profile

Name Marian Kat-­de Jong
Position ‘My formal title is senior policy director, but I’m also on the management team at the Learning and Innovation Centre, and I call myself an educational innovator’
Institution Avans University of Applied Sciences
Department Learning and Innovation Centre
Total appointment 1.0 FTE, 50 % of which is spent on guiding organizational transition and 50 % on embedding changes in educational policy, ‘but it’s all fairly fluid’
Time devoted to teaching  100% – I spend half my time training students and teachers and the other half is devoted to educational innovation/ curriculum renovation
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk Received a Teaching Fellow grant in 2018 to develop and implement a writing curriculum in Avans’ laboratory programmes; set up the Anchoring Change circle together with Jessica Zweers.

 

This portrait is part of the publication 'Dedication to education - Ten portraits of inspired teachers in higher education‘. You can download the publication in English and Dutch. This publication was created in collaboration with members of the Duurzaam Docentschap circle of the ComeniusNetwerk.

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