‘I’d already had two careers in the corporate world when I made the switch to education in 2006. I ended up at Saxion, as a project leader at the Product Design research group, and spent two days a week teaching in the Industrial Product Design programme. Suddenly people saw me as a teacher, which I thought was hilarious. The innovation projects I worked on with students gave me a lot of energy, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. I had to teach the same classes over and over again, and I had no control over my schedule. So when Saxion asked me after three years to become a project leader at Sirius, a national programme to develop and implement excellence tracks in higher education, I didn’t have to think twice.’
Different hoops for every student
‘As programme director at Top Talent, I was able to fully focus on innovation again. I hadn’t worked in higher education very long at that point, but I did have a lot of work field experience. That’s why I knew that what a client wants and what they actually need can be two completely different things. So that’s how I approached this assignment as well. What does society need and what does that mean for our educational system? For instance, it turned out to be outdated to offer programmes that only covered one discipline and nothing else. Students were – and are – expected to have different skills from the ones they’re tradi tionally taught in professional training. In their working life, they’ll need creativity, entrepreneurship, perseverance and the ability to collaborate. Through Sirius, we started thinking about the value of education and saw the downside of how it’s currently organized. The funding and assessment methods that are in place now lead to structures that restrict individual development. Every student has to jump through the same hoops. Sirius gave us the opportunity to develop col lective education with different hoops for every student.’
Leaning into discomfort
‘When we started out, we didn’t know yet what our Top Talent Programme would look like. There were 15 or 16 pilot projects, all with the aim of allowing both students and teachers to reach their full potential. I provided the connection be tween those pilot projects and annual evaluations. Eventually, this led to the de velopment – in cocreation with students and teachers – of Saxion’s honours ap proach: an explorative learning process for personalprofessional development. Students formulate their own ambitions within a safe community and, as a result, students learn more consciously. The interdisciplinary focus also teaches them to work together: a dressed to the nines economics student suddenly has to in teract with a detailoriented techie and a freespirited social work student. This might be uncomfortable at first, but students are going to encounter these kinds of situations in the outside world as well – issues are no longer solved by one single person in today’s time. That’s why it’s best to seek out discomfort as soon as possible and learn by reflecting on it. It’s okay to feel discomfort, and in retro spect students really appreciate having been in these situations. They begin to appreciate their differences and get to know themselves better. We also found that this personal, interdisciplinary approach works for professionals as well, which was a valuable insight for both us and the teachers. After all, professionals are also individuals with unique talents and ambitions.
We’re now at a point where the Top Talent Programme is firmly embedded in the organization, but we can’t start slacking off. We have to keep experimenting and evaluating. Educational innovation, as far as I’m concerned, comes from this cocktail of collaboration, experimentation and reflection.’
Every student deserves an honours approach
‘Our honours courses are extracurricular, which gives us a lot of freedom in how we design them. That said, in 2017 we started to get this nagging feeling. We knew that we could use all these insights to do something for the standard cur ricula as well. The honours approach should not just be available to the happy few, but also – or especially – to students who have lost their sense of motivation. We wanted to overhaul the entire educational system, but my influence was li mited to the Top Talent Programme. So the Comenius Leadership Fellow grant was a real godsend. I really think it’s brilliant. It’s the only grant that puts education first instead of research. To us, it was the catalyst we needed to galvanize a group of people. Joining the ComeniusNetwerk was also a relief for me personally: I had finally found an environment where people thought like me. Last year, we capped off the research process with a documentary, and now we’re trying to show the entire country the value of education that takes human beings and their talents as its starting point.’
I’m the person who says, “What do you mean, we can’t do this? Why not?”
Manager in quotation marks
‘During a reorganization in 2019, the question arose of where to embed the Top Talent Programme. At a strategy meeting, I blurted out, “If we’re going to re structure, I want an innovation hub!” (Satisfied.) And I got it. It’s a network or ganization with no staff, so the word ‘manager’ in my job title should really be in quotation marks. I don’t manage people; I set processes in motion. I’m the person who says, “What do you mean, we can’t do this? Why not?” It never ceases to amaze me that others don’t see the opportunities I see. In many ways, my knowl edge is limited, but apparently I have the ability to get people going, and to instil confidence. That’s also exactly what you want teachers to do for students: create a safe space where they can experiment. Before 2010, the consensus in higher education was that everything we did had to be a success. But that’s not how in novation works. Innovation means taking risks. Every once in a while, something will fail and then you just have to accept the consequences and stand behind your people.
The composition of the Education Innovation team changes on a regular basis. The people who think innovation is important tend to stick around for a while, like bees around a honeypot. The core team comes from our honours programme and is supplemented by people who were brooding on ideas by themselves and didn’t know where to go with them, or who didn’t have the time to develop their plans. They’re all very interesting people!’
Wishes for higher education
‘What higher education needs? (Immediately.) Trust. We have rigged up a system in which we allocate funding based on rules and equate quality with degrees. There are all kinds of tests and checks in there to ensure that everyone is meeting the quality standards, because otherwise someone might graduate with a diploma that’s worth nothing. That fear makes higher education a claustrophobic space to work in. The average teacher feels like they have little room to try something new. I would love it if we started thinking differently: not centred around profes sional training, but around human beings and their talents and passions. Human beings who go through a development process and then end up somewhere. So you don’t start out as a mechanical engineering or nursing student, but you com plete your own learning journey that may end up taking you to one of those par ticular fields. That’s complex, because how do you then ensure that someone ac tually has the right qualifications at the end of their journey? Still, I’m inclined to think, “Can’t we just issue a qualification and trust that it will be okay?” In a system like that, doubts and even dropping out would be seen as part of the learning process, instead of being labelled as delays. Such an approach would give every individual the freedom to find the right path. As I said before, every student would be jumping through their own hoops. If you provide good super vision, you can even motivate someone to jump through a higher hoop, or a deeper one, or one farther to the left or right.
Another interest of mine is regenerative education that trains students to shape their lives and work in a more balanced way, and one that considers other people, society and the environment. I’d very much like to remove the limitations of the current education system, and that’s still a challenge. I’ve also been part of this world myself for quite some time now.’
||Manager (‘though I prefer to call myself an initiator’) of the Education Innovation Hub, formerly Top Talent programme director
||Saxion University of Applied Sciences
||Education and Student Support | Education Innovation Hub
|Work experience in higher education
||‘I keep a lot of plates spinning and it’s all a bit chaotic, because everything is intertwined. That’s the way I work.’
|Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk
||Received a Comenius Leadership Fellow grant with her team in 2018 to use an existing honours programme for students who had lost their motivation for their studies. And a Leadership Fellow grant in 2022 for Organizing Purpose Driven Learning.
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.