A Manifesto for change in Education

Note: this manifesto was written in November 2012. My thinking has developed a lot ever since – and my thoughts, ideas and visions are still deepening and being sharpened. If you can read Dutch, I highly recommend you to continue reading on http://operation.education to learn about our most recent thinking.

If you prefer English, I recommend you to read the transcript of my latest TEDx talk, in which I share my latest thoughts. 

If you are still interested in my early thoughts, please read on… 🙂

From Status & System to Value & Variety

In the summer of 2012, two good things happened in parallel. First: I realized that Layar, the company that I co-founded in 2009, had reached an important next stage and is in great hands with its new leadership. Second: I found my calling – in education. On September 27th, 2012, I announced on stage at TEDxAmsterdamED that I want to help change society by changing our education systems. We need to better prepare the next generations for the reality of today and tomorrow, so they are well equipped to make this world a better place. I am now ramping down daily activities at Layar towards the end of 2012 and started to explore my value in this field.

In the manifesto below I want to share with you my vision on why changing the way we educate our children is key to changing the system our society is imprisoned in. A system that keeps our society from solving the bigger problems we are facing today, such as our financial crisis, energy supply, overpopulation and healthcare.

I want to contribute to these changes and use myself as a tool to make things better. Continue reading A Manifesto for change in Education

CONNECT Online: Web Platform

I want to set up an online environment which enables the sharing, scaling and continuation of what happens during face to face meetings or events. Online can cross borders. I’m convinced that (parts of) what we are looking for has already been developed/ worked out elsewhere. And that solutions can work on a global scale.

There are already a lot of online environments, websites and platforms focused on this subject. I feel that what we need is more a community/ social sharing environment which enables the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, in a well facilitated manner. My main question is: what type of environment can help bring together all the ripple effects, to make it a tsunami?

I’m thinking of using a Winkwaves “Kenniscafe” but am open to other suggestions.

For this part, I’d like to reach out to those who have already done a lot of research in the subject of innovation in education (several have already contacted me) to get more understanding of what is missing to make this movement much, much bigger and well known.

And of course I’d love to get input from, and cooperate with, people who are good at creating and facilitating active online and social environments. Please reach out if you recognize yourself in this description and want to join forces.

Please share your thoughts, suggestions in the comments below or via the contact form on this site.


Nephtalie Demei (the founder of TEDxAmsterdamED) and I will pull this initiative – we are already drawing the contours. They are as follows:

  • Quarterly or bi-monthly events.
  • Format: TEDx meets unconference. High quality, high involvement, high energy, great output, big effect.
  • Starting point: everybody is the expert. We want less ‘broadcasting’ and more co-creation sessions, where smaller groups (max 40p) discuss topics brought up by the attendees themselves.
  • Similar to TED, in case of oversubscription we will select the attendees of each session.
  • In general, the sessions are meant to unite those who: share the vision, have great ideas or initiatives, want to be inspired or are otherways interested in these subjects and want to contribute to enlarge this movement.
  • The events should ideally be free for participants, costs covered by sponsoring.
  • Topics include: showcasing & discussing existing initiatives, what should children learn, how do children learn, how can good solutions scale, how can they be financed, bringing together initiatives in need for funding and investors, etc.
  • Starting point: no complaining at how bad it is now or talking about today’s problems in education, instead a positive forward movement towards creating the new reality.

What is needed:

  • A team of highly motivated organizers, including the following functions:
  • Curator(s): decide on the themes, format, speakers
  • Facilities: organize venue(s), logistics, necessary technology, subscriptions, etc
  • Sponsors: gets financing to keep the event free for attendees
  • Media: get media-attention incl social media, simulcast/ livestream the event and/ or make content incl videos available immediately afterwards

The organizing committee is made up of passionate, highly motivated people, who go for nothing less than top quality.
It is logical that ‘we’ start in the Netherlands, but of course such initiatives can start anywhere in the world. I’m envisaging a similar movement to what Mobile Monday achieved 3-7 years ago.

If these events become successful, we can think of ways how to scale the format in order to reach more people.

Please reach out if you want to help organize these events – Nephtalie and I will get back to you soon. You can also share your ideas and thoughts in the comments below!

Digital platforms [part 1]

Many of the world’s most renowned educational institutes such as Princeton, Stanford, MIT and many others are joining forces and creating online environments which allow everybody with an internet connection to follow its courses. Often for free. Already today, millions of students are studying a wide variety of subjects – this number is expected to increase dramatically over the coming years.

Examples of such online platforms:
Coursera https://www.coursera.org/ (courses from 33 top universities incl Princeton and Stanford)
Udacity http://www.udacity.com/ (online courses aimed at better preparing students for real life, partners with renowned IT companies)
MIT-Harvard OpenCourseWare http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm (free MIT course materials)

Khan Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/ (free online education for primary and secondary school)
[A group of people is working on translating Khan Academy also to Dutch: https://sites.google.com/a/khanacademy.nl/stichting/]

Gaining knowledge via video courses enables another phenomenon: ‘flipping’ the classroom. Students are given the lecture as homework – so that they can go through the lessons at their own speed. In class, the course is being discussed and teachers can provide support when students are stuck. Many of these platforms also provide exercises online as well as an online system to monitor the student’s progress.

Other interesting digital developments include:

eLanguages.org – will merge together with GlobalSchoolNet.org into iPoPP [link]. eLanguages.org is an online platform which allows teachers from all across the globe to create courses and projects together. It was created by a Dutch guy named Ralph Genang and is active in 196 countries and used by 120.000 teachers today.

There are many many more platforms than I have listed above. I will share more in the coming weeks – and please share your favorites in the comments below!

I see “digital” as an enabler for scale & the valuable human factor: by taking away the ‘robotic’ tasks (such as delivering the same lecture over and over; monitoring student progress etc), the teacher has more time and space for looking ‘into’ a student.

This post contains only a very small selection of digital platforms that will disrupt education. What am I missing? please share in the comments below!

How do you learn?

I learn by doing. By creating stuff, testing it in real life, and improving it after having seen real life results or reactions. By making a lot of mistakes and starting all over. By talking to a lot of people, exchanging thoughts and opinions. I read. I search the web for more info. I watch videos. I ask questions on Twitter. I learn sports by doing, doing, doing, trying, feeling. Reading “how to” in a book doesn’t work for me – I have to feel it, experience it.

How does this relate to the average education at school – where you have to listen to (sometimes very uninspiring) teachers for 45mins in a row, many classes one after the other?

Already at the average conference – where people really do their best to bring their message across, I often get lost or find my thoughts are drifting away. TED conferences are the big exception here. And there must be a reason why no TED talk is longer than 18 minutes.

But my learning style is not similar to your learning style. Some people need to draw, some prefer to listen. Some just want to read books, others prefer a game. It is known for a fact that everybody has their own preferred learning styles – which should be matched to get the most effective learning curve.

Today’s children live in a world where everything goes fast. They learn from playing games on their phones, from googling stuff they are interested in (or need to learn about).  Everything is visual, animated. This is very far from the average learning method which is still via books and lessons or lectures.

It doesn’t surprise me that children get bored and are uninspired by school, to say the least.

How do you learn? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

The problem with standardized tests

Just take a look at 10 average job postings and you will see many ‘wanted’ qualities listed. Skills we need to be happy and valuable in society go beyond what we currently learn at school: we need fantastic teamplayers, entrepreneurial attitudes, creative thinkers and doers, fast-paced flexibility, interpersonal sensitivity and cross-cultural awareness in today’s global society – just to name a few. Humans are more complex and have more talent and value than what we currently measure in standardized tests.

Instead, schools are more and more focused on standardized tests, whether or not forced by legislation or other external pressure – for example because schools are ranked “good” or “bad” according to their student’s standardized test results.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from standardized tests that my cousin and several of my friends children were confronted with.

Test 1: Vocabulary test for 5 year old Dutch children, from an official ‘CITO’ standardized test.

The right answer according to CITO is Blue – Cold. But Casper, my cousin, told his mother: “An eskimo builds an iglo because it’s cold outside, but inside it’s relatively warm. That’s why I picked red”.

Test 2:

The right answer according to the test is D, the airplane. But the child of a friend of mine said C (truck): “because it’s the only mode of transport which was not intended to transport passengers”.

Two weeks later, a colleague of mine sent an almost similar one from her child. In Dutch, it says:

Which word does not belong here?

1: train – car – truck – airplane

Source: Marjolein Stromeier via a tweet

Her 8 year old child answered ‘truck’: “it’s the only one which you can’t use to go on holiday.”

In each case, the child gave the ‘wrong’ answer – while everybody can only acknowledge that his or her answer is ‘also good’, even much smarter than what the test sought to be assessing. However, the system tells them they are wrong and are not supposed to think this way. And worse: give them a low score which may even cause smart children to get to the wrong level of education.

After the TED talk, some people suggested that the children should be able to find a suitable reasoning for each answer…

Standardized tests (including IQ tests) only assess a very limited set of skills or qualities. To put it bluntly, they mostly assess your ability to take standardized tests and to give the answer that is expected by the testing authority. They rarely assess your deeper understanding of the subject, or your ability to use the insights for reflection on what this would mean for the future.

Another set of very interesting examples were given by Tanya Khovanova in this blog post, where she described the array of potential answers for the Mensa (IQ) test:

[box] This test is similar to continuing a sequence. How would you continue the sequence 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9? The online database of integer sequences has 1479 different sequences containing this pattern. The next number might be:

  • 10, if this is the sequence of natural numbers;
  • 1, if this is the sequence of the digital sums of natural numbers;
  • 11, if this the sequence of palindromes;
  • 0, if this is the sequence of digital products of natural numbers;
  • 13, if this is the sequence of numbers such that 2 to their powers doesn’t contain 0;
  • 153, if this is the sequence of numbers that are sums of fixed powers of their digits;
  • 22, if this is the sequence of numbers for which the sum of digits equals the product of digits;
  • or any number you want.[/box]

[box] She also describes another sequence: What is the odd object out in this list?

Cow, hen, pig, sheep.

The standard answer is supposed to be hen, as it is the only bird. But that is not the only possible correct answer. For example, pig is the only one whose meat is not kosher. And, look, sheep has five letters while the rest have three. In the comments on her blog post, contributors have been indicating a ‘right’ answer for every word in the sequence. Worthwhile reading![/box]

In the end of her post, Tanya writes: “it bugs me that I might not have been creative enough to fail their test”…

With our society putting more and more emphasis on standardized tests (because a high score brings you to a higher level on the status ladder), many children now spend a lot of time rehearsing tests. Valuable time which could also be spent on developing skills which may be much more useful in later life.

Do you have more crazy and funny examples of standardized tests? Please share them underneath in the comments!

Moulding people into a system

The school system assumes that everybody learns in the same way, in the same rhythm, everything at the same moment in time.

We find it completely normal that every child learns to walk at a different age – my daughter needed almost double (!!) the time to learn to walk compared to my son. We also know that the age on which they learn to walk (9 or 18 months) doesn’t say anything about their performance (in for example sports) in later life. But at school, we still ask children to all learn at the same speed in classes which are horizontally organized, even if we know for a fact that everybody has their own rhythm and learning style.

I’m deeply concerned by the amount of children who are diagnosed as having a ‘problem’: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, etcetera. It is a good thing that there is greater interest in the fact that every child is ‘unique’ and deserves its own learning trajectory. But diagnosing 10-25% of children with a “problem” is deeply worrying, especially if children receive medication like Ritalin to make them perform better at school – e.g. be more calm, quiet and concentrated during lessons. Read more about this concern and an example in this blog post.

Schools kill creativity. This is the punchline of the most watched (and highly recommended if you haven’t seen it yet) TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Children are born with a lot of creativity but our school system moulds all the creativity out of them. Watch his talk over here:


A popular diagram shows that at age 40, all creativity is knocked out of an average human being. Where are you on this diagram?

Source: George Land and Beth Jarman


The moulding continues after school

Also in after-school life, we continue to mould people into something they are not. In my TED talk, I shared my experience with the ‘personal development plan’ at Unilever. In order to get higher up into the management hierarchy (the only way to achieve more status), you have to develop your management skills. These have been defined as a set of skills on which you are supposed to score ‘good’, but not ‘too extreme’.

My profile instead was pretty extreme – my ‘passion and energy’ (A) went way beyond all boundaries, causing me to act like a ‘jumping puppy’. What I was lacking was (E) control and structure. Instead of focusing on my strengths and how Unilever could benefit from these, I had to cut back on what I was really good at and work hard on my so-called ‘development points’. So basically I had to try to become somebody else. And despite all the talk about diversity, the corporate system basically creates average people.

A worrying amount of people around me confess that they are not really happy. They have a high level on the status ladder: a “good” job (eg high up in the management hierarchy), partner plus well-behaved children, big car, beautiful house. Despite all this, they are finding they are lacking ‘something’ – I think it might be ‘value’. But they don’t dare to get out anymore: “I have a high mortgage, all my life is set up according to my high salary; I can’t just quit”…

Do you have similar experiences? Did you also find yourself, or people around you, trapped on the status ladder? What did you/ they do? Please share in the comments!

Ritalin helps to comply with the system?

I’m deeply concerned by the amount of children who are diagnosed as having a ‘problem’: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, even ‘gifted’ (hoogbegaafd in Dutch). It is a good thing that there is greater interest in the fact that every child is ‘unique’ and deserves its own learning trajectory. But diagnosing 10-25% of children with a “problem” is deeply worrying, especially if children receive medication like Ritalin to make them perform better at school – e.g. be more calm, quiet and concentrated during lessons.
I am convinced we should not look at the problems children have (they might even start to believe that they are a ‘problem child’), but instead look at all their possibilities – and facilitate them in getting more out of themselves than they ever imagined.

[box] A cousin of a friend of mine has always had an amazing talent for drawing. She could visualize all her thoughts and express herself in a fantastic way. She is what you may call a ‘visual thinker’ (‘beelddenker’ in Dutch). However, the moment she went to school, problems started. She was not allowed to make drawings anymore for more than 10 minutes a day. Her pencils were taken away and she had to write words instead. She transformed from being a happy child into a ‘problem child’. Now at age 11 she is taking Ritalin and her parents say that her school results are improving: she is now more calm and concentrated. Which is also why her parents are supportive of using Ritalin: her school results improve, which is “in her best interest”.[/box]

This example makes me so mad, sad and frustrated. We are even prepared to use medication to put children into our standardized system. While the unique talents of this child could be of great value: people who are able to express their thoughts in visuals instead of words are much more valuable in today’s visually oriented society. But simply because we have no standardized means to assess these qualities, we try to limit them and instead develop other skills – which are not her natural ones.

I have also heard that the long term effect of Ritalin has proven to be in the same destructive category as Prozac. If you have backing (or countering) material, I’d love to receive it.

I have also heard that ‘problem’ children have proven to be behaving and performing x% worse than ‘normal’ children, and y% worse than ‘gifted’ children. Even when the labels were switched (the ‘gifted’ became ‘problem’), this effect was measured. If you have backing material for these, I’d also love to receive them.

In the past months, parents have shared very many of such stories with me. Please share yours underneath the blog post on this subject.

CONNECT: part 1 of the Action Plan

The massive amount of reactions on my TED talk showed me three things:

  • Wow, so much is already happening/ done/ figured out – this needs to be shared.
  • I can’t be the only one who is interested but unaware of all these initiatives.
  • To really make an impact, we need to join forces. A very big movement is necessary.

We need to get together, share what works and discuss how to overcome barriers. Each one of us can create a ripple effect, all of us together create a Tsunami.

I would like to propose three form factors:

  1. Offline (face to face, events)
  2. Online (web environment)
  3. Informal – (bi-)weekly gatherings

Please click the links to find more details about the plans.

SHAPE: part 2 of the Action Plan

I firmly believe that we should look at value, defined by how happy you are (because you do things that matter to you) and how much you contribute to society (including your own family or friends) – making use of your own strengths and talents.

What if we could let go of everything education is about right now, if we could start anew:

  • What are the skills and knowledge needed in the world of today and tomorrow? What would children need to learn (until age 18)? [Is it ‘advanced maths’, or rather ‘learn to develop your own path’, ‘learn to become valuable – economically & socially, and get more out of yourself than you’d ever imagine’?]
  • How can they best learn [based on their specific needs, talents, learning styles]?
  • What is needed to facilitate this? [what technology, what kind of facilitators or teachers, buildings etc]
  • How can this be scaled, so that everybody has access to (this new type of) Education?
  • How can it be financed? [Are subsidies needed, or can it be viable on its own? Can 3rd parties provide a solution?]
  • How can it be quickly implemented/ rolled out? [Do national governments need to approve, which can take years, or can it be done differently?]
  • How can quality be assured? [Do we need standardized tests, can you assess differently? Is this still necessary, do the results speak for itself?]

I want to create a ‘charter’ from this, a 1- or 2-pager with starting points. These will become my ‘stick in the ground’, my compass direction for the coming years. It will also help to concentrate all the energy and initiatives – if we all look at the same thing and are not distracted by semantics, we can make this bigger and bigger. It also helps to spread the message if it is clear, compact and achievable.

I will ask the questions above to several people and groups around me, curious to see if these views will differ or not.

Please also share your own thoughts, in the comments below, by mail, through Facebook, Twitter or any other channel that suits you.