Dutch education is in crisis. International research, reports from the Norwegian Education Authority and observations from older teachers paint the picture of a decades-long drop in standards. Literacy has fallen from world top to international average in twenty years. Our young people will become the first generation of Dutch people in modern history to be less literate than the previous one.
The ranking of the Pisa survey, which compares 15-year-olds in 35 OECD countries, is currently led by East Asian countries. The frontrunner is China, where research was limited to the rich coastal provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong. These are not representative of China as a whole, and their successes cannot simply be replicated elsewhere – if only because 15-year-olds were studying an average of 57 hours a week at the time of the survey. We don’t want to do that to our Dutch teenagers.
Still, we can learn a lot from China – especially from the cultural awareness of Chinese education reformers. Specifically: from their attempts to correct excessive tendencies of their own culture if they are harmful to education.
For a century and a half in China, educational reforms have been one big battle with its own educational culture, which is unusually old and inspiring, but which is also blamed for everything. In the early twentieth century, Chinese reformers placed the lack of education in the light of broader cultural problems. For students to endlessly block grades and ancient Confucian texts would be part of an authoritarian culture with no room for creative education and citizenship. Everything had to be turned upside down. In 1905, the Chinese Empire even abolished its competitive Confucian state examination, which had served as the sacred core of Chinese civilization for over a thousand years.
We must not idealize the criticism of the time: it often went too far and did not do justice to all the strengths of China’s traditions. But she was definitely reflective. And she left behind a critical tradition that extends to the present day. Many Chinese are full of criticism of the endless grind and competitiveness that is so typical of education in post-Confucian East Asia. They often recognize the cultural excesses they criticize even in themselves. Then they discover to their horror that they themselves are contributing to the madness by worrying about their own exam results or their children’s.
The guidance industry
The Chinese government is also critical of the excessive competitiveness and last year slowed down the tutoring industry to ease the pressure. A race between families had developed, with evenings and weekends packed with tutoring. This is how, until recently, an average of 57 study hours per week was achieved. Hopefully Chinese teenagers can now get some rest.
At first glance, Chinese history has little to do with the Netherlands. The Netherlands has very different educational problems and a very different culture. In some aspects, China and the Netherlands are even opposites. For example, in the international comparative cultural indices of Geert Hofstede and Erin Meyer, the Netherlands and China are on opposite sides of the egalitarianism hierarchical spectrum. The Netherlands is, together with Denmark and Sweden, one of the most equal countries, while China is one of the very hierarchical countries.
Also read: How the Chinese kept their characters – and did not adopt the Western alphabet
This translates into education. In China, there is a large distance between teacher and student, students are not usually supposed to ask questions, and there are no discussions in class. How different the Netherlands is: Dutch teachers are welcoming and informal, and there are lots of consultations and group assignments. Students are often asked for their opinion during class, and many are willing to give it unsolicited. It offers many advantages.
In short, the egalitarian Netherlands seems culturally well equipped to excel. And it had a perfect starting position. A few decades ago, our country was still among the best in the world, certainly in reading comprehension. In fact, Holland was the king of education for most of the modern era. From the sixteenth century onwards, the Dutch territories had the highest literacy rate in the world. In the eighteenth century, 85 percent of the republic’s inhabitants could read and write—a percentage that almost every other country on earth, including China and most Western countries, did not reach until the twentieth century.
However, things are not going well now. Where did the recent drop in levels come from? The immediate causes are not mysterious: teacher shortages and overcrowding of classes. The OECD has found that of the 35 countries it examined, the Netherlands has the most disordered classes. The two problems play together. The crowds make it harder to onboard and retain new teachers. 23 percent drop out again in the first year. The Netherlands is a leader in teacher burnout. And because the remaining teachers have to cover larger groups, the classes are often too large, which in turn creates more crowds. An evil circle.
The ship is sinking
More complicated, however, are the underlying causes that started this vicious cycle. The wildest problem explanations go around. Some blame the lump sum and the growth of administrative layers: if the government gives governments a bag of money without budgeting the various cost items, it would encourage underfunding, all the more because administrators would misuse that bag. Other interpretations point to control problems from the state and argue that the education inspectorate must become more assertive. Still others argue that the government is too involved and point to the damage done by education reforms over the past thirty years.
Finally, it is good to point to inequality in opportunities as the great evil, and the longer and longer mixing of students as the good. The Education Council and Amsterdam education councilor Marjolein Moorman are campaigning for the undivided three-year first class because the weaker pupils would then be able to catch up with the better ones – which is a very hopeful thought, especially given that the drop in attainment extends to the higher school levels . . The whole ship sinks; does it make sense to just grab someone’s leg?
Of course, there need not be one true problem definition. Education has several problems at the same time. And there are many factors that contribute to the drop in levels.
Yet there is an elephant in the room that is not addressed: the cultural dimension. Cultural problems are for other countries, the Dutchman believes. In distant resorts – yes, there the Dutch find people who, because of their culture, mess things up in a characteristic way. But the pitying gaze does not often focus on one’s own. In the Netherlands, education can deteriorate for decades without it saying anything about who we are.
There must be a pleasant bustle during individual reading in the classroom: “Good reading instruction must also make noise”
But in a nutshell, the biggest problems in education fit with broad cultural movements. The declining reading skills of schoolchildren coincide with a wider reading among the parents’ generation and is therefore also a problem in the home situation. On the other hand, this reading belongs to a country where the VPRO programme Books disappeared from the air, the study of Dutch attracts almost no students and Dutch as the language of instruction is under pressure at the university.
And the overcrowded classes belong to a radicalized egalitarianism where authority is relatively weak, even in the classroom. The very pronounced tendency in the Netherlands to immediately find something for themselves has strengths as well as weaknesses.
Just because the big problems in our education have a cultural dimension doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. Rather, education is the place to repair cultural weaknesses and absorb excesses. If our young people can’t concentrate, read a little and don’t get enough discipline at home, then you have to work on it at school. Grab that bite.
The difficult part, however, is that the people who think critically about how Dutch education can be improved – from administrators, politicians and educators to teachers – are part of the culture from which the problems arise. People therefore often tend to lean on the wrong side: further radicalizing cultural excesses rather than curbing them.
How to improve education? The dominant instinct says: even more group assignments and opinion formation; even closer to the child’s experience; even more soft skills and less hard knowledge; even less pressure to perform. If, for mysterious reasons, the results are disappointing again, the ringing starts all over again.
An example is the new Dutch teaching method from the publisher Blink. This method, which presents itself as the ultimate remedy against reading, is on the rise in Dutch high schools, supported by a clever marketing campaign with Özcan Akyol as its figurehead. In the tasks, students are endlessly asked for their opinion or first impression. And when they read individually in class, students are allowed to choose whatever they want, free of hierarchical ideas about what is and isn’t literature. A starting point in Blink’s manifesto The new reading is that “students have a lot of freedom of choice” “when it comes to what they are allowed to read: fiction, non-fiction, (audio) books, magazines, graphic novels, cartoons, films, raps, blogs, websites and podcasts”. Because listening to raps and podcasts is also a form of reading, right?
Also read: The Norwegian Education Authority claims a lot, but substantiates little
There must be a pleasant bustle during individual reading in the classroom: “Good reading instruction must also make noise.” The students share their love of reading with their classmates. ah. So the OECD is warning that our education is suffering from overcrowded classrooms – and what’s your new concept? Noisy reading.
That you can reverse the drop in level by reinforcing the trends that have brought it about – that is an absurd argument. But that’s how you can get stuck in a dominant way of thinking. More of a good thing always seems to be the solution. Plato already wrote in State that societies therefore tend to lose their dominant character, their politeiaradicalization in a destructive way.
Counterbalancing is usually better than moving along, but requires self-reflection. For Chinese policy makers and educators, who live in a highly hierarchical, competitive educational culture, recognizing the needs of weaker students and not allowing competition to escalate is a challenge. The Dutch, internationally at the egalitarian extreme, should not lose sight of discipline and elevation – the vertical dimension of education and personal growth.