A new kind of school in Roermond: Agora

A few days ago, the Studyflow development team visited the Agora College in Roermond.

Waking up so early was hard, but turned out to be very worthwhile: I’ve never encountered a school so amazing. We wanted to be there before 9:00, in order to attend the Dagstaart (start of the day): some sort of scrum standup, or so we were told.

Immediately upon arrival at Niekée College, where Agora is located, we understood that it was not an ordinary place: we always pictured a school as just a building with a hallway, some classrooms and (hopefully) a gym or two. Instead, we entered this:

Niekée College in Roermond

One of the teachers of Agora, Rob Houben, welcomed us and we immediately jumped in one of their classrooms, for the Dagstaart.

The classroom didn’t feel like a classroom, but more of a co-working space: a bunch of chairs and desks here and there, with no particular order, all the kids with their own Chromebooks and a huge TV for presentations. Our office in Amsterdam doesn’t look very different than this.

Rob asked the pupils to spend 10 minutes preparing their “challenges”, figuring out tasks for today associated with them and finally be able to present to the whole class their plan for today, to show that they have enough to do.

With the kids busy thinking and writing down their goals, we realised that they were not even the same age: this class had children ranging from 12 till 16 year old, boys and girls, with different levels of schools (VMBO, HAVO and Gymnasium; think of them as professional, technical and lyceum level). It struck me as a somewhat realistic representation of the society, with people of different ages and backgrounds mixed, coming together to achieve their own goals, helping each other.

A girl took the first slot: she is interested in psychology and wanted to learn a bit more about that, and her mother recommended her to have a career in physiotherapy, so she will be looking into that as well. From her log of activities it was showing that she had already did some research about those topics: there was a small cart about foam rollers in the “Done” column of his board. For each of these goals, she wrote down a start date and an end date, effectively “time-boxing” these tasks. The second pupil to take the stage was going to move to Spain with her family and had two tasks, “learning Spanish politics” and “language”. Because the latter was very non-descriptive and without a clear end in sight, a fellow student stepped in and recommended her to break it down in small, achievable subtasks. A few more children gave their presentations, and their goal could not be more different: learn horse-riding, improve their math skills, and so on.

Throughout the presentations, their teacher Rob kept engaging the pupils, asking questions around, such as “do you think that this goal is achievable in this time span?”. The impression was that, despite talking about individual challenges, the whole class was participating into the planning.

As the pupils were dismissed (it was time to work on the goals, after all), we started walking down the corridors of this unconventional place. A girl was playing guitar sitting in the corridor, another one was painting in a small atelier in the middle of the hallway.
Rob gave us a bit of a backstory for Niekée College (whose motto is Albert Einstein’s quote “Imagination is far more important than knowledge”), where it all began:

Around ten years ago, it was decided that a new kind of school was to be created. A school in which children could boost their creativity. So eventually this building happened. And they didn’t ask teachers. They said that when they ask teachers about how a school should look, they only get boring answers. So they ignored the teachers… and we got this building. I think they were right, after all.

In the main hallway, a climbing wall stands out: a few students are allowed to teach and help others climb. If they want to do so, they can.
 
This definitely doesn’t feel like a school. Too relaxed, too fun. And that is precisely the point, we are told.

We finally moved to a different room which is also sometimes rented as co-working space for Seats2Meet. Again, something quite unconventional about this place.

“If you wanted to come and work at Niekée College — continues Rob — they asked you, as a teacher, to deliver the program in 75% of the normal time. The remaining 25% of the time is for students to be creative”. Something akin the “20% time" rule that Google had some years ago, which brought them many cool products. The whole idea of Niekée College, and Agora in particular, is to actually let go of all the control that a teacher usually has on the activities of the students. To trust them with their own education.

After the successful experiment of Niekée college, a couple of years ago, they decided to up the level: to devise a school with no subjects, no tests, no lessons. A school in which students learn how to learn and can use it throughout their life. We started with 30 students, and have doubled every year since.

Students are free to do whatever they want to do, after a coach agrees with their plan, which happens basically every time. The teachers even call themselves coaches, because they don’t “teach” to the students, they strive to not tell them anything. The students have to learn themselves, any way they can. Coaches are there just to ask the right questions, to steer the research of the students in the right direction, to provide ideas and opportunities for their development. Even when they get stuck and don’t know how to proceed, the coach only asks them questions like “how do you think you can retrieve that information?”. By just giving pragmatical advice, the students are always encouraged to think for themselves. No Deus ex machina in their learning process.

We did not fully understand this way of teaching, because our thinking is very coupled with our idea of school as a place in which “truth” is told. We trust teachers to give correct information to student. If we take that away and let students learn by themselves, by Googling and browsing Wikipedia, wouldn’t they be exposed to a whole lot of questionable research? What if they stumble upon Flat Earth Society and take their information for truth? What if, researching the Shoah they find negationists’ websites? In a world which, in the last few months, politics has been dominated by post-truth, that is certainly a worrying question.

Rob doesn’t seem too worried, however. “It’s all part of the learning process. Sure, we could tell them anything they need to know, like schools traditionally do, but we strive at teaching that learning does not require school. When they graduate, they won’t have an established system to tell them about the world. They will have the tools that they have right now, so they better be educated at using them”.

Let’s assume a 12 year old is always satisfied with the first thing he finds about a certain topic and stumbles upon the Flat Earth Society. He will then include their information in his report”. Then it’s my role as a coach to ask him whether he thinks that opinions are founded, and whether he looked for more sources. You know, there are many levels of finding sources and providing citations. There is also a learning process there and we don’t assume the kids to be able to do everything at the very beginning.

Naturally that the internet is one of the most important tools that they use in their research for knowledge, but we are told that pupils tend to favour “network knowledge”. Because all the learning at Agora is public, every student can see what everybody else is doing at the moment. Furthermore, they are also aware of the profession of everybody’s parents. They often work by continuously asking themselves “which expert could I ask this to?”. Learning is framed more as a social process.

Rob gave us such an example: “A student was really interested in how the atomic bomb works. He knew that a fellow student’s mother was a science teacher in another school, so he arranged to talk with her. Unfortunately, she could not provide him with all the knowledge he wanted, so he figured out that a university nearby had a sort of open-day, where the general public could go and ask questions to professors. So asked his coach for permission and took a day off school”.

By doing so, the kids are taught many things: they can learn anything they want if they put effort into it, and that often in life it’s the matter of knowing the right people for the job. So the pupils are encouraged to expand their social graph, a trend which is quite contrarian to what is becoming the norm: social isolation through technology.

We are told about a student who was very interested in the Roman Empire. He learned a lot about that by simply watching hundreds of hours of online lessons. At the end of the year, he built a ballista! And at a sort of “fair” day, a parent approached him saying “Hey, that’s very cool. Some time ago I built a trebuchet!” and then proceeded to explain to him the faults in his designs. More tension was required in the hanks, in order to fire the bolt more effectively, and so on.

Coaching high-school students in building an application

And also our presence there was as experts in building applications: the students at Agora use Studyflow for Rekenen and Taal (they admit that they haven’t figured out a better way of teaching the basics of arithmetics and language), so they brought us in when a group of students wanted to learn how to build an app.

Learning the Agora way is quite structured still: everything that a student does has to be encoded in practical and achievable tasks (a nice hint at Scrum), with a tangible footprint: the outcome of the task must be something concrete (either a report, a video, etc.). This footprint serves a dual role: firstly, enables the coach to help the student assess the completion of the task, and secondly provides some data for other students to start from. Each material in the footprint has to be presented in a way that informs, so everybody else can benefit from it. As if every kid was encouraged to write a small Wikipedia article about the topic he just researched.

With such freedom in doing what they feel like doing, a student spends the first couple of their high school years learning freely. Around the third year, they spontaneously start looking into what is necessary for the national exam.

Yikes, exams. But after all, Agora is an officially recognised school, so it has to adhere to the national standards. And exams, flawed as they may be, are probably going to be there for the foreseeable future. I’m not necessarily against an idea of having a standard that each pupil has to have achieved, in order to start his “adult life”. But in all honesty, after feeling the sense of freedom that transpires through the Agora school, I’m starting to wonder whether they are superfluous, or can be majorly reworked.

In the Netherlands, or so I am told, a student can obtain the high school diploma in two ways:

  1. with an exam that normally occurs at the end of the last year and tests all subjects (the traditional way);
  2. with a separate examination for each subject. Diploma is awarded when enough exams are passed.

Guess which system Agora uses? Yes, the second, more flexible-one. Preparing each subject individually allows the student to completely self-manage their studies within the whole high school years: in the third year they might be already well prepared in English because, let’s assume, they want to be able to read Harry Potter in the original language. Then they can already attend the English exam, allowing them to have more time for the other subjects in the next years.

Us visting their “classroom”.

This system sounds quite great, and we wonder why it is not adopted by more schools. Rob confesses that this way of examining is quite expensive, which is the main reason why a school, often with an impossibly tight budget, does not use it. After all, each student needs to be prepared individually, which of course costs more than preparing many students at once.

But the Agora method seems to be also incredibly effective at preparing kids for the exam:

The government has some official documents about high school exams: for every subject there is a very formal list of tasks that students should be able to do at the end of their high school. The truth is that this document is very often unknown to teacher themselves, who only roughly know what the “program” is. But our students go and find these documents themselves because they want to be sure they can pass the exam.

So, in order to facilitate this self-assessment, Agora is now writing these official documents in a language a bit less formal and more understandable by their students.

Open Universiteit made a study last year, and the results are that the students of Agora are so motivated and such great learners that they are able to complete any course (what normally takes other schools the whole 5 years) in a single year. Rob is not so sure about such a short timespan, because students continuously learn throughout all their years at Agora, even though it does not look like they are making progress toward a specific subject. Their learning is so “horizontal” that one fails to see that they are learning about every subject, all the times. Regardless of the amount of time they need to prepare a course, one thing is sure: Agora students are very motivated and capable at learning by themselves.

I cannot be certainly sure that this type of education is for everyone: after all, Agora actively selects the children that participates to this crazy experiment on education. Speaking from experience, everyone learns a bit differently and there are people who thrive with such freedom, and people that perform better when some structure is externally provided. But then again, what if this people are like this because of earlier education? What if at home they are used to just obey, rather than to learn from their mistakes? These questions open a whole different can of worms about parenting and pedagogy, which is not for now. The only thing that I wonder is that whether my opinions about this can be blown away in the same way that I was when visiting Agora, when seeing that entrusting education to the children themselves, letting go of all these ideas that “we know what’s good for them” can help them thrive.

I genuinely think that this could be the future of education, where we simply teach to have an open mind and leave space for the future. A place for fostering individual talents, by leveraging what we humans are best at: being a community, and help each other thrive.

Visiting this school left us with the impression that this could be the future of education. In a world moving at such a fast pace, the type of education of Agora feels really like having an open minded for what it could be, rather than just focusing for what the world is. A place for fostering individual talent, leveraging the help of the whole community.