A truly free school

18th April 2014 at 01:00
Steve Jobs Schools don't have lessons, terms or timetables. What they do have is unstructured study time and an abundance of iPads. Adi Bloom investigates a Dutch movement providing a radical alternative

` There's only one teacher for all this area," says Tijl Rood, sweeping his hand around the school's central atrium. "People don't believe how quiet it is, with all these children here."

There are around 20 or 30 desks. At most times of the day, the seats are filled with students, all silently working on their iPads. "Of course, if the teacher isn't there then immediately they all start playing Slice It!" he adds.

Slice It! is a computer game that involves cutting geometrical shapes into pieces of equal sizes. Rood pauses. "It's actually quite educational if you think about it. Angry Birds is, too. But they can learn those skills at home. It's not allowed here."

He is standing in the open-plan centre of the Steve Jobs School in the Dutch town of Almere, roughly 40 minutes' drive from central Amsterdam. The Almere primary is one of seven Steve Jobs Schools that opened in the Netherlands at the start of this academic year.

There is no official Apple connection or sponsorship. But every student has an iPad and the aim, in the spirit of Steve Jobs, is to create a form of education that matches the requirements and technology of the 21st century.

So out go lessons, classrooms, year groups, timetables, a structured day, terms and official holidays: almost everything, in fact, that one associates with school. In their place are iPads for every child, with an app that provides an individual learning schedule. This includes "workshops" in specific subjects - the closest that the Steve Jobs Schools come to traditional lessons. But there is also copious free learning time, during which students can learn about whatever they want.

Around the Almere school's central atrium are various classrooms, each with windows decorated in bold colours. "This is the nature classroom," Rood says. "And this is geography and history. And this is maths."

In the first classroom, children sit at tables using iPads in bright rubber holders. A teacher bends over and looks at the students as they work.

A seven-year-old boy called Julius opens an app on his iPad and his schedule appears. "My spelling isn't very good," he says, pointing to a mandatory literacy workshop in the morning. But after that, his day is made up entirely of free study periods.

"He can go into whatever subject room he wants," Rood says. "No one checks on him. When you reach the end of a level on a program, you take a screen grab to prove that you've done it."

System upgrade

The system was developed by Dutch entrepreneur Maurice de Hond, working alongside education and technology specialists. De Hond has been married three times; there is an age gap of roughly 30 years between his children. When he took his youngest daughter to look around his local primary school, however, he found that little had changed since his oldest son was a student. "This place is a museum," de Hond said, shocked.

"If you don't like it, go and set up your own," the school leader retorted. And so he did. The Dutch education system allows for independently run, publicly funded schools, along similar lines to British free schools. De Hond therefore established O4NT (which stands for Onderwijs voor een Nieuwe Tijd, or Education for a New Era), the company behind all seven Steve Jobs Schools.

"In Holland, we've always been open to new types of education," says Rood, one of a handful of volunteers who constitute O4NT. "Montessori and Steiner are big here."

Almere teacher Yvonne Kieft adds: "I think that children really like to learn in a way they choose themselves and not because something is on page 14 in their arithmetic books. You're learning because it's useful for you. You want to learn it."

Kieft speaks with the zeal of the recent convert. But the risks are obvious, particularly when one is dealing with primary school children: a student might spend all day reading or studying art and allow no time at all for learning fractions or the rules of punctuation. "I don't like it, I don't want it, I don't need it?" Kieft says. "That happens, of course."

Every six weeks, therefore, teachers sit down with children to outline learning goals and to recommend particular workshops. Every second meeting is also attended by the children's parents.

The teachers, meanwhile, attempt to persuade children to study subjects outside of their immediate areas of interest. Recently, for example, Almere students were taken on a tour of the local area and then asked to write an essay describing what they had seen.

"Some forgot to use capital letters or full stops and commas," Kieft says. "Then they find other children can't read what they're writing. That's a way of bringing children to the idea of something being useful. You have to learn punctuation because otherwise people won't be able to read your writing."

Kieft is the information communications technology coordinator for the school, a role that increased significantly with the change to the new system. "The children do very strange things with the iPads," she says. "They remove all the apps that we put on them and put their own apps on it. I have about five iPads every day that need attention."

This, she adds quickly, is her own fault: she needs to timetable more workshops on proper iPad care. "It's like hanging your coat on a hook and not leaving it on the ground," she says. "If you don't say anything to children they will leave it on the ground, because it doesn't mean anything to them that people walk on their coat.

"So you've got to teach them right from the start. Make it clear to them how expensive it is - what other things you can buy for E250 [pound;210] - so they realise. Right now they think, `You just gave me a nice gift', and that's it."

Rood wanders into the science classroom. Two children are on the floor building something from Meccano. He nods approvingly. Elsewhere, a group is drawing pink hearts on pieces of card. "I would send them to the other classroom," he says, sharply. "Those children are just making a drawing for daddy. That's very nice and useful, but it's not science. They should be doing it in the other classroom."

He approaches Monique, a seven-year-old in pink leggings and sequinned trainers, who is working on her iPad. He asks her why she is in the science classroom rather than the quiet study area. She thinks about this for a while. "I'd rather be here with my friends," she says.

Ten more Steve Jobs Schools will open in the Netherlands soon, and Rood will head one of them. His will be truer to the original O4NT philosophy than the existing schools, he says. For example, while all Steve Jobs Schools are open between 8am and 6pm, the teachers in Almere only work regular school hours; after that, childcare staff take over. At Rood's school, teaching staff will work in shifts throughout the day. This means that if children want to continue working beyond the end of the official school day, they will be able to do so.

Time for troubleshooting

There are no terms at the schools and staff are present 51 weeks of the year. Parents are therefore able to take holidays whenever they choose. The schools with extended hours will allow for even greater flexibility: if children work particularly long school days, they will complete their required hours of schooling in a shorter period than usual. "Then, if parents want to take their children to Sri Lanka for three months, they can do that," Rood says.

The new way of doing things, Kieft admits, proved too much for a small number of parents. "There's a regular school on the site as well," she says. "Parents could choose to send their children to a regular class or to a Steve Jobs class."

Still holding her iPad, Monique walks to the classroom door. Turning to Rood, she beckons him to follow her, then leads him across the atrium and round a corner.

Here, hidden from view, is another classroom. Inside, a teacher has handed out worksheets and children are filling them in. There is not an iPad in view. Rood asks Monique whether these children are jealous of their Steve Jobs peers. She shrugs: "We only see them at break time."

Several of the Steve Jobs Schools are in low-income areas. At the school in Amsterdam, children are not allowed to take their iPads home in case they are stolen. But the new system may help to change these demographics: in the north of the Netherlands, for example, children from wealthier families have begun travelling to the low-income area where the Steve Jobs School is located. And Kieft knows of some children who cycle half an hour to and from her school each day, purely in order to get a Steve Jobs education.

Unsurprisingly in a new operating system, bugs appear from time to time, necessitating an upgrade. Kieft, for example, complains that children often hold their iPads on their laps so that teachers cannot see their work. Rood counters by pointing out that, ergonomically, that might be the healthier way to work. They conclude that the school should hold a teachers' workshop on ergonomics.

"This is what's nice - because it's new, we have a lot of discussions," Kieft says. She pauses. "Last year, I decided to stop my profession. I decided, `I don't want to teach any more.' I wasn't working for the children, I was working for the inspection. I wasn't teaching them things, I was teaching them to pass tests.

"This year, even when we're complaining about things not working the way we want them to work, that doesn't prevent us being enthusiastic. The children are happy to see me for workshops. They say, `Hello, teacher. What are we going to do?' It's creative. It's inventive. Everyone is enthusiastic."

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