In an era when uniformity and one-size-fits-all approaches have been challenged and replaced by a recognition of individuality, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the traditional paradigms of education are no longer working.
The mere realisation that each learner possesses a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and preferences has fueled a revolution in the way we approach education. Rob Houben is an educational leader, changemaker, and public speaker who was one of the first people to lead the personalised education revolution in 2015, when he got involved with a startup secondary school in the Netherlands called Agora.
Photo: Agora School
With only five colleagues and a handful of students, Rob and his team started working on transforming the government-funded traditional secondary school into an immersive learning environment that doesn’t have classrooms and doesn’t use timetables, curriculums, or even end-of-year exams. Focusing only on learning as opposed to teaching, the students are taught to manage their own learning process, starting with a simple question: What do you want to make, do, or learn? And whatever the answer is, they go from there.
Though there are no year groups, students at Agora range from 12 to 18 years old. The staff, or as Houben prefers to call them: the facilitators, are responsible for about 17 students each and are there to challenge and guide the kids’ exploration process and lead their educational journey towards success. With a passion for teaching, Rob insisted on immersing himself in the educational journey of the students and became a facilitator himself.
He recalls: “When Agora contacted me back then, they had already started working with students for a semester, and it wasn't really going well. In their approach, they eschewed traditional timetables and class divisions, yet they grappled with maintaining control over the evolving situation. Rather than appointing one official leader, we learned to be a complementary team. The person who knows best takes the lead but defers leadership to someone else when we all know it's in their sphere of expertise. Later, as we grew, to the outside world I became the official team lead, but I tried to stayed true to this principle as much as possible, because in my experience, it lets your staff feel appreciated and encourages them to perform at a higher level.”
Photo: Agora School
With nothing but a promise to the parents that their kids would graduate with a degree from Agora, both the school and the parents carved the path together for the very first time.
“We were very transparent with the parents that we had no idea what we were doing. We started with 34 learners and hired new facilitators, and we just started creating on the go. During parent meetings, I would personally raise challenges and openly talk about certain struggles, and to my surprise, I would have parents raising their hands and saying, “I’m an expert in this; I can help with that,” and so we grew not only as a school but also as a community. That network of people has helped stretch the horizons of these children and offer them a well-rounded learning experience.
“It takes a village to raise a child, not just a school.”
Houben’s passion for teaching and extensive knowledge of school management gave him the opportunity to develop a solution that teaches schools how to operate like Agora. Enter allLearners, a building blocks toolkit that provides education stakeholders with a new blueprint for innovative approaches to learning. Whether they’re schools that want to transform the way they work or education organisations that want to build new schools from scratch, the allLearners toolkit introduces a new language and approach that will help their clients discover, discuss, and devise new solutions in any context.
Photo: Casa Sula La Ecovilla
“The allLearners toolkit helps you design your school of the future. Within half an hour, you could see a shift in how teachers talk about their jobs and how their mindset and behaviour have changed. So, you can have your normal school and incorporate the allLearners building blocks into it to form the perfect backbone for a non-conventional school like Agora, Green School South Africa or Casa Sula in Costa Rica, where I’m working at the moment,” says Rob.
Built on the idea of creating circumstances where learners can develop, the Agora school model doesn’t have a classroom or exams. However, learners work within a coaching group consisting of a maximum of 17 other children of different ages and levels. In each coaching group, every learner has a personal workspace where they can do their silent work and/or collaborate with their peers on the subjects they like. With rooms to collaborate and have meetings in, silence rooms, and workspaces where learners can cook, do carpentry or metalwork, paint or program a robot, Houben says the biggest requirement for an Agora physical structure is a creative environment.
While the Netherlands don’t legislate how many subjects or exams a student must take within a school year, Agora and its founders created a work-around solution that fits into the system and the traditional education process without breaking any rules.
He adds: “I see the educational facility as a vast museum where kids can touch and experiment with everything.A 15-year-old taking a final exam shouldn’t have their head crammed full of biological facts; however, they should have enough knowledge to start acting like a biologist. If we can make that transition in education by not measuring knowledge using tests and exams but rather by nurturing each learner’s intrinsic motivation and interest and combining it with hands-on experience, then that would make a big difference. At Agora, we aim to find a subject that you love/ that interests you, and then our task is to stretch it to cover subjects that you’re not particularly interested in at the moment. So, you can't be just a biologist at our school. That's not possible – instead, you’ll add a lot of other knowledge and subjects on the way to becoming a biologist.
Photo: Agora School
I see kids who are stuck in the wrong place doing things that are below their mental level, and that defies the purpose of education; mass education does that. We need to create customised educational plans that suit the skills of each student.”
With over 30 Agora schools in the Netherlands, last year, 89 percent of the pupils at Agora earned their diploma at or above their expected level.