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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

In the Netherlands / Networks for Modernizing Secondary Schools

In response to government-required restructuring, Dutch secondary schools and universities are working hand-in-hand to reform secondary education.

On Thursday afternoons, teachers from different schools meet to exchange experiences, reflect on their practice, and produce educational materials. Because they have been doing this for years, they know one another, they know one another's schools, and they know how they can help one another. Together, they form a community of learners.
Since 1988, the Center for Professional Development in Education at the University of Amsterdam has collaborated with 20 schools to create the Upper Secondary Education School Network. Schools learn from one another, analyze one another's practice, and develop various initiatives. Teacher educators from the University stimulate and structure this interchange, working together with teachers on action research and bringing expertise to the participating schools.
The collaboration of schools in networks is increasingly regarded as an important means for modernizing education in the Netherlands. Nearly 70 percent of the 450 Dutch schools for upper secondary education participate in similar networks, of which ours is the oldest and largest. We have published a best-selling book called Networking on Upper Secondary Education (Veugelers and Zijlstra 1995b), and the Dutch government recently awarded us the Athena Prize for the best network in secondary education. Here we outline the methods and development of our network and show why schools and universities in the Netherlands choose this approach to modernizing their upper secondary schools.

The Impetus for Change

Upper secondary education in the Netherlands consists of pre-university education and senior general education. Pre-university education, for ages 15-18, is a prerequisite for university study; senior general education, for ages 15-17, usually leads to higher vocational education. The final examination in part determines entrance into all higher education.
The Dutch government has recently subjected upper secondary education to a restructuring initiative. This restructuring must provide an answer to changes we see in students, who are at the same time more independent and shrewder about choosing educational options. Schools must demonstrate effectiveness in caring for students and in transferring cultural capital to their students. In addition, higher education requires that secondary education better prepare students for university study.
Because upper secondary education must change its methodology to help students become more active learners, schools are becoming more autonomous in determining their approach to education and in choosing the teaching methods they will use. These changes in education can develop in one of two directions: the strong-framed curriculum (where students follow predetermined paths) or the weak-framed curriculum (where meaningful learning occurs on real problems). We work with schools that want to develop the weak-framed curriculum, by stimulating self-regulated learning, constructive classrooms, and critical thinking, sometimes in the context of a critical pedagogy (Veugelers 1996).

Schools Learn from Other Schools

Three years ago, one of the schools in our network developed a planning format to give students a clearer idea about teachers' expectations, ways to achieve their goals, and in what time frame. Impressed with this format, other schools modified the document to fit their needs. Two years later, the first school examined the changes and the experiences of the other schools and, as a result, adapted some of the changes for their students. We have seen similar processes for collaboration on teaching methodology and on tutoring and monitoring of students. By working together, teachers from different schools are creating new educational approaches.
Within the limits of government regulations and a national curriculum, each school may organize its education as it sees fit. Schools are receiving more responsibility for their financial affairs, for differentiation in the tasks of their staff, and for the organization and structuring of education. Schools differ in the amount of time spent teaching, tutoring, and counseling; the connections between content areas; special programs offered; and educational philosophy. In developing their own approach to education, schools express their unique identity. Especially in large cities, each school develops its own educational profile in order to attract a certain population of pupils.
As schools consider new challenges, the Center for Professional Development in Education tries to help them find solutions. But we cannot provide uniform models that will fit all schools. We emphasize learning from one another, not with the idea that schools can copy solutions, but because they can adapt what they learn to their particular needs.

How the Network Operates

Each school in the network has a project team whose task is to bring about reforms in the upper grades of secondary education. The team consists of a school project leader, who is a member of the school's senior management team, and at least three school staff members. The team functions as a consultative and development group and often organizes workshops for the other staff at the school.
Project leaders meet together across schools, as do members of the school project teams. The teams participate in thematic groups, which meet every five weeks on six themes: profiles (subject combinations available to students, such as "science and health" or "culture and society" and orientation to higher education); study load and school organization; independent learning; thinking skills; interface between lower and upper secondary education; and identity development of the student and school. The center coordinates and supervises the network and provides leaders for the thematic groups. Some of our staff work only at the university; others work primarily at one of the schools.
In the network, professional development and school development go hand-in-hand. Professional development helps schools work for their own development and shape their own profile. Teacher educators do not tell schools what to do, however; rather, they carry out analyses and offer alternatives, while schools determine their own goals and course of action. More than 80 teachers and school administrators invest in their own professional development as they work on school development through the network. Participants view the network as a project that belongs to everyone—schools and university together.
Each school has developed its own educational structure, interpretation of the formal curriculum, methodology, and tutoring system, which we explore in network meetings. By discussing the different approaches, we hope to discover the educational views that transcend each school's choices, especially as they relate to the methods that teachers use.

Functions of the Network

Networks are becoming popular instruments for both professional development and school development. In Canada, Fullan (1991) describes networks as a school development instrument, using the term "learning consortium"; in Great Britain, educators use networks for professional development (Veugelers and Zijlstra 1995a). In presenting an overall picture of experiences in the United States, Lieberman and McLaughlin (1992) suggest the following functions of a network: a new form of collegiality; a vehicle for broadening educational perspectives; an opportunity for teachers to be both learners and partners in the construction of knowledge; and a legitimate professional voice for teachers.
  1. Interpretation of government policies. Government policies have consequences for schools as organizations, as well as for teaching materials, didactic methods, and teacher and student behavior. Discussions among teachers from different schools provide greater insight into these consequences and the various possibilities for restructuring education and implementing policy.
  2. Influencing government policies. A network of schools can also try to influence government policies by giving feedback as a group, indicating developments that need adjustment and showing the implications of policies for practice. Teacher educators produce working papers, in mutual agreement with the schools. Network participants and government representatives then discuss these papers at network meetings. Recently, for example, the Secretary of State for Education invited the network to discuss with her our ideas about student assessment.
  3. Learning from others' experiences. In our view, learning from one another is the most important difference between professional development in networks and other forms of professional development. Schools can benefit from others' experiences as they restructure the school organization, the curriculum, and the teaching methodology. In presenting their educational practices and reflecting on other participants' comments, teachers become more aware of the rationale behind their choices. They also learn a great deal by coherently presenting their own experiences to their colleagues: they must explain how and why they approach certain issues and how they shape teaching activities.
  4. Tapping into expertise. One of the advantages of a network is the opportunity to know staff from other schools. Participants identify those they can call for their questions and problems or those with whom they can collaborate on new ideas. A participating school may invite expertise from another school, from the Center for Professional Development in Education, or from experts outside the network. These resource persons may become involved as seminar contributors, special guests, or temporary participants in an educational committee or school project team.
  5. Developing new educational approaches and materials. In the thematic groups, participants create products other schools can use. These products include teaching materials, organizational models, detailed analyses of educational approaches, training courses for teacher teams, and descriptions of innovation processes. Participants may produce guidebooks, construct curriculum timetables, bring coherence to the teaching of skills, or work to change the moral climate in school. For example, one group uses Dimensions of Learning (Marzano 1992) to teach critical thinking skills.
  6. Creating new initiatives. Universities and secondary schools become partners in initial teacher education, professional development, and research, as well as in helping students make the transition from upper secondary education to university. In a true partnership, both schools and university can benefit from the collaboration and can develop new initiatives together. (For example, our network has generated a program in which upper secondary students attend lectures at the university.) Schools collaborate intensively with the University of Amsterdam, but they also often "go shopping" to other centers for professional development, as they do not have an exclusive contract with our center.

Creating a Successful Network

Networks must develop gradually. It is not sufficient to put schools together and call them a network. Educators need the opportunity to get to know one another in an atmosphere of mutual confidence. As schools bring in their own experiences, examples, and expertise, participants need to feel assured that others will handle their contributions with care. This means that all must work together in a spirit of give-and-take to create the network and make changes as they see fit.
It is important that teacher educators find a balance between responding to schools' needs and wishes and offering their contributions as outside experts. In some Dutch networks, participants from the schools determine the content and methods used. We believe that teacher educators should play a guiding role in determining the content of activities and in offering alternatives, even though the network depends mainly on those who represent the schools. School representatives, some of whom are senior school administrators, bear the responsibility for school development. They participate in network meetings and thematic groups, then return to their schools to hold dialogues with the rest of the school staff. Teacher educators can assist in this process. The driving force must be the collaboration of professionals, in which the voices of teachers and school administrators are most significant.
Participants from the schools speak positively about their experiences in the network. One indication of success is their level of participation: Of the original 20 schools, 15 still participate, and there is much continuity among the participants. When more schools wanted to join the network, we created a new group of 20 schools.
Our eight-year collaboration with schools has offered participants the chance to become acquainted with other organizational forms and other ways of teaching. Teachers have learned that schools have many choices. By coming to understand the educational views behind these choices, they can consider alternative ways of educating students. In the network, teachers describe and clarify their own approach, and through the reactions of others, obtain feedback to help modernize further. As teachers work on their professional development, schools become learning organizations. By participating in a network, teacher educators and secondary school staff get a broader view of education and the feeling of belonging to an educational community.

Fullan, M. (1991). The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Marzano, R. J. (1992). A Different Kind of Classroom: Teaching with Dimensions of Learning. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Lieberman, A., and M. W. McLaughlin. (May 1992). "Networks for Educational Change: Powerful and Problematic." Phi Delta Kappan: 73, 9: 673-677.

Veugelers, W. (in press). "Teaching Values and Critical Thinking." Taboo, The Journal of Culture and Education: 111.

Veugelers, W., and H. Zijlstra. (1995a). "Learning Together: In-Service Education in Networks of Schools." British Journal of In-Service Education 21, 1, 37-48.

Veugelers, W., and H. Zijlstra. (1995b). Networking in Upper Secondary Education. Leuven/Apeldoorn, Garant.

Wiel Veugelers has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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