'Setting the Course, Establishing Frameworks, Engaging Employees, and Maintaining Momentum'

Flexibilization in Education: COG-mbo’s Successful Approach

COG-mbo Case Story: Cora Vinke, Director of Dulon College, and responsible for the flexibilization of education within COG-mbo, in conversation with Jasmijn Wijn, Advisor at Turner Education, about the strategic assignment.

The Christian Education Group (COG) is undergoing a challenging educational transformation. The aim is to provide tools for flexibilizing vocational education, enabling students to choose “their own path and destination.” This aligns with the government’s directive for increased flexibility in education. The approach involves breaking down the curriculum into modules and creating personalized learning paths for students. But who are these students, what do they need, what does this require from our organization, and what are the initial steps we take? Despite the complexity of the task, a gradual, fundamental change has taken place, leading to new insights, increased cohesion among stakeholders, and a kick-start to implementing the advice.

1. What was the issue for which Turner was engaged? And what made it complicated?

There is a mandate for vocational education in the Netherlands to become more flexible, providing students with the opportunity to extract the most from their education. “Choose your own path and destination,” wrote Minister Dijkgraaf recently in a letter encouraging high school students to consider vocational education. This clear directive from the government indicates the need for increased flexibility in education.

The ambition to flexibilize is significant for Cora Vinke, Director of Dulon College. Representing COG in the Vallei and Gelderland-Midden region, she is committed to realizing the Education Code, the strategic direction of COG-mbo. One of the ambitions of the Education Code is the flexibilization of education. “So far, our programs have had the autonomy to develop education. Setting up different student journeys gave us insights into the flexibilization needs of various student groups,” says Vinke. Before the project with Turner, level 1 and 2 programs had already been instructed to structure the entire curriculum in blocks of 5 or 10 weeks. “Standardize first, then flexibilize. It sounds simple, but it’s not. An important consideration is whether each module should be standalone or if modules should connect. Then you face the challenge of how to stack all these individual blocks, the modules,” Vinke continues. “Which systems are involved? What kind of students attend our school, and what is their expected need for flexibilization? And what does this mean for our school and how does it align with our ambition?” That was the specific task I presented, and Turner advisor Jasmijn Wijn assisted with it. Ultimately, four personas were created, representing potential students. A working group with representation from all schools thought about this in various meetings.

“Identifying and pre-sorting in making choices were part of the assignment. There are various ways to flexibilize,” adds Wijn. “Do students want to accelerate or decelerate? Do they want to determine the sequence of modules themselves, do they want to deepen or broaden? And what choices need to be made regarding education, examination, study guidance, and education logistics? As a working group, we advised the Education Code Steering Group on the desired focus on flexibilization and the principles needed to make choices contributing to the realization of the long-term goal.”

"Standardize first, then flexibilize."

2. What led to the breakthrough? In terms of content, change management, and/or project management?

Vinke cannot point to a clearly defined breakthrough but rather a gradual yet fundamental change. “I think the trajectory was quite robust in the end. The culture of the three schools differs; they all have slightly different starting situations with different desires. Ultimately, it helped to stick to the initial principles. That has remained a common thread throughout this process.”

 

Maintaining the pace prevented insights from diluting. “We had a work session every two weeks,” Vinke explains. And they were not optional: “Everyone is present, you participate, and you also do your homework. It was strict.” Jasmijn adds, “There was also a lot of laughter, of course. But everyone participated, contributing from the culture and student population of their own location. So, it worked.”

“The working group also walked within the schools and talked to students, asking, ‘What do you need?'” Vinke says. “How do you orient yourself on a course? How would you like to structure your education? What do you expect from us as a school? It provided a lot of insight by having the working group literally go through the student journey and sketching out these journeys.”

“One of the most valuable moments in this process, for me, was the projects where we had conversations with students in student arenas,” Wijn continues. “We invited a few students for each persona who could identify with that persona in terms of education, level, and direction. These students then, guided by someone from the working group, discussed the learning path, needs, and desires. This resulted in a deepening and enrichment of the developed student routes. It was beautiful to see that the teachers from the working group heard their own students talk about what they would or would not like, wrote fervently, and thought: we can pick this up tomorrow! And there was understanding for the necessity and desire for flexibilization.” Vinke adds, “As a teacher, you know the current learning path, but when you put yourself in the student’s shoes, you think: oh, maybe we can handle some things differently. Those are valuable outcomes.”

3. How was the execution achieved?

“The collaboration with Turner was good,” Vinke asserts. “I became aware of the possibilities, routes, and consequences different paths could have. I sometimes thought: how many more questions are there? It’s a journey, and each time you reach a crossroads, there might not be two, but sometimes seven choices. And for each of those, you have to think carefully. Are we doing it this way now? And if we do that, what does it mean? How does this still fit into the bigger picture?” Teachers, on the other hand, are usually quite practical in the process, but that can lead to frustration, and that’s what you want to avoid. “‘Just tell us, and we’ll do it. We’ll take that hurdle, I’ll fix it’ is often the hands-on attitude. But that’s actually navigating in the mist. We know a bit, then we stand still, and we have to orient ourselves to the next. That makes it difficult. Most people want to know where we’re going and what difficulties we have to overcome.”

Wijn picks up on the metaphor of navigating in the mist. “I can imagine that teachers are in a different boat. They don’t necessarily see the bigger picture yet, and that’s okay. They probably think: I teach, what does flexibilization mean for me and my students, and when can I start with this? When can I inform my students about this? Meanwhile, the bigger boat, the organization as a whole, has to think about what it means for education logistics, processes, systems, etc. It’s much more complex to organize that well. So, that bigger boat sometimes has to go left, then right, or a bit back to eventually reach the same endpoint. This can be a very opaque process for teachers. Or a very uninteresting process. This dilemma is often seen in educational institutions. It’s essential to set the course well, establish frameworks, involve employees, and at the same time, keep the momentum. We use the 20-80 rule for this. Those frameworks are genuinely important because they make visible what freedoms exist and prevent you from swaying from left to right (or not coming off the shore).”

"Setting the course, establishing frameworks, involving employees, and maintaining momentum."

“You are actually navigating in various ways,” summarizes Vinke. “We navigated ourselves to a certain point, after which I enlisted Turner’s help. Jasmijn Wijn from Turner acted as a kind of pilot, helping us navigate through the mist. Before I approached Turner, there was a lot of talking. It’s not that this is the first time I’ve guided an educational innovation, but this one is quite complex. That’s why I wanted someone from outside to help us with this. Wijn adds, ‘It’s not a problem that you don’t yet know the exact route. But you have to hold the compass yourself. It has to point north for everyone. Once you’ve made the basic choices, then you can make the difficult decisions.'”

4. Are there benefits for all stakeholders? For customers, shareholders, employees, management, and society?

Dulon College, Astrum College, and Technova College are vocational education institutions that differ significantly in structure and culture, presenting one of the biggest dilemmas, says Vinke. “How do you maintain the uniqueness of the locations while ensuring standardization? It should really be possible, but I still feel the most resistance there. It’s about constantly persuading people to show that it can really work.”

“I find it very nice that you placed a lot of trust and responsibility in the working group,” Wijn analyzes Vinke’s role. “You literally gave the working group the task to do this. To make choices, to create an advisory for the steering group, and to prepare for it. So, make choices, discuss it with each other, I trust you, but you have the mandate to do this. And they found that very exciting. The idea of ‘I stand behind you even if it goes wrong’ is what Cora Vinke conveyed to those involved. By showing and making them feel that trust and also giving them the responsibility and autonomy to work on it.”

5What was the most significant dilemma, and how did you deal with it?

“The whole process helped lift the fog for all involved parties,” explains Vinke. “Especially for the working group, but also for the steering group of the Education Code because it has become clear what it means and requires to flexibilize our education. Stakeholders have thought together, seen what happens in other expertise areas, learned from each other, looked beyond walls, and jointly made choices. This was experienced as very valuable.”

Additionally, insight into the student journey has yielded a lot. When you determine the order and pace of your education yourself, a lot changes. What frameworks are needed for education and examination, student guidance, and education logistics? Everyone has benefited from this translation. “The system is a significant factor, but what does it actually mean for how we structure and offer our education? Vocational education not only prepares for a profession, but we also have a significant role in shaping students. Student guidance is crucial. Because if you no longer follow your own education due to determining the order or pace of your education yourself, much changes: the group part, being part of one class. You are no longer in one class because you might operate in different classes. Students immediately mentioned this: I want to feel part of something. Then the question is how you organize that student guidance and group feeling.”

“What pleasantly surprised me is the cohesion achieved in the working group,” concludes Vinke. “I felt that what they produced was also theirs. The working group was critical: ‘Add one more word, remove one more word,’ but that made it theirs. Jasmijn Wijn managed to make the stakeholders truly feel ownership and now they have enough tools and direction to take this further and involve the rest of the school!”

"Stakeholders truly feel ownership and now they have enough tools and direction to take flexibilization further and involve the rest of the school!"

Cora Vinke, Director of Dulon College, and responsible for the flexibilization of education within COG-mbo and Jasmijn Wijn, advisor Turner Education

Cora Vinke

Director of Dulon College, and responsible for the flexibilization of education within COG-mbo

Jasmijn Wijn

Advisor Turner Education

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