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“They expect a professor to stand in front of the class and give a lecture and if that doesn’t happen, they complain.” Nadine Engels knows from experience that students from abroad have very different expectations from teaching. The former head of the Department of Educational Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel is not complaining , however. “Four years ago we started with the idea of attracting about fifty international students over a period of ten years. We have already reached forty.”


Professor Engels has had a lengthy career at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. She started her career thirty years’ ago in the teacher education department of the Brussels university. Prior to that, she herself was a student at the university. This is undoubtedly why she places so much emphasis on free critical research in the educational sciences course. “Education is certainly not value-free,” she says. “Being a teacher is being a politician. You opt for a certain ideology - in the way you treat your students, by choosing to teach in a selective or adaptive manner.”


Does this approach mean that students of the international master in educational sciences experience problems once they return to their home country? She admits that this approach fits within ‘a certain political system’ and by this she means the norm here in Belgium.


Different views on education

“In China, but also closer to home, in Greece for example, the educational curriculum is laid down centrally and this even goes as far as prescribing the textbooks to be used in the classroom. But what can we do? Our educational sciences course is an academic programme. We follow the latest scientific developments very closely. And yes, this is often very different from what is understood by the word education in a large part of the world. Don’t forget that a bachelor of education is a kind of teacher training in many countries. Students who have been through this system have a very practical orientation. What we expect from them here is that they take a critical look at the subject, that they obtain a good knowledge of the material and on that basis develop their own vision and the ability to apply that to new situations. This calls for a major change, as rote learning is still the norm in many countries. We see this in lots of things.”



Education for us has a different meaning than in many other countries

Did she think it would be like this? It takes some getting used to, she admits. When students take a bachelor programme here, by the end of their third year you no longer need to tell them that they need to finish a paper. “With our international master’s programme you can’t automatically presume the same. We did overestimate the level of self-regulation of the students.” But this doesn’t deter her. “The plan is now to provide much clearer information on our expectations. So we’re going to make better use of the first induction week to tell the students what academic education involves. We’re even thinking about making a film on what an examination involves in our department.”


Despite all these caveats, however, Nadine Engels is very happy with the decision to set up an international ‘Master of Science in Educational Sciences’. “The Dutch language educational science course is a beacon programme,” she admits. “There aren’t many applicants. This is a general phenomenon. This programme is virtually unknown to students coming out of secondary education. So there’s not much potential there. It’s different for people who are already teaching. And that’s the pool we mostly recruit from. However, working students face a work-study combination which is rather more difficult. That results in a high drop-out rate. So when we had the opportunity to change the curriculum to an international programme, we didn’t have to think twice.”

Professor Engels and two of her students

A succes story in the making

A good decision, as it turns out: looking back, four years later, the number of international student has already reached forty. “When we drew up the plan, the aim was fifty - over ten years. And the students come for all over the world: the US, Canada, South America, South Africa, Iran, Russia, Mexico, Chile. Europe is well represented too, with students coming from Denmark, Italy, Hungary and Spain for example.”


And it’s not just the international students who can learn from the way we do things here. Sometimes it’s the other way round and they put our education system in a new light. A good example here is the Spanish student who wanted to write her thesis on the phenomenon of education for pupils with special needs. For this student, that was a completely new element. In Spain, students with specific educational needs - read: limitations – are taught in the normal class with the rest.

Education measures are going in the direction of selectivity again

A soft spot for diversity

“For me this was a real eye-opener”, says Nadine. It’s surprising. The theme is concerned with diversity in the class and this is a subject that has interested her for a long time. By chance on the day of the interview the so-called ‘M decree’ was an item on the morning news on the radio. The ‘M decree’ means special needs education is being phased out in Flanders too. And that is a good thing, according to Nadine Engels, except for the fact that the news item was occasioned by the abolition of the group of seventy extra competency supervisors whose task it is to supervise schools and students in the implementation of the M decree.


“It’s a shame, but recently we have been hearing a completely new discourse on education,” she says. “The current system is based on democratisation and equal opportunities, but the measures now being put in place are going in the direction of selectivity again.”


This trend makes her angry, all the more so as she is a fierce advocate of projects that aim for precisely the reverse and work towards greater inclusion. There is currently an initiative at a small school in Antwerp that takes account of the different home languages of the children. “One of my students developped some material for this. It’s about simple things, like writing a poem or organising a small singing contest and then helping the children in their home language so that they can understand everything. Of course, Dutch remains the teaching language, but by doing this you involve children who speak a different language at home more in the lesson.” And whether this works against levelling the playing field? “There’s only a danger of that if you don’t approach things sensibly. The bar must be set high, for all students. We call this teaching up: as far as possible working towards a high level for everyone. This means that you have to differentiate between the kind and amount of support you give to different groups. In other words: the goals remain the same, but the learning trajectories leading there are different.”


Aiming for win-win

It’s not by chance that one of her students finds herself is involved in the project. “In our programme, we try to stimulate learning based on authentic contexts. In more concrete terms: we teach our students to use recent theories in the real world. Reading articles and taking theoretical exams is all very well, but it’s not the real world and you need to know how to apply knowledge in practice. Take, for example, the subject of professional development that I teach. This subject aims to provide students with insight into theories and models in the professional development of people in the field. An important part of this is supervisory techniques: coaching and supervision, that kind of thing. And for this we are currently cooperating with a teacher training programme in Hasselt, near the Netherlands. Our students coach students in the teacher training programme who, in turn, assess our students. It’s a perfect win-win situation.”


A win-win situation. The concept embodies perfectly what Nadine Engels is aiming at with her educational sciences department. For her personally it takes the form of a strong commitment to greater inclusion and democracy in education. “People tend to forget how enriching contact with people from other environments is, people with a different background or different possibilities. But it’s precisely this comparative element that’s really interesting.”

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