Leiden University: National ThinkTank: ‘A school trip that never ends’

The idea behind the National ThinkTank is to harness the mental power of 20 supersmart young people – current or recently graduated master’s students and PhD candidates – to solve a current problem in society. The 20 work together non-stop for four months, this year in a wing of VU Amsterdam. They receive constant supervision, the input and inspiration of lots of guest speakers and all sorts of different training. The group soon became very close. A unique experience. ‘It’s like a school trip that never ends,’ says Jort van Dalen.

The theme of ‘Education’ will come as no surprise: primary and secondary education in particular are declining, so something needs to be done. The aim for the group to come up with practical solutions that schools can use. Jiao Harmsen and Jort van Dalen both feel a strong connection to the theme.

‘Help create a good learning environment’
Harmsen completed Leiden University College The Hague. During her bachelor’s degree she became fascinated by the topic of education. ‘I began to see how important a good learning environment is and wondered how I could contribute, while continuing to learn myself at the same time.’ After her bachelor’s degree she took a gap year and taught English in Ecuador. For her master’s she decided to seek out the crème de la crème in education research. ‘One of the very best researchers proved to be at the University of Oulu in Finland.’ Harmsen followed a research-oriented Master’s in Education and Globalisation there. She graduated in 2020.

But a personal experience was relevant too. She explains: ‘At secondary school I wasn’t doing very well at English. I was labelled as being poor at English. My mother was an English teacher, and luckily she could help me.’ She decided to go for the challenge of Leiden University College (LUC) in The Hague, which is entirely in English. ‘I really wanted to keep up and that meant working really hard. My English came on in leaps and bounds, but I still carry that stigma of my English being poor. I’m very conscious of every mistake I make. The English-taught master’s in Finland didn’t solve that either.’

‘Children can’t look very far ahead’
Van Dalen also has his own tale to tell. At primary school he was advised to do vocational training, but this didn’t feel quite right. ‘I don’t think in terms of higher or lower education. That can be stigmatising. The terms practical and theoretical are better.’ In hindsight the problem was the early selection moment in the Netherlands. You’re given a label, but at the age of 12 children can’t yet see what they can and want to be at 30. ‘You’re pushed into a mould at a young age, which gives you very little room to move. This means that potential talent remains untapped in society.’ When Van Dalen was about 14 or 15, he developed an interest in reading, theoretical learning and analysis. ‘And then it depends on the environment you grow up in whether you’re given the right support, that push in the right direction.’ Van Dalen did grow up in the ‘right’ environment and has just completed his Master’s in Public Administration, International and European Governance.

He is critical: ‘Late bloomers won’t bloom if you go about it like that,’ he says, explaining how equal treatment results in unequal opportunities. By this he means that different children should be treated differently, but that the common denominator should be a strong focus on the basic skills of language, arithmetic and learning to learn. ‘Education creates a reality that conforms to the terms that are used. For me it’s just as easy to write a research paper as it is to make my own table. But you’re not supposed to be able to learn both. That should change.’

Solutions should end up in schools
The members of the National ThinkTank are selected in three rounds, one of which is a motivation letter. Given the above, it’s no surprise that Harmsen and Van Dalen got through that round. ‘None of us have any experience in education, or only for a short period like Jiao,’ says Van Dalen. ‘That means that we don’t get too bogged down in the topic but try to keep a helicopter view instead. We’ve now got one foot in education and one other in the world outside.’

Harmsen adds: ‘You need that to find the leverage points, the starting points for solutions.’ The group plans to come up with around ten such points, concrete and practical ones that should end up in education. That’s they’re responsibility too, so the job won’t be done once the four months are up. They will have built a large network by then. For now though, there’s a lot of work to be done. The group has almost completed the research phase – phoning 164 people in education and doing desk research. Then it’s time for analysis and finally the solutions. And all the time they are working with hypothesis that they are constantly testing and changing or rejecting and replacing. Until the few that remain are solid. Then things will really start to take shape