Finalist Jelmer Evers Wants Us To Flip The System

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A 2015 Global Teacher Prize top 50 finalist from The Netherlands has a dream. Jelmer Evers is an advocate for embracing a humane and democratic approach to education. This makes sense, right? In many parts of the world, however, as he and the co-authors of Flip the System believe, governments have instituted less desirable economic approaches to education. His model is an international teacher-led alternative to test-based accountability.

His teaching approach leads to student ownership of their learning and to the creation of a personal learning environment. In his history classes, Jelmer works mostly with interdisciplinary topics in which subject content and skills are acquired by students while exploring real-life challenges, and social media and gamification play a key role. His exam tools have been used by thousands of students nationally, creating a connected K12 MOOC. 

So … we asked him some questions about his new book and experiences with education!

  1. To begin, what’s one thing that people may not know about you? 

Probably that I’m anti-authoritarian, maybe even anarchistic by nature. Imagine a teacher saying that! I’ve been contemplating what I’ve been doing quite a bit lately, especially now that the new book is finished. The way we’ve designed our education system in the Netherlands leaves a lot of room for people misusing their authority. Quite a few people operate solely on the basis of their position. How they got there, or that they even have any expertise or experience to be in that position doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve been involved on all levels now. And I was quite shocked sometimes about how little people knew and misused their positions. On the other hand I’ve met so many inspirational people on all those levels as well, who were natural leaders. Who had authority by nature. So I guess it’s not that I don’t like authority, I respect that a lot actually. I don’t like power structures and the inequality that derives from that. If there’s one thing that I want my students to see it is that they should never acknowledge power for powers’ sake. And as a teacher one of my goals is that my students respect me for what I’m doing and not for my position. That, and I like cooking 🙂

2. What was your own education like as a child? You’ve said that when you were 17, an economics teacher helped you come into your own. How did this teacher do that? 

My education was definitely okay of course. I’ve learned everything necessary to continue on in life – but there was definitely a lot lacking. When I entered university I really found out what was missing. That includes fundamental writing and research skills that I deem basic now, or at least as a foundation to begin tertiary education. More importantly quite a few teachers didn’t really show an interest in me as a an individual. Relationship is everything in education. And there are many ways to achieve that. Through good pedagogy for example. And I don’t think there was enough of that. 

Looking back at my school years I found that I was a disengaged student, like most of my peers. I don’t think that was due to my teachers not willing to engage me, but not able to. Their pedagogy seemed to be informed by old-fashioned didactical ideas and connected learning was very rare. Furthermore I also now know what a high-stress job, teaching can be under sub-par conditions, something that is the norm globally regrettably. Change that and education will change.

My economics teacher in my final year always took the time to discuss the news and connect it to the curriculum, and more importantly who took a real interest in who I was, a rarity in my school.  For example he heard about a new study that would fit me really well (Economical History). A small gesture maybe, but spot on. That showed he knew me and cared. He was everything that a teacher should be I think: an excellent pedagogue, he was good at didactics, had classroom management skills and a true personality. 

3. What do you hope to achieve as a result of your new book Flip the System? 

I’ve been a teacher-activist for around six years now. The changes I’ve seen happening in the Netherlands are quite amazing. We’re slowly moving away from a neoliberal high-stakes accountability system towards a more democratic system based on collective accountability. We’re not there by a long shot. And there is still harmful policy being implemented — a horrible high-stakes calculus test for example. But the paradigm has changed. Our Dutch book Het Alternatief (The Alternative) gave voice to lots of bottom-up initiatives and sentiment. And teachers were responsible for about half of the book, besides researchers like Andy Hargreaves and Howard Gardner.

What was new in the way we worked is that for my co-editor Rene and me it was always meant as a platform to campaign around — relentlessly networking to get the message out. People underestimate the energy and time we spend on networking. But it is possible for two teachers to fundamentally change their education system. That’s another key lesson I want to share with my students: how do you get your message out? And that anything is possible!

I think Flip the System is a better book than The Alternative. We know now where we were going. There are so many crucial contributions to the book: Alderik Visser on neo-liberalism, Gert Biesta on the purpose of education, Andy Hargreaves on two ideas gone bad: transparancy and autonomy, Pasi Sahlberg on Finland, Pak Tee Ng on Singapore, Tom Bennett (a Teacher Prize finalist) on ResearchED, Lori Nazareno on teacher-powered schools, and Barnett Barry and Noah Zeichner (a Teacher Prize finalist) on teacher leadership. Again a powerful mix of teachers and researchers making an undeniable case for flipping the system.

Flip the System offers a compelling set of ideas and guidelines, not a blueprint, to build a better educational system. But not only for education. As a society we really need to re-invent the way we collaborate and face our common challenges as a society. Flipping the system is about everyone taking their responsibility for their students again instead of outsourcing that to some random metrics or bureaucratic system. I hope teachers will pick up those ideas worldwide and start writing their own “Alternatives”, their local “Flip the System” and campaign around these ideas. I think education is best suited in leading the way for the rest of society in offering a new paradigm. Hopefully Flip the System will contribute a small part to that.

4. What was it like launching your book at the Education International 7th World Congress in Ottawa?

Really amazing. There we were: two teachers from the Netherlands presenting to union leaders and teacher and- thought leaders from around the world. When I went to Brussels a year and a half ago I never imagined the impact I think it already has had. A thousand copies were handed out at the Congress. Imagine all those people just taking away one idea from the book. That’s powerful. And humbling.

At the same time working with Education International and attending the Congress, and seeing democracy at work there, gave me a sense of the crucial role unions play in society and shaping our profession. As union membership has declined, inequality has increased at the same rate. But unions have to change the way they work as well, becoming more professional and networking organisations and working smarter. I’m put-off by old-fashioned activism on just working conditions as many of my younger colleagues are. Howard Stevenson makes a really strong case for this in the book, calling it democratic professionalism.

5. What was a difficult moment while writing the book? And the greatest inspiration?

Getting the first rejection from a major publisher. Flip the System is an activist book and it didn’t fit in their portfolio. That was understandable of course, but also the first time that I had some doubts that the book would get published by a major publisher. Before that I hadn’t really contemplated that because the ideas are so powerful. Fortunately, the week after Anna Clarkson from Routledge responded very enthusiastically to our proposal. And we really had some tight moments where we were waiting for key pieces when we had two deadlines. At first we aimed to be finished for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in Banff in March of this year. And if that didn’t work, Education International’s 7th World Congress. In the end everything fell into place of course. But there were some tight moments.

A great inspiration is just learning so many new crucial ideas. And to be give the power to articulate what you mean and therefore to put those ideas into practice. And the enthusiasm for the book and how so many inspirational leaders signed on immediately. These are all very inspirational people in their own right. With many groundbreaking ideas. Seeing all those pieces for the first time and how they fit in the bigger narrative is not something you can predict in advance. Yet is has happened twice already.

6. Which Global Teacher Prize finalists contributed to the book? Tell us about the collaboration & learning process with them!

The first finalist I asked was Tom Bennett, who is doing amazing work with his ResearchEd. We were already following each other on Twitter before we were nominated. And I already felt his work would be crucial for the book — I love his writing. His “polite revolution” is exactly what teachers should be doing worldwide. And his impact is global, a truly remarkable feat.

The last couple of years I  was already becoming more connected globally. One of the most valuable connections was becoming part of the Centre for Teaching Quality (CTQ). That’s how I met Noah Zeichner, at a conference in Canada. He is involved in a teacher leadership network and research group, comparing teacher leadership opportunities across several countries. Both his teaching work on global citizenship with his students as well as his work on teacher leadership are an inspiration.

Finally I also asked Elisa Guerra to write. We met through the top 50 finalists community that was created by Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize. Behind the scenes we are in touch quite extensively. Elisa is one of the driving forces in that process. And I had her slated as one of the favourites for the prize actually. I think her work is amazing. She’s built her own school, writes books on pedagogy, and spreads those ideas further. That’s an example for us all.

I guess what connects all of the nominees is that they’re not just thinkers, they’re doers. They put their ideas into practice. They’re all changing the world. How can you not be inspired by that? It is an honour to be counted amongst them.

7. How did you feel when you were chosen as a Top 50 Finalist for the Global Teacher Prize? How has being a finalist impacted your life since then?

 I think it is a great honour. I never expected to be nominated. Of course there are so many teachers who deserve a nomination and teaching is a team-effort in my eyes. At the same time it really shows the crucial work that we’re doing. Teachers are respected I think, but not publicly. The response and support from the education community has been wonderful: colleagues, unions, education organisations, the department of education. Yet at the same time the response in The Netherlands in general was a bit disappointing. The mainstream media didn’t really think it was that special apparently. When education, and teachers, are in the news, it is usually negatively. How test-scores have gone down or something similar. To be counted amongst the best 50 teachers worldwide is big thing and an honour. And talk shows invite persons from other professions if these kind of things happen. So the prize is necessary.

Internationally it opened up a whole new network of wonderful teachers and organizations. Not just professionally, but as friends as well. It was wonderful meeting Mark Reid and Jeff Charboneau at the ISTP 2015 (International Summit on the Teaching Profession) for example. That connection is real. We’re also going to build a more coherent network with the Varkey Foundation, Ashoka and the Harvard Graduate School of Education through the Varkey Teacher Ambassadors Programme. I’m looking forward to that a lot. The people involved are amazing.

8. Thank you for your great work and inspiration! Lastly, what’s next on your horizon?

 A lot actually. First of all I’m really looking forward to this year at UniC. It is such a wonderful school. Challenge-based learning is at the core of our education. With this class five (16-17 year old students) we’re going to explore themes like automation, inequality and possible solutions. We’ll be building future scenarios, prototypes and actual solutions to local problems. And we’re designing an open-source Challenge Toolkit to structure that process more for us as teachers. We’ll be sharing that in the Netherlands at several “design sessions.” And I want to continue to experiment with blended and game based learning. I’m really looking forward to working with the students on all of this!

I’m going to campaign for Flip the System of course — visiting international conferences and meeting policy makers, teacher organisations and researchers. Hopefully we’ll have a public event in London somewhere in November on the book. I’m working on that right now. And hopefully there will be local “Alternatives” in which I can help out.

Advocacy in The Netherlands continues as well. One of the policies that came out of  The Alternative is a teacher innovation fund with a starting capital of €5 million. I’m involved in implementing it. It should be completely teacher-run. And it is a constant struggle to get policy right. We have a major curriculum overhaul coming up which is crucial for the direction of our education system. And there are teacher policies, new accountability measures, you name it. So I’ll put my nose where it does(n’t) belong and be involved in that as well.

There are also two more books in the pipeline: a new edited book, a follow-up to The Alternative, and one by myself on how to design an empowering school from the ground up. I want to put everything that I have learned into a more comprehensive frame. It will be more nuanced than most books on progressive pedagogy I think, marrying the new with the old. Because I’ve learned through experience and lots of failures how extremely hard it is to actually make it happen.

Now just to find the time …

Flip the System Can be bought online at Routledge and Amazon

Twitter: @jelmerevers


Bio: Jelmer Evers currently teaches history at UniC in Utrecht. He was driven to become a teacher by his own educational experience. He describes himself as having been an average pupil who only came into his own with the encouragement of his economics teacher at the age of 17. Aiming to provide a holistic education to his students, he became a reformer of the Dutch education system and has been building an international teacher leadership network. He was nominated for the Dutch Teacher of the Year award in 2012. Chosen as Netherlands one of 23 “New Radicals” and best in his Trade by Vrij Nederland Magazine. Jelmer has written two books – The Alternative, one of the most influential educational books in the Netherlands, and Flip the System – outlining a modern democratic alternative to the traditional system of test-based accountability.

Becoming a Global Teacher Prize finalist has opened doors for Jelmer. Nominate a teacher whom you think deserves celebration and recognition, or apply if you are a teacher:


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