OPEDUCA-based School(ing)

the effectuation of ESD-based Education


Although not a goal of the OPEDUCA Project as such, most of the 55 schools that were most closely involved over the years (in primary, secondary and further education) sought to implement the concept in daily practice on the fly. Although these were no more and no less than un-orchestrated attempts of school leaders and teachers to bring their schools in the transition while the development of the OPEDUCA Concept was still underway, these brave tries resulted in valuable and unique insights. It was the first time Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was brought to practice in daily education from a structural perspective.
This page serves to share experiences and findings from practice by way of a brief retrospective and presents the view of School leaders and Teachers on an OPEDUCA Based School, including nearly all components also contemporary innovators call for, yet also one that keeps its feet on the ground and treasures lessons from the past.

It is important to understand that the OPEDUCA Project as a joint effort led to a universal but also detailed Concept and applicable instrumentation to improve education through schooling - it is however not a formula, program, method, program or 'new school' as such. The OPEDUCA Concept can be applied to any school, everywhere, as a well-thought-through and tested basis, the product of a common understanding and approach reached by over 400 directly involved teachers in primary, secondary, further and higher education. The concept and instrumentation should be understood as common ground to build on whereas what grows from is unique for each school, celebrating local identity, diversity, name and flag.  

Initial Observations 

As long as we keep students in relatively close isolation in x-minute lessons, within walls that limit their freedom to move, teach them subjects as separate blocks of "knowledge" and merge them with 25 others or more in apparently homogeneous groups, one obviously can't expect optimal results from education. However, when the OPEDUCA Project took off in 2004 as a citizens initiative, it felt like the 'age of destruction' had come upon schools.
It was the time when it became popular to slam schools for being like 'factories' that 'killed creativity' and deprived students of their individuality and even personality. And this while the criticizers brought forth very few new insights, let alone improvements. Overlooking the landscape, nothing less than a cacophony of ideas, activities and pretentious projects roared around schools - many in the realm of STEM and ICT but eventually attacking all that was once precious to education. We observed that 'visionary innovators' incurred waves of change that flooded the schools' shorelines and drenched many fine teacher initiatives. Partly justified criticism was nearly silenced by unfair arguments, schools too often being trampled on, ill-equipped to properly defend themselves, or 'led' by leaders that capitulated. Moreover so since also Governments and muscled commercial parties 'jumped' on freshly painted priorities and challenges, not seldom in neat conjunction. As the waves of change crushed in, we observed many schools became richly ornamented Christmas trees - the condemnation of schools had a disturbing and not seldom destructive effect. The OPEDUCA Project came about as a response to the cacophony that turned education into an empty shell; parents, professionals from industry, scientists, actually people from all parts of society joined and critically addressed the parade and charade, taking sides with schools. Placing the interest of Youth far above the ongoing twitter of 'innovators' and 'visionaries' that kept on screaming for the loudest. 

Schools became Christmas trees

As a consequence of the waves and eventually floods of change harassing education with 'innovations', all too often schools turned into a 'Christmas tree', full of baubles, bulbs and garlands for each and every priority they apparently faced and tried to address. Mostly resulting from 'assembled, must-do educations' in the field of STEM and ICT, many others were pressed upon schools by way of political and/or commercial initiatives. Consequently, schools were seen to address claims by creating (stand-alone) activities and projects on top of what they kept regarding as regular education. Both the school as an organization and the educational process itself eventually suffered from numerous half-way integrated innovations and modernizations. This situation became many a teacher's biggest frustration (and educational consultants' prominent source of income). 
Following the analogy of the Christmas tree, an OPEDUCA-based school was seen as no more and no less than a home to learning providing deep roots nourishing in the sound ground of culture, society and the environment - fully focussed on the student.

Cracking under pressure

It is advised to no longer burden schools with innovations; a fragile system can crack under pressure and unleash uncontrolled eruptions of change in order to comply. It is not wise to enforce rapid changes upon an inert system that is deeply rooted in tradition. There is no progress in putting schools under relentless pressure to change while on the other being demonised and trampled on as outdated, certainly when considering school leaders and teachers are no change-agents.

Our Response

The alliance of people basing OPEDUCA took off from these observations to question needs, necessity for change. Through the gathering and exchanges of school leaders, teachers, industry managers and scientists, but also those from the Arts and Sports, the OPEDUCA Concept gradually developed while applying the first versions of the instruments in daily practice. Practice made clear schools can change without being trampled and are certainly not obsolete. We found that school leaders, teachers as well as students can see and grasp opportunities to change their school from within. This change in itself became a prerequisite to move on, to make the next step. Pushing on to eventually describe and put to the test OPEDUCA-based schooling, followed shortly after realizing ESD Based Education.

Re-positioning School as Nexus of Learning
in its social-demographic region

An OPEDUCA-based School is positioned as a nexus of learning in regional society, defined by a student's learning process, the traditional classroom set-up replaced by ‘Open Learning Spaces’. Learning and the concept of 'school' to be envisaged in a setting of Real Life (and Community Based) Learning. Whole-class activities (visits, exchanges) are replaced by numerous Study-Teams searching for knowledge in the region; time- and energy-consuming project weeks to highlight specific educations, separately organizing for example STEM, Environment and Entrepreneurship is no longer necessary.  

The Learning process becoming ongoing, throughout

thus connecting and overlapping schools in Primary, Secondary, Further and Higher Education. An OPEDUCA Based School school be understood as a nexus in the region and also part of an entire educational landscape - al in service of the student.

While Themes rule, disciplines remain, transdisciplinary learning arises

The learning is based on future-defining themes, thereto disciplines and subjects are upgraded (contrary to many innovative ideas). They support transdisciplinary learning and are required to provide more breadth and depth. Also the present (even when old-fashioned) Curriculum is served, there is no buy-out toward 'modernism'. 

The student's learning is central, the education supportive, the school facilitating, the system regulating what is required.

In the OPEDUCA Concept, Learning, Education, Schooling and the System are discerned, untangled, the pyramid turned upside down - not attacking what presently is, focus and energy on the student. 

Following the perspective of the individual students, teachers developed an OPEDUCA-based School based on their practical insights and experience. Like the vision and concept are a merger of educational practice, science and insights from industry, it emerged from a transdisciplinary insight. Over the years the schools was developed and described in ever more detail, every element successfully tested in daily practice across the Netherlands and 16 other countries.
It became clear the above key aspects proved just as they found ever more support. Differing between Learning, Education, Schooling and the System indeed untangled the discourse, positioning the school as a nexus of learning in Open Educational Areas/regions was embraced as an old truth, the re-statement of the relevance of subjects a relief, most certainly when it was proven curricula and testing wouldn't obstruct or be neglected. 
Jointly pushing forward, the acceptance of industry as a Partner in Education turned into a condition sine qua non while the critical standpoint towards teachers' competencies turned to a positive, underlying the need and joint approach for professionalization. In response to the charade of 'innovative pedagogical concepts, we turned to history, remembering much had already been said and done, so there was no need for new fancy phrases. 

Study Teams

Study Teams of 4-6 students are to be understood as instrumental, as a parallel construct that joins the application of the personal and social. They offer a supportive environment for the individuals’ learning to apply debate, and discussions, explore misconceptions, give and receive feedback and have value for the student's development of metacognitive ability.

As frequently addressed, the learning envisioned sees to the student's social development by way of connections, learning cooperatively and collaborative, team- and community-based. Acknowledging we cannot justify learning theories that dissociate the mind from the body and the self from the social context, I differ between the social and personal - we position the learning process more in the social and interactive sphere than in traditional education while holding ownership, process control and results more personal. Amongst others, the Study Teams are to be understood as instrumental, as a parallel construct that joins the application of the personal and social. They offer a supportive environment for the individuals’ learning to apply debate, discussions, explore misconceptions, give and receive feedback and have value for the student's development of metacognitive ability.

Although limited accountable, we found students working in small and varying Study-Teams, collaboratives in a cooperative process, show improved results when it comes to social skills, critical thinking as well as content knowledge (Sawyer & Obeid, 2017). Social aspects such as lending mutual support, acceptance and self-esteem were more clearly seen to improve. Operational elements, such as the omnipresent exchange of ideas and information, presenting intermediate findings to each other and the (im-)material construction of joint presentations, all contributed to more social cohesion among the students. 

Also a vision built from Practice remains a Challenge

We also learned from practice that an OPEDUCA-based School can not be realized by cherry picking, aiming at low-hanging fruits - like one can't jump a canyon halfway.
The OPEDUCA Concept builds on essentials, ‘strips off’ present-day restrictions, re-thinks values and goals, is challenging and demanding. Being entirely student- and future focussed, an OPEDUCA-based school continuously adapts and where possible improves the learning environment it facilitates; hence, it takes quite something of school leaders and teachers. Understanding that the vision, concept and instrumentation are based on learning in the interest of the student, not in service of the system in place is one thing - putting action to one's words is something else. A full-scale development obviously has a considerable impact on every aspect of the organization and its people. Experience shows that, whereas OPEDUCA comes naturally to students, the transition is a substantial challenge for it requires and leads to a profound change compared to the present, demanding professional management and dedicated teachers with the desire to re-invent their profession. Following and expanding on our critical recount of the application of the OPEDUCA instruments in practice and drawing from extensive exchanges, plan-making and analyses with school leaders and teachers, three aspects appeared most determining for a school’s transition capacity towards ESD-based Education:
- The effectuation of Transdisciplinarity.
- Mastering the Curriculum.
- Exchanging testing and Examinations for progressive Assessment.  

Photo: door-wide poster designed by secondary education teacher Erwin Augustin to mark the 'OPEDUCA-area' from the rest of the school (2015).  

"There is no need to denounce the relevance of instruction as long as it is not framed and scheduled in contemporary schoolish settings but seen as a craft of the teacher. Instruction as such then not the issue but it's delivery in time and place"

A Teachers' Image of an OPEDUCA-based School

To capture and integrate the OPEDUCA-concept, teachers and school leaders developed an image of an ESD-based School, emerging from their understanding of the concept, experience and practical insights. Since this sequence was also repeated during each of the 21 MasterClasses, an insightful and realistic perspective appeared, based on the expertise of over 400 school leaders and teachers.

Practitioners imagined an ESD-based School as an open structure, a cooperative of teachers learning with their students amidst society. They understood ‘School’ as a community-based nexus of learning, a ground where the learner interacts with a variety of sources and the contextualised transdisciplinary learning-process finds a home. A safe and central meeting place, an ‘AGORA’ where learning processes are facilitated, rest, cross-over and are enriched. It is the main location for education, the environment where students can learn by themselves, with fellow students, teachers and educators. From the school as nexus, a student’s learning process physically and virtually branches out in society, involving people and organisations from the outside to the realm of education. The entirety open to and continuously connected with the local as well as global community. The students are seen to learn anytime, with anybody, at any place and through any device, consistently studying life as it is and unfolds through the dimensions of ESD.

As premises, the school facilitates a multi-functional central meeting place, forums for mini-lectures, study rooms for up to 6 persons and larger thematic areas where learning-contents and -processes unfold in a material and virtual way. These are equipped with tools, materials, multi-media devises, stages, flexible seating and an extensive multi-media library on the theme. The central meeting place at the heart of the building is marked by serenity, a place where only expressions of art, history, news and student’s learning outcomes call for attention. A cantina and facilities for sports and contemplation are half out in the open, entangled in a garden-like landscape that offers space for each of the thematic areas, particularly Food(-production), Water, Energy-generation and a Construction-site.

A week in the life of the school is characterised by a series of (partly simultaneous) mini-lectures on specific topics in the morning hours, a substantial mid-day part for lunch, leisure and sports and as of then until late afternoon theme-based collaborative learning in the thematic-areas, freely accessible for OPEDCUA-certified educators representing Partners in Education. Study-Teams can roam and use the entire premises and go out in community after reverse-notification of an educator at the location to be visited.
One day a week no mini-lectures are scheduled while all other facilities are open and available for the students, whether as individual or in Study-Team constellation.
The entire (Fri-)day then also available for sports, culture and arts or any combination of all.
The entire school functions from early morning until early evening for the students, available for use during the evenings as well as in the weekends and holidays for the broader regional community.
An OPEDUCA-based school has no standard classes, project-weeks or stand-alone education-projects, nor does it use programs and activities offered by third parties.
All means available are infused to continuously improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the educational process. Overlooking the schoolyear there is one flow, no longer interrupted by examination-periods, study-weeks, field trips and alike disruptions.
The school as cooperative of professional teachers and educators amidst society is a highly autonomous organisation with specialist pedagogical understanding and disciplinary expertise on the highest level of secondary education. ‘Through teaching we learn’ is a lead motive, also referring to the teachers’ will and ability to develop oneself continuously and keep track with real world developments. For the students, teachers and educators are a continuous presence that models a love of learning (Lucas & Guy, 2013) as they provide both expert- and pedagogical guidance through questioning and appraisal, raise challenges and provide constructive feedback, being discreet enough to enable students to perform (cognitive activation).
The teachers are compelled and obliged to cooperate as a community of practice, as a team to serve the students’ learning, their occupation no longer isolated. They work collaboratively on the design of materials, the creation of relevant learning contexts, back each other up, reach out to and share external sources of education and jointly construct the narrative students need. The teacher is expected to be a skilled facilitator and inspired storyteller, capable of facilitating reflective conversations during the entire learning process with every student, irrespective of age.
The school supports a full-scale double-sided (merging theory and practice) initial Teacher Training program, also thereto involving a variety of educators from Partners in Education. Teacher-students work from day one on at school and gain experience in various sectors of society at least one day a week.

Criticising the Constructive

It is understandable critics of constructivist approaches find little to no evidence that lesser guidance is more effective in terms of learning outcomes than guidance through instruction and thus claim the other way around. This however only holds if they define a student’s ‘performance’ through the lens of education and schooling in terms of present-day tests and examinations. The machinery built for processing students through schooling functions best when using original parts, feeding it resources modeled and molded according to the specs, for as than the traditional process will encounter the least friction, reach the highest efficiency and the effectiveness imagined when putting it all to work. Reasoning from such a preposition makes critics’ observations of constructivism self-fulfilling prophecies.

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For academic reference and publications: Eussen, J. F. G. (2022). ESD-based education - https://doi.org/10.26481/dis.20220201je - ISBN 9789464235906