What Dutch teachers are learning from their students

For years, the Stephanus elementary school, located in a low-income neighborhood of Rotterdam, struggled to improve student performance. Then, in 2015, the school joined a McKinsey-founded nonprofit aimed at improving education through better teaching.

Called LeerKracht (which means both “teacher” and “learning power” in Dutch), the initiative helps teachers learn to be better educators by collaborating with their peers and, perhaps most importantly, listening to the people whose very lives they aim to change: their students.

Through the program, Stephanus teachers began to feel empowered to take ownership of their classrooms and grew more engaged in the school’s broader performance. “They started to think more deeply about education,” says principal Astrid van Gogh.

What Dutch teachers are learning from their students
LeerKracht believes teachers should drive school improvement.
What Dutch teachers are learning from their students

Today, Stephanus is one of more than 750 schools throughout the Netherlands where improvements driven by teachers—rather than administrators—are helping to elevate the nation’s educational standards.

“I believe that teachers make the difference in education,” says Jaap Versfelt, a former McKinsey senior partner who now leads LeerKracht full time. “Not the building, not money—teachers.”

Lonely work, bureaucratic demands

The initiative was inspired in part by a study comparing Dutch education to international benchmarks, which highlighted a worrying three-decade-long stagnation: the education system was good, but despite numerous efforts it had failed to rise to greatness. A pro bono McKinsey team explored the problem to find out why that was the case.

“What stood out is that being a teacher can be a lonely job,” says Bart Woord, an engagement manager who was there at the start of the program and now works in McKinsey’s Sydney office. “You try all day to have an impact relying on your own skills and ideas with little outside input.”

What stood out is that being a teacher can be a lonely job.

McKinsey engagement manager Bart Woord

The team realized that just as so-called continuous improvement programs can transform companies by changing employee mindsets, they can likewise change how teachers approach their tasks.

“Teachers want to be given fewer answers and more challenges they can solve collaboratively,” says Paul Rutten, a partner in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office who chairs LeerKracht’s supervisory board. “They want fewer bureaucratic demands and more ways they can help students.”

Sharing notes, hearing students

To answer that call, LeerKracht worked with 16 schools in its first year to develop materials that would help teachers and school leaders improve teaching practices.

At the heart of the program are weekly joint lesson-planning sessions where teachers offer each other feedback and share what they’re learning from their classroom experiences.

They also visit each other’s classrooms to see, for example, how their colleagues are making classes engaging. Finally, the teachers meet weekly in groups to discuss their collectively set targets and to check in on each other’s progress.

What Dutch teachers are learning from their students
Students share feedback live while teachers, who are not allowed to comment, listen in.
What Dutch teachers are learning from their students

Jeffrey de Jong, a Grade 6 teacher at Stephanus, admits to being initially apprehensive about his colleagues observing and giving feedback on his classes. “But the process soon began to feel natural,” he says.

Perhaps the most valuable component of LeerKracht is student input, which is delivered through dedicated, live sessions. In a recent one, five to six students shared their thoughts about the school as teachers sat behind them who were not allowed to comment.

“Once the students left the room, the teachers became very animated, talking about what they heard,” says Woord. Principal Van Gogh calls the student discussions the school’s “greatest gem.”

High marks

This year LeerKracht will directly reach 10 percent of the Netherland’s student population, ranging from kindergarten through high school. McKinsey colleagues continue to be closely involved and support its work. In six years, the program has become the country’s largest ever bottom-up public sector transformation, affecting more than 300,000 young people.

It's earning high marks, too. More than 95 percent of participating schools say they would recommend the program to others, and 80 percent of the teachers report that their students’ learning has improved.

But the most important changes are perhaps the ones that only a teacher will see, and hear, firsthand.

“Before LeerKracht, the conversation in the teachers’ room was about people’s weekend activities or what they did last night,” says de Jong. “Now we talk about substantive topics: what’s happening in the classroom.”

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