Visiting Knowmads in Amsterdam

Initially, when I planned my trip, I did not include Amsterdam.  But after a discussion with two of Wintec’s Product Managers I decided to include a visit to Knowmads.  They brand themselves as an Alternative Business School.  Innovation in education is an imperative none of us in the sector can ignore, so I decided to visit.

I was struck by this quote on their website

A KNOWMAD IS A NOMADIC KNOWLEDGE WORKER –THAT IS, A CREATIVE, IMAGINATIVE, AND INNOVATIVE PERSON WHO CAN WORK WITH ALMOST ANYBODY, ANYTIME, AND ANYWHERE

Just like the quote suggests, they not only focus on helping their students obtain subject or content knowledge – they primarily engage with the notions of “who am I?”  and “what do I want to bring into the world” (my paraphrasing – they actually have four core questions around which they design their student experience – see their website, link below).

I went through their website beforehand and based on that had a few questions.  My interest is not so much in that they are trying a different model for tertiary education.  We all already know that tertiary education is in flux and a paradigm shift is unavoidable.  My question about them was two-fold – do they represent the first glimmers of a step change in tertiary education, or are they an alternative form of tertiary education that sits alongside the mainstream tertiary educational system catering for those that do not find a home in the mainstream educational system?

Both Pieter Spinder and Guus Wink were very open and welcoming of me and my questions (they understood I was from a research background so learn through asking questions).  They were generous with their answers and passionate about what they do.  And the fact that they are now in their fifth year of existence is testimony to the fact that they clearly touch a nerve.

Here are a few questions and answers that helped me understand them and their approach better:

Our discussion

Are you part of a movement that is actively de-constructing the mass production of skills/knowledge?

Yes, except we skipped the de-constructing part.  We just walked away.  Pieter then proceeded with telling me about the evolution of their relationship with universities.  It started from “We don’t like them and they don’t like us” and changed over time so students from the university of applied sciences can now do some of their credits with Knowmads, even though Knowmads is not accredited in the national system.  Once again an endorsement of their work.

They do see themselves in the tertiary sector, but focuses not on just passing on knowledge. They have a model of “learning through doing”.  In my context, that seems to mean that they represent one approach of higher level vocational study focussing not primarily on skills development but personal development and then self-designed learning and enabling to realise their potential and do what they believe they it is that they need to do to bring about change in the world.  Global thinking, with a safe space where they can start to practice having the confidence to do what they believe is important.

Do you need the mainstream educational system in order for you to be successful?”

They found this an interesting question, which they were not able to answer (yet?).  Underlying this question is the quest to understand if they are an alternative to the current mainstream education or a diversification of it.  I think the jury is out on this, and look forward to continued discussions with them.  At the moment it seems to me that they do function in higher level learning, which means they rely on the mainstream education system to prepare people to be students of an entity like Knowmads.

This is of particular interest to me, as their approach may be very relevant to youth social innovations in education, working to capture youth who fell out of mainstream education before completing secondary school.

Attending a discussion with students

They then invited me to be part of a discussion with their current students about designing the next six months of the programme (did I mention that they go beyond self-directed learning to self-designed learning?)

The tension between financial constraints and the freedom to self-design was very evident, as was students’ differing levels of understanding of those constraints.  Pieter and Guus presented what I believe to be a very good compromise to optimise in order to have as much flexibility as possible.  But it took a long discussion and good facilitation to get buy-in from the students.  Once again it is unclear to me based on just one snapshot to know if the presentation by Pieter and Guus was deliberately vague to encourage discussion, or if buy-in could have been obtained quicker by a more structured presentation.

One thing that was crystal clear though is the passion of the students to own their learning and journey through the programme.  They understand that the knowledge they want could be obtained elsewhere through a shorter course, but valued the opportunity to learn by doing, even though it takes more effort and also takes longer.  And they are willing to fight to make this happen.  Well done Knowmads you cater for some very definite requirements from your students’ perspective.

Read more about this very interesting approach and the work they do at Knowmads.nl

I look forward to exploring options and continuing to talk with Knowmads.

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