Practical education leads to more motivated students

One day a week the students at the OLV Breda follow a programme about entrepreneurship. As part of that programme they start up their own company and follow courses at a university. Read how school leader Tol Swinkels further develops this concept with his team at school.

Context-rich education

At the OLV Breda the teachers noticed that the students quickly lose interest during conventional lessons, while they are motivated when they get to work on practical assignments. The school decided to investigate the possibility of working more closely with businesses. Vice principal Tol Swinkels: “As a school we want to offer context-rich education, where students can also learn outside of the school. The connection with the practice allows students to better develop their talents. At the same time the school wants to keep on offering conventional lessons. The 20-80 learning concept is therefore very suited for our school: 80 percent of the time students follow conventional lessons and 20 percent of the time they follow a programme that focuses on practical assignments and their further education.

Own company

The school starts this project with a small group from the upper forms. They work in small teams to start up their own company, where everyone fulfils a role that is suited to their talents. During a so-called Dragon’s Den, the students pitch their business plan to companies in order to get feedback. After this, the stakeholders can purchase shares of the company. Tol: “This is the start of their company: they need financing after all.” The students then get a year to develop their own product or service. To gain some inspiration the students visit several companies and attend guest lectures.

University level lectures

During their final year the students attend lectures and follow courses at different kinds of universities. The students receive a personal programme that was designed just for them. The lectures will give them a realistic impression of a possible further education. They will also follow an internship. In addition to their secondary education diploma, the 20-80 students receive certificates from the universities, a certificate Young Entrepreneurship, and a 20-80 learning diploma that is recognised by the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

The role of the school leader

Patrick van den Berg, English teacher, and Mark Bethel, Economics teacher, are the project leaders and they are responsible for the practical content of the programme, which the students have to work on every Thursday. Tol: “As a school leader I play a facilitating role. I ask questions to keep the teachers on their toes: what is your approach and how do you involve the students’ parents? But my team of teachers does the real work: they are the experts in this field. I am also developing the conditions required to offer this programme to a larger number of students. In addition to the entrepreneurship programme, it is our ambition to develop programmes that connect seamlessly with other profiles, like art, science and healthcare.

Teacher Patrick: “The school management has given us, the project leaders, the freedom to develop the programme as we see fit. I consider that a vote of confidence that gives us the freedom to continue down the path we have chosen.”


Letting go and having faith

In order to work on the programme every Thursday, about six or seven lessons had to be cancelled per week. Tol: “Not many teachers are willing to sacrifice hours. That is very understandable. However, we all want context-rich education. That is why I always try to go back to the foundations of the school during discussions. By emphasising our common goal, teachers were willing to make sacrifices. Another personal challenge is to let go and to have an ongoing faith in my team.”


The start of the programme was successful: students were enthusiastic and motivated to get to work. Tol: “But it was naive on our part to think that this would make students more motivated for conventional classes as well. On the contrary: the students enjoyed the programme so much that they were less motivated the rest of the week. As a result a number of teachers who were not involved in the programme were not so thrilled with the new concept.” That is why the school looked into new ways of making the conventional classes connect more seamlessly with the programme.

Increasing involvement

OLV Breda decided to also involve the teachers outside the programme by making them coaches connected to a company. Tol: “This allows those teachers to better understand what the students are working on on Thursdays. Now that they are able to discuss this with the students, the students notice that the teachers are more interested in the programme.  This strengthens the relationship between the teachers and the students and that is an important prerequisite for good education.” In addition, more teachers are now involved in the content of the programme. For example, a biology teacher and a philosophy teacher have joined the programme to contribute ideas on the sustainable aspects of the companies of the students.


Moreover, we looked into ways of increasing the students’ motivation for conventional lessons. “We now assess the students during conventional lessons based on the skills they practice on Thursdays”, Tol explains. “For this we use rubrics. Rubrics shows students which skills they are getting good at and which skills can be improved. This makes it clear to students that certain skills are relevant to lessons at school and in the practice.”

Tol’s tip regarding the implementation of context-rich education

  • Involve students right from the start. Do not just use them as a soundboard but invite them to the table and give them a vote. That way you can create a solid educational programme, which both the school and the student body will support.
  • Do not be afraid to ask. Many companies and institutions are more than willing to contribute to the programme without asking for anything in return. In this process it is important to be clear and specific about what you want from them and what you expect from them.
  • Have faith in your team of teachers: they have the expertise and skills. Help them in the process where needed, but as a school leader you should not interfere with the content. When colleagues say that something is impossible, nine times out of ten there is a good reason why they say this. Listen and look for solutions together.


Photo caption: OLV BREDA students pitch their business plan to companies.

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