Exactly five months ago I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition that was to be the big crowd pleaser exhibition in the late winter and early spring months. I had little idea at the time within a month the museum (and all museums in the country) would be closing and that my next visit to one would be close to half a year later and would be a feature of my stay at home summer holiday of 2020.
So here we are then, all that time later, and I have had my first cultural recharging of batteries from a visit to the MORE museum for modern realist art in the small town of Gorssel in the Eastern part of the Netherlands. Although the museum has been open now for a number of years and is only about 60km from where I live, it was still my first visit.
Strict protocols were in place, a pre-booked entrance time, a time limit of 90 minutes in the museum, a fixed route through the collection and no doubling back on the route. All rather unfamiliar and not my normal all over the place style of making my way through an exhibition. Still, times change, and yes I was glad to be there, I’ve missed the chance to look and ponder.
MORE offers a collection of Dutch realists, many from the first half of the twentieth century alongside some more contemporary work. It’s an interesting collection, much of which is painted with an intensity and level of rechnical achievement that draws you in to take a closer look. The same could certainly be said of the work of Jan Mankes. I have rarely seen such small and intense paintings, some I liked, some I didn’t and some were just simply strange!
There was also an extensive display of the work by Jan Beutener. Figurative paintings, but ones with a strong awareness of the abstract qualities in the way his compositions are constructed. All very likable work, especially for someone like me whose own work walks a line between abstraction and figuration.
One work by Beutener should get an extra mention though. A painting from 2008, entitled With distance and featuring a face mask. It must have been included in the show as a knowing reference to the last months
And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.
For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.
So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.
Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true. It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.
Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school. And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class.
So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence? Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary. Others though have struggled in the very same areas. These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.
There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions. The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower. Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here? It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides. It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on. Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.
The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material. Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education. It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.
Yesterday I boarded the train with a colleague. Face masks on, making the short trip down the line, fifteen minutes or so. Our conversation was almost immediately interrupted by a cheery “hey, Peter”. I looked across the carriage to see a tall, lanky, bearded face, peering out from behind a generous mask. He had obviously recognized me, despite my face mask. Could I return the favour? It’s not always easy, but on this occasion I could, it was Niek, a now young man, who I had last taught eight years ago.
Niek immediately launched into the conversation wanting to know how it was at school and how we were coping with the Corona situation. He enthusiastically explained what he was up to, nearing the end of his Masters degree. It was a open and relaxed conversation, if only a relatively short one. I could still very much recognize something of the first year boy who had been part of an unusual class of 23 children back in 2007 or 2008 perhaps. It was unusual in the sense of being a class of 18 boys and just 5 girls. Sometimes odd details just stick in your head.
It was nice to see Niek again and hear that all was going well for him. But the nicest thing was this……
Although I am an art teacher, I am also a teacher in a bilingual stream, giving my art lessons in English to Dutch children. I am part of the bilingual program where language learning is combined with teaching other subject areas. When Niek boarded the train yesterday and recognized me, he just launched into our conversation in English, despite the context of being in a Dutch train and the conversations around us also being conducted in Dutch. His English was fluent, clear and spoken without hesitation or grammatical faults.
When my colleague and I left the train fifteen minutes later I could turn and say with all honesty, that is why we are involved in bilingual education. It is an unusual hybrid in the educational world. It requires the teachers and pupils involved to participate in a language ‘game’ that asks everyone to conduct themselves in a second language, when using the first language would simply be easier. But here was an encounter that underlines the strengths of this approach and why it is so worth teaching in this way.
So thanks Niek, for this educational present to one of your old teachers. In the last week of this most different of educational years it does give a good feeling.