Youssef’s law: education plus personal passion lights a flame

Het ComeniusNetwerk 28-07-2022
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Lecturerentrepreneur (or entrepreneurial lecturer) Youssef El Bouhassani teaches a whole range of science subjects at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA).

A double winner of Lecturer of the Year, Youssef is passionate about his teaching. He is cofounder of LeerLevels, an app designed to make education more efficient for teachers and more personal for students.

‘Plutarch once said “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” I keep that in mind when I teach. Students see me for one hour and are then expected to work independently on the same subject for another four hours. Unless they leave my class thinking “Yes, I want to know more about this!” there is no way they are going to do that with conviction.’  Lighting your own fire (to kindle a flame in your students) ‘As a teacher, it’s always worth asking yourself “What lights my fire?” I think the answer lies in what interests you outside of teaching. That could be anything from current affairs to music to standup comedy. For me, it’s programming. The interface between education and technology – especially artificial intelligence – is where my own development takes place. That’s where I learn things that I can’t learn anywhere else. After all, there’s no school that trains teachers in advanced programming. So I try to apply my own personal interest to solving the problems I experience in education. That’s another tip I’d like to give my fellow teachers: get stuck into a reallife situation. Try to gain a clear view of the core of the issue and explore possible solutions. That way you can learn so much more than you would by taking a course for a day.’ 

Education is hugely important

‘I became a teacher because I enjoy standing in front of a group of people and telling a story. But social commitment is another motivator. Many of my opportunities in life stem from a good education. The Netherlands is still a great place to live, but there are negative trends: student results are down, inequality is on the rise, the tutoring industry is expanding, and the teacher shortage is worsening, especially in the sciences. If no one opts to be a teacher anymore, the problem will only get worse. I am grateful for the solid education I received and I want the same for my children. Besides, education is what drives our knowledge economy. That’s why six years ago I took the decision to at least give teaching a try and fortunately I’m still here today.’ 

Innovative tech companies give their employees one day a week of free play. Educational institutions should really be doing the same.

Words and the silences between them

‘In my classes, I ask a lot of questions.’ Youssef gives a broad grin. ‘To the discomfort of many of my students, I keep quiet until someone says something. As soon as an answer comes, I respond encouragingly and look for more answers, more perspectives. It’s not my style to make things harder than they already are. When we start on a new topic, my first move is to get students to stop and think about what the words actually mean. For example, I am currently developing a project on the particle accelerator in Geneva. That thing is called the Large Hadron Collider and we know that it accelerates protons so that they bump into each other at high speed. But what does the name mean? Large: so it’s a big thing. It is a collider, so things bump into each other. And what on earth is a hadron? It’s another name for a proton. It all makes sense! Going back to the names of things and thinking about what they mean makes a subject less intimidating. The next time students come across a new word, they will hopefully have developed the reflex to do the same themselves.’

Stepping back

‘For a while I kept track of what I spent my time on at HvA. Around sixty percent was taken up with preparing and giving lectures, a smaller proportion was spent on lab work and projects, and somewhere at the bottom of the list, with less than five percent, was my own learning! All through school and university I devoted my time to absorbing knowledge but as soon as I started teaching my personal development practically ground to a halt. Innovative tech companies give their employees one day a week of free play. Educational institutions should really be doing the same. There are budgets for this kind of thing, but they are rarely used up. Most of us are so busy on a daily basis that we simply don’t have the time. That figure of five percent got me thinking: if I can’t find ways to develop in my work setting, then I’ll just have to do it outside work. I was already working on a practical project, the LeerLevels app, with Jonas Voorzanger, a friend who teaches at a secondary school. We both decided to step back from teaching at least one day a week so that we could focus more on the app. That’s been our approach for the past four or five years.’

Learning levels

‘Jonas and I noticed that our classes involve a great deal of repetition and don’t offer much opportunity for personalization. Vast differences can exist within a class of thirty students: some have no trouble getting to grips with the material, while for others it is too challenging or not challenging enough. We wondered if we could find a way to automate some of the more repetitive elements, to give a student explanations and exercises that reflect their understanding at any given moment. We discovered that it can be done, as long as your system meets two criteria. First, you need to structure the teaching material differently. Not in a linear fashion, as in a book, but as a network. A network like that becomes very large very quickly, so the second thing you need is a navigation system that can tell a student: “You’re getting stuck at point x because you haven’t mastered principles b and c yet, so practise those first.” Those two things enable each student to absorb the knowledge they need by taking a different route. Jonas and I built the first prototypes of the tool ourselves. We started with physics classes and expanded step by step, adding content, new subject areas and functionalities. It is now a working app that is used in several schools.’

1.2 million

‘After a number of pilots at HvA, the Executive Board nominated the app for the Higher Education Premium, launched for the first time last year. We were thrilled, not least because it was a great opportunity to spread the word about the philosophy behind the app, regardless of whether we won. Amazingly, we came first! The prize will enable us to accelerate the development of the app and expand the team. Over the next three or four years, our plan is to offer open access to even more modular material so that every teacher can incorporate it in their own approach. And we aim to make the software smarter. Of course, we also want to know what works and what doesn’t. For example, we are curious to know what kind of impact a system like LeerLevels has on how teachers approach their classes. How will they structure their fifty or one hundred minutes of class time once their students start finding their own route through the material? For that research, I am looking for people with a critical outlook who are not afraid to point out the flaws in the system.’ (Youssef laughs.) ‘As one of the proud cocreators, I’m not the right person for that job.’

Profile

Name Youssef El Bouhassani
Position Lecturer and entrepreneur
Institution Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
Programme Applied Physics
Work experience in higher education  Almost 6 years
Total appointment 0.8 FTEs
Time devoted to teaching  80-90%
Other activities Cofounder of LeerLevels, an app that uses artificial intelligence to enable largescale personalized learning (‘that’s what takes up my free time’)
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk Became a member after winning 2018 Lecturer of the Year and was awarded the top Higher Education Premium last year for his LeerLevels app.

 

This portrait is part of the publication 'Dedication to education - Ten portraits of inspired teachers in higher education‘. You can download the publication in English and Dutch. This publication was created in collaboration with members of the Duurzaam Docentschap circle of the ComeniusNetwerk.

 

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