Stijn sees higher education as a candy store

Het ComeniusNetwerk 02-08-2022
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At Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, Stijn Bollinger fulfils all kinds of roles supporting students and professionals in their development. He likes to spark curiosity in others, and to leave plenty of room for uncertainty in the learning process.

‘I sometimes get asked where I want to be in five years. (Smiles.) That makes me nervous, because I don’t even know where I want to be tomorrow. I’m not driven by distant, ambitious goals, but by specific values and interests. What fascinates me is how to let people learn. I want t o be of value in that process, and there are many ways to do that. Which is also why my career path has been full of twists and turns. I started out with two unfinished teaching degrees, one of which was for primary school teaching (interesting, but not my target audience). Then I worked as a musician for a while before doing a Bachelor’s in history and a Master’s in American studies. In 2006, I joined the Institute of Law at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences as a Research teacher. A surprising match at first glance, but I’ve been able to make real strides here in terms of my professional development, and it’s still a great place to work for me.’

Uncertainty in the learning process

‘Although I started at the Institute of Law with little knowledge of the law nor teaching experience, I took to teaching right away. I learned a lot myself along the way and – fortunately – so did the students. Gradually, I got a better handle on the content. Because I’m inquisitive by nature, I went on to do a PhD on a parttime basis. At the same time, I started teaching more and more research courses. I also became responsible for the research track in the Social Legal Services programme, and meanwhile my interest was shifting away from the actual subject matter itself to the process. During my PhD work and in my first years of teaching, I often experienced uncertainty, and I saw that students were also deal18 ing with this. Some would go through the entire programme without any hiccups, and then suddenly started struggling when it came time to graduate. Why do we find that uncertainty so frustrating, I wondered. Where does it come from, how much is too much and when is it actually useful? That’s when I began studying the role of uncertainty in the learning process as part of the HU Research Group of Research Competence. Now, the research even has an international dimension, as we’ve teamed up with five European partners. At Utrecht University of Applied Sciences’ Teaching & Learning Network, I also train and coach colleagues in this area. It does take some courage to allow space for uncertainty in the learning process, both for students and teachers.’

I have to combine all these highly diverse roles. I am my own instrument, and I’ve got this deepseated desire to let others learn.

Student graduation toolkit

‘About four years ago, we received a Teaching Fellow grant from the Comenius programme, which allowed us to translate the insights from our research into a practical thesis toolkit for students. We developed the toolkit together with graduating students from the Social Legal Services programme. It consists of a booklet and a website and is structured around six triggers of uncertainty. For example, an assessment can create uncertainty, but so can the freedom you have when you do research. The tools are tailored to that, and they’re also quite diverse: they help graduating students plan their research process, to reflect and to motivate themselves. We talk about ‘safe uncertainty’ in the toolkit, because safety is necessary to allow uncertainty to become part of the learning process.’

Along for the journey

‘If someone has decided to study a certain subject, I assume they’re curious and looking for adventure, and that they want to learn specific career skills. Of course, time constraints, performance expectations and extrinsic motivation also come into play, but I think every student has the will to grow and develop. I love tapping into that, and whenever it happens it’s like striking gold. “Why are you here?” I ask the students. “Of course you have to pass that exam that’s coming up, but what would you like to learn yourself?” In the back of my mind is always that iconic teacher from my own student days who would encourage me and show me patience, but who could also be strict when needed. Students all have their own paths to travel and I’m happy to accompany them for part of their journey. They can call on me when they need to, but they’re responsible for themselves. I’m curious to see how they view the landscape of their development, and maybe I can occasionally point out something they hadn’t noticed themselves. But it’s a twoway street – when I talk to students, I’m often so impressed by them! “You coach a football team? How do you do that?” Or: “You’re a team leader at your local supermarket, tell me more about that.” Recently, my students nominated me for Teacher of the Year. (Modestly.) I didn’t win, of course, but it was great to be nominated. I also recognized myself and the things I find important in education in their description of me.’

Forging connections

‘I like to forge connections: between research and education, but also between professionals and degree programmes. At Utrecht University of Applied Sciences’ Teaching & Learning Network, I’m involved in two clusters: Educational Leadership,in which I support colleagues that innovate their degree programmes, and Implementing Education, which deals with teacher professionalization. It’s inspiring to hear others talk about their way of working, their expertise – I can be really impressed by how colleagues handle things. I’m also affiliated with the ComeniusNetwerk. I’ve attended inspiring meetings and been involved in applications for new projects as a reviewer. This not only allows me to give something back to the Comenius community, but I also get to take what I learn from this back to my colleagues at the Institute of Law and the Investigative Ability research
group.’

Many different roles

‘It’s probably clear by now that I fulfil many different roles at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences: I’m a senior lecturer, thesis coordinator, advisor, coach, trainer and researcher. There’s all kinds of interplay between those different roles. Sometimes they reinforce each other, sometimes they blend together, sometimes they collide. If I’m working on a research project, for example, I can’t just ‘put on my coaching hat’, even if I see that a student who’s involved in the project is going through a hard time. But I still have to combine all these highly diverse roles. I am my own instrument, and I’ve got this deepseated desire to let others learn. For me, higher education is the perfect place to do that, because it allows you to constantly reinvent yourself. In that sense, it’s really like a candy store. I can’t speak for others, but that’s my experience. Maybe I feel that way because I value my autonomy so much. Sure, I have to initiate new steps myself and align my goals with the ambitions and questions of the organization, but I’ve never encountered any closed doors in my work. People are more inclined to respond by saying, “That’s interesting. It’s great that you’re so motivated!” The only downside to working in a candy store is the stomach ache you get if you can’t contain yourself. This remains a balancing act for me: phases of divergence (embarking on new adventures) and phases of convergence (focusing my attention) alternate. I’m now in a period where I have to make choices so that I can give the tasks that remain the attention they deserve.’
 

Profile

Name Stijn Bollinger
Position Senior lecturer and senior researcher
Institution Utrecht University of Applied Sciences
Programme Fulltime Social Legal Services (SJD) programme and the parttime legal programmes HBO Law, SJD and Bailiff.
Work experience in higher education  19 years (16 as a teacher)
Total appointment 1.0 FTE
Time devoted to teaching  About 50%
Other activities Thesis coordination in the fulltime SJD programme and coordination of the research track in the SJD curriculum, researcher at the Investigative Ability research group, advisor, trainer and coach for the HU University of Applied Sciences Teaching & Learning Network
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk Used a Teacher Fellow grant in 2018-2019 to create a student graduation toolkit for dealing with uncertainty; reviewer of grant applications

 

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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