For Jolien, education and research are closely intertwined

Het ComeniusNetwerk 04-08-2022
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Jolien Mouw is an assistant professor of Educational Sciences at the University of Groningen. In 2020, she received a Teaching Fellow grant from the Comenius programme. She used the funding to develop a virtual reality kindergarten classroom to provide a safe training environment for her students.

—this is just one example of the many playful, innovative methods she uses in her teaching to bridge the gap between theory and practice. 

‘Eighteen years ago, I was at an open day and just happened to wander into a classroom where they were giving a presentation about the primaryschool teacher training programme. If I hadn’t, my life may have turned out very differently. But as I sat in that classroom, I just knew: this is what I want to do. Maybe it had something to do with how enthusiastic the people giving the presentation were. It certainly wasn’t for the job prospects in primary education, as appointments were scarce at the time. When I graduated, I was told to “Just sit next to the phone and wait for a substitute teaching job.” I did not feel like doing that at all, so I did a premaster programme followed by a research Master, and then continued to obtain a PhD in Educational Sciences. As it happens, education isn’t just a wonderful professional field to work in—it’s also a fascinating field of research.’ 

Not one or the other (but both) 

‘I’ve been working in higher education for over ten years now. The teachingresearch ratio in my current appointment? (Laughs.) I think it’s 60/40, but I’d have to look that up. For an educational scientist, those activities blend together: I study my own teaching practices and teach about my research findings. I read literature as a researcher, but also as a teacher. Of course, it can be challenging at times to combine these two aspects of my work. Sometimes I reserve a day to work on a research paper, but if a student drops by with a question I’m not going to say, “This is my research day.” So it’s a balancing act, but I wouldn’t want a fulltime research appointment. Teaching is really part of who I am.’ 

Becoming more myself 

‘The most important development I’ve gone through as a teacher is that I’ve become more and more myself. In my first lectures as a PhD student, I was still groping to figure out: are students OK with not having a professor in front of the class? Am I conveying the content well? Now I really stand there as myself. I use my personal experiences to help students grasp theories. For example, I illustrate a lecture on moral development, with a photo of my son, who threw a tantrum as a oneyearold because he wasn’t allowed to touch the oven. In addition, I use a variety of techniques and teaching methods to clarify the main thread of the course: story arcs, interactive digital tools, thoughtprovoking questions, humour, and sarcasm. I also engage students in a lot of conversation. I want to stimulate them to form their own opinions and find their own voice. It definitely takes a few years to develop a course so thoroughly. Moreover, you need to feel ownership to dare to experiment. My appointment as an assistant professor helps with that. I experience much more freedom now than during my PhD. But it’s also in my nature. I always have the urge to develop myself, to try out things that can bring my students even further. That’s also how I keep the work interesting for myself.’

As a scientist, you can also contribute substantially to the academic community through education. 

If you can handle kindergartners, you can handle anything 

‘One teaching innovation that arose from a combination of student needs and my own interests is the virtual reality kindergarten classroom that I developed by virtue of a Teaching Fellow grant from the Comenius programme Secondyear students in the academic primaryschool teacher training programme do a semesterlong internship in kindergarten. I often heard them say things like, “Why do I need a kindergarteninternship? Kindergartners can be cheeky and fidgety , they don’t do what I want, and they cry so easily.” I thought, “If our students are struggling with these kindergartners so much, we’re probably doing something wrong in our instruction.” Moreover, it bothered me that they didn’t like teaching in kindergarten. As a teacher, I actually had such positive experiences with them. Education doesn’t start in third grade. In fact, if you can handle kindergartners, you can do anything. In the virtual reality classroom we offer students a safe environment in which they can try out different strategies to calm down a group of outofcontrol kindergartners. Singing, getting angry, or just waiting— these are all possibilities they can try out. After a successful pilot, we are now going to implement the virtual reality classroom in three other primaryschoolteacher training programmes.’ 

Expressing your ambitions 

‘It’s partly thanks to my work environment that I feel the freedom to experiment, but I also take a proactive stance. I examine how I can achieve my goals and express these goals. It really helps if you express your ambitions, so that’s what I would recommend to earlycareer researchers. Don’t start out thinking, “that’s not possible.” Look for opportunities and likeminded people. There’s a lot of educational innovation happening at universities of applied sciences, go talk to them. (Cheerful) Or send me an email! Twitter can also be an effective tool. I use it to show people what I’m working on and to take part in discussions about education. As a scientist, you learn to be modest, so you have to cross a threshold to say: “I am doing something special, I can make a substantial contribution.” For me, what I do feels selfevident, but when I talk about it I find that other people get inspired. During the pandemic, the president of University of Groningen’s executive board tweeted that our university would become the best in online education. I responded and offered my input as a teacher and educational scientist and was invited to a meeting. Now, after four years in Groningen, I’m starting to reap the benefits of my visibility. More and more people know how to find me and reach out to me. Last year, for example, the rector asked me to give a speech at the end of the year with a positive reflection on education.’ 

Education matters 

‘Another recent milestone was selected for membership of Young Academy Groningen. To me, that’s a sign that something is starting to shift in academia. As a member of the Young Academy Groningen, I can convey even more widely that education is a core task of a university and that, as a scientist, you can also contribute substantially to the academic community through education. I try to make people realize how fun and exciting education can be, and how much energy you can get from it. As teachers, we should more often take the time to celebrate our successes. Even small steps are valuable. It can be something like, “I changed my course and it went well!” Or: “I felt energized when I finished my lecture today.” Or even: “I’m spending time on this course because my students deserve it.” If I can give other researchers just that little push to apply for a Comenius grant instead of working on their umpteenth publication, I’m a fulfilled person.’ 


Name Jolien Mouw
Position Assistant Professor
Institution University of Groningen
Programme Bachelor of Pedagogical and Educational Sciences, Academic PrimarySchool Teacher Training progam and Master of Educational Sciences (tracks: Educational Innovation and Learning in Interaction)
Work experience in higher education  Over 10 years
Total appointment 0.9 FTE
Time devoted to teaching  ‘I’d have to look it up, but I think it’s 60%’ 
Other activities Research, member of the Faculty Council of Behavioural and Social Sciences, Guiding Coalition Hybrid Education at the University of Groningen, Comenius Teaching Fellow – ComeniusNetwerk (circle Sustainable Teaching), member of the Interfaculty V/Ar Hub, member of Young Academy Groningen
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk Developed a virtual reality kindergarten classroom in 2020 by virtue of a Teaching 


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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