Sylvia wants to give students what she never had

Het ComeniusNetwerk 11-08-2022
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Sylvia Bronkhorst set up the Learning with Head, Heart & Hands programme at the HAN. The goal of the programme is to get students, teachers and degree programmes excited about education that approaches human beings holistically, rather than appealing exclusively to the brain.

‘Twenty­two years ago I graduated cum laude from Wageningen University. A success story, you might say, but my student years had been stressful. I had duti­ fully jumped through all the hoops, and now that I was done I had no idea which way to go. Because I’m good with numbers, I decided to go work at a bank – a choice I probably never would have made if my studies had allowed me to explore who I was and where my interests lay.’

Lost excitement

‘After several jobs, I became project leader at the HAN Centre for Entrepreneurship in 2009. I was amazed to learn how little had changed in education since my own student days. (Sighs.) Both the students and the teachers would often look bored, and classes still consisted primarily of classical, theoretical knowledge transfer. I saw ambitious first­year students who had lost their confidence by the time they graduated. During those four years at the HAN, they had slowly lost their sense of excitement. That made me realize that education should appeal to more than just your head. Learning involves your entire ‘system.’

Expressing your ideas

‘My teaching experience was limited, but my drive to change something was so intense that I talked about it all the time. Because of that, other people also got inspired. There was no strategy behind it, but when people hear you speak with passion it’s contagious. “Are you interested in this? You should mention that to so and so”, people would say. Or: “Could you teach a workshop on this?” I didn’t have anything concrete to base a workshop on at first, but over time I started to develop a vision and teaching materials, organically and in collaboration with others. Now it’s a full­fledged programme: Learning with Head, Heart & Hands. (Beaming.) I actually pulled it off!’

Learning through experience

‘The idea behind Learning with Head, Heart & Hands is that we tap into people’s multiple intelligences. We feed the mind with knowledge, while we approach the heart from feelings and experiences: we investigate what drives someone, what their talents and passions are, but also what’s holding them back. Finally, we put people’s hands to work, because learning is also done by experiencing things. You might think that this would be standard practice in higher vocational education, but many programmes don’t pay attention to it at all – even though you often have to do something to find out if you like it.

Besides that, the Learning with Head, Heart & Hands programme is based on four principles: you learn about yourself, you learn in a close­knit community, you learn by experimenting and you learn by having fun. That’s what makes our vision substantially different from the one that underpins mainstream education. For us, learning is about unfolding from within rather than cramming things in from outside. It’s an approach that takes students very seriously, and for some that takes a while to get used to.’

Soft skills & trainers

‘The first thing we developed based on our concept was a minor on entrepre­ neurship for starting entrepreneurs (Onderneem! De ontdekkingsreis). This was made possible in part by a Teaching Fellow grant from the Comenius programme. Our programme is not an end in itself, but a means, a path you can take. One of my colleagues created a nice visualization of this path. He drew a road shaped like the infinity symbol. The left loop symbolizes your understanding of who you are, the right loop your view of the world. At the crossroads lies your personal destination, your experiment. In the minor, we help students explore what’s at that crossroads for them. Some of them end up starting real businesses that pur­ sue social impact. For example, one of our students is developing an app to help other students learn soft skills in a playful way. Two other students saw a potential market for nicer, more comfortable sneakers and are now experimenting with prototypes. (Laughs.) The teacher also gets a pair, of course.’

Being the person you needed yourself

‘While we ask big questions in our programme that can’t be fully answered in a few weeks, we do create space for honest personal inquiry. It’s quite natural for a 20­year­old to not know exactly what they want. In our workshops, we some­ times see students – but also professionals – who are mostly sure of what they don’t want, which can also be a powerful motivator. My own disappointment in our education system helped me develop into who I am today. I try to be the per­ son I needed myself.’

Our vision is substantially different from the one that underpins mainstream education. For us, learning is about unfolding from within rather than cramming things in from outside.

Out in the open

‘One of the defining characteristics of my way of working is that I put a lot of energy into creating a close­knit group. Research has shown that feeling safe is crucial to learning. Students often find it uncomfortable at first that we spend so much time on questions like ‘’who am I?’’ and ‘’who are we?’’, but later they’re very positive about it.

You have to feel safe if you’re going to share personal things – the things you find important, but also the things that are holding you back. Getting your insecurities out in the open makes it easier to manage them. A group can help you in that process, because you find out that others also struggle with fear of failure and perfectionism. How do they deal with these things? And what’s it like for someone who’s not a perfectionist? Because I’m part of the group as well, I’m also open about my own fear of failure, which used to flare up from time to time – and still does. I am completely myself in everything I do, so I’m candid about these aspects of myself as well. A student once said to me, “You always throw yourself in front of the bus first.”’

Big ambitions and small successes

‘The HAN’s ambition is for every student and teacher to make a difference on so­ cial issues. We want to be an institution that makes an impact and my team knows how to educate people to help them do that. Our programme trains teachers and assists degree programmes with educational development. We get questions and assignments from all kinds of people, which our team is happy to tackle. A lot of things are going well, but we’re still moving too slowly for my taste. Fundamentally changing the education system is very difficult – the existing structures have deep roots. If you start centring education around the student instead of the subject matter, it becomes impossible to predict exactly how things will unfold. Teachers would be given a more facilitating role. The current system was not designed to accommodate this uncertainty. It might generate a lot of re­ sistance, but I’m sure this approach is ultimately more efficient, even for large degree programmes. Still, it’s complex. To stay motivated, we deliberately invest our energy only into teams that are receptive to our approach. That’s what pays off the most. And we celebrate all our successes!’



Sylvia Bronkhorst

Position Recently celebrated her 12.5­year anniversary (‘but it feels like it’s only been three years’)
Responsible for the Learning with Head, Heart & Hands programme (‘I sometimes call myself an educational innovator, but that sounds so fluffy’)
Institution HAN University of Applied Sciences
Department ‘I invented my job myself, so I didn’t really belong anywhere, but my programme is currently embedded in the Department of Educational Research Quality Assurance’
Total appointment 0.8 FTE (officially)
Time devoted to teaching  100% – I spend half my time training students and teachers and the other half is devoted to educational innovation/ curriculum renovation
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk Used a Teaching Fellow grant in 2018 to set up the Learning with Head, Heart & Hands programme as part of a minor on entrepreneurship.


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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