Why this teacher wants to decolonise the university

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I had frequently seen them on display, in the corridors of the business experts. Large photos, portraits in simple black and white. With a solemn promise underneath. One claims to be working towards positive change. Another is going to empower women. Another wants to tackle climate change once the master degree is in the bag. Right, I always thought, a little cynically. Calls to arms like those devised by expensive marketing agencies. And the young people in the photographs – were they even students of this university at all?

How mistaken one can be. The I WILL call-to-arms statements are part of the Rotterdam School of Management’s successful goal-setting programme. Surprising in its simplicity, but – as it turns out – one of the most effective educational innovations the faculty has introduced in recent years.

Michaéla Schippers, the programme’s spiritual founder, proudly serves up the results. Since its introduction in 2011, student figures have risen and the dropout rate has plummeted, both by more than 20 per cent. “And our students say they have more direction in their day-to-day lives. They are happier.”

Michaéla Schippers is the initiator of the I WILL goal-setting programme at the Rotterdam School of Management, and Academic Director of the Erasmus Centre for Study and Career Success. She has a background in psychology and is a Professor of Behavioural and Performance Science. The goal-setting method, based among other things on the work of Canadian psychologist Dominique Morisano, is currently being experimented with in other faculties (ESE, ESL), other universities (UVA) and secondary schools.

Full house

Some 15 years ago, trained and graduated as a psychologist, Schippers delivered her first major course at Erasmus University, about behaviour in organisations. It was the start of the academic year, so almost all 900 first-year Business Administration students were there. The auditorium was bursting at the seams. Impressed by the full house, Schippers asked the programme managers whether it would continue that way. “Absolutely not,” they responded. “By the end of the year, half will be gone.”

Schippers, still visibly bewildered, recalls: “That means we would have lost 450 students in one year. Weird, isn’t it?” And she continues: “Surely it couldn’t be the case that they were all unmotivated? Or not smart enough? So, I thought: there must be something to be done about that.”

Big cars and lots of money

Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg

This is how it works. Every first-year student is given an assignment to take home in week three. It’s a link to an online questionnaire, but with a special instruction to take plenty of time for it in a place where they won’t be disturbed. With questions like “What do you want to learn?”, “What do you enjoy doing?” and “Who do you admire?”, a conclusive overview is built up where the student has to paint a picture of his ideal life.

Everything is allowed, “can’t” doesn’t exist, the sky’s the limit. They must describe their dreams in as much detail as possible. This produces descriptions involving big cars and lots of money, but also the desire to dig wells in Kenya and to start a family. (This latter wish surfaces surprisingly often, incidentally, to the astonishment of Schippers: “When I was that age, that was probably the last thing on my mind.”)

They then have to describe the life they absolutely don’t want. For example, ending up in the gutter. Or on the couch, beer in hand. Also heard a lot: ending up like your parents. “Quite a few students seem to regard that as the ultimate frightening image,” chuckles Schippers.

Learn Spanish

A couple of weeks later, the students are asked to flesh out their dreams by distilling them into six to eight concrete goals and – perhaps most importantly, Schippers adds – ranking them. They also need to identify what they need to do to achieve them. And what they have to give up. “When you’re young, all sorts of desires are rushing through your head all the time. You want to pass that subject, but drinking a beer in the pub is also fun. There are trips to be made, loved ones to meet. And perhaps you want to take guitar lessons or learn Spanish one day. But you can’t do everything. To achieve something, you have to make choices.”

All this ultimately results in a public commitment, the promise that’s then posted on Facebook alongside the familiar professionally-shot black and white photo (which is taken of every first-year student, if they want it).

In this way, not only do you gain clarity on your goals, but you also commit to them, says Schippers. And that helps with self-regulation, even if it is sometimes unconscious. “If you’re publicly committed to a goal, it’s much easier to say no to those small daily temptations that can knock you off-course.”

Classic stacker


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Michaéla Schippers grew up in Landsmeer (just above Amsterdam) and in Rozenburg, in a family with eight children. Her mother was at home, and father worked for the parks department. Logically, this wasn’t a situation from which a professor would sprout, but Schippers developed into a classic stacker.

Secondary education, a few years of work – “doing everything and anything, from a supermarket to a bakery” – and through the pre-university education scheme for adults she finally ended up at the VU University Amsterdam studying Psychology. “Everyone said: ‘That’s too difficult for you, too theoretical.’ Okay, I thought, the worst that can happen is that they’ll kick me out. But after a year, I was one of the 10 per cent who managed to get the propaedeutic certificate in one go.”

The same thing happened with her graduation. It was 1998 (‘a really good period’) so she could work as a consultant. But someone had also told her that she could become a PhD student. No idea what that meant, of course, because no-one in the family had had anything with science. But after she “buttonholed the first researcher I could find” to ask what he was doing, it seemed like a good idea. The award for the best dissertation (about team reflexivity) still takes pride of place in her office in the Mandeville building.

Oh yes, and then she also almost became a Taekwondo world champion (she did, however, come second in the European Championships). It’s the only goal she didn’t achieve of the ambitions she listed in 2011 when she took the assignment herself.

The other goals – to become a professor, to have a child – have been fulfilled. “In Taekwondo, I can always try out with the veterans,” she grins. Then, seriously: “Had I only been given the opportunity to list things this way 20 years ago, I would have taken far fewer detours.”

Ethnic minorities


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“When do you really think in a structured way about what you want to do with your life?” she asks. “You’re not really encouraged to do that. Of course, when you’re young the teacher asks what you want to be. But then all the boys say firefighters, police officers or pilots. Or you can look to your parents because you don’t know any better. I wanted to become a gardener.”

Once you’ve done that, there’s a huge impact, she says. In terms of study success and dropout rates, but comprehensive analysis over recent years shows that the impact on boys and ethnic minorities – who traditionally do worse in academic education – is many times greater than the average 20 per cent for the whole cohort. In some cases, ethnic minorities actually do up to 50 per cent better, she says. And the effect is sustainable: up to the master’s level, I WILL students score better.

Officially, she has to add a small proviso. For the methodological hair-splitters: she did not do a randomised controlled trial, which is scientifically something of a gold standard. This means she does not have a randomised control group (she is however currently setting up a pure experiment at the Erasmus School of Economics, and at McGill University they have already done so successfully). But she has been able to compare the participating groups with previous cohorts in a ‘quasi-experimental design’, and to correct for other possible factors that could explain the increase in study success. In ordinary people’s language: she’s sure it works.

Aimless wandering


So, nothing but praise. And it also yields the faculty another two million euros a year (because fewer students drop out). The question of course remains, of whether students can be expected to have their lives mapped out during the first few months of their studies.

First there was the binding study advice (compulsory removal if you don’t score two-thirds of the marks in the first year). Then ‘Nominal = normal’ (required to score all points). Taken in combination with the disappearance of the study grant, the pressure on students is now enormous.

Isn’t the study time also an ideal period for exploring a little and wandering off with little sense of direction? “It might indeed take some of the romance out of it,” says Schippers. “Of course, that’s regrettable. But we see in research that many students simply can’t cope with being aimless. Most people are happier when they have a clear goal.”

She beams as she describes the endless possibilities. “When fellow students used to go to Africa to build an orphanage, I thought: I just don’t have that idealism. But I turned out to be more idealistic than I thought, now that I’ve discovered something for myself that can work on a large scale. My new motto is: I WILL inspire people to find their IKIGAI. That’s Japanese for purpose in life. We start with the universities, colleges and secondary schools in the Netherlands. Then there’s Europe. Then there’s the rest of the world. Imagine that you could increase the level of happiness a little throughout Europe.”