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Financieel Dagblad on Knowmads: “Learning with Head, Heart and Hands”
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Financieel Dagblad on Knowmads: “Learning with Head, Heart and Hands”

[NB: This is our own translation of the Dutch article that was originally published on the website of the Financieel Dagblad – the Dutch Financial Times]

In addition to the well-known MBA courses, alternative business schools are emerging for students who want to decide for themselves which direction their development will take. Inspired by the radical founder of the Danish initiative KaosPilot, the Dutch-based school Knowmads is one such alternative. ‘Here it’s not about; I get it and I’ll tell you how it works.’

That this is no traditional business school is obvious the second you enter the Knowmads premises in Amsterdam-West. There is a large orange swing hanging in the hall, the walls are decorated with graffiti art and the classrooms are filled with sofas and chairs of all shapes and sizes. It all exudes an air of student cosiness. And there’s a reason for that, explains Guus Wink, who manages the daily running of the school.

Guus Wink (Photp: Johanne Mellergard, Tribe 14)

‘Our slogan is “welcome home”. We have a messy kitchen where students fry their own eggs – just like at home. The atmosphere is extremely important. People need to feel safe. Where do you learn the most? The first four years of your life, in your own home. There, where it was safe and where if you made mistakes your parents didn’t immediately punish you for them.’

Wink first made contact with the Danish alternative business school KaosPilot in Aarhus, because he simply didn’t feel at home in mainstream education: ‘I studied history in Groningen and noticed that it was not about me in any way. When I had to write an essay on a topic that I didn’t like, I suggested a different topic. That was not allowed. The university never made the connection with who I really am. Nobody ever asked what I thought of something.’

Not Just the Head

Pieter Spinder, founder of Knowmads, had the same experience in mainstream education: ‘I was lecturing for a bachelor’s degree. People are chased through a cut-price chicken factory and then have to get to work. Universities are only about the head. I think education should be about head, heart and hands. Those hands are for trying things out, for ‘action learning’ – just as you do in the first four years of life.’

In his quest for another form of education Spinder also came into contact with KaosPilot in Aarhus. Uffe Elbaek, now MP and leader of the Danish Alternative Party, founded KaosPilots in 1991, an international school for creative entrepreneurship and leadership offering three-year programmes and short training courses. But all just a little bit different. It was the perfect time for such a radically different school, Elbaek recalls.

‘The Berlin Wall had fallen and in many fields radical systemic change was underway. There were new ideas on value-driven organisations and the feeling developed that people need other skills to make it in business. That coincided with a totally new approach to learning. The starting point was no longer the passive job search, but creating your own platform. KaosPilots wanted to help students with a strong awareness that professional and personal development go hand in hand.’

Participants in a ‘tribe’ at Knowmads alternative business school work on their development as entrepreneurs. (Foto: Robin Spruit, Tribe 13)

Awkward Paradox

The relevance of alternative business schools is greater than ever, while the zeitgeist is one of conservatism, says Elbaek. ‘That is an awkward paradox. We really need new, hybrid alternatives. People have to learn how to connect and how to think in communities during their study. Governments are taking a step back, so we have to take ten steps forward and have the guts to face today’s major challenges. Precisely in education.’

Conservative zeitgeist or not, Elbaeks initiative celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month. Knowmads now works together with schools such as the London Business School, the University of Barcelona and the Inholland University of Applied Sciences. Spinder: ‘They think: we need to start doing it differently, let’s see what possibilities there are for give and take. We have changed a lot in that too. At first our attitude was: “You don’t get it”, but that just keeps the gap intact. Now we think more in terms of building bridges.’

From the start Knowmads has attracted students from all over the world, who have to shell out € 3,950 for this six-month adventure. The organisation advises applicants that they can expect to pay total costs of € 10,000 (including travel and living expenses). This bears no relation to the cost of prestigious MBAs.

Own Ideas Important

Throughout the course participants work in ‘tribes’ of ten to fifteen participants on the core subjects of personal leadership and entrepreneurship. These subjects are developed throughout the six-month programme with a wide range of workshops – from marketing to improvisation and social innovation to ‘non-violent communication’. Thereby challenging Knowmads students to express their own ideas and the business school also connects them to businesses. This way they can carry out their projects for real; everything at Knowmads is about learning in action. During and after their time at Knowmads they launch their own value-driven projects and start-ups, says Spinder. But some students also go into mainstream business.

Wink: “With every activity, the same three questions are central: who am I, what is my story and what do I want to bring into the world with that.”

“And every student is a stakeholder,” Spinder adds. “The people within one tribe have diverse backgrounds and can learn an incredible amount from each other. As an organisation we dare to not know the answer. Our education is really not about, “I get it and I’ll tell you how it works.” Our students have been to school from the age of four to twenty-five. The education system has already thrown a lot of mud on the fire that drove them. We don’t throw petrol on it, but we blow very gently, and then the fire starts burning like crazy. ”
Peter Runhaar is a freelance journalist.

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