Wageningen’s best teacher this year swears by ‘chalk and talk’. And of course, plenty of attention to students. Education comes before research, is Henry van den Brand’s creed.
text Roelof Kleis photo Guy Ackermans
De Leermeester (The Tutor) stands on the corner of the bookcase. The proud winner, Henry van den Brand, moves the statue carefully to his desk in his office in Zodiac. The Teacher of the Year studies the figurine, which has a slight air of the magician about it. ‘Maybe you do have to be a bit of a magician,’ he laughs. ‘I think it’s beautiful and I’m very proud of it.’ When the Teacher of the Year Award was announced on 24 April, Van den Brand was somewhere in the sky between Budapest and Amsterdam, returning from an annual teaching assignment. ‘As soon as we were taxiing on the runway I turned on my phone and saw the messages pouring in.’
Van den Brand, who teachers in the Adaptation Physiology chair group, was picked from the five nominees for the prize. He was on the shortlist a year ago too, but then the prize went to Jessica Duncan of Rural Sociology. ‘And I thought that was so right. What with all she does for students, and all the energy she puts into education. Jessica was one of the nominees again this year. But apparently the students decided I should get it.’ And that for someone who hadn’t wanted to be a teacher and was thrown into the deep end in 2001 without a scrap of teaching experience.
Van den Brand (48) was born in Kootwijkerbroek, a little village on the Veluwe. His parents had a mixed farm. ‘Actually it was clear from the start that I wanted to stay in the livestock sector,’ he says. He came to Wageningen after doing a degree at AERES University of Applied Sciences in Dronten. ‘A whole new world opened up to me. The applied sciences course had too little depth for me. At Animal Sciences in Wageningen, I had to think for myself. And that was fantastic. I took two Master’s programmes, Animal Nutrition and Animal Husbandry.’ He graduated in 1994 and was very keen to get a PhD position. ‘But the funding didn’t work out. Then I went into the commercial sector as a junior researcher with a company producing feed for veal calves.’
He got the chance to do a PhD two years later. But after he got his PhD in 2000, history repeated itself: once again, there was no funding to stay on as a researcher and Van den Brand took refuge in the business world. This time as a poultry researcher. ‘This was a whole new world for me. Very nice too, but not a university. I would have preferred to do fundamental research.’ In 2001 he got a job as an assistant professor in Wageningen after all. ‘Without any teaching experience at all. Absolutely none. This is your subject, go ahead. In the first few years, I got my basic teaching qualification, but at first you stand in front of the class with your knees knocking. I wasn’t prepared for it at all.’
Is that sensible?
‘That’s a difficult one. You see, I started from nothing and now here is De Leermeester. If you go for it, lots of things are possible. But I know too that a lot of top researchers don’t necessarily make the best teachers. I was secretary of the programme committees for Animal Sciences, and then you see all the student evaluations. Some of them make me think: what a hard time the teacher must have had in that classroom. Whereas they are extremely good researchers. Many teachers get appointed on the basis of their research capacities. They do the teaching on the side.’
Should that change?
‘I think it would be good if there was more emphasis on the standard of education throughout the university. The university is an educational institution first and foremost. You should put education first, in my view. If you don’t, you should go and work in contract research. And a university should invest in that education. That goes for tenure track as well, the career track for researchers. The requirements for the teaching side of tenure track could be stricter.’
In what way stricter?
‘If you want to go on tenure track, you should meet a few basic requirements for good teaching. One should be that you must at least be on the list of 200 teachers from whom the Teacher of the Year is elected every year. I would definitely recommend that.’
Van den Brand certainly throws himself into his teaching with heart and soul. He acquired his teaching skills as he went along through Education Institute courses on topics such as intercultural communication, designing exams, and conducting one-to-one discussions. For the rest, he reckons it’s a question of having some nerve and trying new things now and then.
Personally, Van den Brand thinks he won the prize primarily because he invests a lot in students. ‘I always prepare my lectures in great detail. I don’t just recycle last year’s lectures. And I take time for that. How shall I approach it this time? How could I relate it to current affairs? How much do these students already know? Who is my audience?’ Van den Brand takes that last question quite literally. He likes to be able to put a name to every face and he works on that. ‘I usually have 100 or more students. I aim to know at least half their names after two weeks, and all of them by the end of the course. And I make use of that knowledge: I address my students by name. I think that personal touch is very important. Students appreciate it enormously. You are not just a number to me, but a person. That's how I would want to be treated myself. And during the breaks I don’t stay at my PC, but walk around to have a chat with different people. I ask for feedback about the lecture or practical. What do you like, and what could be done differently? If things are not going well for someone, I make time for them. If necessary, they come here for an hour of individual tuition. I take that space.’
That personal approach earns Van den Brand a lot of credit with his students. And that is now tangible in the form of De Leermeester. And not long ago, the Kloosterman trophy, the annual prize awarded by the study association De Veetelers, which graces his bookcase too. This trophy is a 30-centimetre-high dark blue milk churn that has been passed on to a new winner every year since 1976.
A choice: a blackboard or a smartboard?
‘A blackboard, no doubt about it. I’ve cut down on my use of PowerPoint. I’ve had enough of it, and only use it as a support tool in the lecture. Give me a blackboard and some chalk of several different colours any day. Preferably a big board like the one in room 222 in the Forum. In the Bachelor’s course Immunology and Thermoregulation, I teach the Thermoregulation part. Put simply, that is about how animals or humans regulate their body temperatures and what factors influence that. So it’s really basic knowledge, but quite abstract. Then I start building up my story from left to right on the board, with figures, tables and diagrams. From a to b to c to d. And once I’m at d, I can point back at the relation with a or b. Then the student can see the connections at a glance. You can’t do that on a smartboard. It’s only two square metres in size and when it’s full, you swipe it all away. Building up the whole story like that gives students an overview. And it slows you down, so students can follow it better. You do have to stick to the key points, though. And you have to make that very clear from the start: what is covered in class is limited; you must read up on the rest in the textbook.’
Can you work like that everywhere?
‘No. The Forum has a big board. Zodiac has a fantastic board and the Chemistry building at the Dreijen is good too. But Orion is a disaster in this respect. There are only smartboards or small whiteboards there. I am not a great fan of the technical innovations. I’m more of a storyteller. I come from farming stock and I make use of my practical knowledge in my lectures. If I explain something very abstract I try to use a real-life example. I sketch the situation and ask students how they would deal with it. I challenge them, I ask questions.’
Van den Brand is critical of the standard of education. And students have the right to be more critical too, he thinks. ‘For 2000 euros in tuition fees – and foreign students pay a lot more than that – you have the right to quality. Look, there are students who come here just to get their piece of paper. They are satisfied with sixes and sevens on their grade lists. But there is also a category of students, certainly among the foreign students, who come here to aim for the top. They want value for money. And quite right, in my view. There is absolutely no doubt about the standard of the expertise at our university. But there is a discrepancy between having knowledge and transferring knowledge. Students have the right to have a good teacher lecturing and tutoring them, who is also a good researcher.’
But Van den Brand is equally critical of the students. He says the level of the VWO exams at the end of secondary school is inadequate, to put it mildly. ‘They often lack very simple basic knowledge. There are students who don’t know what a gradient is on a graph. That really happens. That is material for the second year of the less academic HAVO stream at secondary school. At the more academic VWO level nowadays, it’s all about learning how to look things up rather than actually learning things. And there’s a price to pay for that. I think it would be a blessing if students were selected more strictly. Make students take a test, set grade requirements or hold interviews or something. It is badly needed.’
He is not referring to the good ones here, of course. In fact, he gives priority to excellent students. Just as he did when he was nominated for the Teacher of the Year Award last year – all nominees get 2500 euros – Van den Brand is donating his prize money to the chair group. ‘It can be used to enable excellent students to attend a conference to present their research at the end of their degree programme. We cover all the costs. I earned that money working with students, so it is nice to be able to spend it on students too.’