World’s best teacher could be from Limburg


Koen Timmers is tipped as a favourite to win the Global Teacher Prize for his work to connect pupils around the world through technology and real-world learning

From Heusden-Zolder to Kenya

Teachers in adult education institutions don’t often have their own websites, but Koen Timmers is no ordinary teacher. He is in fact one of the 10 best teachers in the world, according to the Global Teacher Prize.

The London-based Varkey Foundation receives some 30,000 nominations every year from educators around the world for the prize. It then compiles a longlist of 50 teachers, eventually whittling it down to 10 finalists.

Last year, Timmers made the top 50, enough to garner headlines across Belgium. This year he’s in the top 10, enough to garner headlines around the world. He’ll be heading to Dubai next month for the ceremony that could see him win $1 million in prize money.

“I’ll be spending time with the top 50 finalists and also the top 50 of the past three years,” says Timmers (pictured). He will also speak three times as the ceremony is part of the Global Education & Skills Forum. And he will introduce the new book Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice.

“I co-authored the book with five others,” he explains. “My chapter focuses on how technology will be used in classrooms in 2030.”

Prize money would be game changer

Timmers teaches website design at De Verdieping CVO in Heusden-Zolder, as well as carries out research into distance learning at the PXL University College in nearby Hasselt. This research is directly linked to the project that earned him the Global Teacher Prize nomination last year.

Project Kakuma provides distance learning to some 100,000 children in the massive refugee camp in northwest Kenya. Since launching the project in 2015, Timmers has organised 175 teachers from more than 50 countries to offer free education to the Kakuma pupils via Skype.

He has also crowdfunded computers and other digital equipment for the camp’s schools. But $1 million (about €800,000) would go an astronomically long way to improving the system.

What could be better than learning about global issues directly from students living in those countries?

- Koen Timmers

“We really need funds,” he says. A few weeks ago they ran out of money at Kakuma to pay for the internet connection at three of the schools. “One tweet led to a donation of $3,000 from Microsoft. So now we are safe for at least two years in those three schools. But Kakuma has 30 schools.”

That kind of prize money would not only take care of internet connections and power supplies, it could help Timmers expand the project to other countries. “The concept can be applied to other refugee camps,” he says. “How cool would it be to offer free education to refugees and poor people around the world!”

In the year since his last nomination for the Global Teacher Prize, the 38-year-old has launched no fewer than three other initiatives: Human Differences, a global student-centred project around gender equality; Wai Water, in which students were tasked with finding solutions to local and global water problems; and Climate Action, Timmers’ attempt to use education to help reach the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.

Authentic learning

Climate Action brought together 250 schools across nearly 70 countries. It had the support of no less than Jane Goodall and the Dalai Lama. Pupils in the schools identified environmental problems and potential solutions, sharing them via video links with other classrooms around the world.

“During a four-week period, pupils had to create a weekly video about one topic related to climate change and look at causes, effects and solutions,” Timmers explains. “This way, they learned in their own classrooms but also from their peers around the world. What could be better than learning about global issues directly from students living in those countries? That’s authentic learning – problem-based, real-world learning.”

Students can learn by exploring, creating, discussing and brainstorming. I’d say that leaves a deeper impression than textbooks

- Koen Timmers

Changing the way teachers teach and pupils learn is what Timmers is all about. “In formal education, people focus too much on teaching rather than learning, on knowledge acquisition rather than developing skills and empathy, on memorisation rather than critical thinking. I want to show teachers around the world that there are other ways to teach. Students can learn by exploring, creating, discussing and brainstorming. They can present and share their findings. I’d say that leaves a deeper impression than textbooks.”

It also introduces youngsters to technology outside of computer science studies. “Students learned to use those tools while focussing on meaningful topics.”

Microsoft was also a supporter of Climate Action, as well as the Global Teacher Prize; Bill Gates himself announced the 10 final nominees last week. “When you think about what drives progress and improvement in the world,” said Gates, “education is like a master switch – one that opens up all kinds of opportunities for individuals and societies.”

The Global Teacher Prize award ceremony takes place in Dubai on 18 March.

Photo: Boumediene Belbachir/CVO De Verdieping