Max Mulder: “A student is […] a human being who is in a certain phase of development.”

Caring, Free, and Empathic; these are the adjectives that describe Max Mulder in a nutshell. Max and Loes (his life partner) empower each other to help people develop themselves in a safe way: “We have a responsibility to take care of each other and to leave the world behind in a better way. It is important not to judge people and learn to let each other be.” Max was awarded the Professor of Excellence (Leermeester) 2021. This is a title carried for a lifetime. In this Story of Education, you will get to know Max Mulder through the following five principles.

 

Connect to your life purpose

Max explains the importance of connecting to your life purpose. “There are days where things do not go as expected or as you wish. These days it is easy to feel burned out or disappointed. It is important to connect to your life purpose. My life purpose is to transfer my knowledge to young people.” In doing so, he makes sure there is room for laughter in his lectures and that students feel safe. “There is no need for hassle in the classroom, life is too short,” he says.

Professor of Excellence | Leermeester 2021
Photo by Guus Schoonewille

You can recognise these phases in your own life as well; the phases within your own existence. I have had different phases in my life as well, I am a different person than, say, 25 years ago. So many things have happened to me that changed my course of existence. I keep that in mind when I interact with my students, all young people who are also in different phases of their journey of development.

Max Mulder

Consider the different phases of development

“A student is not a client, but a human being who is in a certain phase of development.” Each phase raises its own challenges and Max is aware of this. He takes other people’s perspectives into consideration in all his interactions and empowers his colleagues in empathising with their students. “We all look at the world with our own perspective which is highly biased by the environment we live in. I have learned from Loes (his lifepartner, a primary school teacher) that there are different phases of development. You can recognise these phases in your own life as well; the phases within your own existence. I have had different phases in my life as well, I am a different person than, say, 25 years ago. So many things have happened to me that changed my course of existence. I keep that in mind when I interact with my students, all young people who are also in different phases of their journey of development. I have been paying more and more attention to these individual differences in the past 5 to 10 years and have become increasingly aware of the things I do as a lecturer. The Professor of Excellence (Leermeester) award triggered me to reflect even deeper upon my teaching.”

Create new knowledge

According to Max, universities are meant to teach students how to create new knowledge rather than simply how to reproduce existing knowledge. “A good university should not only aim to educate engineers who solve global problems, but also seek answers to essential life questions through e.g., deeper mathematics and physics. We should not only deliver great engineers to the industry. Our core responsibility as a university is educating, producing knowledge, and showing young people how to do that. Max believes knowledge creation is a fundamental part of education and should be more prominent in the curricula. “We currently teach students how to create knowledge primarily through their graduation project, for instance through teaching them how to set up good experiments and what the gathered data means, how reliable they are. I believe our students should have more time developing the skills involved in knowledge creation.” Doing research teaches students different skills paired with the innate realisation that not all questions can be answered, yet the knowledge we create takes us a step forward. “When I started my graduation project, a long time ago, I grasped my books and lecture notes to search for the answers. It came as a shock to me that these answers were not there, but for me to find.”

Learn from unexpected student questions

The smile on Max’s face shows his excitement: “I love learning new things, to understand how things really work, how things are connected. I am simply curious. While teaching I also learn a lot myself which partly explains why I like teaching so much.” This includes understanding the mental pathways of his students when students ask him an unexpected 'out of the blue' question. He explains, “In those cases I typically respond with ‘Mmmmm…..I need some more time to think about this’, and then I ponder on the bike ride back home how they made the mental leap. How did the student come up with this question? Then when I understand that pathway I often think to myself, ‘hey, interesting, that is another way of looking at it’. I enjoy those moments a lot!”

Do what you think is right

The most important thing in teaching, according to Max, is to do what you think is right. Perfection is unattainable; as Max dives deeper, “It is necessary to adapt to your audience to a certain extent, however, do not be enchanted by the idea of doing it right for everyone. When I am in the classroom, I use a certain technique and a certain method. I am a particular type of human, which simply will not resonate with everyone.” To get a sense of his students’ needs and adapt, Max reads student evaluations. “Sometimes I do not recognise myself in the comments and other times I recognise a lot and think to myself, ‘I actually agree with this, this needs to change’. I am usually not fully satisfied with my teaching. Sometimes I think it was great, but mostly I decide to prepare better next time.”

Max’s words of encouragement to Kees Vuik Professor of Excellence (Leermeester) 2022

As he welcomes Kees Vuik, Max shares with the recent awardee: “Enjoy! Focus on what you would like to do, how it may provide you more freedom, what unexpected opportunities it may offer you.”

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