Armenia: Reluctant Reformers

YEREVAN | Maritsa Abajyan, 41, a second-grade teacher in Yerevan’s 121 school, was supposed to receive a set of colorful children’s furniture this year for her classroom – just one of the results of education reforms designed to create a more playful, interactive environment for the country’s youngest pupils. Instead, she was given just a few pieces and decided to give them away to a colleague, leaving her students to study at the same old-fashioned, gray tables placed in traditional rows.

Yet the setting seems appropriate, given Abajyan’s own difficulties in embracing the new system: “I find the former strictness of classes correct,” she says, dismissing the notion of more creative, alternative activities. “The child should be strictly within the borders of the lesson. If you do not work that way, the child does not work.”

Photo by Anush Babajanyan.

Photo by Anush Babajanyan.

By now, however, her students should be receiving a different type of education, and she should be a different type of teacher. But three years into the changes brought about by Armenia’s shift to a 12-year education system, more in line with European standards, it’s clear that many teachers like Abajyan remain entrenched in the old way of doing things.  If previously the problem was the absence of trained teachers, now the issue is that some of the trained teachers have not bought into the system they were taught to implement.

Too Much Freedom in the Classroom

“They say that the teacher has no right to go against the child’s will,” Abajyan says, explaining her predicament. “They say that if the child wants to play or go eat something, he should do it. But when the others see that one of them is eating, they don’t want to work either.”

As for the individual approach that the new system requires, “In the case of 12 students, which is how many students I have, you fully make it,” Abajyan says. “Everyone speaks in class every day. But in the first grades we have 33 students [per class]. And with 33 students it is impossible to ‘hold their hands’ and take them through the class.”

Abajyan is also not a big fan of the decision to make Wednesday a designated relaxation day for five-year-old first graders, feeling that the break stunts their development as students. “Honestly, I do not respect that day, upon my own initiative,” she admits. “I study mathematics with them on those days. I find that correct, and we have completed the curriculum just in time.”

In general, Abajyan explains away the achievements of the 12-year system in Europe by noting cultural differences. “There is a big difference between our children [European and Armenian],” Abajyan says. “Their children are more liberal, more independent.”

Jemma Karapetyan, a teacher at Yerevan school 51, is much older than Abajyan, but appreciates some of the reasoning behind the reforms.

“I consider the group discussion method a good one,” said Karapetyan, who has taught mathematics for nearly 40 years. “But because of my age, I cannot bear noise. Young and enthusiastic teachers can make this system work well.” She also worries that the changes have placed a greater burden on students, especially the younger ones.

“The children come to school when they are five years old, instead of going to kindergarten [as they used to],” Karapetyan says. “We have to make the classes easier so that they can grasp them.”

The Ministry of Education says it will not negotiate with recalcitrant teachers.

“Starting in March [2010] we will implement teacher attestation,” says Narine Hovhannisyan, the head of the department of general education at the ministry. “I think these issues will be solved through the attestation process. Teachers who have bad qualities will [have to] leave schools.”

Hovhannisyan also adds that school headmasters are responsible for the realization of the new teaching methods. “The principals should want their teachers to have good qualities. It is also an issue of the school’s reputation.”

Bella Suqiasyan, the principal of school No. 105 in Yerevan, approves of the new methods but says that teachers in her school cannot fully adjust to the new system yet.

“They learn the new methods, but they don’t start using them at once,” Suqiasyan said. “They teach using both the traditional and the new methods. Methods such as the group and interactive methods are great. They are good for developing the students’ critical-thinking qualities.”


Impatient for the Transition


Many parents remained dissatisfied with the current transition period. “They broke down the old system, without preparing the new one thoroughly,” says Lusine Vardanyan, the mother of a fifth grader at one of Yerevan’s schools. “The teachers still act the way they used to. They shout at children and even their parents – they turn up late to their classes.” She views the current situation as an incomplete mixture of the old Soviet-era education system and the present one. And her son, Zhirayr, still hasn’t received the new books required for the 12-year system.

“They said it will be easier for students to study,” Vardanyan said. “Now it is only harder. Books have not been changed; class hours have not been reduced. Moreover, they added new subjects, increasing the difficulty.”

Education ministry officials council patience and note the progress already made, saying students do study less than before, with first graders attending 20 hours of class instead of 23. Students in the upper grades already have six or seven classes a day instead of eight, and the new system should facilitate the addition of new subjects to the curriculum.

Photo by Anush Babajanyan.

Photo by Anush Babajanyan.

The ministry’s website also reports that 65 new textbooks were printed in 2008 to be issued in time for the fall 2009 school year, including topics such as “Technology” and “Myself and the Environment”.

But the textbooks have not met with universal approval. “They have made everything much more difficult,” complained Anna Avetisyan, a geography teacher from the city of Gyumri. “The geography book for the seventh grade is awfully hard. The same can be said about the book for natural sciences for the fifth and sixth grades – the children don’t understand it at all.”

Others disagree. “For example, the new mathematics book for fourth graders is wonderful,” Karapetyan says. “It has made things easier and explains everything in detail.”

The Death of Tutors?

Some educators have started to speculate that another part of the reforms – the restructuring of schools – will eventually lead to the disappearance of private tutors (who have obviously benefited the students who can most afford them). Under the new rules, schools must separate their years of study into primary, middle, and high schools. Before there was no division; the students simply studied for 10 years. Now they are able to leave after middle school and go to a different, specialized high school elsewhere, more in tune with their interests and professional ambitions. The supposition is that these schools – 48 of which opened their doors this fall – will provide their students with the knowledge necessary to enter university afterwards, eliminating the need for tutors.

Suqiasyan, the principal of school No. 105, where a high school also opened this year, hopes that soon her students will be able to enter universities without studying with tutors.

“Little by little the private tutor will disappear,” Suqiasyan said. “Parents already feel that soon they will not have to spend those additional funds.”

Julietta Weiss is a tutor of mathematics and physics who helps students prepare for their university entrance exams. She sees little change in the number and quality of her students since 2006, when the new system began. “My situation is even better than before,” Weiss said. “Because schools are unstable, parents are worried. So they bring their kids here.”

However, Weiss – who, incidentally, tutors five high school students from school No. 105, because she lives nearby – is not ready to call it quits quite yet. She feels tutoring has more to do with the difficulty of university entrance exams. “Even before the 12-year education system, when parents took their children to high-quality colleges with specific directions, still, they also took them to tutors,” Weiss said (unlike in the North American sense, “colleges” in Armenia are a substitute for the last two years of high school).

Although already a high school student in the new system, Ani Vardanyan will start studying with tutors this year, preparing for university exams.

“Some of my classmates have left school,” Ani said. “But they didn’t do it to go to a specialized high school. They left to find a school where they will not have to study too much, so that they have time for studying with tutors.”

Over at the Education Ministry, Hovhannisyan acknowledges the current challenges, but says it would have taken too long to organize all aspects of the system before launching it. “It could have lasted for years if we prepared for it beforehand and then began it,” Hovhannisyan said.

“We had the objective of moving on together with the rest of the world,” she added.

Many teachers also remain hopeful that the system will eventually bring large-scale improvements.

“Everything is new, and naturally it causes confusion,” Karapetyan said. “But once one gets used to it, it is a wonderful system.”

“The teacher’s job is difficult,” Karapetyan said. “But they will get used to it, and students will get used to it. The new method is not bad.”




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