Georgia: Student-Centered Approach

student centered approachTBILISI, Georgia | Ketevan Nijaradze, mother of 12-year-old Levani, was shocked to find him at the computer one day after school, absorbed in his research for a class project. Levani, his mother admits, was not the most dedicated student.

“My son never studied well,” she explained. “But one day he came home from school and started working on his assignments, using the Internet to find information. I had no idea what had happened to him. Later, his teacher told me he had been given the role of ‘expert’ in one of his assignments.”

Nijaradze, as well as many other parents, teachers and education officials, believe that the new interactive methods that have been introduced into Georgian classrooms over the last five years are beginning to pay off. Nijaradze says she has noticed a marked improvement in her son’s study habits and interest in his assignments since his teachers switched over to the new system.

“I like this method better – it gives an opportunity to all children to express themselves and get to know their own abilities better,” she said.

Student-Centered Education

Changes in teaching methodology have been underwritten by massive increases in state funding following the Rose Revolution in November 2003. In 2003, the sum allocated to education stood at 171.1 million GEL (around 100 million USD); by 2006, the number had more than doubled to 270 million dollars , or 2.1 percent of the country’s GDP.

Georgia’s education reforms have also been buttressed by substantial foreign aid. The World Bank has given around 25 million dollars toward the Education System Alignment and Strengthening Project (also known as the Ilia Chavchavadze Education Project), ongoing since 2001.

Since 2003, the government has also decentralized financing and decision-making in the country’s primary, basic, and secondary schools. Schools are funded directly by the Ministry of Education and Science, receiving an amount per pupil that varies according to the school’s location and size. Rural schools receive more than urban schools, and small schools can receive extra amounts per pupil. Families, in turn, can use vouchers to determine which school they want their children to attend.

Each school has a board of trustees, composed of elected teachers, parents, students, and, in some cases, a local government representative. Schools are free to decide how to spend the lump sums they receive from the ministry, so long as they get approval from their boards. The board of each school must approve all expenditures, including teachers’ salaries, as well as set the school’s teaching plan in accordance with national reform priorities.

Now that most of the basic structural reforms have been completed, Georgia has shifted its focus to the more difficult task of changing how teachers and students think about education, itself.

Arguably, one of the most difficult components of Georgia’s reform plan is the National Curriculum Program, which focuses on the development of “student-centered education”. The first draft of the National Curriculum Program was discussed in December 2004, and in 2005-2006 was piloted in 100 Georgian schools. Over the course of the 2006-2007 academic year, the process of implementation began in schools across the country.

Under the banner of this program, teachers should arm students with specialized knowledge and skills according to their individual abilities. This approach requires the introduction of new, interactive teaching methods in the Georgian classroom that are focused not only on “passing” students but on helping them meet their potentials.

“The main measure is becoming, not quantity, but quality of knowledge,” said Simon Janashia, director of the National Curriculum and Assessment Center at the Ministry of Education.

Now each student is at the center of the education system. “We are no longer focused on the teaching process, we are more oriented toward the results of this process,” said Janashia.

However, Pavle Tvaliashvili, an education expert at the Center for Training and Consultancy, a non-governmental organization in Tbilisi, says that the reforms were definitely needed, but the focus on teaching results is not the “right approach.” He believes the ministry should not lose focus on the teaching process altogether.

Tvaliashvili says that teachers are simply given the plan, but in most cases, don’t know how to reach the result that is demanded of them. The curriculum defines what methods are no longer allowed – namely rote memorization and one-way techniques – but does not offer any clear suggestions that would help teachers integrate their lesson plans with the new education strategy, he says.

For example, teachers are supposed to be introducing group work “projects” into the repertoire. These are defined as activities that involve a clear start and finish, a budget and resources to implement the project, and assign different roles to each student in the class. But many teachers don’t understand what these “projects” are supposed to be about and, as a result, have yet to put them into practice.

“I asked 200 teachers from different schools across Georgia whether they organized projects in their classes. Only two out of 200 answered that they did; others claimed that they did not,” Tvaliashvili explained. “The new plan is nice, but the government needs to inform teachers better [about what is expected of them],” he added.

Interactive Methods

Tsiso Tsereteli, director of school No. 54 in the Vake district in the center of Tbilisi says that, two years ago, many of her teachers grumbled about being forced to make changes in their teaching methods, but have since changed their minds about the new system and now believe it achieves better results.

“This plan protects the interests of the children. They are evaluated not only on the basis of their knowledge but also on concrete skills. This manner of studying and evaluation develops an independent way of thinking,” argued Tsereteli.

She pointed out that teachers now have the possibility to select their own textbooks for the subjects they teach. “There is no strictly defined textbook in the new curriculum, so the teachers compare ideas while selecting them,” Tsereteli explained.

Simon Janashia from the Ministry of Education also pointed out that, under the new system, the old standardized manuals have been filtered out. The new textbooks teachers can choose from revolve around hands-on assignments and group work projects involving the whole class.

Keti Beridze, a middle-school teacher of Georgian language and literature, says that she welcomed the changes because she had been using more interactive methods all along, out of concern for her own professional standards.

“I used group work methods quite often before the reforms; however there are subjects, such as grammar, that are better to teach with individual, practical assignments. But I used a group work approach to teach The Knight in the Panther’s Skin [a famous epic poem by the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli], and the result was great. So it depends,” said Beridze.

Students also have greater access to computers and the Internet in Georgian schools now. Around 23 million USD has been spent on the ministry’s “Deer Leap” program, supplying computers and Internet connectivity across the country. In March 2005, the ministry of education launched the program with the assistance of experts from the Tiger Leap Foundation of Estonia, which was responsible for connecting Estonia’s schools to the Internet and training its teachers in information and communication technologies. The Deer Leap program is scheduled to be completed in 2009.

Low Salaries, Low Motivation

Though teachers are gradually acclimating to the new system, Pavle Tvaliashvili says that most teachers will not do much more than the bare minimum, unless they have proper incentives – most importantly, a pay raise. “Using innovative methods in their teaching has no impact on their salaries,” he explained.

Georgia’s 70,000 teachers earn average salaries of about 300 GEL ($180) per month, well below the national average. According to the most recent data published by the Department of Statistics of Georgia, the average monthly salary is 550 GEL.

The ministry reports that insufficient allocations for salaries in school budgets, as well as a surplus of teachers across the country, is behind persistent low wages.

Furthermore, teachers’ salaries are not scaled according to qualifications, teaching skills, or length of experience. “If there could be some kind of mechanism [for differential pay], it would increase competition among teachers and their motivation to be in the top category of teachers, in order to get the highest incomes,” argued Tvaliashvili.

Tamar Kristesiashvili, a part-time ninth and 12th grade teacher, says that teachers cannot avoid using the new teaching methods because the new manuals feature assignments and projects that demand their use. But she sometimes finds the additional workload hard to take on her paltry salary. This winter, she hoped to bring her granddaughter to a performance of the Nutcracker at the Tbilisi Opera House, but seats cost 25 GEL and she couldn’t afford the tickets.

“The income that teachers receive is unimaginably low. We have no possibility to participate in the cultural events of the city,” Kristesaishvili complained. “And yet, we are given strict instructions on what to do and how to do it.”

Kristesiashvili, who is of pension age, has been teaching physics since 1961. The Ministry of Education and Science has no precise statistics on how many teachers of pension age continue to work, but they are not an uncommon sight in Georgian schools. The process of pensioning out teachers is not standardized, but is up to each individual school; when a teacher is old enough to retire, the director of the school decides to put the teacher on his or her pension, or keep him or her on as an employee.

Kristesiashvili has a mixed impression of the new teaching methods. “Sometimes it has results, and sometimes it does not. I think it’s easier for those who are younger to use these methods,” she said. She has recently started to encourage her students to use the Internet in their assignments for her astronomy class, asking them to do research on global warming, the ozone layer, and other topics.

However, Kristesiashvili may be forced to make way for younger teachers trained under the new system in the near future. Since 2004, all elementary and high school teachers have been obliged to pass rigorous professional tests, testing their knowledge of the subjects they teach. Many lost their positions after the initial round of testing. Compulsory licensing exams were scheduled to take place in 2008, but the tests have been postponed. Tamuna Onoprienko, the spokesperson of the Teachers Professional Development Center, says that the new examinations will be implemented in 2010.

Increased Transparency

Under the new system, high school graduates also have to undergo stringent examinations to prove their academic merit. Since 2005, students wishing to go on to higher education are required to write a unified entrance exam testing their knowledge of Georgian language and literature, general skills, and a foreign language selected by their intended faculty. Students must also be tested in an elective subject, such as literature, mathematics, history, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Before 2005, each faculty held its own entrance exam, an infamously corrupt process. The move toward standardized testing was deliberately designed to eliminate the old practice of paying bribes to pass the exams and secure one’s seat in Georgia’s universities. Now, students are accepted to universities solely on the basis of how many points they receive on the exam.

Pavle Tvalishvili was the head of the Rustavi Exam Center during the first year of the new national exams in 2005. Tvaliashvili said that with the new national exams, corruption did, in fact, decrease. “Parents and students were satisfied with these entrance exams and the attitude toward it was completely positive,” he argued.

International observers confirm his opinion. In its 2007 Nations in Transit report, Freedom House observed that the exams “virtually cleaned out the notoriously corrupt process of admission examinations in universities”.




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