Macedonia: Learn to Forget

learn to forgetSKOPJE, Macedonia | Ivana’s homework has a familiar refrain: she memorizes lessons from physics, chemistry, math, and history classes. She does this until her head aches, she complains, “and that’s why I hate these subjects.”

Ivana, a first-year student at Nikola Karev High School, says her teachers require that lessons be memorized without demonstrating what they are learning. She also says her teachers show little passion for what they are teaching.

“I’m used to memorizing most of the subjects because we don’t have practice work at school. So, for instance, I learn about sulfuric acid, but I can’t see its chemical reaction in practice. Or, I learn about some formula in physics, but I can’t tell you how to get to it,” said Ivana, 15.

A recent study of literacy in Macedonia suggests that Ivana – and other students interviewed for this article – have a point. The testing showed that most Macedonian students have difficulty understanding and retaining what they read. The Ministry of Education and Science conducted the testing as part of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which is backed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a grouping of educational researchers and institutions.

Results of two phases of the study in 2001 and 2006 show little improvement in Macedonia. According to tests given to 4,000 fourth-graders in 150 schools in 2006, the average score of the students in Macedonia was 442, compared with the 40-nation survey average of 500. The testing was simple. Experts had the students read two lessons from their books. Afterwards, they closed their books and were questioned about the content of the lessons. Only a few of the students were able to explain what they had read.

Pupils from all other European countries that took part did better, including those from a half-dozen other former communist states.

A companion survey showed similar poor performance in mathematics. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Macedonian students from the 150 elementary schools ranked 30th out of 40 countries involved. The Macedonian students’ average score was 435, below the international average of 467. Only 40 of the students scored above the international average.

The Macedonian government and international organizations like UNICEF have pointed to problems in the quality of education, particularly among rural, poor and Romani communities, as a detriment to the country’s advancement. Critics say the education system still suffers from the legacy of Yugoslav communism, when individualism was discouraged and challenging a teacher would bring harsh reprimands. Until very recently, little had changed in examination methods from decades ago.

Looking Ahead

Educators privately acknowledge that teaching methods are mired in the past, but cite low salaries and status accorded teachers for discouraging initiative and change.

Efforts to make changes have been underway for years. The World Bank has backed a modernization project that includes improving teacher qualifications, decentralizing authority and improving competitiveness. The bank has cited the sclerotic education system as a factor in some of the country’s persistent economic problems, including high unemployment.

Civic organizations have joined in efforts to overhaul the system. One, the Open Society Institute, has worked for more than a decade to make teaching more interactive and spur creative thinking at all levels of education.

“The teachers had and still [reject] modern teaching methods which are usual in western countries,” said Spomenka Lazarevska, OSI’s project manager for the creative and critical teaching project. “We are not inventing hot water, we are not implementing new teaching methods. They exist. We only must accept them and implement them on a regular basis.”

Lazarevska attributes resistance to more interactive teaching methods to the longer preparation hours and after-school work needed to prepare lessons.

“Very often we had situations where teachers were refusing to work out lesson plans with modern teaching methods with an explanation that they are not paid enough to do extra activities. I understand them. That’s not their fault,” she said, adding that a new elementary education law does little to address the resources needed for improving teaching qualifications.

Not all teachers resist changes. Katerina Trpkovska, a 25-year-old elementary teacher at the Jan Amos Komenski School in Skopje, says she and all of her colleagues have happily adopted new methods.

“We regularly attend training courses and we’re implementing modern teaching methods. Every teacher can work with every pupil individually because the total number of pupils in a class is small – 14 or 15 – and we have room to introduce new experimental teaching methods that should bring better results. We are now concentrating on the concept that the pupil should be at the center of the teaching process, not vice-versa,” Trpkovska said.

Mired in the Past

Another educator involved in the training said teachers should be encouraged to be inventive, to connect parallel historic events, analyze and debate topics, and improve their interaction with students – but that takes preparation and training.

“Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this project is its sustainability,” said Elena Achkovska-Leshkovska, a psychology professor at Skopje University. “In some of the schools where we’ve held seminars and training courses there are teachers who do implement these modern teaching methods. However, we can’t check all the teachers.”

Leshkovska said some teachers “are too stubborn and proud to accept the new teaching methods.” She advocates concentrating on improving and modernizing the methods used by future generations of teachers, and to strive for higher standards of teacher preparation that are common in European Union countries.

But such changes are too late for students like Elena Ristevska, who graduated from Skopje’s Orce Nikolov High School last year. She recounts that during her schooling teachers did little to encourage critical thinking. Elena, 18, now a first-year law student, says that she had to memorize lessons from biology, history, physics, and mathematics.

“Biology was my favorite subject. But the professor wanted to hear the lessons by the book,” she said. “I learned biology by logic, not just memorizing things. But every time I took oral exams in biology, I was always explaining the lessons in my way – and always got low grades for that. I didn’t like history, because I had to memorize all the facts and historical events. The same with physics and math. Luckily, I’m not studying science.”


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