Turkey: A Revolution Long in the Making

a revolution long in the makingISTANBUL, Turkey – At first glance, the Capa primary school in central Istanbul looks like any typical state school. But, beyond appearances, its teachers and students are in the vanguard of a revolution in Turkish education.

For the past five years, Capa has been one of 120 schools across the country piloting a radical Turkish-European Union initiative, the Support for Basic Education Programme (SBEP), which aims to change how and what children learn.

In place of traditional methods, in which teachers tend to dictate lessons in a top-down manner, the SBEP scheme encourages two-way engagement. Pupils are now being urged to ask questions of their teachers and think about what they are being taught.

Teaching professionals say the change in approach – and the results – have been dramatic.

“This is a complete transformation in teaching,” said Sinan Demir, a grammar teacher at the Capa school. “In the past, it was just about dictating information. Some pupils would understand, while others would just look out the window. But now it is more about helping them to gain skills, improving their communication skills and encouraging them to write creatively. Through these activities we want them to think, question, and reason.”

The success of the approach is apparent from speaking to Demir’s pupils, all of whom were keen to voice their views and recount their experiences.

“We study some subjects by turning them into games or theater plays,” said nine-year-old Ayse Gul. “This makes learning all the more entertaining. Before we had to sit silently and the teacher just spoke at us. Now we have to think, and we can talk.”

The military coup that unseated the civilian government in 1980 strengthened the long tradition in Turkey of strict discipline and memorization, an approach that encouraged regimented learning. It is widely believed that during the period of military rule that followed, many of the best teachers were purged because of their political views.

The EU-backed initiative aims to foster a climate of individuality and creative thinking by including special courses for Turkish educators on how to teach “constructively” and place a particular emphasis on interaction with pupils. Some teachers visited European schools, while some European teachers visited their counterparts in Turkey. The exchange phase of the program has now ended, but newly trained Turkish teachers are now passing on their skills to other colleagues by visiting schools across the country.

Re-writing History…

Much attention has also been focused on the content of lessons, prompting a major review of Turkish textbooks for the 120 schools participating. The project leader, Anders Lonnqvist Thorsten, originally of Finland, said this was among the initiative’s most sensitive tasks – requiring tact and a diplomatic approach. “We are not saying it has to be like this or like that. In Finland, we would not like people from Russia or Sweden or England saying, ‘This is what you should teach’,” he said. “It is a national issue. All we are doing is giving ideas.”

Along with revising textbooks to make lessons more interactive, the actual content is also in the process of transformation. For example, the strong nationalist discourse in history books – in particular, strident criticism of neighboring Greece, Turkey’s long-time historical rival – has been modified. A similar project in Greece to revise its strategy for teaching history in relation to Turkey has also begun.

Even more sensitive subjects, such as religion, have been excluded. At present, a separate Turkish-EU initiative is working on the issue of religious education. The EU has commissioned several leading academics to write papers on teaching religion in schools, which is compulsory in Turkey. Strong criticism of religious education has long emanated from some quarters in Turkey, perhaps most loudly from the country’s large Alevi community. Alevis, which comprise up to 25 percent of the population, have a different interpretation of Islam, widely considered more moderate than orthodox Islam. They claim schools are only teaching the Sunni branch of Islam.

An Alevi family successfully won a discrimination case in the European Court of Human Rights in October 2007. Further cases are pending. The government says religious textbooks have now been revised to cater to Alevi beliefs. But Professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul Technical University, who has compiled a report for the EU on religious education, argues that such reforms are not enough. “There needs to be a change in the mentality in the way religion is taught. Today, religious education teaches the Sunni belief as a theology, rather than [offering] a study of various beliefs and morals.” With the ruling Justice and Development Party having Islamic Sunni roots, the issue remains extremely contentious in Turkish society.

But not in Kurdish

The question of education in the languages of national minorities has also raised tensions, especially in regards to Turkey’s substantial Kurdish population, which makes up around 25 percent of the population. Claiming discrimination, the country’s main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), has campaigned for Kurdish to be used in all levels of education. The government, however, has dismissed their demands out of hand. Similar to their predecessors, the authorities have strictly enforced the principle that there is only one official language in Turkey.

Kemal Kirisci of Bosphorus University says that such rigidity is born out of the fear that Turkey faces the threat of disintegration: “When you scratch the surface of a Turk, underneath you find very quickly that there are many who are descendants of Bosnians, Tartars, Turks from the Balkans, Pomaks, maybe Arabs in the southeast, Kurds certainly. Such a social composition does generate concerns among officials and some of the public that if one group is given special status, then the next step will be others seeking it too,” Kirisci explained.

But the DTP is looking to the European Union for support. Member of European Parliament Richard Howitt said in Istanbul earlier this year that he expects the right to Kurdish-language education will be raised when the membership chapter on cultural rights is opened as part of Turkey’s EU ascension process.

If the debate on minority education makes it to Brussels, it would likely further complicate the already up-and-down relationship between the EU and Turkey. EU officials have lauded the SBEP’s role in helping to break down Turkish suspicions towards Europe, an attitude fostered by Turkey’s laborious EU-membership negotiations.

“Very often, the negotiation process is perceived perhaps as us [the EU] against Turkey,” said the EU ambassador Marc Pierini, at the opening of a school in Istanbul’s Arnavutkoy district earlier this year. “This is not the case. I mean, this is us together. We are going to make a deliberate effort to demonstrate to people that we are working together to achieve this objective.” Most of the €100 million earmarked for the five-year SBEP project has been spent building new schools in deprived areas.

Nominally Free Education

SBEP’s initial five-year phase finished at the end of last year, when the initiative was extended from the 120 pilot projects to all of Turkey’s primary schools. It has also been used as a model for World Bank-funded projects in Turkish secondary schools and adult education, which also aim to encourage more interaction between teachers and pupils. A major revision of all textbooks has also begun.

Experts also say that adapting the SBEP project to secondary schools makes sense because curricula and teaching methods as most in need of an overhaul at this level of schooling. Chronic overcrowding remains a major concern and, with 50 percent of Turkey’s population under the age of 25, the demand for education is unlikely to abate. It is not uncommon for schools to provide education for one group of children in the morning and a second group in the afternoon.

Increasingly, primary and secondary schools are coming under fire for charging parents for education. Although tuition is nominally free, many schools now demand payment for a child’s registration. Principals claim the payment is necessary to make up shortfalls in funding, especially for the maintenance of buildings. But the Turkish media regularly uncover scandals involving the misuse of such funds. Parents also complain about the rising cost of secondary school textbooks and stationary that they must purchase for their children.

The increasing financial burden of sending children to school is leading to reports of a rising dropout rate, mainly in secondary schools. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas, where many older children work the fields to supplement the family income. It also disproportionately affects girls, both at the primary- and secondary-school level, with older girls sometimes also dropping out to get married.

Over the past few years, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the Turkish Ministry of Education have launched various programs designed to increase female school attendance. Some activities have featured celebrities, including the Turkish female pop icon Sezen Aksu, and corporate sponsors also provided financial assistance. One project offers a monthly $30 stipend to the poorest families for each girl sent to school. Around 100,000 payments are currently being made. The Education Ministry reported in 2007 that the gap between boys’ and girls’ attendance had been narrowed from 25 percent to 10 percent, and almost 225,000 more girls are now enrolled.

Slow to Adapt

Despite these steps forward, the quality of Turkish education remains a problem. The education ministry’s Project Coordination Centre (PCC) identified several problems, particularly in teacher training, while assessing the SBEP scheme’s application to the country’s 35,000 primary schools.

“We have received complaints and criticism from some teachers about the level of training – some have struggled to adapt,” said Ozgul Tortop of the PCE. “But that is not surprising. We are talking about 100,000 teachers and this is the first year. It will take time.”

The PCE is encouraging such feedback and has created a portal on its webpage for teachers to voice their views. The EU, meanwhile, is conducting an impact assessment study whose findings will be vital to shaping the project’s future. An EU official said after the findings of the study have been analyzed further funding will be allocated, in co-ordination with Turkish Ministry of Education financial support.

“The impact assessment is crucial in helping us decide where we go from here. It is a learning process for all of us,” Mustafa Balci, head of education at the EU’s office in Ankara.

Back at the Capa school, Sinan Demir is both exhausted and exhilarated at the end of a long school day. The new system is far more demanding, he admits, but the rewards outweigh any feelings of tiredness. “I have waited my entire career to be able to teach like this,” he said. “This is what teaching is about – that you can come to a point with a child where they believe they can do whatever they aspire to.”

Demir spent his summer touring the country to educate fellow teachers about the new curriculum. Many of the problems Turkey faces are blamed, at least in part, on lingering military-style teaching methods. With this pioneering scheme, hope now exists that the next generation will be able to resolve them.


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