No.15 August 2001

The Crisis in Turkish Education Pt 2

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Dear Gentle Reader,

I promise that next month I will write once more about ethereal and aesthetically pleasing matters and that I will once again wax eloquent about the rare and generally under-appreciated subtleties of Turkey.  However, at the moment I still have this bee in my bonnet -- the education bee.  For those of you who aren’t interested, who find this topic oh-so-very tedious and boring, I have to say that if you seriously plan to stay here in this country (or any other, for that matter) you must be concerned with education.  The quality of education affects all of us, not only those who are students.  It has everything to do with the quality of the goods and services we purchase and the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that we encounter in social situations and in public, on the streets.  Education affects a nation’s social, economic and political policy, too.  Good education results in the kind of governance that can help the people reach their highest potential or degrade and dehumanize them.  While this column is certainly not the place to talk of what the most radical and visionary form of education should be, it strikes me as an appropriate place for developing some of the modest ideas about the educational system in this country that I introduced last month. 

To begin with, I have to say that there is a crisis in education that must be faced.  If it isn't there will be disastrous results because the children we are currently educating are the future of Turkey.  

The first stage of education begins at home.  Very young children become caught up with what most everyone else is caught up with in "New Turkey" and it's important to realize they learn from television, parents, family and friends.  What is it that lots of them are learning these days?  They’re learning that money is the most important thing in life and that after money come status and image.  (I’ve had second-graders get excited about the fact that my cep phone is a late model Nokia!  I didn’t even know what a brand-name was when I was their age.)  Our children are also learning how to wear a mask, a false face -- the face that one wears for all public (and semi-public and sometimes, in extreme cases, even deeply personal) occasions.  The time-honored Turkish ideals of honor, sharing, tolerance and abundance have been lost for the most part and have been replaced with a false image of those things, in spite of the fact that image can never replace reality; in spite of the fact that there were sages in the incredible history of this country who knew all this and dedicated their entire lives trying to teach others what they knew. 

If any nation wants to achieve true greatness it must work on producing truly great human beings.   The first step is to realize our responsibility for making this happen.  I said that our children learn -- they do, but what they learn is what we teach them!   So the first step after accepting that it is we who are responsible for our children is to make a conscious decision to teach them well.  That means we must teach them what quality, excellence, tolerance, and a spirit of inquiry mean.    

Let's look at our schools.  Even in the best private schools classrooms are grievously overcrowded.  Although student teachers are frequently exposed to pedagogical methods that are radical departures from the traditional methods of memorization, rote learning, and recitation, such methods are virtually impossible to apply in a classroom of between 30 and 35 students.  (Remember I'm talking about private schools here -- obviously government school classrooms are even more crowded.)  These methods emphasize group work, group discussion, and interaction.  The task of trying to apply such methods is made even more difficult by the fact that in an attempt to keep parents happy (parents are after all paying customers and in the new Turkey private schools are businesses more than they are anything else) students are not "tracked" -- we don't have remedial classes and we don't have honors classes.  That is to say, even if Ahmet or Fatma is terrible in mathematics he or she is put in a class with kids who are good at math and if Zeynep and Mustafa are good at math they may be put in a class with kids who can barely do simple subtraction.  This is often rationalized on the grounds that such placement is "democratic" -- it isn't democratic at all; in fact, it is grossly unfair, not only to the Ahmets and the Fatmas but to the Zeyneps and the Mustafas.   It creates a "no-win" situation because it means that almost none of the students are able to get what they need from math class.  Students who need a slower pace and more individual help can't get it and those who would benefit from more high-powered curriculum can't get it either -- in spite of the fact that each child is unique, each one is forced into the same "common denominator."  The result is that the brightest students are kept behind (and are left frustrated, discouraged and bored) while the poorer students don't get the basics (and are also left feeling frustrated, discouraged and bored). 

A large contributing factor in this situation is that the basic framework of the Milli Eðtim system has not (to my knowledge) been changed since it was first instituted during the 1920's.  What worked then doesn't work now.  Minor, cosmetic alterations are not sufficient.  What is needed is a complete overhaul and the overhaul should not be done by politicians, but by genuinely sensitive and caring human beings who are professional educators, including persons with training in philosophy of education. Besides paying attention to mainstream education we need to make available training and funding for special education so that every school is able to cope with the needs of learning-disabled children and students with special needs.  All schools need to be in a position to make special education resources available and at the same time, we should also have schools that are entirely devoted to special education for children with severe learning disabilities.  We should also initiate programs in all schools that are particularly geared to identifying and educating gifted and talented students. 

In addition, our current emphasis on technological education is shortsighted and if it continues there will be a huge price to pay in the future.  It is not enough to teach students how to do computation and use computers.  We must teach them how to think.   Much of the current pedagogical thinking equates mathematics with mere computation and science, even physics, with mechanics.  The theoretical and qualitative aspects of both disciplines are neglected in favor of the "practical" ones.  While school curriculum does include a subject named 'philosophy' it is limited to teaching formal definitions of philosophical terms and facts about the history of philosophy.  It does not teach students what it means to think philosophically, much less what it means to be a philosopher.  Moreover, there are huge gaps in the curriculum that is offered.  It appears that students are taught basic facts pertaining to classical philosophy (Aristotle, Socrates and Plato), then jump over centuries to the Enlightenment philosophers (Descartes, Kant, Leibnitz, Hume, etc.) and then again to the Post-Modernists (Foucault, Derrida, et al.)  Students get no sense of the continuity and development of philosophical thought over the centuries.  All of the above amounts to the fact that we are short-changing our young people by not encouraging and developing their capacity to think theoretically.  Students are not taught how to actually do philosophy themselves and the end result is that they do not know how to think.

Let me close by making one final, very important comment about teaching and teachers.  What is teaching, really?  Well, teaching is not the process of stuffing facts into empty minds.  Far from it.  The English verb "to educate" comes from the Latin ‘educere’ meaning to ‘draw out,’ ‘to lead out.’  So teaching means leading out, bringing out the excellence that is already potential in a student.  Our children are hungry for teachers to feed them, to nourish them in this sense and we are cheating them because this is not what is happening.  Even the fortunate ones are merely getting superficialities:  computer labs, flashy step exercises, luxurious school buildings and equipment; they're generally not getting the substance of education, only the appearance of it.  All human beings, and especially the very young, have a keen sense of the possible; they have hope, they are, -- if their environment allows them to be -- infinitely creative.  Teaching in this deep sense is an art, not a science that can be replicated by following formulas, and it produces results that cannot be reduced to mechanically producing the answers to one-dimensional multiple-choice questions.  By the same token, teachers themselves are not mechanical devices but persons who are entrusted with the care and feeding of young persons' entire beings.  In contemporary Turkish society teachers are placed on a level only a little above the cleaning staff of schools.  Teachers are not valued.  They are not respected.  Certainly, they are not paid well; in many cases they are paid about the same as municipal garbage truck workers. Does this mean that we've forgotten what Atatürk said about teachers?  Unfortunately, I think it does mean we have forgotten.  Yet Atatürk knew how important teachers are in helping to create a great nation. 

In the end, it all boils down to a question of priorities.  If we remain focused on short term, relatively superficial gains, not much can change.  On the other hand, if we lift up our eyes from the ground and cast them in the open-ended direction of the future -- our future -- radical, qualitative changes in our educational system will necessarily follow.  The choice is ours. 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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