By Barçın Yinanç for Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey’s education system has been left reeling by frequent and abrupt changes in curriculum and other fundamentals, according to Nuran Çakmakçı, an education reporter with daily Hürriyet.
“In the last 20 years, 10 ministers have changed, and with them, the civil servants,” she said in the wake of the release of Turkey’s poor performance on the PISA exam, which measures science, mathematics and reading across more than 70 countries.
How do you evaluate the PISA results? It was something we have been able to observe for some time. When the education system changes so frequently, the results are not surprising. In the last 20 years, 10 ministers have changed, and with them, the civil servants.
Each minister started to play with the essential tenets of the system.
Another problem which no minister accepts is the fact that the whole education system is taken hostage by exams. There are entry exams in other countries too, but none is so indexed to exams as is the case in Turkey.
In the past, every child used to go to the school in the neighborhood; that is no longer the case. It is no longer so because mothers want to send their children to schools which select pupils with high points. They spend all their savings for that. Education is something Turkish families give a lot of importance to and they want to send their children to private schools and think that the best schools are the ones with the best performance on the entry exams.
However, success comes when teachers take pleasure in teaching and students get pleasure from learning.
In our case, the kids are given a deadline: the exams. They memorize everything until the exams.
The teachers tell them this information is important because it will be asked during the exams. So the children set their brains accordingly; they memorize until the exam and forget everything afterwards.
I call them families and children with hormones. Information is injected as if they are being given hormones.
Forget about math and science, one in two students does not have the ability to understand what they read, according to the PISA results. That means you can’t even communicate with an interlocutor.
What do you think these results are telling us? The system says, ‘I give you multiple choices and pick the one I told you to memorize. Don’t be creative, don’t think, don’t question, don’t be curious.’ This could have several consequences on society; it could affect communication. I think it is one of the most important reasons behind the polarization, divisions and conflicts we are experiencing in our society. Sociologists should really study this phenomenon.
The results show that we went back to the pre-2003 levels.
I think one of the key reasons is also about the way we train our teachers. In Finland and Singapore, the best and the brightest become teachers. I think high or low salaries does not factor in that much.
In our case, there is an internship at the end of the four years of university, but we all know it is not that efficient.
What is most crucial is for the teacher to take pleasure from teaching, to love students, to respect them and value them.
How did Turkey end up like that? Teaching used to be a very respected and prestigious occupation in Turkey. We used to have the Anatolian Teachers’ High School. The purpose was to have people get used to the profession from their high school years. These used to be good students who would score well on exams.
Unfortunately, families started looking down on teaching; “if you score so well and you are so successful, why are you becoming a teacher? Be an engineer or a doctor,” families started to say. Society no longer gave the proper value to teachers. And the system neglected the importance of teachers as well. They are recruited according to the scores they receive on the exams. But a teacher’s capability is not limited to how informed he or she is; we need to look as to whether they can communicate with children and whether they can transmit information. The system saw them as robots.
How is it possible for an elementary school teacher to pose with his students holding nooses for social media following recent terror attacks, as happened in Istanbul? Again we are not surprised.
We end up like that because we have people who are doing this profession not by choice and who did not receive the proper pedagogic training.
We can encounter such teachers if we pick them from those who ended up choosing teaching because they could find anything else to do. People study biology, for instance, and when they cannot find jobs, they get a pedagogic formation certificate and say, “If I can’t have a profession, at least I can be a teacher.” At one stage, there was a gap in the number of teachers, so even those who were not graduates of education faculties ended up as teachers. And also some chose this profession because being on the payroll of the government means a secure job. You can’t train them much if the purpose is to get a secure job.
In addition a trade union with a particular worldview started to gain prominence in the education system.
Politics started to infiltrate education. So some teachers who wanted to get promoted started to present their view of life to their students.
In addition, these teachers have remained unpunished for their inappropriate practices.
But the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government used to be very proud of its performance on education. The rates of enrollment went so high that there was nearly no one left who was not going to school. Practices like providing free school books have certainly contributed to the AKP’s electoral success. Indeed, the numbers are fabulous. Free school books and more than 970,000 teachers. While the percentage of enrollment has increased, school dropouts have increased too. Students don’t want to go to school; we made them hate it. While we increased the quantity, we neglected the quality.
We are very good at theory, but the implementation is terrible. The Education Ministry decided 10 years ago, for instance, to switch to teaching handwriting. The problem was that there was no teacher who had learned how to teach handwriting. There was no book about it, et cetera. It has been 10 years, and we still receive complaints about it, as the children who were enrolled in the last decade have an even worse writing style.
Parliament decided in one day to pass to the 4x4x4 system, increasing the compulsory education to 12 years while dividing it into a three-tier system. The decision came a month before the start of school. There is no such thing as having a pilot project.
Some argue that education quality decreased due to the fact that too many schools have been transformed into religious vocational schools (imam hatips). A lot of schools have become imam hatips, but I don’t think the drop in quality is related to that.
Another problem we have is about preschool education.
Turkey has one of the lowest levels of preschool education coverage when compared with other countries participating in the PISA exams.
Do you think the government is aware of all these problems and has the will to address them? I want to remain hopeful. Maybe PISA could ring an alarm bell because we really have hit rock bottom.
Otherwise, I am afraid we will be facing a majority of a new generation who is not curious and not questioning – though I don’t want to say an ignorant generation. Still, we may end up with generations who we may call ignorant with diplomas.
But this is a similar phenomenon all over the world. New generations are fast consumers. It is impossible to keep them in classrooms for 40 minutes. The world is also debating this issue.
How do you think the fight against the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) movement, which was so powerful in education, is affecting the system? A lot of teachers have been dismissed. I think some children have been affected. But the FETÖ phenomenon should show the government the consequences of raising generations that can be easily manipulated.
Gülenists saw that they could easily manipulate children that do not question. I am hoping that the government will see the necessity of raising generations that questions so that they don’t fall under the influence of organizations like FETÖ.
Meanwhile, the dismissal of thousands of teachers, some for their alleged links to FETÖ others to the PKK in the east and southeast has led to an outcry. The government was criticized by opposition parties for their lack of scrutiny. I believe around 80 percent of those teachers in the east and southeast have returned to their jobs. The teachers working in FETÖ schools have been dismissed whereas those with evidence implicating them directly with FETÖ have been deprived of their teaching licenses. But in terms of the process of transforming these schools into state schools, I can say the system worked pretty well, with most of the students continuing to study in the same schools.