A robust education vision meets Turkey’s realities

Aygen Aytaç writes: This unprecedented past year has left deep scars on Turkey in many ways. One such outcome of the pandemic that will last for years is the effects on schooling, as online teaching has left millions of students behind. Turkey’s Education Ministry had trumpeted its vision for the country’s centenary in 2023. But just how realistic is this vision? And can we implement it?

Aygen Aytaç 

Just before I sat down to write this article, I did my best to ‘watch’ a middle school lesson on TV. The teacher was a lively woman using her voice like a stage actor. As the topic was environmental protection, I was sucked in immediately.

But after 10 minutes, I felt I needed coffee, so I went to the kitchen to make some. I was still trying to listen to what she was saying – I was, after all, interested in the subject. But when I returned with my coffee, I couldn’t resist looking at my cellphone and checking social media. The sound of the TV began to grate, so I put the lively woman on mute. Then, I turned my attention to the magazines on the coffee table. After that, my eye was drawn to the new books I had just gotten.

There were too many things to do, too many things to read, watch, listen, and write. 

Something occurred to me during this experience. A young person must have an immense passion for learning to be able to sit and ‘watch’ these televised or online classes.  

When they have neither the obligation nor the inclination, they can’t continue following these lessons after 15 minutes; in fact, even if they have the inclination, they can hardly remain focused after a quarter of an hour. The first question that came to mind was, “Did we actually teach them to love learning before the pandemic, before everything?”

And the second thing that came to my mind was pity for the teacher. The poor teacher was watched by not only her students, but also parents, grandparents, the education minister and weirdos like me – anybody in the universe really. How difficult it must be for her to continue the class under this Benthamian surveillance, trying to be serious but also interesting at the same time. 

If it were in a real classroom, she would probably start a lively discussion to draw kids’ attention, make a joke or even jump up and down if needed. But before the cameras, she can’t do anything but ask rhetorical questions, answer them on behalf of the unseen students, and then congratulate them. Hers must be one of the most difficult jobs in the world. 

But the parents’ job is not easier in these COVID times either. If they have the luxury of working from home, they must play the role of the teacher and ensure the kids are in front of the TV or the online classes on time. This requires them to exercise a lot of discipline on their children and, most probably, damages the traditional happy, post-school reunion.

One may think the parents at least would make sure their kids follow the lessons in one way or another. But as we all know, there are many ways students can cheat parents and teachers when the sound of the TV is on or in the case of online classes, the cameras are off.  

Learning in COVID times

We have yet to see the results of this online education experiment. But according to a teacher friend of mine, there is already one result: Eighth graders have returned to in-person education for a limited period. My friend said the students all just sat in the classroom and remained unresponsive to whatever she said or asked. It was like they were watching a movie.  

According to Ziya Selçuk, Turkey’s education minister, different groups of children have suffered different amounts as a result of last year’s disruption of schooling. There are problems for those in particular geographical areas, genders, age groups, and economic levels. So, Turkish children’s chances of getting a good education are determined by the circumstances of their birth.

Unfortunately, this is the case to an unjustifiable extent in Turkey when we look at the achievement rates revealed in a recent study by the Turkish Teachers and Science Workers Union among state-school teachers. 

Achievement varies depending on age and environment, but according to the study, almost half of middle school teachers say the participation rate of students in online classes is less than 20 percent. In high schools, 70 percent of teachers say the participation rate is less than 20 percent. The rate of participation in online classes seems higher in elementary schools, but, even at that level, 15 percent of teachers say fewer than 20 percent attend online classes. 

These rates do not mean that the remaining 80 percent of students have always attended online classes. These are the numbers given by state-school teachers who organized courses over zoom; we do not know how many tuned into TRT’s EBA TV. But even the 20 percent of elementary, middle, and high school students represent almost 4 million young people.

A cutting-edge vision

As a matter of fact, the Turkish Education Ministry was quick in its COVID-19 response. Despite the many uncertainties at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, it managed to establish three TV channels (EBA) for elementary, middle, and high school students in order to allow them to continue their education. Hundreds of teachers recorded lessons, such as the one I watched this morning, and a huge content network was created during the early days of the lockdown. Students had the chance to follow the lessons either on TV or online. Private schools and some state schools preferred to organize classes over zoom. 

Apart from the health minister, Education Minister Ziya Selçuk became the best-known minister in Turkey during this period; he was all over media and social media with his continuous plans and manuals.

But Selçuk was a high-flyer even before the pandemic. When he announced his education vision for 2023 in October 2018, everybody, especially those in education, gave him a standing ovation. Finally, a great visionary oversaw education in Turkey: He was a teacher himself, he had his own schools, and he was following the latest world trends and discussions in education as could have been gathered from his 2023 vision. 

The vision boasted 21st-century skills like creativity, social skills, and kindness, a simpler curriculum, personalized education, digitalization, student workshops and the like. I personally thought he was the best thing that had happened to Turkey in recent years.     

The reality on the ground

Per the Education Minister’s words, COVID-19 prevented the implementation of that vision. COVID-19 started to affect Turkey in March 2020, a year and a half after the presentation of the vision. I took the liberty of asking a few teachers about their views on the fate of this brilliant vision.

One middle school teacher from a state school was unaware of the existence of the vision. Another teacher from a private middle school defined it as mere ‘empty talk.’

“Previously, when Ziya Selçuk organized seminars, all private schools sent their teachers to these expensive events,” a young school counselor from a private school said. 

“Teachers admired him. And when he came to power, those people were overjoyed and hopeful. But unfortunately, he manages things as he is managing his private schools, and he does not have a clue about the education rights of state school students. This became obvious during the lockdown as only the compassionate state school teachers tried to follow their students through zoom classes while the majority left the kids to follow the lessons from EBA TV. Of course, it is not a good idea to expect kids to sit before a screen all day.”

The head of a small state-school with fewer than 100 students echoed the same sentiment. If you look at his social media management, Selçuk seems to be a good “Life Coach” at best, she said. According to the schoolmaster, the 2023 education vision is just a piece of paper that hasn’t had an effect on schools at all.

The head of the state-school acknowledged the extraordinary conditions caused by COVID-19, but she drew attention to larger structural and societal deadweights: The 2023 vision calls for a more flexible “framework curriculum,” but in schools, teachers are still under the pressure of a very strict academic curriculum. It is so intensive that they do not have time to focus on extracurricular activities for their own or their students’ development. Even if they conduct research for new sources to use in classes, they are not allowed to use them.

The 2023 vision envisages a change to this system by channeling students to vocations at an earlier stage via more arts, sports, and workshops. However, the Turkish education system is still based on exams. Even the students who are into sports and arts are directed by the system to university exams. As it is considered more prestigious, everybody wants to attend university. So, both teachers and students spend all their time preparing for the exams rather than on social activities. Students are usually advised to pass the exam and do what they want to do later. This means, until the age of 18, they only prepare themselves for university exams. 

For the schoolmaster, another problem preventing the implementation of the 2023 vision is the economic problems at different levels: 

Despite many voluntary online courses developed for teachers by the ministry, teachers are not interested in them. The teachers have families to look after and yet earn very little. Economic hardships, in addition to pressures regarding the teaching materials/curriculum, robotize them and erase all their love of work and commitment, which is necessary for the implementation of such a vision. The education union study also draws attention to this fact: Almost half of the teachers say they do not have any job enthusiasm or motivation. Many had to upgrade their tablets and internet connections in this period while their purchasing power constantly dropped thanks to the economic conditions.   
As if this is not enough, the ministry is also offering contracts to teachers who could not pass the public exam, the KPSS, which is normally required to become a teacher – even as thousands of teachers who passed the exam are still waiting to be appointed. In this way, the government exploits those contracted teachers by paying one-third of the normal teachers’ salary to them. This cheap labor creates resentment in all corners of the education sector, hampering any chances that the ‘vision’ will actually be implemented. 

Another economic issue is school budgets, or lack thereof. The government pays only for the water, electricity, and heating of elementary and middle schools. But they have other needs too… For elementary and middle schools, just 0.75 liras per student is paid as an extra allowance. If school administrators cannot or do not want to raise money, they have to pay for many activities out of their own pocket. The 2023 vision envisages a decentralization of the school budgets, but there’s no sign of that yet either.  

The ministry’s 2023 vision talks mainly about 21st-century skills such as creativity and flexibility, but the reality on the ground seems unchanged. The schoolmaster I talked to said math education, which is supposed to increase students’ creativity and problem-solving skills, is simply based on memorizing formulas and answering as many questions as possible. 

The vision also lays out the establishment of artistic or robotic workshops in every school. I asked the schoolmaster whether any workshops had been set up in her school, thinking the ministry might have taken advantage of the lack of in-person education to install such facilities. Indeed, she said, the ministry had sent some people to take measurements for the designated area, but things had then gone quiet. When she finally reached them, she learned those procurements had been cancelled.

These were the structural obstacles. According to our schoolmaster, society’s materialistic approach in general, mobile phones, social media addiction, and lack of justice were affecting children. Regardless of how teachers try to impart universal values, she said the despotic, unfair, unjust, and get-rich-quick ethos of society, as well as the influencers and YouTubers, was providing the new standards and role models for students. Given these influences, the minister’s job is not an easy one. 

Where to now?

This is the question the whole world is discussing nowadays. What have we learned about education during COVID-19? What are the key trade-offs we may consider? How worried should we be about lost school time? What should we do for the recovery? 

Well, Selçuk seems to have all the answers. He has been pushing his support programs like UDEP and İYEP on all media channels. According to his plans, schools will be open this summer for students to gather and interact. It is a good one. They will apparently measure the students’ knowledge so that they can identify those lagging behind and support them. 

But all the catch-up activities planned for the summer are voluntary. In addition, the same ministry allowed students to choose between entering exams at the end of this current term or being given the same grades they got at the end of the first semester. I have not heard of any student who wanted to sit a new exam this year. They all signed up for the second option and have already left for their summer holidays. What they learned in this past year is to be seen at a later stage.

I am afraid the high school students who did not bother to attend online courses in big numbers will suffer most – particularly if they did not study by themselves for the university exam, which is supposed to be held soon. Given that, we may need to keep an eye on this age group, lest they be lost.

On the other hand, opening schools for social activities, arts, and sports courses in summer is a brilliant idea. Even though schools do not expect many children to come, these arts and sports courses need to be intrinsic parts of early education. They are too important to be left to elementary school teachers, who may or may not be interested or knowledgeable in these areas. For schools to bring out the best in students, working with real arts and sports teachers and supporting them from early ages is important.  

The pandemic made it clear that society and the workplaces of the future will demand new skills and that technology will supply new ways of teaching. I cannot comprehend why the internet is still not free for all students, at least for educational purposes. If it can be done in South Korea or even in Kenya during the pandemic, it can be done in Turkey. Surely, this depends on the sincerity of the government’s purpose and its power over private moguls. First, we must decide whether we genuinely want to bring about a change. If so, free internet would only be a small step.

Technology can be used in many ways. It can be used to develop progressive techniques to deliver curriculum. It can be used to identify students’ abilities to let them choose their own paths. There are already examples of such schools in countries like the U.S. and UK and they outperform local and national averages. Technology alone cannot be the answer to better teaching and lower workloads, but it is a vitally important step. It is up to the Education Ministry to find the best practices in identifying the strongest combination of technology and teaching.

New approaches, such as peer learning could be considered. But first and foremost, teachers need to be supported and motivated in many ways so that they enjoy teaching and students enjoy learning.

The future of education in Turkey

Having a strong vision is the first step and it is vitally important. Thankfully, we seem to have that for education, but we need to realize this vision and let it trickle down to all schools and all students in every remote corner of the country. For Turkey, it is not a matter of what, but how.

COVID-19 may have interrupted the implementation of this vision, but nobody is interested in pretexts: It is about whether you succeed or not. Above all, the problem in the education sector is that your failure is not your failure alone, but the failure of millions as well. So, it is time to start implementing the broader vision, rather than just enacting stop-gap measures.

It is not only the Education Ministry but all ministries and sectors of society, including big technology and internet companies, arts and sports foundations, and civil society organizations, that have this responsibility when it comes to educating young people. Whether we will continue this unequal system may depend on the ministry, but the question of whether we act upon universal values such as honesty, fairness, kindness, or surrender our children to materialism, social media, vanity, ostentation, and bad role models depends not only on the government, but on all of society. 

We cannot look at education as a cost, because it is the best investment a country can make – and not just in terms of infrastructure, but in good-quality teachers and students as well. I cannot think of a better time to rethink what we aim to achieve for the education and well-being of our children, especially disadvantaged ones. Are we going to continue to run after every exam without seeing the aftermath and without seeing who is being left behind? Or are we going to use this COVID-19 catastrophe as a chance to start from scratch to solve these decades-old problems?