Local solutions needed in education during pandemic, says expert

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Schools are scheduled to physically open on Sept 21, however, according to an expert, it is hard to meet that date. Schools should develop their own solutions and teachers who know the children should take their own initiative, says Burcu Meltem Arık, underlining the importance of local solutions

Face to face education is to start on Sept. 21, but everything looks uncertain for this year, according to the education observatory coordinator of the Education Reform Initiative, an independent think tank.

How familiar was Turkey with distance learning before the pandemic?

The Turkish Education Ministry has made a lot of investments since 2012 as part of the educational informatics network (EBA) under the Fatih project. Rather than distance learning, the aim was to introduce more technology into educational processes and to strengthen the country’s infrastructure and capacity. There was no design in terms of distance learning. However, significant steps were not taken until the appointment of the current minister, who revived the process and EBA was updated. Still, when the outbreak started, the education system was caught unprepared.

How did the sector cope in the initial period? Schools were closed on March 16, a few days after the first case was diagnosed in Turkey.

The official spring break, which started earlier than scheduled because of the outbreak, ended on March 23, after which distance learning started. The Education Ministry did act fast. As they were aware of the shortcomings in accessing EBA, three channels were opened on state television [TRT]. Despite criticisms, broadcasts on TRT started very rapidly.

In the meantime, the ministry observed the problems, such as access to the internet, students with special needs and the more than 1 million Syrian students who had a very difficult time during this period.

The digital gap became more visible. The curriculum, the content of courses, how teachers are teaching — all this came out into the open. Before, teachers closed the doors of classrooms and implemented programs that were designed in a very centralized manner by the ministry.

The sector, the parents and everybody else confronted the situation. They saw the differences between state schools and private schools, how prepared teachers were for the digital processes, etc.

The fragility of the system was seen not just by those working in the sector but by all of Turkey. So this process made the problems more visible.

What are the key problems?

The biggest problem (and we have been saying this since even before the pandemic) is the high centralization of decision-making. Among OECD countries, we’re third from bottom, as we have a very highly centralized decision-making process. That means local decisions can not be taken, and the initiatives of schools and teachers are very low.

Yet in cases of education in emergencies, you have to open space to schools and teachers who know their students and give them space to implement their own initiatives and action plans. The pandemic showed clearly that this space was too narrow in Turkey.

To give you an example, distance learning for first-grade teachers is a highly difficult process for many reasons, such as the adaptation of the children to school, the transition from play to rules, establishing a relation of trust: all of this is very important and requires physical proximity, like eye contact.

First-grade teachers came together among themselves because the centralized system did not provide them a support mechanism. They are trying to learn from each other. So more space needs to be given to them.

How do you see the process ahead, as schools are scheduled to physically open on Sept. 21? Mind you, many believe even this date could be postponed due to the current rise in COVID-19 cases.

Plans to have small children come to school in a hybrid way are still on. There are also plans to have fourth and eighth-year students also come to school. But our projection is that it will be very difficult to meet that date. Everything looks very uncertain for this year. That’s why I want to underline the importance of local solutions. Schools should develop their own solutions, teachers who know their students should take their own initiative and the ministry should support them in this way. In addition, the confusion needs to be eradicated. The process is too uncertain. We, as well as the ministry, might not know what to expect, and decisions can change every day. But this is now part of our lives, so plans A, B, C and D need to be clearly explained.

When schools opened [for distance learning] on Aug. 31, teachers said there were still too many uncertainties, and they were confused about receiving new information every day.

It is very important to keep teachers calm. We need to recall they have their own families and their own worries. They have to put them aside and try to keep students calm and try to make them adapt to this process. They need to be supported. Eradicating uncertainties and providing support mechanisms will be crucial during this period.

There is a tremendous need for psychological guidance. Yet, on the other side of the coin, there is academic pressure coming from parents. There is a learning gap; parents want their children to continue their studies. Because of this pressure, the psychological and social support mechanisms are given secondary importance. But anxiety levels need to go down.

What are the other problems you see?

Work toward students with special needs has to be prioritized, as well as migrant students whose mother tongue is not Turkish.

There is also a need for alternative education plans for certain groups of children — those who are working, for instance, as seasonal workers or the children of seasonal workers. You can not reach them with TV programs; the hazelnut harvest is continuing right now, for example.

You have talked less about the digital gap; I would have expected this issue to top the list of problems.

The Education Ministry did state that 1.5 million students had problems accessing information communications and technology. But we cannot solve the problem by simply giving tablets to students. Some experts argue we in Turkey talk too much about high technology whereas we need to talk about low-tech solutions, like TV or radio programs.

The pandemic therefore did not make students more equal but, on the contrary, seems to have consolidated the inequalities?

The pandemic made inequalities more visible, and the current practices have the potential of further deepening these inequalities. Schools are not just places for education; they are also part of the child protection system. We still do not know much about child abuse cases during the pandemic. Meanwhile, in households which are highly equipped technologically, and we see that in terms of students of private schools, children spend six to eight hours in front of a screen. This is bad for their health. But the expectations of parents to get what they have paid for and the academic pressure outweighs the need for the psychological well-being of both students and teachers. The psychological resilience is weakening, and no matter how good our programs are, learning might not take place without psychological resilience.

WHO IS BURCU MELTEM ARIK?

In 2007, Burcu Meltem Arık joined the Education Reform Initiative (ERG), an independent, not-for-profit think tank that contributes to systemic transformation in education for the development of children and society. At ERG, she conducted critical thinking, teacher policy and good practices in education projects. Since 2017, she has been ERG’s education observatory coordinator. Between 2015 and 2020, Arık taught classes on ecological literacy and sustainability and biomimicry at Istanbul Bilgi University. She is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Education and Communication Commission, the co-author of ‘The Council of Europe Sustainability for Youth’ and ‘Mediterranean-Mosaic,’ and the founding partner of the House of Nature Games (Doğa Oyunları Evi). Arık studied industrial and environmental chemistry at Middle East Technical University.

Hurriyet Daily News

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