When it comes to teaching forms and methods, we all understand that the student is supposed to be at the center of the process. That’s the theory. Practice sometimes differs.
Three wise men will not suffice
The director of the School Support Center, Marite Seile, interviews the director of the General Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Science Guntis Vasilevskis
Latvia first took part in international comparative research studies in early 1990. Now the OECD has published the first results of the latest version of its international evaluation of students. Why should Latvia take part in such studies?
When we regained our independence, we changed our educational system quite radically. Curricula and textbooks are developed in Latvia, the freedom of teachers is far greater than it used to be, and there is less centralization when it comes to the content of education and similar issues. This, in turn, means that we have to determine a mechanism that guarantees information about the results of education - the thing that we often refer to as the quality of education. This can be done through an internal audit, of course, but because Latvia is an independent country which, I hope, will join the European Union, we also have to compare our situation with the situation in the rest of the world.
A comparative view, of course, is interesting, but the evaluation is of little sense if it is not followed by relevant activities.
Work that is related to the adjustment of various aspects of education can, to a certain extent, be divided up into three main categories - the content of education, the training of teachers, and the methods that are used in the teaching process.
The most important improvements have been made in the first and last of these categories. In the latter half of 1990, new principles for establishing and presenting educational content were formulated in a “yellow paper” that is called “The National Standard for Basic Education”. When it comes to teaching forms and methods, we all understand that the student is supposed to be at the center of the process. That’s the theory. Practice sometimes differs. There are, of course, people who want everything to be absolutely perfect in no time at all, but we have to be honest in telling them that fundamentally new ideas can be put into practice only very, very slowly and gradually. Sometimes as much as 10 years are needed. The truth here is very simple - the teacher is in the classroom along with her students, and no matter how well a textbook is written, the decisive factors in these contacts are the attitude of the teacher, the thinking of the teacher and the teaching methods of the teacher. These things have a much greater effect when it comes to the extent to which students learn the material that is presented to them. Teacher training, therefore, is a very important issue - one which must be the focus of our work in the future.
Could you be more specific in telling us the things that must be done to improve the three basic areas in which work is being done - educational content, teacher training and teaching methods?
Improvements to educational content are being implemented more slowly than I would like. Many people think that three wise men will sit down and determine what is to be taught, but three wise men will not be enough here. When it comes to educational content in some areas of study, we are participating in three-year World Bank projects. I believe that we will really have made improvements in this area by 2004.
The second issue is teacher training. I think that this is the most complicated issue, because it involves cooperation with and among universities.
Teaching methods - there have been many ongoing education programs, but this is the area in which the most work has to be done, this has to do with the very ideology of teaching. We have made good progress in this area. There is a World Bank self-evaluation project, for example, which involves the development of a procedure through which a school can more or less take a look at itself from the sidelines. The time when repressive methods could be used to change teaching methods is probably gone, but time has to pass before teachers themselves accept new ideas.
If fundamental innovations are made at the national level, does someone evaluate the success of those innovations at some later point, coming up with conclusions about what is to be done next?
These evaluations to some extent are related to our participation in international comparative research studies. These studies are aimed not just at making comparisons, but also at pointing out the areas in which countries have agreed to implement new developments.
Let me also mention the accreditation of educational institutions and school principals in the context of evaluation. We have completed the first round of attestation among principals, and all of the principals have now gone through this process. We have drawn positive or less positive conclusions about various issues that are related to this matter, but the principals are unanimous in saying that the attestation process has helped them to improve their administrative skills and to establish new educational environments in their schools.
Will this experience lead to the attestation of teachers, too?
To some extent that is already happening in schools - administrators are allowed to pay 10% bonuses to teachers on the basis of performance. We are not thinking about a national process of teacher attestation at this time, however.
When these research results are published, there are all kinds of guesses about the reasons for the results. How can we find out the true causes?
The last study on language skills showed that students are asked to use language in situations to which we have not devoted adequate attention. A course may, for example, cover the description of processes in table form to some extent, but the research study goes into great depth in this area, and it turns out that many students do not know how to work with such information. The same is true when it comes to the interpretation of graphic information, to a deeper understanding of information that is seen indirectly, so to speak. The research study looked at reading intelligence, and we have cause to be worried about what was found. Many of our young people posted worse results than their peers in the world’s developed countries. Perhaps we have not ensured that other areas of study make a sufficient contribution to language development. This suggests that there is an insufficient level of interdisciplinary approaches in our teaching process. We have to look at the investment which each subject of study can make to the development of language.
When I read articles about the things that have been done since international comparative research studies, I find an interesting coincidence. In the countries which post better results, there are more specific plans for future activities, while in countries which have weaker results, the goals are more generalized and abstract. Does Latvia typically avoid concrete goals, choosing instead to work at an excessively generalized level?
I would not like to say that we avoid specifics. Take a look at the way in which educational processes are reflected in the mass media. These articles involve the views of journalists, teachers or parents, and that’s all. The science of pedagogy has not been developed here. In countries where goals are very concrete, the goals are usually set out by academics in the field, not by ministries.
Our state has made enormous investments in education, and we must understand that there will be a return on those investments only if they are used rationally and properly. I can’t produce the ideal solution here, and my colleagues who are civil servants in the field of education can’t either. We can make certain assumptions, nothing more. We need pedagogical academics who can help us with specific proposals in each area of study. Otherwise we introduce innovations which lead to even worse results than were posted previously. We often talk about pedagogy in Latvia on the basis of personal experience, and that’s the foundation for various projects that we develop. That was acceptable during the transitional period, because it yielded faster results. If we look at the long-term future, however, then academics must be the ones who determine the direction of development.
Does that mean that we need to establish an independent institution for educational research?
Let’s look back at the situation that existed 15 years ago. We had the Institute to Raise Teacher Qualifications, and that was a very scientific institution indeed. We had methodological offices which provided academic support in every district of the country. Universities worked with these people in elaborating the overall principles of methodology. Today we have decentralized everything to a certain extent, and the study of mathematics, for example, is the responsibility of “one-and-a-half people” at the ministry. We cannot demand everything from these individuals - they should be managers who bring together university instructors, teachers and institutions which offer ongoing education. We’re slowly moving in this direction, but we broke the academic chain in the early 1990s. This led to more rapid reforms, but the reforms have not really been put in place in many areas because of that break. Life goes on, and instead of implementing reforms, we have seen a situation in which life adapts to reforms to some small extent.
When it comes to the OECD study, was there anything that you found particularly worrisome? Is there something that needs to be done with great urgency?
In this study and in other international studies we have seen a distinct problem - too many of our students are posting very poor results. My colleagues and I would really like to do something to reduce the number of students who are in the lowest quartile of the results. Perhaps the situation with the number of students who do very well is acceptable, but we need to increase the proportion of students who are somewhere in the middle of those results. The Welfare Ministry has found that 60% of families with children in Latvia live with income that is at or below the so-called survival minimum. I wonder whether that fact is reflected in the educational achievements of students. My intuition tells me that yes, it is.
Here I want to say that we can help education by doing more than just investing resources in teachers. A child is part of a family, and if that family for some reason cannot provide for its basic needs and if it does not have adequate social protection, then I believe that this will be reflected in the schoolwork of the child.
In rural parts of Latvia, schools are playing an increasingly important social function. That’s where a child gets a hot lunch, it’s a place where the child is safe for a certain period of time. In boarding schools especially, that’s the place where the child is clothed and nurtured. This is an extremely difficult subject - education cannot be seen separately from social welfare.
Countless studies have shown that the results which are posted by students in rural schools lag far behind the results of urban children. That’s not true at every rural school, of course, but the fact is that when a school has to handle all kinds of social issues, the quality of education is often put on the back burner. Teachers in many rural schools also have far fewer opportunities than their urban colleagues. It is a very good thing that all schools are being provided with computers, and I hope that there will also be Internet connections. That will help schools to achieve a little bit more.
We have to think about strengthening schools in the countryside. Not every school, to be sure. A school with 40 students will have problems, but a school which has 150 or more students should receive support. I don’t know what will happen otherwise. Not everyone can go to the city for schooling. There will always have to be schools in rural areas, too.