A New Way to Learn
Azerbaijan introduces a full-scale Active Learning initiative and brings the promise of a brighter future to its children
By Antonina Jedrzejczak
September 15, 2008 became an important day for the thousands of first-graders getting their initial anticipated taste of school, and an even more monumental time for Azerbaijan. In the wake of substantial reforms in the education system the country is implementing a new national curriculum for primary education, which will effectively introduce Active Learning to one-hundred percent of the 4500 general education schools, in contrast to the fifteen percent that practice it today.
Experts agree that this is a huge initiative, and a very laudable one. Active Learning is the most successful UNICEF education program to date and has created tangible benefits for students, as well as fueling a more ambitious and modernized model of approaching education on the national, district, and individual level.
“For eight years the Ministry of Education has struggled to modernize the education system with the help of national and international partnerships. Active Learning has been at the heart of these reforms. Child friendly schooling, a new comprehensive model for schools, builds on the successes of Active learning and aims at securing the education rights of all children, wherever they may live”, explains UNICEF consultant Ray Harris, who has been involved with Active Learning in Azerbaijan since 2004.
One of the main pillars of Active Learning is communication and the sharing of ideas with the aim of growth and betterment. This concept is not only restricted to promoting discussion between students and teachers, but also applies to a more essential dissemination of ideas and solutions in the field of education in general. As a result, Child Friendly Schooling is a concept that developed out of the Active Learning initiative, and the projects go hand-in-hand in advancing the effectiveness of learning, community participation, protection against violence and inclusiveness, and health.
“There is a big difference in the level of achievement of students taught by teachers trained in Active Learning and those not trained. Students who study through Active Learning have become more open and independent. They express their own thoughts and questions”, explains Zakiyya Mirzayeva in an interview with a group of teachers from school number 4 in Lenkoran.
“It would make an even bigger impact if they were to start active learning right after kindergarten,” added her colleague.
In a couple of months, when Active Learning is made accessible to all incoming first-graders, that is exactly what they will do.
In addition to teacher involvement, the role of the PTA in a large number of schools with Active Learning is fundamental in supporting the program both morally and physically.
In practical terms the implementation of Active Learning leads to the involvement of not just teachers and their students, but also the wider communities of which they are a part.
“We have had a couple cases where parents don’t like some of the new methods because they feel the lessons become too loud and out of control. But often we have convinced them [otherwise] because they are able to come to the open lessons and see how their kids are doing” explained Gulnara Mahmudova, a primary school teacher at school number 1 in Guba.
In school number 2 in Guba the PTA is involved in organizing extra-curricular activities, such as dance groups, helping prepare material for Active Learning lessons, and helping to distribute free lunches to less well-of students.
As a result, in the opinion of this and other PTAs throughout the country, the positive effects of Active Learning and Child Friendly Schooling are easy to see.
“The children are expressing their opinion more and with our help they have organized a student self-management day, in which the students take on the role of teachers and get the chance to teach primary school kids for a day. This has helped them feel that they are in control and can make their own choices”, added Gulnara.
Child Parliaments Raise their Voices
In addition to engaging the PTA, the Child Friendly Schooling initiative has led to the formation of numerous new Student Parliaments and the encouragement of existing ones. It is these parliaments that are often fundamental in fostering a much-needed sense of autonomy and democracy. In School number 4 in Lenkoran, there exists a strong student parliament which serves as a prime example of the initiatives undertaken by the various student councils in other regions.
The parliament of school number 4 is made up of representatives elected from each class. Though primary grades are not yet represented, Gunay Alizada, the president of the parliament, guarantees that they are not overlooked.
“They know they can come to us if they have problems with teachers or fellow classmates”, she explains with a great deal of assurance.
Furthermore the parliament is active in organizing many engaging activities, including trips to the capital and a school paper to which everyone can contribute. It is a welcoming group, out of whose nearly two dozen members three are internally displaced persons that moved with their families from the war-torn region of Fizuli. These students, like the rest of the members of the parliament, are visibly empowered by the newly-instituted initiatives that give them a voice. They are accepted into a school organization that allows them to forget their differences in light of group goals and aspirations.
“We have a system”, explains Gunay Alizade, “For example, we have a suggestion box where people can put in complaints such as those regarding low marks. The director is responsible for opening the box but there is always at least one member of the parliament there when she does so. Then we try to solve that problem.”
It is exactly this notion of logical cause and effect that helps empower children who have faced powerlessness in other areas of their life.
“Active Learning and Child Friendly Schooling are working in Azerbaijan, and more importantly they are working together to build a strong foundation for both current and future students”, says Gulana Huseynova, UNICEF Education Officer, who for the past five years has worked with unwavering determination to lead the Active Learning initiative to successful fruition.
“Through Active Learning students are able to realize the validity of personal opinions, interactive methods of exploring their subjects, teamwork, and personal initiative. In turn, it is exactly these new experiences that promote a level of confidence to help them recognize that they have the right and the obligation to be responsible for their own lives, thoughts, and the future of their country” she went on to explicate.
Near the end of a sunny school day, a class of eager fourth graders listens as their teacher leads an animated “Life Skills Class” in School number 2 in Guba. The children work in groups and become so engaged with brainstorming that the teacher has to ring her bell twice to get their attention. Everyone eagerly waves his or her hand in hopes of being the group leader who will get to go up to the board and present the collaborative findings. After each presentation the rest of the class claps.
During a pause in the lesson the children are asked what they like and don’t like about this new style of classes. Everyone wants to be heard.
“In groups we can learn from each other and get to focus more on a topic we like”, explains a small serious girl with a very large white bow in her hair.
“We also get to move around in the classroom!” adds her neighbor with a grin.
From the other side of the class a boy is not afraid to note that “on some days I don’t like my teachers”.
Perhaps the best example that things are looking up.