Challenging Early Childhood Educators to Sprint Ahead
On a recent afternoon, extraordinary things were afoot in the Rustavi kindergarten classroom of Lali Jangirashvili, 41, a veteran teacher who recently trained by UNICEF, in partnership with the Soros Foundation’s STEP-BY-STEP program, in a new approach to pre-school education. “Under the old system, the teacher had a strict plan to follow. In this classroom, the children can choose what they want to do. These five- and six-year-olds have covered a whole year’s curriculum in six months,” Jangirashvili says.
She has been teaching kindergarten since 1990, and for the first 17 of those years, she followed pedagogical practices that were in place since the Soviet days. She carefully planned the activities her class would follow, from A to Z. When the children did numbers, everyone counted aloud together; when they danced, all the little feet followed in the same steps. Today, her sunny kindergarten double-classroom in Rustavi’s Kindergarten Number 31 is a sea of many currents.
A vivacious 41-year-old with a sparkle in her dark eyes, Jangirashvili circulates among the children, handing out blocks of colored clay and answering questions. She shows her visitors an illustrated poster she’s made, with classroom rules posted: “We have hands not to fight, but to hug.”
Sure enough, her classroom is full of busy hands and minds. Levan and Lasha, two boys of five, are painting with quiet intensity. “We’re painting winter,’ says Levan, his water-color brush poised over a pale snowman and a purple cottage. At another toddler-sized nook, a cabal of kids excavates the hidden treasures in a sandbox. Nearby, another group is learning about geometry by fitting together three-dimensional blocks in different shapes and configurations. Says UNICEF representative to Georgia, Giovanna Barberis: “The very simple concept is to have a child at the center of a whole different way of teaching. Interaction is the core; the child is actively participating.”
One year ago, UNICEF introduced a new training program for Georgian early childhood teachers in 44 schools nationally, with two dozen teachers concentrated in the ailing industrial city of Rustavi, a half hour’s drive from central Tbilisi. The new program is designed to address the deficits that undermine early childhood development in Georgia, a nation where tenderness for the very young often outstrips knowledge.
A 2007 study conducted nationally by UNICEF in partnership with Georgia’s Ministry of Education and Sciences revealed low attendance rates in kindergartens nationally. Only 44% of Georgia’s children attend pre-schools. As a result of this, up to 1/5 of Georgia’s primary school children will begin school with educational deficits. Parents are wary of sending kids into schools that are dilapidated and poor. Boosting pre-schools up to meet international standards requires a team effort— on the part of local educators, the central government education ministry and Parliament, and international NGOs. The eventual aim is to create a new policy that can be implemented across all the kindergartens in Georgia, to bring early childhood schooling up to international standards.
The recent war in Georgia only exacerbated the need for reform and resources. With tens of thousands of refugees streaming out of Russian-occupied areas in August, many kindergarten classrooms in Gori and Tbilisi became emergency shelters for swelling populations of internally displaced refugees. This winter, the Georgian government plans to complete the evacuation of the refugees to newly-built settlements, a measure that frees up the classrooms but brings its own fallout. Barberis, comments: “In the new settlements there are no educational facilities. Plus, there is the issue of adjacent areas, and the impact on the existing schools.”
The solution, Barberis explains, will involve collaboration between national policy makers and local grassroots administrators. Ideas and solutions will need to circulate, from the pens of policy-makers to the classrooms of teachers like Jangirashvili, with mutual feedback.
UNICEF has been involved in supporting the Georgian Ministry of Education in its efforts to create an overall strategy to reform pre-schools. Local governmental partners have also been brought into the equation, so that the new ideas bubbling up at the top levels can be tested out by actual schools and local administrators. And a framework of policy and standardized regulations for pre-schools is being established, so that the schools will have some financing and support from a national center, run under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Education.
The remedies are needed. Many young children are entering primary school under-prepared—a problem with long-term fallout for Georgian youth. International experts have been called in to formulate strategies, which include setting up new child-centered curriculum, teaching parents about healthcare and nutritional needs, and bringing in trainers to work with kindergarten teachers like those in Rustavi. Small vanguards of classrooms in eleven regions across the country have become pilots of the new pedagogy; these teachers receive not only training, but also helpful materials, new furnishings, and other practical support to implement the new curriculum. Parents are also brought into the heart of the educational process: new resource centers for teachers and care-givers to meet are being created in the model schools.
For all the problems that have been statistically documented in Georgia’s schools, an interested observer who strolls into the kindergarten classroom of teacher Keti Masalaburi might be forgiven a burst of optimism. While autumn sunlight filters through the curtains, children are frolicking and learning in small groups. Using Lego blocks or counting cubes, they construct tow-trucks and solve math riddles. Masalaburi, 34, catches sight of some wrestling going on inside the “family center” and gently closes down this area of her classroom, hanging a paper ribbon with a picture of lock and key across the entrance. Just because the kindergarten is open in structure does not mean it’s chaotic or disorderly. Young children learn the difference quickly enough between creative play and anarchy. It’s a distinction that eludes some of their elders. As psychologists have noted, the first five years are crucial in shaping the adult personality.
Masalaburi says: “The new program allows for more freedom of movement, while the old one encouraged stillness. The training is psychologically-oriented, which is important.”
Though holistic educational methods have filtering through mainstream schools in Western countries for decades, they are still quite new in Georgia. The last two decades brought stagnation to the educational system. While attendance at pre-schools is low, families themselves lack the resources to make up the deficits; a 2007 survey disclosed that 56% of families can’t afford books or toys to stimulate young minds. In practical terms, that means that many young children are falling behind developmentally. Children with physical or emotional disabilities are most underserved by educational institutions.
Barberis, the UNICEF Representative to Georgia, explains that working hand in hand with the Georgian Ministry of Education, “We’ve created new standards, guidelines, and training packages for teachers.” Eventually, the goal is to make the best ideas and resources widely available.
In Rustavi, new-style classrooms still form a determined minority. According to Tsia Gabisonia, the director of the Central Union of Pre-School Education in Rustavi, there are just 25 pilot kindergarten classrooms scattered across the city. All the rest of the preschool children follow the older pedagogical methods: the teachers set the program for each day’s lessons and the youngsters follow the rules.
Gabisonia sums up the difference between old and new methodologies: “In the end, both groups of children are ready and prepared for school, but in the new group they are becoming free persons.”