For every child, every right: Mariam Papoyan, youth advocate for education

One teen sets out a new vision for education in Armenia

Angela Hawke
Mariam Papoyan, 17, at the Republic Square, in Yerevan, Armenia.
UNICEF/ Armenia/ Anush Babajanyan

15 November 2019

This story is part of special series produced by the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Office on young advocates using their voices to protect and promote the rights of other young people to mark 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“If we want the process of education not to be alienated from the process of living life, we need to bring life to school”

At primary school, Mariam Papoyan worked hard because, as she explains, “I was always told at home that there was so much I could achieve by studying, and I could even change our country for the better.”

And she has, but not in the way she expected. In fact, it was her struggles with schooling – rather than her achievements in the classroom – that led her on a journey of discovery and transformed her into a passionate advocate for student-centred education. Today, she campaigns for education that prepares students for the 21st century workplace, seeing it as crucial for a democratic and prosperous society.     

Now aged 18, Mariam has never been one to sit back and meekly accept the world as it is. If there is a problem, she searches for solutions. And this particular problem began when she found herself losing her motivation at high school.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I should change the education system.’ Every time I felt what it meant to be unmotivated in class, tired during class, unwilling to listen, seeing school as a place where your freedoms were limited, I felt a sense of responsibility within me. I wanted to change something for the students who had yet to come to school.”

Mariam Papoyan, 17, (left) takes a class at her department of International Relations.
UNICEF/ Armenia/ Anush Babajanyan
Mariam in class at University.

"I wanted to change something for the students who had yet to come to school."

Mariam found it hard to concentrate on lessons where she was expected to learn through rote memorization and repetition, following a rigid programme imposed on everyone – teachers as well as pupils – that didn’t seem to relate to the real world. “Very often,” she says, “we received knowledge that did not seem useful to me.” 

“I find it really hard to hear the same thing 15 to 20 times, so I find myself counting down the minutes to the next bell, examining the buttons I can see on the clothes of the children around me. A classroom of 15 to 20 people includes 15 to 20 people with different family backgrounds, mindsets, life experiences and interests. If you treat them all the same way and expect the same result, then it’s like ‘testing the abilities of a fish and an elephant by making them climb a tree’,” she adds. 

She realized that teachers faced similar issues. “The knowledge the teacher imparts to the children is whatever the lesson plan of the day says. So the chain of pressure passes from one to the other.”

Mariam Papoyan, 17, at the NGO called Political Dialogue, where she volunteers.
UNICEF/ Armenia/ Anush Babajanyan
Mariam at the offices of Political Dialogue, an NGO where she volunteers.
Mariam Papoyan, 17, studies at a park.
UNICEF/ Armenia/ Anush Babajanyan
Mariam studies at a park.

One speech becomes a life-changing moment

Rather than accepting the situation, Mariam decided to find out more about children’s rights, including their rights to an education that prepares them for adult life, and to participate in the decisions that affect them. As she points out, “It's very difficult to agree with decisions already made, if you haven't been a part of it.”

She began to put her thoughts down on paper.  While in the 11th grade, she wrote an article about education for a young reporters’ website. As her writing experience grew, she says, her message began to resonate with more people. 

TEDx then contacted her to give a speech for UNICEF. On UNICEF’s World Children’s Day, 20 November 2018, Mariam found herself standing in front of the President of Armenia and the Minister of Education and Science, as well as CEOs of leading companies and an audience of more than 100 children. She voiced her concerns about the quality of education and the lack of 21st century skills in school curricula, proposing her own solutions to re-shape the education on offer.

Mariam Papoyan, 17, (right) meets with TEDxYerevan founder Kristina Sargsyan at a park in Yerevan, Armenia
UNICEF/ Armenia/ Anush Babajanyan
Mariam meets with TEDxYerevan founder Kristina Sargsyan in Yerevan.

“It's very difficult to agree with decisions already made, if you haven't been a part of it.”

Mariam argued for a system of education that encourages pupils to ask questions and challenge conventional views, linking such an education to economic development. She cited evidence from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which suggests that the ability of the labour force to think critically and solve problems may account for the difference between the countries with the strongest economic performance and the weakest. “In addition,” she said during her talk, “data from Fortune 500 companies suggest that the skills demanded by employers have shifted from the traditional ‘reading, writing, arithmetic’ to teamwork, interpersonal skills and complex problem solving.”

Mariam also voiced concerns about cuts to the state budget for education, “the sector that is directly responsible for the country’s development.”

Mariam’s own school was quick to respond – and positively. Its principal asked her to draw up a questionnaire for all students, asking for their views and ideas about their education. A suggestion box labelled ‘Change or Conform’ was installed so that pupils could raise issues anonymously, propose solutions and spark a discussion. 

“I am very happy this is being implemented in the school now,” says Mariam. “What I could not achieve for so long, I achieved through that talk.”

She considers herself very fortunate. “That UNICEF speech has been one of the defining moments of my life,” she says. “I had the UNICEF platform, but there are thousands of students who have problems that need to be voiced, and they do not have a platform.”

Mariam Papoyan, 17,  poses for a portrait at the library of the Yerevan State University
UNICEF/ Armenia/ Anush Babajanyan
Mariam at the library of Yerevan State University.

“Let’s go to a society where children will try to exercise their rights and will know what rights they have.”

Education that fosters democracy and child rights

Mariam’s journey has seen her translate her own problems at school into powerful advocacy around wider educational challenges, the role of education and the importance of child rights.

“If new teaching methods are applied that have a student-centred learning process at their core, then the education system will have no choice but to improve. You will no longer be forced to persuade your children to go to school, and we will finally stop spending our time in class counting the cracks and crevices in our classroom walls.”

In her vision of education, democracy and responsibility should both begin at school. “We need to experience democracy in schools if we want to have a democratic society. I would let every student to choose every subject and, if possible, teachers, for themselves. Because then, they would understand that any issues they have at the end of the course are their own problems because they have made a choice and are responsible for it.” 

“Let’s go to a society where children will try to exercise their rights and will know what rights they have,” she adds, “and if those rights are violated, they will voice it.” 

Mariam is now studying political science and international relations at Yerevan State University, aiming for a career in policy making for development. But she continues to learn about learning, with a deep interest in educational and academic neurology and how creative thinking can be nurtured. “I started to wonder about the most important question: how do I learn?”

Her conclusion? “It is very important to love the process of being educated.”

The CRC @ 30 in Armenia

2019 is the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The CRC has helped to transform children’s lives worldwide, inspiring Governments to change laws and policies and invest in children’s health, education and protection. Importantly, it has enabled more children like Mariam to have a voice, participate in their societies and hold their Governments to account.

To mark this anniversary, UNICEF is calling on all countries to reaffirm their commitment to child rights by adopting the ‘global pledge’ to children.

UNICEF Armenia is holding a National Children’s Summit on 18-20 November that will bring together over 170 adolescents from all regions of Armenia to discuss child rights issues and solutions with the representatives of the Government and other decision makers. Mariam will attend the Summit and moderate a panel discussion on education with the Minister of Education as a guest.

In the run up to the Summit, UNICEF Armenia has asked children and young people to voice their issues at www.unicef.am – these issues will directly feed into the discussion at the Summit and will later become part of a Children’s Declaration to be handed to the Prime Minister of Armenia as its final outcome.