Personalized Approach to Education in Kazakhstani Schools
How a UNICEF programme helps students recover learning losses after the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the largest disruption of the education system in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students across more than 190 countries on all continents. The crisis exacerbated pre-existing inequality issues in education, preventing a large proportion of the world’s most vulnerable children from continuing their studies.
The difficulties faced by many students during the forced digital learning period highlighted the need to streamline the organizational learning process. Since 2021, with support of UNICEF and Almaty Management University (AlmaU), school administrators and educators in Kazakhstan have been implementing various remedial as part of the ‘whole-school approach’.
Under this project, the ‘whole-school approach’ focused on digital/blended learning. A relatively new concept in Kazakhstan, blended learning requires administrators to adapt curriculum at all educational levels among both teachers and students. Educators have yet to widely implement the approach into teacher training modules, and this approach needs further conceptualization and incorporation into the education system. Dana Orumbaeva, the principal of a school in the village of Lobanovo, North Kazakhstan Oblast, was among the pioneers of the whole school approach and tested various remedial strategies.
Prior to initiating the project, Dana held a focus group with teachers to gauge their interest in the initiative. After her colleagues agreed, they jointly selected a target group of students who required support, specifically, those lagging behind in one or more subjects.
“We identified students in grades 5 to 9 to participate in the project. Based on their performance from the previous year, we selected 25 students who scored lower than before. Although it may not have been the ideal selection strategy, it was our first ever attempt of this kind. During our year implementing the project, we discovered new tools such as student-taught lessons, lesson studies, and reverse lessons, among others. These instruments made our lessons more engaging and effective,” says Dana Orumbayeva, who has been teaching at Lobanov High School for 11 years.
According to Dana, she witnessed an entire generation growing up right in front of her eyes. The pandemic’s challenges, as made evident in the education sector, did not leave her unaffected. Adding to the difficulties, rural schools faced electronic device shortages, which required school administrators to travel to district centers to request necessary equipment.
“During the pandemic, we conducted a survey of students to assess the availability of computers in their homes. As there was a shortage of equipment, we submitted this data to the district center, and we had to borrow the equipment from other schools,” notes Dana.
Fortunately, everyone eventually received the necessary technical devices. Teachers maintained social distance by recording their lessons on CDs and communicating with their students via WhatsApp and Zoom, while homework had to be submitted for grading by email. Dana dreams of a future where technical availability will not be an issue and teachers will be able to conduct lessons using multimedia whiteboards and a full range of printed books. She is grateful that her school had the opportunity to participate in the knowledge replenishment programme and consult with national and international experts to develop the ‘whole-school approach’, providing digital learning and support programmes to every student in need. Under the guidance of AlmaU experts, educators in the pilot schools implemented several strategies to help students who were falling behind. These strategies included differentiated instruction, peer-to-peer instruction with classmates, non-peer instruction with high school students, methods for focusing on key topics, active use of digital content, and approaches to enhance psycho-emotional confidence in learning.
“The programme helped us change our teaching approach. Previously, teachers would come to class, explain a topic, and then move on to the next lesson. Now, we have a more individual approach to students. We also aim to provide psychological support to children, as we see the need for it,” says Dana.
Taking such an individualized approach to students has not only improved academic performance but also influenced the team’s psycho-emotional state.
Dana shares with us a real story about how teachers’ individualized attention helped a student maintain his progress: “Sixth-grader Zhaksylyk Asylkhanov unexpectedly lost his mother and was left with his father and three siblings. His academic performance noticeably dropped, and he became unmotivated. We, along with a team of teachers, found out the likely reason for this decline and immediately chose to employ a personalized teaching method. By the next quarter, he got his grades up, and his academic results substantially improved.”
The teachers believe that the student’s achievement was possible because they utilized the tools they mastered while participating in the ‘Knowledge Replenishment Programme’. Six urban and rural schools across Kazakhstan participated in the programme, which reached 114 teachers, 541 students in grades 4 to 11 (47 per cent of whom are girls), and 22 students required tailored learning assistance.
Despite her working day starting at 8 a.m., Dana has never once doubted her choice to become a teacher in her 11 years of experience as an educator. She enjoys working with children and witnessing their progress.
“When I am at school, time flies. Perhaps our children are the reason. They make me feel strong and help me forget about how tired I may be. For me, an ideal school is one where 100 per cent of the students find their place in life. And as teachers, our task is to raise a decent younger generation,” says Dana.
Encouraged by the positive results of the pilot phase of the whole school approach in remote areas, the scale-up of the approach, together with relevant government agencies and partners, will be through:
- Working with school leaders and consulting with parents and students to understand their needs and develop targeted remedial programs;
- professional development of teachers and, in particular, the inclusion in the training and retraining of teachers of the topics on social and emotional learning and development of students, behavioral problems, digital tools and methods for their application in education;
- incorporating differentiated teaching methods (such as the station rotation model), peer-to-peer practices and other effective models (in terms of workload for teachers and students);
- promotion of pedagogical communities for the exchange of experience and practices;
- and a system of regular monitoring with equal engagement of teachers.