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Inside Europe

Turkey: Revolutionizing The Classroom

The European Union is working hand in hand with the Turkish government to completely change the way children are taught. The days of discipline and memorization -- or chalk and talk -- are finally coming to an end.

The EU is helping Turkish children get a new perspective on learning

The much criticized education system in Turkey is a legacy of military rule, after the army seized power in 1980. While the generals are today long gone, the education they left remains. Encouraging thinking and discussion has still been strictly off limits. But things are changing.

The Cappa high school, for example, is a typical state school with around 2,000 students. But it is one of around two dozen schools across the country that's taking a new approach to education.

Sinan Demir is at the forefront of this education revolution. His lessons are based on engaging the children and challenging them to think -- as opposed to sitting silently. It is a radically different approach from traditional teaching methods.

"I'll tell you how it was before: the teacher would come to the class, say 'children, this is our subject for today, take out your notebooks!' and it was just about dictating information," Demir said. Students were always in a passive mode, he said.

"But now, it is more about helping them gain skills and improving their speech, expression and writing," Demir said. There was no more dry information and some students even complained that there was nothing written in their notebooks.

"They are empty because we are not dictating information," Demir said. "There are activities, and through these, we want them to develop their skills to think and question and reason."

Project improves students' communication skills

Demir was trained by a project backed by the European Union. The program brought him in contact with teachers from across Europe and introduced a new curriculum developed by academics in Turkey and the EU.

The pupils like participating more actively in the classroom

His students are enthusiastic about the new approach to teaching.

"In the Turkish classes, we study some subjects by turning them into games or staging them as theater plays," said one pupil. "This makes the learning all the more entertaining." She said she could now communicate better with her peers and that the exchange of knowledge had improved.

"I think this curriculum is much better," she said. "Before we had to sit silently and the teacher just spoke at us. Now we have to think."

Trying to break down misconceptions

Along with changes in teaching, Brussels is supporting the development of the education infrastructure, especially in more deprived areas. These attract migrants from the countryside on a daily basis. It is estimated that 200 families a day move to Istanbul.

Marc Pierini, the EU's ambassador to Turkey, said projects like this will help to overcome the growing perception among many Turks that the EU doesn't want them.

Turkey's EU ambitions still face many obstacles

"Very often, the negotiation process is perceived perhaps as us against Turkey," Pierini said. "This is not the case; this is us together, towards a certain objective." He said emotions and misconceptions made matters problematic in Turkey.

"This is part of the difficulty we have to manage," Pierini said. "We are going to make a deliberate effort to demonstrate to people that we are working together to achieve this objective."

But with the country in the grip of a wave of nationalism -- in part fueled by anger towards Europe -- reform of the country's education system is a difficult business. Brussels has strongly criticized the nationalist content in textbooks, along with Turkey's failure to acknowledge its large Kurdish minority. The head of the EU project Anders Lonnqvist Thorsten said they have to tread very carefully, though.

"We are outsiders working with curriculum development and our job is not to poke into how to talk about Armenian issues or Kurdish issues," Lonnqvist Thorsten said. "It is a Turkish curriculum developed by Turkish experts we are giving ideas to."

Project teaches children to believe in themselves

For teacher Demir, the new curriculum is far more exhausting than simply talking at the children. But he said that it is far more rewarding.

"I used to question and criticize the previous system even before the new curriculum was introduced," Demir said. Today, pupils learned knowledge and skills through activities -- not just by listening to the teacher.

"This is a system that really helps the children develop individually, especially their creativity," Demir said. "Children will understand that if they are to succeed at anything, they need to develop their skills by working, studying, and thinking. They will come to a point that they will believe they can do whatever they aspire to do."

But Demir is no longer just teaching children. He now travels around the country to educate his fellow teachers on the new curriculum, as the EU education project goes nationwide.

The old military style approach to schooling has been blamed for a variety of problems in Turkish society. It is now hoped that the next generation will be key to helping to resolve those problems.

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