Promoting Critical Thinking in Education: The View from an Education Think-and-do-Tank in Turkey

The Education Reform Initiative (ERI) [1] at Sabanci University is a non-governmental think-and-do-tank established to improve policy-making processes and outcomes in pre-university education in Turkey. The ERI produces knowledge to understand education challenges better, communicating this knowledge to decision-makers to inform their decisions and to a general audience to inform popular opinion about the status of education. The ERI further brings together practitioners to promote non-hierarchical peer-learning and invests in experimental research initiatives to develop innovative teacher training practices, especially related to promoting the critical thinking skills of teachers and learners. The main office of ERI is located in the historic neighborhood of Karaköy in Istanbul. The 12 full-time professionals working at ERI support a large network of scholars and practitioners mobilized as content specific needs arise. The ERI doesn't provide any formal teaching courses but its staff is regularly engaged in public speaking.

Institutional Profile

When the ERI was established in 2003, there were two main arguments that bounded its conceptual framework. One was the pressing need to provide quality formal education to children and youth. Quality remains essential, both for empowering Turkey's expanding young population as active citizens and for equipping them with employable skills also in Turkey and in global labor markets. The realization of Turkey's 'demographic gift', a popularly coined term for the competitive advantages of Turkey's younger population, especially vis-à-vis European Union (EU) countries, depended on provision of quality education to children and youth (ERI 2007b). Similarly, in 2003 Turkey's EU aspirations were quite vivid and quality education was also considered a catalyst for the much needed reform processes of democratization and social and economic development (Aydagül 2006).

Another consideration in the establishment of the ERI was the need to democratize education governance by creating a public-private space to engage the non-governmental actors in education policy making. Although Turkish civil society has historically contributed to education by building schools, providing scholarships to students and running private educational institutions, the state had ultimate authority over all decisions in education and provided very little space for participatory policy-making.

Within this framework, the ERI engaged in dialogue and collaborated with state actors to practice and advocate for a new model of governance that was evidencebased, participatory and transparent. At the same time, the ERI has defined its vision as 'quality education for all' and organized its activities around this vision. The ERI conceptualized a three-dimensional definition of 'quality' education: a quality education would provide children and youths with a solid foundation for active citizenship, lifelong learning and success in labor markets. To tackle this holistic conceptualization of quality education, the ERI works on issues related to (1) Access to education, (2) Inclusive education, (3) Education quality and (4) Education finance and governance.

Within the decade since ERI's establishment, the content of education has been altered in two major waves of reform. The Ministry of National Education (MoNE) launched the first wave in 2004, changing the underlying education paradigm from behavioral to constructivist pedagogy. Critical thinking was one of the new skills introduced with the reform. An independent evaluation commissioned by the ERI endorsed the curriculum change as a bold move signifying a transition from passive to active citizenship (ERI 2007a). The report also cautioned that successful implementation of the new curriculum required intensive professional development for the existing teaching force as well as the overall support of popular opinion.

As part of this first wave of curriculum reform, textbooks had to be rewritten to fit with the new educational paradigm. While this change, found necessary but not sufficiently rigorous by an independent evaluation of textbooks from a human rights perspective, was successfully completed, the Ministry of National Education's efforts to provide professional development to teachers were inadequate both in quantity and quality. Later, teachers would themselves learn to practice the new curriculum as time passed (Tüzün 2009).

The second wave of curriculum reform followed the expansion of compulsory education from 8 to 12 years and restructuring of the first 8 years of continuous primary into 4 years of primary and 4 years of middle school in 2012. This curriculum reform built on the previous changes and rather than adopting a new pedagogy, it has focused on revising the curriculum so that it would be more of a 'framework' document, one that would be simpler and provide teachers more flexible space within the classroom. Independent evaluations are still pending as these changes are still in the process of being implemented.

Both pre-service teacher training and on-going professional development remain major challenges in Turkey. The government has failed to undertake a comprehensive strategy of teacher policies that would also tackle teacher development. Perhaps perceiving the significance of teacher quality for the effectiveness of the education sector, non-governmental actors have increased their engagement in this vital matter. Teacher Training Academy Foundation2, Sociology and Education Studies Research Center at Bilgi University3 and the ERI have undertaken projects varying in depth and scope to provide on-the-job professional development to current teachers.

While the ERI has focused on Turkey's domestic education policy, there has been a continuous effort to share knowledge and good practices with international colleagues. The ERI's transnational partnerships often emphasize the significant role and potential of education in empowering active citizens for open societies and vibrant democracies. Within this broader perspective, the ERI has prioritized critical thinking and human rights in education through its policy advocacy and training work. Both critical thinking and human rights are fundamental to active citizenship, thus, the ERI's efforts to develop innovative teacher training programs have attempted to accommodate both.

A particular program the ERI has invested in and promoted is training teachers in critical thinking pedagogy. In the first project[2], implemented between 2009 and 2010, the newly developed in-service teacher training program was delivered to approximately 4000 teachers across eight provinces in Turkey. Program evaluation results indicate that while teachers were inclined to adopt new teaching approaches that promoted more active learning in the classroom, they resisted including more critical thinking in their thinking and teaching paradigms. The 5-day training delivered in four sessions across a couple of weeks were insufficiently effective to create a radical change among teachers. Feedback from participating teachers criticized the lack of support systems once trainings were completed. They simply needed mentors or experts that could provide them with ongoing support in better utilizing and maintaining their newly acquired knowledge and skill set. Teachers also argued that the heavy curriculum left little space for active learning approaches in the classroom and the lack of support from principals.

As a follow-up to this project5, the ERI chose to narrow the target group and invest heavily in one school as a pilot that could be applied to other schools in the country. This decision was mainly driven by the evaluation of and feedback from the previous teacher-training project. It was clear that there was a need for a more exhaustive, longer-term whole-school approach. A revised in-service teacher training program was developed and delivered to a middle school in Istanbul. Both the neighborhood and the school ranked average in terms of socio-economic status and infrastructure. A total of 23 days of training were delivered across three semesters, together with additional class observations and short seminars.

This project specifically targeted to change the school's ethos through promoting and supporting critical thinking among all stakeholders in the school. This was a more ambitious project than simply attempting to transform teaching approaches. However, the principal and 40 % of the school's teachers resisted attending the training program in the first place and rendered any possibility of total transformation impossible. Nevertheless, the training program was completed with the remaining teachers.

Three teams of researchers undertook a holistic evaluation of this program, including both quantitative and qualitative studies. While the final analysis is still underway, early results indicate that students who were exposed to teachers who actively participated in the training program made more progress in Cornell Critical Thinking tests vis-à-vis the control group.

A valuable output of the ERI's critical thinking program was a resource kit that provides teacher trainers and teachers with popular, relevant content for use to encourage engaging discussions in classrooms and support teacher trainees and students in critical thinking. The kit was not designed to be a book, and thus, it consists of 60 separate, double-sided A4 pages grouped into six folders: Cultural Heritage, Discrimination, Environment, Genetics, Globalization and War. Each folder includes an introduction to the general topic followed by ten different sub-topics. For example, the Genetics folder includes Evolution and Genetics; Health and Genetics; Gender and Genetics; Discrimination and Genetics; Informatics and Genetics; Biological Warfare and Genetics; Ethics and Genetics; Natural Resource; Genetically Modified Organisms; and Science Fiction. This material is designed to complement other materials used in the classroom in a diverse range of courses. The kit has also been translated into English and will be disseminated throughout a larger community of interested practitioners across the world.

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