Tony Gurr

Çay ve Simit – and a bit of education…

In Educational Leadership, Guest BLOGGERS, Our Universities, Uncategorized on 07/05/2011 at 11:02 am

A few months ago I did a post on the inspirational videos that can be found on the TED (Ideas Worth Sharing) site. I was inspired to do this post by Aybike Oğuz, Head of Curriculum at SELI (Özyeğin University, İstanbul) – after she told me how she had “jumped on a plane to Bali” to check out John Hardy’s “Green School” (as soon as she saw the TED video from John).

Since then Aybike and I have been looking at doing some form of “blog project” together.

Çay ve Simit – and a bit of education… is the project we came up with.

The first of a series of interviews looking at educational issues across Turkey – with educators from Turkey.

Aybike, you have been involved in setting up one of the newer university-level language centres in Turkey. Tell us about a few of the major challenges you and the guys at Özyeğin faced – and what you did to overcome these. What did you learn about “what matters” when setting up a new ”language centre”?


It’s quite new, actually, but this is our third year now. I prefer to use the term ‘preparatory school’ instead of ‘language center’ because teaching English is only one of the things we do. I see preparatory schools as the foundation year of the university education in Turkey. Our aim is to prepare our students for what they will experience in their departments. This includes teaching English, academic study, critical thinking, research and independent learning skills.

There were two things that I found challenging about my job, especially when we first started. The first was to contribute to the establishment of a shared vision and a shared organizational culture for the prep school among the Board of Trustees, Senate, Rector, prep faculty, students, and parents. And the second was creating growth opportunities for the faculty and students. We had to do this under serious time constraints. The activities for the foundation of Özyeğin University were initiated by the Hüsnü M. Özyeğin Foundation in the autumn of 2005. However, the prep school faculty started working with three people in February 2008 and the rest of the faculty, including myself, joined the team in August 2008 and we welcomed our first group of students in September. So when all of us came together for the first time in August, all the deadlines were basically ‘yesterday’.

Our biggest advantage was the quality of the prep school faculty. Everyone in the team was very knowledgeable, experienced and passionate about what they do and they left the universities they had worked at because they believed in ‘Özyeğin vision’; I was the youngest in the group actually, so we had the ‘know-how’ but the real challenge was to define and implement what we believed mattered the most.

This required a lot of thinking on ‘creating communication opportunities’. We discussed our vision with the Board of Trustees and the Senate. We had bi-weekly update meetings with the Rector, Erhan Hoca. We had whole group and small group faculty meetings on a regular basis. We also held ‘class representative meetings’ with the students every four weeks to listen to their side of the story and to involve them in the decision-making process. Erhan Hoca met the faculty and the students time to time.

At some point, we realized that even these channels were not enough because there was too much going on at the school so we started publishing a weekly news letter called ‘SELI in a Nutshell’ (SELI: School of English Language Instruction), which was emailed to the prep faculty and Erhan Hoca every week. Student and parent orientation programs also have been useful to communicate our vision to the students and the parents. It was a good start for expectation management. We spent a lot of time and energy on involving as many stakeholders as possible in the design and the decision making process of the school and to keep everyone updated on the issues discussed in different forums.

There’s a lot of talk about the quality of language teaching across schools, colleges and universities across Turkey – and not much of it is positive. What do you think are some of the key directions that we need to take or the initiatives we need to kick start, to really make a difference to how our students learn English?

I don’t think the problem is specifically about the quality of language teaching. It’s about the quality of teaching in general.

My first suggestion would be to ask the students what’s going wrong. Nobody seems to care about what they think. We need student leaders to gain an insight into the root causes of the problems and what can be done to solve them. Student representation is very limited in decision making in our education system. Each school and university needs to have student representatives in management and student representatives should work as actively as any other management member. Now, I hear some people say “Yeah, right! Get real!” Well, actually the reality is some schools in Turkey have been doing this for centuries. The best example that comes to mind is Galatsaray Lisesi.

My second suggestion is to have confidence in the teaching talent already available here in Turkey.  Once you start listening to that talent, you will see that we have the teaching talent and also the expertise to create that talent. Last week, I was in IATEFL. Just out of curiosity, I checked the conference program to see how many people from Turkey and Cyprus presented in the conference. I don’t know the official numbers but I counted 34 workshops from Turkish and Cypriot universities and three K12 schools. And we were not represented only by Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir but also by Zonguldak, Bursa, and Denizli. And there was also one workshop by the Ministry of Education. Except for TESOL, this is the biggest TEFL conference in the world. What does that tell you?

What’s even more promising is that we are not taking part only in one-shot events. We are also taking a leading role in Special Interest Groups, which requires long-term commitment at an international level. Just a few examples, Zeynep Ürkün from Sabancı University in Testing SIG, Ayşen Güven from Bilkent University in EAP SIG, Birsen Tütüniş from Istanbul Aydın University in Teacher Training SIG. And is it just the universities? No! I met Özge Karaoğlu and Esra Girgin Akışkalı from Şişli Terakki (a private K12 school in Istanbul). Meeting them and talking about the kind of work they do at K12 level was inspirational. It gave me a lot to think about primary and secondary education. And it raised my awareness of the importance of understanding K12 education to understand university education.

Can you imagine the impact of creating a forum which brings all of these people together? Ask them what’s wrong about English teaching. They are the experts. Get them to work together. We don’t need to wait for international conferences. We can easily create such forums ourselves. A good example is the forum Sabancı University School of Languages initiated two years ago. The FOCI (Forum on Curricular Issues) events bring together curriculum coordinators in prep schools in Turkey and Cyprus twice a year to discuss the common challenges we face at prep schools in terms of curriculum design and delivery. I have learnt so much in these meetings about the English teaching at tertiary level in Turkey. Maybe a similar initiative needs to start between K12 schools and universities. Can you imagine the impact of all of that expertise working together?

You’re Head of Curriculum at Özyeğin. Do you think our schools and universities have the “right take” on what curriculum and assessment is all about – should be about? How have you tried to “renew” the Özyeğin curriculum and assessment model?

Ours is quite new actually as this is our third year. Based on the feedback we receive from our colleagues and students throughout the year, we make revisions every summer but currently we are still working around the curriculum model that we designed in 2008.

I think before asking ourselves if we have the “right take” on curriculum and assessment, we need to ask if we have the “right take” on university education and the role of prep schools in universities because curriculum and assessment, to me, are the manifestations of our educational philosophy and organizational culture. So we are all tested in walking the talk through the curriculum and assessment models we design in our programs. And naturally prep schools are manifestations of the universities they are a part of. I will take the liberty of adapting a Turkish saying. ‘Bana hazırlık okulunu söyle, sana kim olduğunu söyleyeyim.’

Unfortunately, the power and the role of prep schools in universities in Turkey have been undermined for a very long time. Very recently, we see some examples of universities which understand that ‘it’ all begins at prep schools. So it is, at best, naive to expect to have “super” graduates if universities do not invest in prep schools, especially considering the fact that the majority of high school graduates in Turkey start their university education life with little English. This means that most of the student population in Turkish Higher Education spend at least one year in prep schools when they start studying at university. One of the things we have started doing at Özyeğin is delivering a course called ‘Üniversiteye Giriş Dersi’ (Introduction to University Life) for prep school students. What you might find interesting is that Erhan Hoca, the Rector, has designed and has been delivering this course. You can think of it as a-year long orientation program where the students are exposed to different topics like plagiarism, discrimination, team work, CV building, entrepreneurship, creative thinking, student exchange and internship programs, research and presentation skills, etc. We also invite guest speakers to share their success stories with us, one of the guest speakers being Hüsnü Özyeğin.

As for the English component of our prep school curriculum, we decided on a couple of things that we all agreed on as of day one. These were putting ‘learning’ and ‘investing on student competence’ at the core of all the activities, using educational technology resources intensively to extend the limits of learning from ‘classroom’ to ‘student life’, assessing student competence both through standardized tests and projects which give students multiple opportunities to prove themselves.

To achieve this, one of the first things we did was to write a five-level, integrated-skills syllabus, which describes our overall program and level objectives. The empowering power of this ‘50-page document’ is that it gives the stake holders (the faculty and the students) a clear understanding of where we want to go in the program overall and at the end of each level. It also gives the faculty the space they need to use their individual expertise to design courses based on “their’ students’” learning preferences and needs. From the students’ perspective, having such a document gives the students a sense of direction and a framework to guide them in managing their own learning. Finding the middle ground between ‘standardization’ and ‘customization’ is always an issue in prep programs (unlike department courses) as you know so what we aim to do is to define where want to go and respect individual differences in choosing the path.

One of the challenges we all have is that our students study English in a non-English speaking environment. Therefore, in order to maximize their exposure to the target language, we use Moodle to continue interacting with our students when they leave the classroom. This helps us provide extra resources for practice, carry out online class discussions, give online feedback on student writing and speaking (via video journals uploaded into Moodle) skills. In order to cater for all of these needs, we work very closely with the Information Technology and Library Services teams in our university. For example, at the beginning of each course, our library team gives training sessions to our students on the online resources available in our library, which students need to do the tasks we set. To achieve this, we had a series of meetings with the library staff to present our curriculum to them so that they know what to focus on in their training sessions.

As for testing, in addition to mid-terms and finals, our students also do projects which involve a series of integrated tasks around one theme. These tasks require them to do very basic research on a problem, analyze the findings, and to synthesize them to propose solutions. In the project component, the students are given multiple opportunities, through feedback processes, to work on and improve the outcome.

Another focus we have is creating opportunities for peer-learning and support. We have a student buddy system called SBSS (SELI Buddy Support System), which we are very proud of because it is a student initiative. One day, when I was working in my office, one of our students, Gökhan, (the followers of this blog might remember his name), came to my office and shared this idea with me. And now that idea is a fully functioning student buddy support system designed, introduced, and managed by the Student Union with Gökhan’s leadership. The idea is that the students who finish our prep program and move on to study in their departments help prep students in their studies and adaptation to life at Özyeğin. I think this is what happens when you involve students in the decision making of the school. When students are invited to do things together, they do feel the responsibility of contributing to the learning environment.

OK, let’s come back to teachers. You’ve heard about the MEB initiative to bring in 40,000 native speakers to teach in our schools. With all the talk about global varieties of English (or “Englishes”), do you think this is the best strategy? What else could, should we be doing?

Well, I think I kind of answered this question already. I can’t help but ask “why”. What is this decision based on? On what needs? One of the first things that can be done before implementing such projects is to do research to identify the needs. If research has been done, then the findings need to be shared with the public. The first example that comes to my mind on this the kind of work is Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Do research, share the findings with the public, based on the finding do projects, evaluate and improve them.

One of the MEB projects that I appreciate is the intensive training programs they organize where they bring together teacher trainers at universities with MEB teachers. Some of our colleagues at Özyeğin University have given sessions in these training programs and they were so energized by the motivation and commitment of MEB teachers. They advised us all to experience this great opportunity. We will continue working with MEB in similar projects. Maybe one of the things we can work on together is offering a follow up program for these training sessions.

I recently did a session with a group of young, Turkish “trainers-in-training” and we were discussing “teacher motivation” (because in all our discussions on motivation we tend to focus on the “student variety”). Like many other countries, Turkey is facing challenges with teacher motivation. What do you think our priorities should be? What do you do differently at Özyeğin to deal with these challenges?

We need to invest in managing human resource. The whole Human Resource Management cycle basically. What are recruitment, orientation, retention, mentoring and coaching, and performance appraisal and review policies?  We need to look at each of these stages carefully. How do we recruit teachers? Do we have orientation programs to support the faculty in their adaptation to the organization? Do we support them in their professional development and create career opportunities? Do we acknowledge and reward their performance? And when they decide to leave the institution, do we respect their decision, acknowledge and praise their contribution and accept the fact that people move on?

What we do at Özyeğin is to follow an individual approach in supporting our colleagues in personal and professional development. Each of us is given different opportunities based on our interests and needs. We are very lucky in this sense because the university has the budget to support us financially to attend and present in national and international conferences and to take courses. We have presented papers and workshops in Greece, England, Holland, Malaysia, UAE, Cambodia and some other places I can’t think of right now.  We have also started benefiting from Erasmus teaching exchange opportunities. One of our colleagues gave a two-week teacher training course at a college in Holland last summer. Another colleague is going to the same college this summer. Some of us have taken courses on educational technology, teaching Academic English, teacher training, etc.

We also share our experiences with the other universities in Istanbul. For example, one of our colleagues was invited to Doğuş University prep school to give a presentation on how we use Moodle in our courses. Next week, I’ll meet a group of people from Kadir Has University prep school to discuss the curriculum changes they are planning to make in their program. Two of our colleagues were invited to Fatih University to present how we adapt a course book both universities use in their programs. And what you might find surprising is that one of our colleagues who presented this workshop is in her second year in her career. As I said before, we also work with MEB in the teacher training programs they offer. A group of us will visit Sabancı University soon to exchange ideas on curriculum and assessment issues in our program.

We also take courses with our students in the departments. For example, currently I’m taking a BA level course on Modern Middle East from Cengiz Çandar with two of my colleagues at the prep school. Some other colleagues are taking Italian courses with the freshman students. It’s a great experience. I mean experiencing what we are preparing our students for first hand.

Our sports center also works for us very actively. Another course I took two years ago was Latin Dances. You can also see some of us at the Sports Center doing ‘Zumba’! As a university (academic and admin staff and the students), we also attend Eurasia Marathon every year. You can see us anywhere, doing anything. We are a crazy bunch…

Another “hot topic” across the country is that of “distance language learning” and even “distance teacher education”. What are your views on this – are we heading in the right direction or perhaps another “dead end”?

I’m not sure if we are heading in the right direction but I’m sure that it’s definitely not a dead end.  There is a huge market out there promoting this idea and offering different programs for different purposes. What we need to be careful about is the content of these programs and what they offer to the participants. One of our colleagues is doing an online EAP course at Nottingham University, for example, and she is very happy with the quality of the education. I believe it all depends on what the design is.

This area touches on “teacher learning” – a complex area. If you could wave “a magic wand”, what type of teacher learning programmes would you recommend? What about trainee teachers on undergraduate programmes – what needs to change to improve the quality of teachers our education faculties creating?

I can’t suggest a learning program right now. It would take another interview to do that but I can share my latest self-reflection on my own learning for whatever it’s worth.

I learn from people (professors, teachers, students, parents, friends, managers, taxi drivers, curriculum designers, doctors, test writers, etc.)  who inspire me. Obviously, their concern is not to inspire me. That’s who they are and their ‘vibe’, in some cases, is independent of their educational background. I want to have people around me who I respect and look up to. And that is what I hope to be for my students.

Therefore, I think our first duty, as teachers, is to be keen learners. And my first suggestion would be reading outside the field. Deniz (Kurtoğlu Eken) Hoca has been highlighting this issue in her training sessions and talks. Working at Özyeğin University has raised my awareness a lot in this sense. When everybody talks about economy, finance, and entrepreneurship, you feel the need to read about it. We need to read about economy, history, psychology, philosophy, whatever we find interesting. I totally agree on the importance of the environment in growth but I believe in the power of the individual more than anything else. We are responsible from creating ourselves learning opportunities.

Reading outside the field is one way of doing it. Another is going to the museums, concerts, exhibitions, spending time with people from different walks of life, dancing, doing yoga, jogging, whatever we find interesting and is convenient for us.   The best way to inspire others is to inspire ourselves and to me learning is all about inspiration.

Aybike, thank you…more Çay…Simit?

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