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Development of Turkish education policy and the modernization primary education revisited.

Turkey, while situated in the Middle East and connecting Asia to Europe, is culturally and educationally considered a Western country. It is associated with three Western groups of nations: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and currently is in the process of joining the European Union.

The Turkish Republic was born out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire (1270-1920), which extended into three continents and ruled people of various ethnic denominations having different languages, religions, and culture. Elementary education for the masses was left to the people themselves, with little input from the imperial administration.

Background of Educational Institutions

The cultural and educational history of Turkey goes back to the 11th century when, under Selcuk rule, Nizamiya, an institution of higher learning, was established in Baghdad. In the 15th century, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II founded the Palace School (Enderun) in the Topkapi Palace for instruction in military science and the liberal arts. The school was "one of the most remarkable educational institutions of its time, indeed of any time" (Miller, 1941). The students who were educated at Enderun were young war captives of Christian origin, chosen because of their distinct capabilities, and they were trained for imperial and army positions. This institution continued functioning until the end of the 19th century.

In the Ottoman Empire, the basic traditional education was offered in the medresses ("places to study"), established as a part of every mosque complex. Instruction was mainly based on Arabic, Koranic instruction, philosophy, and sciences. The teachers of the elementary schools were also educated in these schools. Only boys were accepted to these institutions, while girls received instruction in household skills and crafts at home. In the late Ottoman period, the medresses degenerated due to lack of control and unqualified teachers but nevertheless continued until 1924, when they were replaced by new primary schools of the Republic.

In 1821, the Ottomans, after many interactions with the European military and cultural institutions, realized that reforms were necessary on various fronts and began to look to Europe for ideas and models for modernization (Lewis, 1961). In 1839, Grand Vizier Mustafa Resit Pasha drafted a reform document concerning the administration in various areas. He believed that the suggested reforms could only be realized through education and therefore set up a committee in 1845 to seek out the most effective methods of education for the Empire. A Ministry of Education was established and thus, for the first time in the history of the Ottoman Empire, education had official representation. The ministry had responsibility for setting up and inspecting educational institutions (Oktay, 2005).

In 1858, high schools for girls were founded where girls could continue their education after primary school. A teacher training school for girls, or "Muallimat," was opened in 1870 and a higher teacher training institution, "Kebir-i Muallimin," followed in 1874.

In the period of socio-political reforms known as Tanzimat (or "reorganization") (1839-1876), following the Education Law of 1869, an elementary school (Sibyan) and the French lycee were founded. This lycee, called Galata Serail, offered a multicultural and multilingual education to the sons of aristocrats and of the governing body. The lycee had an enrollment of 341 students, only 147 of whom were Muslims, the rest being Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish students, with their respective religious practices all given consideration. This imperial school was directed by the French and offered instruction, through the medium of the French language, in history and science, as well as in Turkish, Latin, and Greek languages. It was meant to be a model of instruction in all provinces. The graduates of this school had a great impact on Turkish modernization, secularization, and Westernization, lasting well into the present day.

Modernization of Turkish Education

After the revolution in 1923, Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the leader of radical reform, emphasized that "our most important duty is to win the victory in the field of education." He saw dogmatic religion as an obstacle to development of Western positivism. Being influenced by the idealism and enlightment of the French Revolution, Ataturk proclaimed that people had to be educated "to think freely and to have a free conscience." Thus, he initiated the secularization of the country through the abolition of the sultanate-caliphate, the medresses, and traditional attire and customs. Laws pertaining to these reforms were passed by the new Grand National Assembly; eventually, they passed a new constitution to build a new nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire (Berkes, 1964).

Many other reforms took place; under one, the "Law of Unification of Educational Institutions," which was ratified on March 3, 1924, all schools were annexed to the Ministry of National Education and Culture. This law helped Unite the various denominations and helped align the education policy of the new republic to the principles of a progressive, secular, modern, and Western society. One of the most important cultural reforms in 1928 was the change of the alphabet from Arabic to Latin letters, which facilitated literacy among the peasant population--a crucial factor in educating the masses.

The Policy of the Modern Primary Education System

Ataturk invited John Dewey to visit Turkey; the famed educator spent three months making observations, ultimately offering recommendations for setting up a system of education for 15 million people who were mostly illiterate. Dewey (1984) summed up the situation by stating:

It is clear that since Turkey is almost at the beginning of the development of a public school system, great pains should be taken with the first steps, since they will form a foundation for what is done later and also that plans should be laid covering a program for a steady consecutive development lasting over a number of years. (p. 304)

Dewey emphasized the following steps to be taken:

The first and most important point is to settle upon the aim and purpose of the schools in Turkey. Only when this is done is it possible to be clear upon the means to be used and lay down a definite program of progressive and gradual development.... A clear idea of the end will reveal the steps which need to be taken, afford a check and test for measures proposed, and reveal the order in which the successive steps in education should be taken. (p. 275)

Dewey saw the main aim to be "the development of Turkey as a vital, free, independent and lay republic in full membership in the circle of civilized states" (p. 275). To achieve this end, he said, schools must:

* Form proper political habits and ideas

* Foster the various forms of economic and commercial skills and ability

* Develop the traits and dispositions of character, intellectual and moral that fit men and women for self government, economic self-support, and industrial progress

* Develop initiative and inventiveness, independence of judgment, ability to think scientifically and cooperate for common purposes socially.

"To realize these ends, the mass of citizens must be educated for intellectual participation in the political, economic, [and] cultural growth of the country and not simply certain leaders" (Dewey, 1924, p. 250, cited in Boydston, 1983). Dewey urged "the need to abandon old habits of memorization and mechanical obedience" and proposed "an educative role of greater pupil participation in school affairs" (p. 275).

Primary education in Turkey following Dewey's recommendations was taken under the jurisdiction of the state and made compulsory for boys and girls and free to every citizen. Religious schools (medresses) were closed, and an infrastructure of secular primary and middle schools was built. Dewey's idea of "centralization" was formulated specifically for Turkish society and did not reflect his beliefs about intellectual independence and creativity pertaining to the pedagogical practices prevalent in the United States, nor his experiences in his laboratory school at the University of Chicago. Such an approach was deemed best to build a nation united by common objectives and raise citizens' consciousness. Nationalism was considered necessary to counteract various political and idealistic movements, such as pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism, and Communism. Instead, the development of scientific thought was given priority in education.

Today, the Ministry of National Education and Culture is the sole authority for developing and controlling programs within the framework of the educational policies set out by the Constitution. The ministry is responsible for coordinating state, private, and voluntary organizations; developing policy; planning curriculum; building schools; and providing educational materials. Apart from state schools, a network of publicly subsidized private schools is also under the juridiction of the ministry. These schools are subject to the same educational standards and regulations applicable to state-run schools.

The national education aims and objectives set by the Constitution are as follows:

All individuals of the state are an inseperable unity, bound together in national consciousness and line of thinking, to be educated to think along scientific lines with a broad view of world affairs, to be productive, complacent individuals contributing to the prosperity of society. They should also be educated to be instrumental in making the Turkish nation a creative and distinguished member of the modern world. (Ministry of National Education and Culture, 2003)

Primary Education at Present

Turkey, having a population of just over 70 million, has 15 million youngsters between the ages of 5 to 15. In 1997, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a law stipulating that the length of compulsory elementary education would increase from 5 years to 8 uninterrupted years, to meet the needs of changing times and the objectives of "The Project for Globalization in Education 2000," as stated below:

* To reach 100 percent schooling rate

* To put an eventual end to combined classes

* To decrease the number of students in a class to fewer than 30 students

* To transition to full-time education from double-shift education

* To increase the overall quality of education. (www.

Although all schools in Turkey were united under a centralized administration, Dewey had warned the authorities that "any centralized system will become bureaucratic, arbitrary and tyrannical in action, and given to useless and perfunctionary mechanical work in making useless records, requiring and filing useless reports" (Boydston, 1983, p. 280). While Turkey needed "unity" in its education system, Dewey stressed the difference between unity and uniformity and noted that the mechanical system of uniformity could be harmful to real unity. Even though he had suggested diversity in educational programs, depending on the geographical and historical background of the regions, the education system, unfortunately, had become totally centralized throughout the country (Boydston, 1983, p. 281). Nowadays, there is a substantial need for diversity in curriculum to respond to the demands of people living in regions with specific geographic and cultural conditions.

Eight-Year Compulsory Education

The main objective of the new primary education program of eight uninterrupted years was to give children more opportunities for functional, real-life learning. The other objective was to raise the schooling rate to 80 percent among 12- to 14-year-olds (Oktay, Caglar, & Arikan, 1998).

This program was designed to counteract the shortcomings of the 5-year program, which were:

* The elementary school curriculum was overloaded, exerting unnecessary pressure on the pupils

* The children in 5th grade were experiencing great anxiety in preparing for the entrance exams for high school

* Child development theories were not taken into consideration

* The ongoing education theories had no relevance to modern contemporary education systems

* Such methods as rote learning and memorization were overused.

The new system, on the other hand, would strive to:

* Raise the consciousness of citizenship, improve national identity, and facilitate Turkey's integration with the world

* Improve future learning opportunities

* Improve students' motivation with functional contextual learning practices.

Some other important issues have emerged to be tackled by the authorities:

* Educational and vocational guidance and counseling services are to be provided for students, to help them make choices.

* Appropriate assessment and evaluation measures need to be developed. Item 32 of the Regulation of Elementary Education states that assessment must not only measure students' academic achievement and knowledge, but also address comprehension, analysis-synthesis, and application.

Presently, the problems encountered in the primary education level are due to the following factors that need to be controlled and improved upon:

* Overpopulation: The rate of population increase, which is about 20 percent per year, is not proportional to the availability of primary education. It is very common to find rural families with more than seven children. Needless to say, some undesirable conditions, such as double-shift instruction, overcrowded classrooms (up to 70 pupils), a lack of teaching materials and equipment, unwilling teachers, and unmotivated students, are inevitable, and the quality of education diminishes.

* Internal Migration: People are moving from the rural regions of eastern Turkey and from the Balkans to the big cities in western Turkey. The regional and cultural differences between these populations and the urban culture make it difficult to keep up with the standards set by the national education policy.

* Schooling Rate: Even though primary education was intended to be compulsory, a 100 percent schooling rate has not been accomplished yet. A great number of girls in the rural regions of southeastern Turkey are not sent to school because they are expected to fulfill traditional household duties, such as taking care of the younger siblings, caring for the animals, working in the fields, and so on. If they do pursue an education, there are no schools near the villages and so they must go to faraway boarding schools. Families, especially men, do not have a positive approach to sending girls away before marriage. Nowadays, the Ministry of National Education and Culture, together with NGOs, started a nationwide campaign to visit villages and encourage as many parents as possible to send their daughters to boarding schools. Thanks to such efforts, in a recent academic year, over 500 girls were enrolled in rural primary schools.

* Double-shift Instruction: A significant increase in the population of young people, along with insufficient space in classrooms, led to schools running classes in double shifts: between 8 a.m. to 12 noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. This structure was implemented in more than 10,000 schools during the 1997-1998 school year (Ministry of National Education and Culture, 1998, p. 8).

* Combined Classes: In the rural, less populated regions, children of different age groups are educated together in the same classroom. One teacher alone teaches a group of children, ranging from 1st-graders to 5th-graders. Children who complete five years in combined schools are then sent to boarding schools or are bused to a nearby school to continue another three years of their elementary education.

Turkish Primary Education in the 21st Century

With all of the technological developments and the globalization of recent years, the nature of education has changed around the world. Having information is no longer considered an objective in education; instead, skills in acquiring information and knowing how, and where, to use it is becoming important.

Learning styles, thinking skills, decision-making, conflict resolution, problem solving, and constructing knowledge are contemporary issues we need to tackle in education today. We need to educate children, while giving consideration to their individual differences, to instill in them the skills to take initiative, be critical and creative, and process information to suit.

Learning and Instruction Methods

The constructivist program of learning calls for teaching methods to be adjusted to students' learning styles and potential learning capacities by implementing flexible instructional methods. Student teachers need to be trained to use educational technology, such as computers, videos, and overhead projectors, as teaching aids. Experienced teachers should be given inservice training to catch up with contemporary learning and instruction methods. In addition, children need to be taught computer literacy and given instruction for using the Internet. With these objectives in mind, the education system in Turkey has been going through restructuring since 2000 to be in accord with Western research findings on brain functioning and applications in child development, multiple intelligences, and learning theories (Caine & Caine, 1994; Diamond & Scheibel, 1998; Fisher, 1995; Gardner, 1983; Littledyke & Huxford, 1998; Mesulam, 2000; Sternberg, 1988, 1997).

In 2003, a curriculum was developed by a commission of academics, practitioners, and the Ministry of National Education and Culture, under the policy of "Restructuring in Education," to be accredited by European educational standards. By 2005, the curriculum had been implemented all around the country. This new policy of constructivism will replace the rigid transmission of informative knowledge in schools with education based on understanding and transference of knowledge across modules.

Teacher-oriented, subject-based instruction, taxonomic analysis, and synthesis approach no longer meet the educational needs of people in an information processing era. Education policy in Turkey started with the progressive, task-oriented approach in the early 20th century under Dewey's recommendations and developed into scientific, rational and deductive instruction, with a centrally administered standard curriculum for all, that did not allow for creativity. Today, educators have shifted toward using child-centered, project-based, problem-solving methods.

The problems encountered in Turkish primary education today may be traced to certain factors, such as curriculum development and the need for improvement in teacher training (Palut & Sevinc, 2005). Educators need to adopt appropriate instruction methodologies that are based on new research findings and evaluation methods. These can be implemented while student teachers do their practicum work one day a week in primary schools throughout their training, beginning in the second year of study.

In private and some public schools, the new standards are already being met. The result is less crowded classrooms, with boys and girls studying together; students actively participating in project work; and parents, students, and teachers cooperating in developing students' performance evaluations. Vocational guidance and counseling has gained acceptance, as well. Attention should be given to making a smooth transition to primary education from preschool and kindergarten, and to allowing children to develop at their individual pace. A petition to make kindergarten compulsory has been taken into consideration by the Ministry. Presently, only 16 percent of children who are eligible to attend preschool actually go (Ministry of National Education and Culture, 2005).

The Turkish teacher education system is presently supported by various academic organizations that provide a forum called Educational Reform Initiatives, whereby practitioners present their innovative projects and methods and demonstrate a constructivist curriculum effectively ( Most of these projects are hands-on science experiments, dramatization, construction, environmental research, and nature expeditions, as well as lessons drawn from field trips to museums.

Thematic studies, based on modules, are designed for in-depth study, whereby students' construction of knowledge is the primary goal. Assessment and evaluation of students' learning can no longer be realized by multiple choice and standardized tests, or by classifying children in relation to their academic achievement within this system. Instead, students' learning and thinking processes need to be assessed by individual and group projects, which will demonstrate their ability to use cooperative skills, innovations, and fresh approaches to solving problems.

In spite of the emphasis on individual differences and development within the new policy, students are still being evaluated by national-level standardized tests. These tests are critical for any placements in further education or state employment. This seems to be a universal problem, in which students who do poorly on such tests have little or no chance of realizing their capabilities and creative talents (Sternberg, 1997).


Presently, strategic and practical problems are affecting the primary education system in Turkey. Restructuring necessitates special attention be given to preschool education in order to bridge the gap created by the inequality that exists in the developed and underdeveloped regions of the country. The ongoing research in and training on language and cognitive development of pupils attending primary education in southeastern Turkey reveals a dramatic need for preschool education (Aksu-Koc, Bekman, & Kuntay, 2005). Another research study recently conducted on the transition from preschool to primary education in Istanbul compared early child development, curriculum, physical environment, and inservice personnel of institutions where 6- to 8-year-olds attend. The results indicate that the change from preschool to the first year in school is abrupt, which does not support the continuity of development and learning of

young children (Project for Transition to Primary Education, 2006). As one can conclude from the dynamic processes introduced and put into practice, preschool education, teacher training, curriculum design, and school and parent collaboration are given priority to raise the standards of primary education in all respects.


Aksu-Koc, A., Bekman, S., & Kuntay, A. (2005). A preliminary report on language development. Istanbul: Bogazici University.

Berkes, N. (1964). The development of secularism in Turkey. Montreal, Canada: McGill University Press pp. 102-104

Boydston, A. J. (Ed.). (1983). Preliminary report on Turkish education. The Middle Works: Essays on Politics and Society, 1923-1924 Vol 15 of Collected Works. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1994). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Dewey, J. (1984). Report and recommendations upon Turkish education in 1924. Western European Education, XVI(4), 3-18 W.E. Sharpe, Inc. Winter 1984-85.

Diamond, M., & Scheibel, A. B. (1998, December). Brain growth in response to experience. Paper presented at seminar at Enka Education Forum, Istanbul.

Fisher, R. (1995). Teaching children to think. London: Stanley Thornes Ltd.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: Theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books

Lewis, B. (1961). The emergence of modern Turkey. London: Oxford Press pp 82-83

Littledyke, M., & Huxford, L. (1998). Teaching the primary curriculum for constructive learning. London: David Fulton Publications.

Mesulam, M. M. (2000, February). Human brain: Internal architecture and division of labor. Paper presented at Enka Education Forum, Istanbul.

Miller, B. (1941). The Palace School of Mohammed the Conquerer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press p. 3

Ministry of National Education and Culture. (1998). Ankara, Turkey: Author.

Ministry of National Education and Culture. (2005). Ankara, Turkey: Author.

Oktay, A., Caglar, A., & Ankan, A. (1998). Restructuring in primary education (Ilkogretimde Yeniden Yapilanma). Istanbul: Modern Educational Science.

Oktay, A. (2005, December). Historical development and problems in preschool education during the Turkish Republic. Presentation given at the seminar "Educational Policies During the Turkish Republic," Turkish Language and History Association, Marmara University, Istanbul.

Palut, B., & Sevinc, M. (2005). Thinking styles of Turkish primary school teachers. Journal of Educational Sciences, No. 225, Marmara University, Istanbul.

Project for Globalizationin Education 2000. www.ibe.unesco.

Project for Transition From Preschool to Primary Education. (2006). A comparative research on early child development, curriculum, physical environment, in-service personnel in primary education. Istanbul: Marmara University, National Ministry of Education and Culture, and UNICEF.

Sternberg, J. R. (1997). Successful intelligence: How practical and creative intelligence determine success in life. New York: Penguin.

Sternberg, J. R. (1988). The triarchic mind: A new theory of human intelligence. New York: Viking.

Muzeyyen Sevinc is Professor, Ataturk Faculty of Education, Department of Primary Education, Marmara University, Istanbul.
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Author:Sevinc, Muzeyyen
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Aug 15, 2006
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