As Lucia Gliga describes it, the traditional Romanian approach to teacher education was very straightforward: "If you were good at a subject, you would be a good teacher. Teachers got much theory but little practice, and so they were little-prepared for the profession. Teachers were not taught that children needed confidence, to think for themselves, to learn to work in groups."
For students on the receiving end of this style of teaching, school was difficult and, ultimately, pointless, according to Gliga’s colleague, Dakmara Georgescu: "So much was required and for nothing. We couldn’t use our abilities in a closed society."
Today, Romanian society is open, but many of its institutions, including its educational system, remain mired in the pastthough perhaps not for long. With the help of EDC’s International Programs, Georgescu, Gliga, and their colleagues at the National Ministry of Education are initiating sweeping changes in Romanian education, affecting curriculum, assessment, and the structure and philosophy of teacher training.
"Essentially, we’re creating a new system," explains EDC’s Jody Spiro, who is working with the Ministry to design, implement, and evaluate the country’s new teacher training institutions. "In the old days, professional development for teachers was highly centralized and designed to reinforce Communist dogma. Teachers would return to ‘teacher houses’ every five years for a refresher course." With the fall of the Communist regime, educators were left wondering what to do with their new professional freedom and what to rely on in place of dogma.
To replace the old "truths" of the Communist system, the Ministry is promoting concepts of critical thinking, which Spiro defines as "the ability to examine multiple perspectives with openness and respect in order to reach reasoned conclusions." The first wave of new curriculum is just entering the classroom, and Georgescu is encouraged by its potential: "The Romanian textbooks are beginning to look like tools for learning that may develop a student’s sense of independence and initiative, risk-taking attitude, perception of differences, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills," she writes in a recent report to the World Bank.
But Georgescu and Gliga know that the new curriculum will fail in the hands of teachers who were taught only to lecture. In collaboration with Spiro and her colleagues, they are reforming both pre-service and in-service teacher training. With an ambitious program of workshops, conferences, study tours, internships, and consultation, they have established a train-the-trainers model aimed at reaching teachers from every school district across the country, in every content area. Currently, 60 national trainers are preparing another 1,500 regional trainers to reach the country’s 300,000 teachers.
The workshops begin with a theoretical introduction to "active learning" and move on to engaging teachers in techniques related to alternative assessments, conflict resolution, group collaboration, and individualized instruction. But the core of the trainings, according to Spiro, is a series of values exercises for teachers designed to stimulate reflection on the motivations for learning.
"We press them to think about motivation for all of their lessons," says Spiro. "Motivation doesn’t come from the teacher; it comes from the students. So they need to understand student values in order to stimulate learning." In the Values Game, for example, Spiro asks teachers to predict what students will say they value most. "I’ve done this activity for two decades around the world. Teachers in both the United States and Eastern Europe predict their students will value superficial things-wealth, money, beauty. In fact, students in both regions invariably value self-respect and creativityand, in Eastern Europe, freedom."
Modeling active teaching strategies is also an important component of Spiro’s work, as she provides participants with the opportunity to experience the new teaching strategies as learners first, before they go on to employ them in their own classrooms. "The teachers watched how I continually modified the activities based on what they were saying. They were very impressed by the flexibility I brought to my own teaching process because they just don’t have models for that." The trainers also incorporate very specific and practical advice for teachers who have never been in discussion-oriented classrooms -as either teacher or student. They field questions such as, How do you assess the readiness of a group for active learning methods? How long should you wait for a response to a question? What do you do if you start to lose control of the group?
"Some of our partners wonder why Eastern European teachers need conflict resolution," says Spiro. "We say, ‘If we do our jobs right, they’ll need it.’ The students will no longer sit silently in their seats." "We have a vision of schools as tools for open-minded persons in an open societya place where people can face their errors and deal with correcting them," says Georgescu. She points to the refusal to admit past mistakes as one of the biggest obstacles facing the education reforms. History teachers, for example, prefer the old textbooks with their stories of Romanian success and national pride to the ambiguities of the new history curriculum. "Many people are skeptical of the reforms," she adds. "They say, ‘What evidence do you have that the educational system is rotten? Our best students are going off to other countries and succeeding.’ But that reputation is linked to only 10 percent of the students. We have to fight those stereotypes and look at the reality: If our system is so wonderful, why are we one of the poorest countries in Europe?"
Early indications show that the new programs are successful. In a recent study conducted by the project, teachers retrained in economics education showed an 18 percent increase in content knowledge compared with their colleagues who had not participated, as well as sustained use of the new teaching strategies. And most importantly, studies of student performance indicated that students in participatory classrooms demonstrated significantly enhanced economic knowledge as compared with students in traditional classrooms.
But the real power of the project is revealed in the words of the participants themselves. As one very experienced Eastern European teacher explains, "To know what this means to me, you have to understand that for 50 years I hadn’t learned anything new."
Originally published on November 1, 1999