Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking

Country Profile: Kazakhstan

Population

16,800,000 (2012)

Official languages

Kazakh and Russian

Total expenditure on education as % of GNP

3.06 (2009)

Access to primary education, total net intake rate (NIR)

55% (2008)

Youth literacy rate (15 – 24 years)

Total: 99.83%
Male: 99.8%
Female: 99.87%

Adult literacy rate (15 years and over)

Total: 99.73%
Male: 99.79%
Female: 99.68%

Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleReading and Writing for Critical Thinking (RWCT)
Implementing OrganizationKazakhstan Reading Association (KazRa)
Language of InstructionKazakh and Russian
FundingUSAID (2000–2006), self-financed since 2007.
Programme Partners

In-service institutes (national and regional): Kyzylorda, Akmola, West Kazakhstan, Atyrau, South Kazakhstan and Djambyl;

Universities: Kazakh-Turkish University in Turkestan, Kostanai Pedagogical Institute, Aktobe Pedagogical Institute, Innovative Eurasian University in Pavlodar, Young Ladies’ University, KIMEP and Atyrau Humanitarian College; and

City administrations: Semei, Astana, Petropavl, Atyrau, Aktau, Turkestan and Shymkent.

Annual Programme Costs

15,000,000 Kazakhstani Tenge (equivalent to US $100,000)

Annual programme cost per learner: US $50

Date of Inception1997

Country Context

Adult and youth literacy rates are high in Kazakhstan, and stood at 99.73% and 99.83% respectively in 2009. The country’s poverty rate is also relatively good, with 0.1% of the population living on less than US $1.25 per day, compared to an average of 0.5% across developing countries in the Central Asian region.

Kazakhstan’s formal education system generally outperforms those of its regional neighbours. According to the Education For All (EFA) 2013–14 Global Monitoring Report, Kazakhstan has the joint highest EFA Development Index (EDI) rating of 0.995. The index gives a snapshot of overall progress towards the EFA goals. The country’s development strategy sets out new laws intended to further strengthen formal education, including legislation on the rights of children and on education. These developments reflect Kazakhstan’s aspiration to build a democratic and politically and economically stable society, in which education plays a key role. Despite these positive numbers and the ambitions that underpin them, education in Kazakhstan has long been based on a teaching methodology focused overwhelmingly on the transmission of information to passive and uncritical students. Kazakh tradition emphasizes the authority of elders and teachers. Historically, this attitude has meant that students have been discouraged from expressing their own opinions in front of older people, teachers and professors, or sharing original ideas about books written by respected authors. It is difficult for teachers from Kazakh-speaking schools to accept that their students might have opinions that contradict their own (see Mirseitova, 2004).

Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking (RWCT), a project run by the Kazakhstan Reading Association (KazRA), supports the professional development of educators by implementing innovative programmes and creating learning environments for teachers and educators, with a focus on problem-solving, collaboration between teachers, and the sharing of ideas and beliefs.

Before RWCT began, there was no information for teachers on how to become a reflective practitioner or how to share knowledge with peers. KazRA focused on these objectives. It built a secure environment in which teachers could share any of the issues they faced, however challenging. Teachers were invited to KazRA conferences and began publishing a journal, Voice and Vision. At the same time, several workshops on writing for publishing and peer editing were organized in each region. Teachers from every region of Kazakhstan were invited to be part of the programme and to form ongoing study groups. Another goal of RWCT was that these groups become models of action research (a wide variety of evaluative, investigative and analytical research methods designed to diagnose problems or weaknesses and help develop practical solutions to address them quickly and efficiently). Sharing with others meant that a double effect could be achieved. Teachers attended presentations at the conferences, wrote articles for the journal and, in time, started to write and publish their own books.

Programme Overview

The approach taken by the programme aims to empower a crucial part of the education system: the teachers. They are supported to develop capacities which will enable them to perform better in the classroom and to assist the development of critical thinking among the children they teach.

The goal is to improve general educational outcomes by teaching educators new skills and by providing them with the opportunity to practice in a professional environment with experienced trainers. Trainers, teachers and, most of all, schoolchildren benefit from the different approach to education, which, ultimately, it is hoped, will enable them to become lifelong learners. The idea is that the promotion of critical thinking will trickle down from trainers to teachers to children.

Aims and Objectives

The project has the following main aims.

For students:

For teachers:

Programme Implementation

Structure and Processes

The different local educational bodies support RWCT by providing rooms and equipment in the cities in which the programme is based. The private KIMEP University (formerly the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research) provides space for the head office and for conferences and workshops. Part of the trainers’ role is to first consult with city or regional administrations, before introducing the programme to school principals. In most cases, the need for the programme is agreed and a meeting with teachers is organized. The trainers give presentations to the teachers and begin planning the structure and duration of the workshops. In some cases, it can also happen that members of the Kazahkstan Reading Association suggest the workshop to principals and administrators, who then invite the trainers.

Each year, four courses, each three days in duration, are offered to classes of about 30 educators. The contents include:

The courses take place every two or three months and are used by participants to try out the methods they have learned about and to discuss them with peers and a visiting trainer. Trainers observe classes given by all participants and support them in reflecting on the experience, helping with questions such as: What did you like most in your class? Did you have any questions about the process? What would you change next time? One goal of the workshop is for participants to learn to ask those questions of themselves.

Methodology and Content

Participants practice their teaching in the workshop group. The sample lesson is structured in the following way. Participants begin by thinking about evocation, what motivates students and makes them interested in the topic. Next they focus on the realization of meaning, dedicating time to the in-depth study of the topic. The teacher should provide students with the necessary resources and create a learning environment which enables them to study effectively, be comfortable, and to learn on their own as well as from each other. The third stage is reflection, giving time to students so that they can express and share their own knowledge and understanding.

Teachers can select from around 100 strategies in achieving their lesson goals. The strategies include different forms of learning games, ways to engage with texts, and learner-focused methods with a variety of group activities. Teachers are expected to connect the learning process to the individual lives of every learner, finding stories relevant to their life challenges and encouraging emotional involvement.

After practising their teaching in the workshops, teachers discuss together, share how they felt – both as teachers and as students – and reflect on the pedagogical and methodological issues. To be effective, the programme must achieve lasting change, and be built on trust, respect, collaboration and commitment.

RWCT believes that educators should ‘catch a critical moment’ in teaching – the moment when students are most ready and responsive to teaching. The teacher has to see when the student needs support and act accordingly, using reflection, comparison and study to identify the best teaching strategy for every individual student or situation. Developing this skill will, in the end, make their work more effective.

Learning Material

The material for the workshops is based on Teaching and Learning Strategies for the Thinking Classroom, by Crawford, Saul, Mathews and Makinster, and eight guidebooks, developed by the authors of the first RWCT programme. These comprise:

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A textbook, Learning as Inquiry and Inquiry for Learning: Forms and Methods for Critical Development, based on the RWCT guidebooks and more than 10 years’ experience, has also been developed, and published in both Kazakh and Russian. The textbook has been approved by the Ministry of Education and was recommended for use in pre-service teacher training and in universities’ pedagogical departments.

The book’s 10 chapters are used as a framework for the workshop:

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Usually, teachers have many questions about assessment, both during and after the workshops, for example, on how to assess group work, essays, written tasks and projects. The book takes these questions into consideration and covers requested topics, such as how to give and check homework.

Recruitment and Training of Trainers

Trainers take part in a five-day training course once a year. They are also encouraged to participate in national and regional KazRA conferences. Trainers are expected to contribute to the organisation’s journal, Voice and Vision, so that they learn to share their knowledge in written form, and to participate in one of the interest or action research groups. Addtitionally, they are obliged to undertake a trainers’ class observation and trainers’ portfolio discussion every three years.

Trainers

Trainers who retire or move to another place are expected to choose a new person to take over their position, selecting a possible candidate from among participants after observing lessons, discussing the teacher’s portfolio, and certifying him or her as an RWCT trainer. The prospective trainer assists in workshops to learn the ropes, leading parts of workshop classes, making observations and reflections before and after classes, and conducting studies in an interest or action research group. Afterwards, the trainer makes a recommendation to the main office of KazRA, which will invite the teacher for additional training. Before the final certificate is granted, one of the three certifiers in the organization must meet the new candidate, observe a class, discuss the portfolio and observe them leading a workshop.

Trainers’ remuneration is part of the workshop cost, paid by the teachers, while the cities’ education administrations support workshop and conference activity by providing space and equipment. KazRA has around 2,500 members. Since 1999 more than 100 educators from every region of the country have been certified as KazRa trainers.

Participants / Teachers

KazRA certificates are officially recognized. Trainers sign up to a one-year agreement, renewed annually. Although KazRA does not focus on learners directly, outcomes are recognized by observing classes, and through national tests and competitions among students. The action research conducted by teachers and trainers is also focused on learners’ development and achievements. Findings are published regularly in Voice and Vision, and discussed at KazRA’s national conferences.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Feedback from participants is evaluated after the first workshop and is compared with feedback from later workshops.

Exit cards – written student responses to questions posed at the end of a class or learning activity – are carefully studied, as are the reform actions of the Ministry of Education and its requirements of schools and universities. For instance, after participation in the PISA test in 2009, KazRA was the only organization which discussed the results with teachers and provided them with a chance to try out sample tasks from the tests.

After five years of implementation, achievements were reported at a KAzRA conference. Evaluative research has also been conducted in the following ways:

In 2008, after 10 years of implementation, a major study of the programme was conducted, involving participants, trainers and, for purposes of comparison, non-participants. It was hypothesized that the results would be higher in participant groups in comparison to non-participants but not significantly (depending on the years of participation), while achievements of trainers would be significantly higher than the participants’ achievements. A test with 50 questions (including basic concepts and practical situations) was developed and the results of the study corroborated the hypothesis. From a maximum of 60 points, non-participants had an average score of 4.3 points, while participants scored 19.65 and trainers 52.01.

Surveys are conducted annually among students from different regions, with a larger-scale survey conducted every five or 10 years. The results are published and presented at international conferences.

Testimonials

Alexandra, who has 45 years’ teaching experience, noted: ‘What we had before RWCT did not satisfy me. It was formulaic. Elementary teachers took a positive view toward the process of changing their teaching role, because the young children they taught were enthusiastic about more active learning methods.’

One of the elementary teachers remarked: ‘It is exciting to watch the children be flexible in their learning.’

Sapargul Mirseitova, Executive Director of RWCT, said: ‘Though at the beginning I was really concerned that the teachers might not define critical thinking as it is described in the research literature, by the end of the study I came to realize that the teachers I interviewed have begun to construct their own understandings of critical thinking in the context of Kazakhstan.’

Omirbek Almagambetov, an eleventh-grader, commented: ‘Nowadays, due to my compulsory school experiences, I can get the most useful solution by expressing my idea in any difficult situation such as debate and scholastic competitions.’

Asel Saparalueva, a ninth-grader, said: ‘My former teacher made the lessons so interesting, that all pupils took an active part in her lessons. She made an individual approach to the children and tried to bring out the best in each child.’

Impact and Challenges

Impact and Achievements

The main achievement is that teachers have started to realise that the educational focus should be on the process of learning rather than on the form. Efforts should be made to create an open, inquiring environment, rather than to rely on memorization.

The direct benefit to teachers has been another significant achievement. Since 1997 three trainers have gained doctoral degrees and some 50% of trainers have been promoted at work. Teachers and their students win prizes at professional contests and have won awards in different categories at regional competitions and other contests. Eighteen published books and 50 issues of the journal also testify to the success of the programme. Teachers’ writings are published, and they continuously discuss ideas and issues with their peers. Activities resulting from this have included ethnographic writing, involving students and their teachers studying their own communities; family literacy and reading clubs, bringing students, parents and teachers together to read and discuss;; and reading days in community libraries.

The programme was welcomed by teachers and trainers who have continued to dedicate time and commitment to the project, even after funding was withdrawn. Support was initially guaranteed by USAID, which helped build the base for good research work, publishing and presenting. Since 2007, RWCT has been self-financing and has expanded its scope. Nowadays, there are more than four workshops in a year, with research, publication and presentations also included.

Challenges

  1. Teachers spend six days a week at their workplace and stay late after their classes to plan and check students’ assignments. Organising workshops and other meetings can also prove challenging, as they can only take place during school vacations, when many teachers are still busy with administrative activities.
  2. Certified trainers immediately get promotions at local administration offices. As a result, they can end up spending all their time on paper work, with no time for workshops and school visits.
  3. The competition at pedagogical universities is inefficient as students are not interested in becoming teachers. They apply because they were not accepted for other majors and the entry requirement for the pedagocial university is the lowest.
  4. It is a future goal to write whole books in groups on preferred issues, not just chapters of a book, as was the case before.
  5. To attract new trainers and participants, the programme has to maintain its high standards by learning more, performing better and retaining its status as the top recognized programme in the country.
  6. In 2014, 33 trainers signed an agreement with KazRA. However, as the requirement is for four trainers in each of the 15 regions, there is under-representation in some regions, meaning that some trainers have to travel long distances.
  7. The Ministry of Education has begun a reform process and has made critical thinking a part of its new education model. This has meant that, in some cases, teachers involved in this are too busy to participate in other programmes. At the same time, the limited amount of time allocated by the ministry to preparing their trainers led to it inviting KazRA trainers to join the scheme. The trainers get high salaries and other benefits, and, as a result, 20 trainers have left KazRA to become official trainers at different centres of the ministry.

Lessons Learned

  1. In the guidebooks for teachers, the focus was on the first and second objectives (to create a classroom environment that encourages open and responsible relationships, and to use a curriculum that ensures critical thinking and independent learning), while the third objective, to use effective strategies to promote critical thinking, was demonstrated through lessons. This became challenging for teachers, as they tended to forget the goals of the lesson and to focus on what students needed in order to learn and develop. Some may have thought that simply using a strategy was enough to ensure critical thinking.
  2. Time, energy and money was lost trying to reach every corner of the country. It would be more efficient to focus on fewer schools but involve 80% of teachers.
  3. Some secondary teachers feared that the change would involve more work, especially in terms of planning. Others recognized the amount of work involved but found that it got easier as participants grasped active teaching principles.
  4. Many schools have a good ICT infrastructure but, often, teachers do not know how to use it, and struggle with elementary things such as computer usage and the use of interactive boards. Although the programme focuses on paper and handwriting, in future workshops it is proposed to include other skills, such as the creation of digital texts.

Sustainability

The programme has been running successfully for 17 years, although after the USAID grant came to an end in 2006, KazRA had to start charging for the workshops. It works with around 2,500 teachers per year – and had engaged a total of 41,686 by the end of October 2014. Today, various activities, such as conferences and training, are free of charge for trainers and leaders (e.g. board members, committee chairs, directors of regional entities). In-service institutes recommend that their participants use the textbook and other books from KazRA. The close collaboration with the International Reading Association provides KazRA with additional benefits, including the chance to attend the association’s conventions and having constant access to its resources. There is also the opportunity to invite association experts, who are well-known in the field of education, so that they can meet with teachers, conduct workshops on topics in which teachers are interested, and build a stronger knowledge base within KazRA. While Russian-speaking schools can get some materials from Russia, Kazakh-speaking novice teachers mainly get teaching materials from KazRA. KazRA builds on its conferences, which allow free discussion and interaction, and is devoted to a long-term view of child development that emphasizes lifelong learning.

Sources

Contact

Sapargul Mirseitova
Executive Director
47 A Erubaev Str, Apt.47, Karagandy off.
Kazakhstan 100017 Telephone/Fax: +7 7272642483 / +7 721 242697 Website: http://www.rwct.kz E Mail: mirseitova (at) mail.ru or mirseitovas (at) gmail.com