Interview: Zekeriya Yıldırım

How can educators assist government efforts to propel Turkey’s economy into the world’s top 10?

ZEKERIYA YILDIRIM: Turkey is in a unique situation compared to less-developed emerging economies. It is able to rely on its young population, moderate per capita GDP and high consumer spending as means of achieving economic growth. However, if we cannot educate the school-age population now, we will miss this opportunity to greatly advance the country. To be among the 10 largest economies by 2023, we will need to address the current account deficit, which is partly a result of growth in consumer spending. To unlink high growth and high current accounts, we will have to improve the quality of education at the national level. Everybody is aware of this. Better education will improve quality, productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship, which will enhance competitiveness and reduce the deficit.

How important is the introduction of technology in the classroom to the quality in education?

YILDIRIM: When I was studying in the US 40 years ago, transparencies were put on the wall with a graphic or notes, and the professor would draw as he lectured. Things have advanced tremendously since, with tablets in elementary schools now, for example, and it has been a fast transition. It is important that our teachers be prepared to use new tools, but we should ask whether we are becoming distracted by the tool itself. Are we creating a copy-and-paste generation, or are we motivating innovative thinking and creative research? We have to be very careful when reforming our system around technology. We must back it up with good preparatory work. That is why the government is, for now, introducing tablets to only 50 schools, to see how they proceed from here. This is an early step forward.

What role do foundations play in Turkish education, and how has this role evolved in recent years?

YILDIRIM: If you consider the educational model of countries such as the US, the success of the system comes from a combination of investment and interest from the government, businesses and foundations in contributing to education. Many different stakeholders invest in the system and, as a result, free thinking is encouraged. A strictly centrally controlled and mechanised form of education is a barrier to innovative thinking and is contrary to the sorts of educational systems that encourage entrepreneurship.

To a certain extent, increasing foundations’ and donors’ contribution to education will be a very important instrument. Currently, only 5% of students attend foundation universities. The private sector and foundations should increase their role in the system. The foundation schools traditionally target populations of students that have unique needs – such as orphans, children from less developed regions and students with an aptitude for math or science. Our foundation’s mission focuses on gifted children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who have lost a parent.

What steps does Turkey need to take to fulfil its academic needs in the short-to-medium term?

YILDIRIM: Training teachers for new programmes, and closely examining the mechanisms behind dropout rates are the two most important steps – particularly considering that the underlying reasons behind the dropout rates are largely unknown. That information needs further analysis. A third step would be to provide more vocational programmes. These can help students use their education to gain employment. So strengthening the existing vocational schools and offering more programmes should be another goal.

In our own capacity, we can do very little in shaping the educational code, but what we can do is change how we convey information to the student. That is part of the mission of education and of the teachers. Everybody who is important in education in Turkey is talking about how to train teachers to enable them to find the best way of conveying critical information to students.