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
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
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
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,
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
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,
* Form proper political habits and ideas
* Foster the various forms of economic and commercial skills and
* 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
"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
* 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
* 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
Some other important issues have emerged to be tackled by the
* 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
Presently, the problems encountered in the primary education level
are due to the following factors that need to be controlled and improved
* 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
* 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
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
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
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 (www.sabanciuni.edu/iok). 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
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
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.
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Muzeyyen Sevinc is Professor, Ataturk Faculty of Education,
Department of Primary Education, Marmara University, Istanbul.