If You Didn’t Know Where You Were Going, How Would You Get There?

The importance of having an inspired vision for education reform in Armenia

Photo from the Republic of Armenia, the Ministry of Education and Science website

It sounds cliché, of course, and you may argue that, well, yes, certain values and sometimes even great ideas always guide any reforms. After all, don’t we already strive for an education system that will promote creativity and innovation and make Armenia an influential force in the global competitive economy?

We hear it in press conferences, official reports, interviews. In fact, countries around the world do the same: beautiful reports and policies and ever inspiring goals always accompany every politician’s agenda. Most of the time, it stays on paper, unfortunately.  

Indeed, many unsuccessful reforms in education systems around the world have stemmed from undermining the importance of having a vision and then working effortlessly toward it. Far too often, a typical politician’s agenda usually takes over—e.g. reforms that bring quick results before the next elections. As such, experience has shown that the lack of an inspiring vision has usually ended in fragmented reforms, and whatever success follows becomes temporary at best and more damaging at worst in the long run. Why?

the lack of an inspiring vision has usually ended in fragmented reforms, and whatever success follows becomes temporary at best and more damaging at worst in the long run.

To be successful, change needs to be based on a strong foundation that stems from inspiring and shared values that are specific for a given country or context. It should not just suffice a politician’s agenda or be copycat versions of policies from elsewhere. In fact, Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg warns policymakers against the GERM—Global Education Reform Movement, suggesting that they be mindful of pernicious effects of simply copying policies that do not stem from what is best for a given country and for education in general. If not, then you will have unsustainable reforms and constant changes that will exhaust the system and make it even weaker over time.  

Now, I am not saying that Armenia has not made great efforts in pursuing changes in our education system. The success, if any, has been slow; moreover, there seems to be “just constant changes” with no clarity where we are going and how we can get there.

For example, it’s no surprise that Finland and Singapore shine as one of the most robust and successful education systems in the world. Particularly, their success relates to the unmatched quality of teacher education programs; the level of esteem and prestige given to the teaching profession; the extent to which creativity and innovation along with social-emotional learning is emphasized and practiced in their classrooms; the importance given to child’s whole well-being and development, and so on.

But this is one of the most important ingredients for their success: they both had an inspiring vision of “nation building” as the most critical element for developing their education systems.

Let me clarify: this is not simply a desire and a spoken word, or something nice to have on paper. In fact, the emotional as well as the strategically practical benefits of having an inspiring vision transformed the systems of these countries in ways they themselves hadn’t anticipated before. How exactly?

For Finland, after World War II, it was very important to become a strong and truly independent nation with a competitive economy and innovative society. To achieve this goal, the Finns turned to the unequivocal power of public education and emphasized one major goal: give an equal opportunity for high quality public education to every single child in the country, regardless of their socioeconomic background, location, or physical or mental abilities. At the time, few countries emphasized this goal, whereas Finland pioneered this vision and, more importantly, Finland’s vision did not just remain on a piece of paper.

The Finns made sure that each child can go to any school they chose (and they still do today); robust policies were enacted and enforced so that every school in the country incorporated a high quality curriculum and hired trained teachers. This vision has been sustained throughout decades through many political and economic changes and formed the basis of their national educational policies and success.

Singapore’s success story is similar. It wanted to build a strong nation after its independence in 1965. After going through various stages of reforms, the people came up with an overarching vision of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” in 1997 that is still in use today. The idea has been that schools should be promoting “thinking skills” most reflected in the nation’s demonstrated quest for lifelong learning, creativity and innovation. Again, while other countries also aim for such goals these days, Singapore in fact practiced what it preached as is seen in several of its educational programs and policies still in use today.

In fact, just a few days ago, the World Economic Forum published a report applauding yet another Singaporean breakthrough in education: eliminating competition in schools by de-emphasizing marks and getting rid of class rankings. What a bold move, isn’t it?

Not to say that these countries do not have challenges and issues worth addressing. They do. Nonetheless, the importance that they give to having an inspiring and working vision is noteworthy and understandable. Why?

The power of the emotional influence of these shared goals is undeniable: every citizen will be drawn to achieving a lofty goal of building a strong nation; hence, they would be more likely to support those reforms. The practical benefits of having such an inspiring vision are no less than critical, however. Every CEO of a successful company, for example, would argue that a company’s vision drives its entire logical chain of activities and business model. Hence, in a strategic sense, a vision can guide and streamline the educational activities and reforms, the coherence of all of which will yield the desired outcomes and determine the success of those efforts.

The case of Finland and Singapore demonstrates perfectly well both the emotional and strategically practical benefits of having a clearly articulated and inspiring vision. Indeed, both their national education policies and various programs in teacher education, professional development, and curriculum stemmed from and have worked toward that vision through great coordination of all of the sectors of the society.

What can Armenia learn from their example? For one, Armenia is at a stage right now that it too wants to build a nation with a competitive economy, creative and innovative society. It is also at a stage where there are many issues and to bring any real change will require a Herculean effort in fearlessly making bold moves, just as those countries did when they faced similar challenges. To start, how about simply having a vision of “Innovative Armenia” where “innovation is not merely a breakthrough in science and technology but also in ideas and attitudes” as John Stevenson claims in his book “Wonderland.”

After all, we Armenians claim that innovation runs in our DNA. Then, if we can also imagine and effortlessly promote an “Innovative Armenia” both in the classrooms, in workplaces, and in the government, then we can also hope for a truly independent Armenia with a strong economy and a society that is driven by lifelong learning and creativity.

How will it translate into action? Well, imagine walking into a classroom in Armenia where students are scratching their heads to solve a problem in the community instead of simply reciting homework learned through rote memorization. Let’s say, an infrastructure problem has plagued the community. And through projects and collaborative work, the students apply the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to offer an innovative solution. Other topics might include global warming, war with Azerbaijan, and civic engagement.

Basically, with every policy decision, interview, conference, curriculum design, ask the question: Does this promote innovation in ways we think, create, solve problems, etc.?  

This certainly takes more than setting a vision. Armenia still needs to tackle issues with teacher education and professional development, and it needs to build a robust curriculum in addition to addressing financial and human resource issues.

Nevertheless, we can only hope for success if we get the start right. Hence, my message for the Ministry of Education of Armenia would be to set an unwavering and inspiring vision with shared goals and values. The latter should form the basis of any reform efforts and would inform every policy and program while promoting greater coordination among various stakeholders. And perhaps then we can see and enjoy the fruits of the New Armenia, the Visionary Armenia, and, finally, the Innovative Armenia.

Author’s Note: I chose Finland and Singapore because 1. They are small countries just as Armenia and with small population. Finland is also as homogeneous as Armenia;  2. They faced similar economic and political challenges that Armenia is facing today when they started their major reform movement decades ago; 3. They do have practices worth noting and following.

Hasmik Sargsyan

Hasmik Sargsyan

Hasmik Sargsyan has a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research has focused on effective teaching and learning, policy making, strategic management for public purposes, international lessons from successful education systems, monitoring and evaluation for improving education systems, and more. Hasmik has been a freelance education consultant and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education for the last two years.
Hasmik Sargsyan

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