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International Review of Education (2009) 55:21–37  Springer 2008

DOI 10.1007/s11159-008-9112-1

DEMOCRACY THROUGH LEARNER-CENTERED EDUCATION:


A TURKISH PERSPECTIVE

KAYA YILMAZ

Abstract – Aimed at documenting the problems and constraints confronting


learner-centered instruction in Turkey, this article first explains the link between
democracy and education and the role of learner-centered instruction in realizing
democratic ends. By drawing on John Dewey’s ideas and Turkish scholars’ perspectives
on Turkish education, the article then presents the problems and constraints that pose
threats to the implementation of learner-centered instruction in Turkey. The author also
explains the problems within the Turkish educational system and teacher education
programmes, and the challenges that in-service teachers and students may experience
with learner-centered instruction.

Résumé – DÉMOCRATIE À TRAVERS UNE ÉDUCATION CENTRÉE SUR


L’APPRENANT: UNE PERSPECTIVE TURQUE – destiné à documenter les prob-
lèmes et les contraintes affrontant l’enseignement centré sur l’apprenant en Turquie, cet
article explique tout d’abord le lien entre la démocratie et l’éducation et le rôle de
l’enseignement centré sur l’apprenant pour réaliser les fins démocratiques. S’inspirant
des idées de John Dewey et des perspectives des savants turcs sur l’éducation turque,
l’article présente ensuite les problèmes et les contraintes qui constituent des menaces
pour la mise en œuvre d’un enseignement centré sur l’apprenant en Turquie. L’auteur
explique également les problèmes au sein du système éducatif turc et des programmes
d’éducation des enseignants, et les défis dont les enseignants en service et les étudiants
peuvent faire l’expérience avec l’enseignement centré sur l’apprenant.

Zusammenfassung – DEMOKRATIE DURCH SCHÜLERZENTRIERTEN UNTER-


RICHT: TÜRKISCHE PERSPEKTIVEN – Zu Beginn des vorliegenden Artikels werden
der Zusammenhang zwischen Demokratie und Bildung sowie die Rolle schülerzentrierter
Unterrichtsformen bei der Verwirklichung demokratischer Ziele erklärt, um auf diese Weise
die Probleme und Einschränkungen deutlich zu machen, denen schülerzentrierter Unterricht
in der Türkei unterliegt. Der Artikel greift auf die Gedanken John Deweys und die Positionen
türkischer Gelehrter zur Bildungssituation in der Türkei zurück und verdeutlicht so die
Probleme und Einschränkungen, die als Hinderungsgrund für eine Einrichtung schülerzen-
trierter Lernformen im türkischen Bildungswesen wirken. Darüberhinaus erläutert der
Autor bestimmte Problemstellungen im türkischen Bildungswesen und in türkischen
Lehrerbildungsprogrammen und kommt auf die Herausforderungen zu sprechen, denen sich
Lehrer und Schüler in laufenden schülerzentrierten Unterrichtseinheiten ausgesetzt sehen.

Resumen – LA DEMOCRACIA A TRAVÉS DE UNA ENSEÑANZA CENTRADA


EN EL ESTUDIANTE: UNA PERSPECTIVA TURCA – Con el fin de documentar los
problemas y las limitaciones que debe enfrentar una enseñanza centrada en el estudiante
en Turquı́a, este artı́culo explica en primer lugar el nexo existente entre la democracia y la
educación, y el papel que juega una instrucción centrada en el educando para la
22 Kaya Yilmaz

realización de objetivos democráticos. Inspirado en las ideas de John Dewey’s y teniendo


en cuenta la óptica de los entendidos turcos en cuanto a la enseñanza en Turquı́a, el
artı́culo luego presenta los problemas y las limitaciones que amenazan en Turquı́a a la
implementación de una instrucción centrada en el estudiante. Además, el autor explica
los problemas que existen en el sistema educativo turco y en los programas de educación
de docentes, y los retos que los docentes dedicados a la enseñanza en el trabajo y los
estudiantes pueden experimentar con una instrucción centrada en los educandos.

Democracy and education

To explore the relationship between democracy and education, a wide range


of educational scholars whose disciplinary training, philosophical and politi-
cal orientations differ from one another have posed and sought answers to
questions such as: What does democracy mean? What implications does
democracy have for the process of schooling and education? What is the
nature of relationship between democracy and education? What are the basic
characteristics of democratic education? How can we make the structure and
organization of schools and society more democratic?
The differing and sometimes conflicting answers to these questions show
that there is no single definition or understanding of democracy. Some defi-
nitions are more cogent, coherent and comprehensive than others. The way
in which different interest groups’ define and interpret the concept of democ-
racy can, therefore, be classified along a continuum in terms of how well
they succeed in explaining the meanings and implications of democracy with-
in the larger social, cultural and political context. At one end of the contin-
uum, democracy is understood simply as ‘‘a form of governance’’ (Linz and
Stepan 1996: 17); at the other end, it is seen as ‘‘a mode of associated living,
of conjoint communicated experience’’ (Dewey 1916: 87). It is the latter
understanding of democracy that helps us see the interrelation and interde-
pendence of democracy and education. In this sense, the democratic process
is not viewed as complete with the establishment of a democratic form of
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 23

government. Rather, it is seen as a continuing project that goes hand in


hand with education. From this perspective, the goal of education is to
create civic unity and democratic citizenship characterized by mutually
shared interests (Dewey 1916). Schools are expected to play a central role in
realizing democracy and democratic ends by enabling the teacher to engage
‘‘not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper
social life’’ (Dewey 1897: 80). A teacher dedicated to democratic education
tries to pave way for ‘‘the empowerment of free and equal citizens, people
who are willing and able to share together in shaping their own society’’
(Gutmann 1990: 19). The teacher’s efforts to raise such citizens can best be
realized in democratic schools which endorse a free flow of ideas, including
marginal ones, and encourage critical thinking, and reflection on a range of
ideas, opinions, and policies (Apple and Beane 1995: 6–7).

Why learner-centered instruction?

Establishing and sustaining democracy demands the construction of critical


and thoughtful individuals. For this reason, one of the fundamental goals of
schooling in democratic societies is to enhance students’ ability to make
informed and reasoned decisions about the societal issues confronting the
local, regional and global community respectively. Students are expected to
develop a positive attitude towards participatory democracy and to become
critical, thoughtful, and reflective citizens who engage actively in public
issues for the common good. Learner-centered instruction – defined as a sys-
tem of instruction based on a student’s individual choices, interests, needs,
abilities, learning styles and educational goals – encourages students to
construct meaning and understanding at all stages of the learning process
(APA 1997; Dewey 1916; Henson 2003; McCombs and Whisler 1997;
Weimer 2002; Yilmaz 2008). Hence, learner-centered instruction can serve as
an invaluable tool to help realize the vital goals of democratic education.
Kyle and Jenks (2002: 152–158) describe the link between learner-centered
instructional practices and democratic education as follows:

Most democratic theorists emphasize the constructs of meaningful participation


and freedom as two fundamental principles of democracy… There is relatively
widespread agreement among democratic and pedagogic theorists that students
learn in good part by doing. It is through participation and active engagement in
the class, not through rote memorization, that students develop into democratic
citizens… Education agenda driven by a commitment to participatory democ-
racy… entails promoting active, engaged participation in the classroom…

Educators in learner-centered schools aim to ‘‘build structures and processes


that keep them closely in touch with the needs of each child,’’ for example
by cultivating caring relationships between themselves and their students and
seeking ways to ensure that each child receives individual attention (Astuto
24 Kaya Yilmaz

and Clark 1995: 244). Hence, learner-centered instruction requires school


structures that value the principles of freedom, self-governance, participation
and empowerment as opposed to bureaucracy and control (Astuto and
Clark 1995; Garrison 2003). The benefits of learner-centered schools over
traditional or teacher-centered schools in terms of realizing democratic
education have been highlighted by the results of theoretical and empirical
research carried out over the past two decades (Astuto and Clark 1995:
244–246).
The literature cited above lucidly indicates that – provided that it is
implemented with integrity (i.e., practiced properly in its entirety, without
violating its core principles) – learner-centered instruction has the potential
to ensure democratic education in that it involves students in making deci-
sions about their learning goals, the content of their courses (i.e., what they
learn), the ways in which the course topics are learned (i.e., how they learn)
and the ways in which students’ learning is evaluated.

Method

Two strategies were employed to identify the problems confronting learner-


centered education in Turkey: firstly, e-mail correspondence with Turkish
educators at the colleges of education in Turkey; and secondly, a compre-
hensive review of the relevant literature on the issue (Altan 1998; Çakıroğlu
and Çakıroğlu 2003; Erkan 1992; Gursimsek et al. 1997; Karagozoglu 1991;
Seferoglu 1996; Şimşek 2004; Turan 2000). Before undertaking the literature
review, Turkish educators at fifteen universities in Turkey were approached
to avoid prioritizing the problems in an arbitrary and unilateral fashion.
In order not to influence or shape their perspectives, they were asked to
respond to the following open-ended question: What kinds of problems are
likely to thwart or impede the realization of learner-centered instruction in
secondary school classrooms in Turkey? In follow-up correspondences, more
specific questions were asked depending on the participants’ previous
answers.
Of 54 educators who were contacted, 41 responded to the e-mail inquiry.
Twenty-nine educators’ responses were sufficiently comprehensive to answer
the question in full. Each correspondent was given a pseudonym to protect
his or her identity. Inductive qualitative data analysis was employed to ana-
lyze educators’ responses (i.e., to use the raw data to develop codes, themes
and categories). Sentences and phrases from these responses were isolated
and analyzed line by line. The data was then coded using the process of
open coding, i.e., recurring words, patterns and themes within the data were
identified and categorized. Once all the data had been coded and clustered
together, initial categories were developed by looking for similarities and
differences within the segmented data. These categories were then used to
enable cross-case comparisons of the participants’ coded responses.
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 25

The analysis of educators’ responses and the literature review eventually


enabled the problems that threaten the implementation of learner-centered
instruction in Turkey to be identified. These problems relate to the education
system as a whole (including teacher education programs), as well as to
teachers and students, and will be addressed in more detail in the following
section.

Problems confronting learner-centered instruction in Turkey

What kinds of constraints and obstacles confront learner-centered instruc-


tion in secondary schools in Turkey? What is problematic about the Turkish
education system in general and teacher education programs in particular?
What are the challenges that in-service teachers and students may experi-
ence? To complement the findings of the research carried out, this paper will
proceed by presenting and discussing some of these overarching problems.

The Turkish education system

Since the theoretical basis for learner-centered education is to be found in


the tenets of progressive education, and John Dewey was the philosopher
who played a pre-eminent role in articulating the relationship between
democracy and education, Dewey’s report on the Turkish education system
can prove a useful means of assessing whether the Turkish education system
is compatible with democratic education and learner-centered instruction.
Even though a significant time has passed since the publication of Dewey’s
report (‘‘Report and Recommendations upon Turkish Education in 1924’’),
it is still of relevance for educational policy and practice, for as Carl Cohen
says, ‘‘Dewey’s report speaks directly to the problems of school systems in
all developing countries, today and for many coming decades’’ (Cohen 1983:
XX).
Dewey came to Turkey in 1924 at the invitation of the Turkish Ministry
of National Education, and examined its education system, making forceful
recommendations for education reform and policy. His report emphasized
the role of progressive educational theories in improving the quality of
education, and the need to familiarize teachers with these progressive peda-
gogical approaches. Dewey subtly questioned the integrity of the reform
efforts – particularly the Law of Unification of Instruction of 3 March 1924
– that the founders of the Turkish Republic had embarked upon in order to
transform and reconstruct the national system of education. This law stipu-
lated that Turkish education be administrated by means of an exceedingly
centralized education system that Dewey saw as a threat to democratic
education, as evidenced in his report:
26 Kaya Yilmaz

While Turkey needs unity in its educational system, it must be remembered that
there is a great difference between unity and uniformity, and that a mechanical
system of uniformity may be harmful to real unity… The central Ministry should
stand for unity, but against uniformity and in favor of diversity. Only by diversifi-
cation of materials can schools be adapted to local conditions and needs and the
interest of different localities be enlisted… By giving its chief attention to such
intellectual problems, the department will be protected from the danger of degen-
erating into a routine clerical and bookkeeping office, and also from the danger of
being an arbitrary dictator, arousing the antagonism rather than the cooperation
of local school administrators… (Dewey 1983: 281–282).

Dewey pointed out that a uniform education system makes it difficult to


adjust schools and curriculum to varying local conditions and needs, and
accordingly advised that school curriculum be flexible enough to enable this.
If students are to find curriculum interesting and engaging, Dewey suggested,
school subjects should be linked to their lives outside school and a mutually
supportive relationship between school and its surrounding community be
established. Viewing Turkey’s strict centralized system of education as an
impediment to that end, Dewey forewarned that the Ministry’s centralized
system was in danger of being weighed down by bureaucracy.
Even though more than seven decades have elapsed since Dewey’s recom-
mendations appeared, the Turkish government has continued to emphasize
the importance of the Law of Unification of Instruction, and passed new laws
that reinforce it and the educational approach that it entails (Barrows 1990;
Turan 2000). The Law of Unification of Instruction is still viewed as a key
event in the efforts to reform and restructure the Turkish education system
(Turan 2000), and teachers continue to perform their duties in conformity
with the objectives and principles of the centralized education system. To this
day, the laws and regulations prepared by the Ministry of National Educa-
tion govern the appointment of teachers to different types of schools, school
administration and inspection services, and in-service training programs
(Gursimsek et al. 1997). All educational activities in schools are shaped by a
rigid national curriculum and are controlled by supervisors assigned by the
Ministry of National Education (Seferoglu 1996). Teachers are expected to
teach the same curriculum nationwide (Çakıroğlu and Çakıroğlu 2003), and
this practice has a significant and negative impact on schools throughout the
country (Karagozoglu 1991). This centralized system of education is antitheti-
cal to learner-centered instruction which requires a flexible education system
in order to accommodate differences in students’ backgrounds.
Some educators have criticized the Law of Unification of Instruction and
its advocates. Turan (2000) contended that the intellectual and political elites
who support educational uniformity are ignorant of the critical role of
pluralistic education in sustaining democratic education, arguing that:

… the republican state failed to recognize the importance of the participation of


people in decision making. This failure to understand participatory democracy in
a pluralistic society has resulted in the creation of an intellectual and political elite
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 27

who have become gatekeepers of social and political change that might abolish
their prerogatives (Turan 2000: 553).

There has been no satisfactory progress towards putting Dewey’s insightful


advice into practice. The unduly centralized structure of elementary and
secondary education in Turkey has led policy makers to overlook the
differences in urban and rural communities without realizing that they are
doing so (Çakıroğlu and Çakıroğlu 2003). Today’s teacher education pro-
grams do not take into consideration fundamental local differences, and as
a result, teachers experience difficulty in adjusting themselves and their
instruction methods to culturally divergent communities (Çakıroğlu and
Çakıroğlu 2003: 257).
In short, the present education system in Turkey is overly centralized –
and hence insufficiently flexible – in terms of its organization and its struc-
ture. The whole education system, from elementary to undergraduate level, is
colored by a rigidity that is not conducive to learner-centered education.
There have been efforts to enhance the effectiveness of the county’s education
system, but these have fallen short of their target due, in large part, to politi-
cal instability and the Ministry’s policy of central management (Erkan 1992).
Some Turkish educators who participated in the e-mail exchange pointed
out problems that affect the country’s education system. Stressing that the
current education system reflects a society, ‘‘where tradition rather than
innovation and change has been the norm,’’ Ms Bulut stated that it ‘‘simply
does not allow teachers to employ learner-centered instruction. For instance,
the high-stakes University Qualification Exam presents itself as a great
obstacle to learner-centered instruction.’’ Mr Cetin expressed his belief that
the centralized and unchanging nature of the Turkish education system is
one of the main problems facing learner-centered instruction, arguing that:
‘‘Curriculum programs are determined by the members of the central gov-
ernment. And the curriculum developers determine general principles and
guidelines not in accordance with new educational developments but with
the general principles of the Constitution.’’

Teacher education in Turkey

Are the conditions in the colleges of education favorable for producing the
kind of teachers who can effectively practice learner-centered instruction? Or,
to rephrase the question, are colleges of education in Turkey capable of pro-
ducing effective and skilful teachers who possess the knowledge, skills and
attitude needed to implement learner-centered instruction? The successful
integration of learner-centered instruction into classroom practices depends,
in large part, on the quality of teacher education programs. In reference to
the colleges of education in Turkey, Dewey stressed that ‘‘no real improve-
ment of education can be made without improvement in the preparation of
teachers, both in scholarship and in acquaintance with the most progressive
28 Kaya Yilmaz

and efficient pedagogical methods in use in other parts of the world’’ (Dewey
1983: 301).
Many have been vociferous in their criticism of the teacher education pro-
grams currently offered in Turkey. The curriculum or content of courses in
colleges of education have been described as barren and attacked for failing
to address the challenges facing K-12 schools (Altan 1998). Colleges of
education are short of qualified educators and this may be having a negative
effect on the quality of education that students experience (Altan 1998).
Education faculties pay little attention to pedagogy, fail to pass on knowl-
edge of effective teaching practices and avoid the issue of public school
classrooms. At the same time, their scholarly output is routine and often
ill-conceived (Altan 1998). One reason for this is the policy makers’ tendency
to ‘‘focus merely on the quantity problem in teacher education’’ (Çakıroğlu
and Çakıroğlu 2003: 256). Another reason is the fact that colleges of educa-
tion tend to recruit graduates of institutions of arts and sciences rather than
colleges of education (Altan 1998). With regard to the pedagogical expertise
of teacher educators in Turkey, Altan (1998: 409) stated that:

Most faculty members in colleges of education, except for primary education, edu-
cational administration or instructional technology, were not producing research
or writing about education. What was important for them was the subject. And
most failed to relate theory to practice and were overspecialized. They were not
effective teachers. This situation still prevails, though not on the same scale, in all
colleges of education.

Another problem facing teacher education programs in Turkey is educa-


tional researchers’ failure to interpret appropriately studies carried out with-
in the context of European or American schools. As Çakıroğlu and
Çakıroğlu (2003: 260) contended, they do not take into consideration the
cultural differences between Turkey and other countries, which in turn
results in the construction of irrelevant curriculum frameworks:

Today the majority of the textbooks and readings used in most of the courses in
teacher education programs still originate from authors who are from other coun-
tries, mostly the UK or the USA, either as a translation or as an original text if
the instruction is in English. Many other textbooks used in teacher education
courses depend heavily on the international literature. Even in some courses which
should be country-, culture- and situation-dependent, such as curriculum develop-
ment or the social foundations of education, instructors use a Western-originated
knowledge base, which discusses curriculum development processes in another
country. However, the same courses do not give similar attention to important
intellectual movements in the field of education in Turkey.

In addition, the curriculum followed in most departments lacks sufficient


elective courses: ‘‘In the present curriculum, most courses are compulsory.
There are a few electives’’ (Gursimsek et al. 1997). Freedom of choice, an
important ingredient of democratic education, is strictly restricted. I person-
ally do not remember taking any elective courses during my undergraduate
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 29

education in Turkey. Every student in my class was taking the same so-
called elective courses. Each of these nominally elective courses was in fact
compulsory and students had no option but to take them.
Teacher preparation programs also are rarely evaluated in order to assess
the teaching skills of their graduates (Altan 1998). The practical training per-
iod for student teaching is insufficient (Gursimsek et al. 1997) and is one of
the most neglected areas in teacher training. As Altan remarks: ‘‘Far too
often, trainee teacher placements are almost totally divorced from the
remainder of the curriculum and supervision consists of a few site visits’’
(Altan 1998: 410).
Last but not least, lectures remain the predominant method of instruction
at most colleges of education (Altan 1998). Learner-centered instructional
practices such as cooperative learning, inquiry-based learning, student-led
discussion and concept mapping remain on the margin of the faculty’s reper-
toire of teaching methods. As a result, students rarely experience the kinds
of learning opportunities that demonstrate how learner-centered instructional
practices can be employed. Since demonstrations such of this have a major
effect on people’s attitude towards the subject in question, students who wit-
ness demonstrations of teacher-centered approaches to instruction are, in
turn, likely to teach their own students as they themselves were taught (Fang
1996; Lortie 1975). As a consequent, the need to develop a new model for
teaching and teacher education and to change ‘‘the definition, classification
and evaluation criterion of qualified teaching’’ is one of the main challenges
confronting teacher education in Turkey today (Gursimsek et al. 1997: 11).

Challenges facing in-service teachers

Dewey saw teachers as the key to accomplishing educational ends and rais-
ing the quality of education in Turkey. Learner-centered instruction poses a
great challenge to Turkish teachers in secondary schools in several respects.
First of all, the paradigm shift from ‘‘top-down’’ to ‘‘bottom-up’’ teaching
models inevitably requires a new approach to teaching and learning. Sustain-
able changes are likely to occur if and when teachers change the way they
think about their practice (Starnes and Carone 2002). Hence, an instruc-
tional paradigm shift demands that teachers be willing to re-examine their
assumptions about how teaching and learning should occur. Yet the teacher-
centered, textbook-driven and content-focused approach to teaching still
dominates classroom instruction in secondary schools in Turkey. Since Turkish
teachers are so used to employing traditional methods such as lectures,
recitation and drills, they will most probably find it difficult to change their
approach to teaching. Pointing out the enormity of the problem, Altan
(1998) has argued that there is an urgent need to rethink the traditional
structure and organization of classroom teaching in order to create more
diversified learning situations.
30 Kaya Yilmaz

To enable learner-centered instruction to be practiced with integrity, the


roles of teachers and students and the relationship between them must be
viewed from a completely different angle. By placing students at the centre of
instruction as the active constructors of knowledge and understanding, this
form of instruction expects the teacher to act as a co-learner, a guide and a
facilitator who focuses on student learning rather than content delivery.
However, this concept is too alien for Turkish teachers at all grade levels to
embrace. Turkish teachers continue to view themselves as the main agents of
teaching and the primary transmitters of knowledge in the classroom
(Gursimsek et al. 1997). To practice learner-centered instruction, the teacher
needs to offer opportunities for shared decision making, student participa-
tion, and a free flow of divergent ideas and perspectives (VanSickle 1983).
Yet the majority of Turkish teachers provide students with almost no choices,
shared responsibilities, collective decision making powers, and opportunities
to discuss current controversial and societal issues. A learner-centered
approach necessarily implies a change in the ‘‘power relation’’ between teach-
ers and students. It is not easy for Turkish teachers who are used to teaching
in an authoritative manner to embrace the change in power structure by
agreeing to transfer authority and responsibility to their students.
The above is confirmed by the responses of the Turkish educators to the
initial e-mail inquiry. To illustrate, Mr Tutar expressed his assumption that
‘‘the most formidable impediment to learner-centered instruction will be
teachers’ resistance to such an approach.’’ Ms Bulut’s answer pinpointed one
of the reasons why teachers may resist learner-centered instruction when she
said that: ‘‘Teachers have tended to perpetuate the system they were taught
in, using traditional instructional methods.’’ Making a connection between
the structure of Turkish society and teachers’ approaches to instruction, Ms
Bulut further noted, ‘‘Because of Turkish society’s patriarchal structure,
which is based on parental and teacher authority, students are not encour-
aged to participate in discussion in the class and in conversation at home.’’
In the same way, Mr Aydin also drew attention to the influence of Turkish
culture on instruction and learning by saying, ‘‘The most fundamental prob-
lem [facing learner-centered instruction in Turkey] is the present classical
teacher-centered, oppressive, and authoritarian education. Students experi-
ence authoritarian attitudes on parents’ and teachers’ part.’’
Some educators see teachers’ conceptions of and attitudes toward teaching
as an obstacle to the practical implementation of learner-centered principles.
For instance, Mr Erk saw a major hurdle in Turkey’s ‘‘traditional, teacher-
centered conception of teaching and learning.’’ He was furthermore con-
vinced that ‘‘this traditional approach to teaching cannot be changed at
once. Rather, it takes quite a long time.’’ Mr Ay saw a connection between
pecuniary incentives and motivation, and implicitly criticized the lack of an
education system which rewards proficient and hard-working teachers, while
also highlighting the importance of teachers’ attitude and approach to the
practice of learner-centered instruction:
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 31

The most important problem is teachers’ unwillingness to practice such methods.


Preparing learner-centered instruction takes more time and effort, and I do not
think that teachers are going to find it meaningful to practice such methods in this
country where every teacher earns almost the same salary.

Likewise, Ms Aslan stressed the significant impact that teachers’ beliefs and
attitudes have on the success of educational reforms by saying, ‘‘Teachers
should believe in the educational value of learner-centered instruction that
requires students to be active in their learning before they want to see a
schooling process that puts students at the centre of teaching and learning.’’
Mr Yildiz again emphasized the significant impact that teachers’ attitudes
and ideas have on their approaches to teaching. He said:

From my perspective, why most teachers do not practice learner-centered instruc-


tion in the elementary and secondary schools of Turkey stems from teachers’ dis-
position and mentality. Teachers first of all need to embrace and internalize the
construct of learner-centeredness and then put the theoretical principles of learner-
centered instruction into practice both inside and outside of classrooms. But the
majority of teachers in Turkey do not have such a disposition and practice.

The educators’ responses indicated a further problem facing learner-centered


instruction: most Turkish teachers lack not only a satisfactory understanding
of learner-centered instruction and but also the competency to practice it.
Mr Kurucay, for example, thought that the main problem was ‘‘whether
teachers really understand how to put learner-centered instruction into prac-
tice.’’ This sentiment was reiterated in a similar response from Mr Ay, who
considered that ‘‘Most teachers [in Turkey] are neither ready nor know how
to make use of learner-centered instruction.’’ Mr Akyuz’s response in turn
supports this assertion, drawing attention to the fact that ‘‘Many teachers are
not cognizant of the construct of learner-centeredness.’’ Ms Hisar, too, made
similar comments that emphasized the centrality of teacher training and moti-
vation to the effective implementation of learner-centered instruction:

The most important factor that I think might impede the successful implementa-
tion of student-centered learning is the lack of sufficient knowledge on what con-
stitutes student-centered learning and teaching. If our teachers had sufficient
knowledge and motivation to carry out student-centered instruction, they could
deal with all other factors that impede its implementation.

Mr Yildiz also stressed the importance of teacher efficacy, readiness and


training in ensuring a healthy implementation of learner-centered instruction.
Pointing out that the majority of teachers in Turkey are not trained to
deliver this type of instruction, Mr Yildiz said, ‘‘Teachers are quite likely to
experience difficulty in adjusting themselves to learner-centered instruction.
This is especially the case for those who are not graduates of colleges of
education and thus lack sufficient training in pedagogy.’’
32 Kaya Yilmaz

As educators’ responses clearly indicated, learner-centered instruction


requires teachers to have training in pedagogy in order to be able to put
learner-centered instruction into practice. Unfortunately, a good number of
graduates of colleges of science and literature serve as teachers in schools
even though they lack sufficient pedagogical training. Furthermore, due to
staff shortages, the Ministry of National Education employs 12,000 gradu-
ates of any four-year degree program as elementary school teachers (Altan
1998; Çakıroğlu and Çakıroğlu 2003). Because these graduates’ academic
background and preparation is not teaching-related, they have little grasp of
the philosophical and theoretical foundation on which learner-centered
instruction is based (Altan 1998).

Problems that students may encounter

As opposed to teacher-centered instruction that emphasizes the knowledge


and memorization of content as an end in itself, the learner-centered method
of instruction focuses on enabling students to use higher-order or critical
thinking skills, and encourages them to adopt a questioning attitude
towards the information they receive (Kyle and Jenks 2002; Rallis 1995).
Students in Turkey, however, only occasionally engage in learning activities
that call for higher-order and critical thinking skills. As Şimşek (2004)
points our, their approach to learning is characterized by rote learning and
memorization:

The Turkish education system is heavily based on memorization and indoctrina-


tion of the official ideology… In the last few years, courses such as human rights
and democracy have become fashionable. However, they are also based on memo-
rization. Pupils are required to memorize certain articles of the UN Declaration of
Human Rights or what certain philosophers said about human rights or democ-
racy (Şimşek 2004: 71).

The need to help students develop into autonomous and self-regulated learn-
ers is a further challenge to be overcome. Learner-centered instruction shifts
the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student, encouraging
self-directed learning. Yet many students may suffer psychological turmoil
and be unable to assume responsibility for their own learning even if the tea-
cher provides the necessary ‘‘scaffolding’’ (Felder and Brent 1996; Verenikina
2003). During this process of responsibility shift, students are likely to go
through stages similar to those associated with grief: shock, denial, strong
emotion, resistance and withdrawal, surrender and acceptance, struggle and
exploration, a return of confidence, and integration and success (Woods
1994, as cited in Felder and Brent 1996). Teachers need be aware of these
stages to be able to effectively deal with them.
Turkish educators’ responses have also implied that students may (a) not
be ready or willing to be at the center of instruction; (b) have difficulty in
becoming active learners; (c) prefer passive teaching methods that reduce
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 33

their own workload or help them to ‘‘cram’’ for high-stakes tests; and
(d) exploit the freedom provided by learner-centered instruction. Mr Pinar
raised the issue that students are accustomed to learning in specific, tradi-
tional ways, stating that: ‘‘Since students do not experience learner-centered
instruction in early grades in elementary schools, most of them will not be
willing to be at the centre of instruction. Therefore, it may be difficult to
involve students in such instructional methods.’’ Pointing out the difficulty
of modifying student roles and study habits, Mr Yildiz said, ‘‘Students are
used to being passive in their learning, so they may experience uneasiness
when attempting to be active learners.’’ Mr Erk reiterated this concern when
making a similar point:

In teacher-centered classrooms, the teacher teaches and students just listen to him
or her without doing any activities. Since this approach to teaching is more
favorable for student laziness, students may find teacher-centered instruction more
attractive than learner-centered instruction.

Mr Gunes’ response further implied that both lazy and hard-working


students may opt for teacher-centered instruction simply because it helps
them prepare for norm-referenced tests. Mr Gunes drew attention to the
implications of high-stakes tests for students’ future:

Since success on standardized tests is the most important factor in determining the
future career of students in Turkey (that is, the selection and placement of stu-
dents in prestigious high schools such as Fen Lisesi and Anadolu Lisesi and uni-
versities via high-stakes tests), students may not find it meaningful or at least
practical to experience learner-centered instruction that is less effective than
teacher-centered instruction in terms of preparing students for those tests.

Ms Aydin and Mr Kurt pinpointed a different problem: according to their


responses, students are likely to take advantage of the democratic learning
environment provided by learner-centered instruction. Ms Aydin argued:

Students have been exposed to teacher-centered instruction for years, so they have
little or no experience in basic activities of the learner-centered approach such as
learning by doing, discovering, investigating, questioning etc. Given this circum-
stance, students may go rampant in a learner-centered environment in which free-
dom is embedded.

She followed on with the logical conclusion that: ‘‘If teacher do not control
students through structured lessons, their classes may become chaos-centered
rather than learner-centered.’’ Mr Kurt drew on his own experiences as a
practitioner of learner-centered instruction, and made similar comments:

Many students are not ready to learn via student-centered instruction. When
instruction is structured around the principles of learner-centeredness, students
tend to exploit the democratic learning environment as was the case in my
classroom. My students went so far as to defy, confront and disobey me when I
34 Kaya Yilmaz

employed learner-centered instruction. They also complained about me and other


educators to the administrators. After this unpleasant experience, I have come to
believe that you can’t completely trust students… You can’t put students at the
centre of the teaching and learning process.

Conclusion and recommendations

For the population of a country that has experienced three military coups in
as many decades, it is essential to know how to live together in a pluralistic
democratic society. The concept of democracy as a means of co-existing
both within and outside the school environment must inform and shape the
educational experiences of students, teachers and administrators alike if
democratic ideals and values are to be attained and practiced in Turkish
society. One of the reasons why democratic principles have not been under-
stood and practiced adequately in Turkey to date is students’ overall lack of
engagement in their learning experiences. Since learner-centered instruction is
the teaching model best suited to the realization of democratic education,
there is a need to implement a shift from ‘‘top-down’’ teacher-centered
instruction to ‘‘bottom-up’’ learner-centered instruction in Turkey.
To succeed, learner-centered instruction must be acknowledged as an inte-
gral part of the institution’s mission and actively supported by all members
of the staff and the surrounding community. The following recommenda-
tions – pertaining to the education system, the structure and organization of
schools, and to both students and teachers – propose ways not only of over-
coming the problems and constraints confronting learner-centered instruc-
tion, but also of facilitating the implementation of learner-centered
instruction in Turkey. It is recommended that:
• the bureaucratic structure of the Turkish education system be
de-centralized and changed in its entirety to make it compatible with
learner-centered instruction;
• the Ministry of National Education provide more financial support for
restructuring schools in accordance with the principles of learner-centered
instruction;
• school classes be neither so large in size nor so overcrowded as to prevent
students’ individual differences from finding expression;
• new textbooks and other curricular materials compatible with learner-
centered instruction be developed;
• the curricula of teacher education programs be more relevant to the
culture of Turkish society and more flexible so as to provide students with
the opportunity of selecting elective courses;
• educators pay attention to how to design a coherent, pedagogically
meaningful, and culturally sensitive curriculum;
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 35

• school teachers be assisted (through workshops and other means of


in-service training) to modify their teacher-centered conceptions of teach-
ing and instructional practices;
• teachers’ efforts to practice learner-centered instruction be recognized and
rewarded;
• students be trained in such learner-centered activities as carrying out
research, giving presentations, engaging in discussions, etc.; and
• suitable ‘‘scaffolding’’ be introduced to teach students how to take respon-
sibility for their own learning.

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The author

Kaya Yilmaz worked as a history teacher in secondary and high schools for five years
before doing his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities and
Democracy through Learner-centered Education 37

the University of Georgia, respectively. He currently holds a full-time academic position


at Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey. His research interests include teacher cog-
nition, history education, historiography, and pedagogical orientations.
Contact address: Marmara University, Faculty of Education, Istanbul, Turkey.
E-mail: kaya.yilmaz@marmara.edu.tr.