A driving force in education

The European Azerbaijan School in Baku has been a big success story, becoming one of the first International Baccalaureate schools in Azerbaijan and shifting towards a highly multilingual curriculum. It prides itself on adopting best practice in education from around the world.

Graeme Pollock, Director of the European Azerbaijan School in Baku

Graeme Pollock, Director of the European Azerbaijan School in Baku

In this article, Graeme Pollock, Director of the European Azerbaijan School, outlines an eight-point blueprint for how small, open economies like Azerbaijan can learn from best practice in other countries, with particular focus on the need to equip children with the skills required for jobs of the future, some of which do not yet even exist.

Azerbaijan is, in many ways, a very fortunate country. The land is rich in natural wealth. But as I have discovered, its greatest resource is not energy or precious metals but its young people.

One in two of its 10 million population is under 30. Nearly 25 per cent are under 15. It is the energy and talent of these youngsters that will enable Azerbaijan to achieve its ambitions.

To maximise the country’s benefits, one has to give young people the tools to make the most of their potential. And that means making sure they get the best possible education.

Azerbaijan has a great platform to build on. The first Muslim country to create modern universities, it has almost universal literacy, unlike many countries in the region.

But policymakers in Azerbaijan are well aware that their education system must strive to keep up with the best in the world, and give young people the skills and confidence they need to adapt their knowledge to a world changing faster than ever.

Given that the jobs they will fill and the technology they will use may not yet exist, it is not enough to simply require children to learn what we know. Azerbaijan needs to equip them to think on their feet, to challenge what they learn as the best education systems already do.

It is this approach which lies at the heart of the European Azerbaijan School (EAS) which opened in Baku in September 2011, and I am proud to be a consultant at the school. EAS was set up by Tale Heydarov in support of the Ministry of Education’s drive to modernise the country’s education system. An Azerbaijani entrepreneur, Tale is determined to promote good educational practice in his country and to bring out the full potential of his country’s young generation.

The school’s primary objective is to equip its students with the skills necessary for them to flourish in their future careers, whether in Azerbaijan or further afield. Inspired by the school’s plans to be a symbol of educational excellence in Azerbaijan, and drawing on my own experience of managing and teaching in schools across five different continents, I have set out below what I believe to be a blueprint for educational success.

1. Learning how to learn

At EAS, teaching is not a one-way process – children are actively engaged in their own learning. Gone are the days of children being seen as empty vessels into which facts can be poured. They are encouraged not to simply regurgitate information, but to learn how to learn; this means that discovering for themselves what it is that they need to learn, rather than being told by their teachers. This is a fundamental pillar of the school’s philosophy, and is one of the many ways in which EAS is forging new paths in the country.

2. Equip children with skills for the jobs of tomorrow

App developer, Social media manager, Cloud computing expert: these are just three of many job descriptions which barely existed five years ago. The lesson here is that we should not attempt to mould children of today into the jobs of tomorrow, since we do not know what these jobs will be. Instead, we should equip our children with the knowledge and, most importantly, the skills required to be leaders in any field that they choose to go into.

3. Education outside the classroom

Extra-curricular activities are a vital part of a child’s development, and EAS is committed to offering its children a varied programme which includes sports, drama, chess, dancing, choir, traditional carpet-making, drawing and pottery.

The importance of such activities is difficult to overstate. They teach children the value of being part of a team working towards a long-term goal. They help them discover new interests, forge new relationships and raise self-esteem. And they help children learn to structure their time and to plan ahead. Put simply if they want to make football training or theatre class, they need to make sure their homework is done on time!

4. The highest international standards

Azerbaijan sits at the crossroads of Europe and the rest of the world. It is an outward-looking nation with much to contribute to the global community, but like all countries it has a great deal to learn from others.

With this in mind, as a candidate school, EAS is in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate school, enabling its students to benefit from a combination of world-class international and local curricula. EAS is also already building links with other schools across the country to help modernise teaching techniques.

5. Speaking the world’s languages

EAS also recognises the importance of Azerbaijani children becoming multilingual agents in an open economy. Our lessons are currently conducted in Azerbaijani, with English and Russian woven into the curriculum – for example in drama lessons – while the school works towards fully bi-lingual instruction (Azerbaijani and English). Interactive storytelling techniques, such as dialogic reading, are used to enable young children with very few words to become enthusiastic readers and develop a love of reading that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

6. Education in the Digital Age

With technology making children more visually-oriented, children require constant stimulation. EAS uses SMART boards in virtually every classroom, as well as other interactive teaching technologies. A 1:1 laptop program is underway for Secondary School children and iPads are widely used from Early Years onwards, assisting the process of interactive teaching and empowering of students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Many countries have used these facilities for years, but the challenge is to make them cost-effective. In an era where you can turn a $40 video game controller into a digital whiteboard, anything is possible.

7. Getting parents and teachers onside

Drawing from my own experiences across the world, this is maybe the most crucial step of all. The model outlined above will only achieve educational transformation if parents and teachers all buy into this new philosophy.

This will not be easy. Many will have grown up in a different educational era- one of rote learning, a narrow curriculum and an inward-looking attitude to languages and educational standards. But it is essential that teachers and the wider community embrace innovations that have been developed by educational researchers and practitioners, and learn from the successes and failures of the past.

8. Education for all

Providing children with top-class facilities is not cheap, and so EAS is a fee-paying school. However the school recognises that the brightest minds of tomorrow could come from any section of Azerbaijani society. With that in mind, the school has decided to keep its fees to an absolute minimum, and provide scholarships to students who show outstanding potential.

Bright children from every background can therefore benefit from the education that EAS provides. Currently one in six children at the school benefit from scholarships in some form, and this is something that Tale as founder is particularly passionate about maintaining.

Through the example EAS is setting, the achievements of its pupils and the links they are building, I am confident that the school will play its part in maintaining the improvement in educational standards throughout Azerbaijan.

If we give our young people the skills to succeed, we can rely on them to build the future we all want. Azerbaijan has made significant steps in this direction and that is the real reason, I believe, that the country is so fortunate.

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