Data on the number of children enrolled in the first grade of primary schools is disappointing this year again. There is a continuous decline in the number of first graders, resulting in the closure of regional schools. One of the reasons for decline in the number of enrolled children is, of course, the emigration of many families from Croatia. Can you comment on such demographic trends in our country?
Such demographic trends are indeed one of the key problems in Croatia. There are complex reasons for permanent emigration as well as reasons for the dead outnumbering the children born, but I believe that they are, above all, cultural. Many people do not currently see Croatia as a place where they can live well and achieve their goals. That is why they do not easily decide to have children and found a family and often do it later in life. Public society stakeholders, above all the political elite, offer no content and cannot answer this complex problem. The fact is that those who have been managing this country for the past twenty-seven years are the most responsible for such demographic trends, and have not done enough, and still do nothing, to change the living conditions in Croatia. I know it sounds rough, but they do not care about the people.
Does Croatian society understand, in your opinion, the implications of the educational system on the social development? Can you outline the fundamental changes that the curricular reform you have been working on would provide in order to make progress in our society?
School education and science have been on the very edge of interest for twenty-seven years. They have been ignored by decision makers but also by the general public. As a society we are interested in everything but a person, for example, in purchasing used squadron of aircrafts that are often not necessary, in construction of buildings and roads that do not take us anywhere. We do not invest much in young people, educators, and scientists. It is no surprise that the Croatian society lags behind the developed societies which understand the importance of education and science for the development of the individual and society in the future. Unfortunately, we are not mature enough to understand the importance of investing in school education and science, as it is a prerequisite for cooperation and competitiveness today, and especially in the future.
For this reason, in 2012, the Strategy for Education, Science and Technology was initiated with the aim of anticipating long-term investment and solving problems related to the system of school education, science and technology. Comprehensive Curricular Reform represents a part of that Strategy. From the outset, it was in our interest to change the content of what is being taught in Croatian schools, but even more we wanted to influence the way of learning and teaching, the tools used in learning and teaching, and the way of evaluating and assessing students’ achievements. We also wanted to create a framework for working with gifted children and a framework for working with students with learning difficulties. In addition, from the outset, it was our intention to create programme for members of national minorities so that they could also have quality school education in their language and script. We wanted to return social processes to people who run them and direct them towards the development of children and youngster’s potential. In this region, these are dangerous ideas.
How important is experiential way of teaching children?
Croatian schools are completely focused on adopting facts and their reproduction. As such, in 21st century they no longer have the same function. Most children and parents have smartphones and the internet, so nearly all the information and facts are available to them with a fingertip. That is exactly why schools should develop different way of thinking. Also, children lack practical classes. For example, it is necessary to learn notes and the names of the rhythms, but the possibility to play an instrument, to beat a drum or have your fingers on guitar strings makes education more meaningful. The effect of such education is far more useful than learning facts by heart and their reproduction. We wanted to introduce such elements to Croatian schools, which currently have virtually no practical classes. Schools are nowadays focused on the lowest cognitive levels of remembering and reproducing facts, and they do not include the development of functional literacy, which means that the students do not know how and cannot apply everything learned in their everyday life. You know, a fifth-grader has to learn hundreds of concepts in one week, and at the same time, almost never knows the reason why they are learning it or where they can apply it. Poor student motivation and underdevelopment of work habits are the consequences of such education. Education therefore exists only for the pro-form reasons, and does not represent what it should – help in development of young person’s potentials.
Another flaw in our educational system is its focus on an imaginary, average student, and such student does not actually exist. Everyone is gifted for something, at the same time not so good in something else. For example, someone is good at running, someone else at counting, someone at writing, while someone else is good at practical, technical stuff. The educational system, unfortunately, is not designed to recognize one’s potential and help them progress, allowing for general development at the same time. Schools rely too much on the older models of the ’50s or’ 60s when the masses of people had to be educated and made literate, however today’s needs are no longer the same. This has not changed yet because of what I was talking about, because of the lack of focus of the Croatian society on school education and science. Necessary consequence of such an approach to learning is dissatisfaction of both students and their parents. Students are fitted into a model of an imaginary, average student, and therefore their individual needs are not met, causing frustration.
Educational system is important for the integration and protection of national minorities in a country and for achievement of coexistence while preserving their own cultural and linguistic autonomy. During drafting the curricular reform did you cooperate with minority representatives, especially with representatives of the Roma national minority, as well as experts in Roma language and culture?
At my own initiative, and in co-operation with Mr. Veljko Kajtazi, MP, C Curriculum for the Roma national minority was created in the framework of the comprehensive curriculum reform. This was the first time in Croatia because there has been no minority education for Roma. Roma national minority is numerous, contributes to the multicultural development of Croatia and the creation of our common future. The only correct decision was to create a group of experts for Romani language and culture, who will design the curriculum. The co-operation was excellent and proved that within the Roma community there is a will and desire to contribute to the creation of a legitimate form of education for the Roma.
In addition, I emphasize that education always tends to destigmatize. Dialogue oriented, directed towards the social development in the future, education necessarily leads to the affirmation of the good and the positive that exists in every man. It does not matter whether it is about a member of a majority or a minority population, gender, religion, physical or any other physical distinction are all irrelevant. It is all about the person. Everything else are just labels we attach to people not even trying to see positive and deeper features.
There was a lot of criticism about the expert groups. For example, criticism related to the composition of those groups, according to some they should consist of officials or ministry staff only, and there have also been objections to using the wrong terminology. Do you consider any of these justified or even useful?
It is difficult to distinguish because there were many unfounded criticisms that were ad hominem, absurd criticisms without any arguments, but there were also legitimate ones. We did not do the job perfectly, but we could not and could never do it. Changes just follow, what is well done will remain, and the rest we have to change or remove. When it comes to curricular reform, I often recall statement that it is ahead of its time, that the Strategy is at present too advanced for this society and that it cannot take such ideas. At first, that statement does not sound like criticism, but it really is. The question is, whether what was planned and sufficiently well developed is in the context of this period. But when I personally think about what has been said, I can ascertain that I would never want to do something that does not lead to progress or moves our society at least one step forward. If our country does not move forward right now, next twenty-seven years will pass in no time and nothing will change. If we continue this way, the school will become irrelevant. Namely, our work has been motivated by two goals – first one for the schools to become relevant both to pupils, teachers and parents, and the second one to increase the importance of school education. The status of those who work in schools, educators, teachers, principals and expert associates should be raised not only in financial but also in social terms. It was precisely in this segment that the entire curricular reform initiative was successful.
What is happening to the curriculum reform today?
The reform has become the object of cultural wars and most banal cheap political offset of interests, what has never meant to be. The question arises whether the political structures will have enough wisdom to understand the importance of this reform, and if they understand, will they let the experts do their job. If politics continues to interfere with the profession, then we have no prospects and this is about sensitive processes that are, in the long term, very important for the Croatian society. In the last ten years, governments have not had a long-term perspective for such a reform. Their perspectives are short-term and are no longer mandatory for four years, but last for two years, one, and in some cases only one month. All this prevents a complex systematic change like this one should be.
The reform is currently at a standstill and we need to see if they will enable us to continue working. The problem is that various ideological and interest groups do not want to carry out modern education in Croatia at all. Their concept of society and education is completely different, and all that concerns the progress of an individual or society is considered negative.
Which educational model from European countries and the world would you indicate as a positive example and why?
Croatia should not follow a specific model, but should take certain best solutions. Croatia definitely has the preconditions for progress in education. Take for example the fact that participation in education in Croatia is almost absolute, which means that dropout cases are actually rare. The structural model of Croatian schools is also positive, as Croatia is one of the few countries with Scandinavian countries, which has a unique structure of eight years of schooling. Classroom and subject teaching takes place in one building, which is why it is treated as a single system. Various models aimed at developing individual potentials should be introduced in the elementary education by extending individualized teaching. Secondary education requires the introduction of elective courses and vocational education convergence with the labour market. Accentuating and preserving our own quality of educational system, adapting to the foreseen curricular reform and the combination of different models is a good way to go.
At the very end I have the need to say that Croatia has the potential to become an inclusive, supportive, knowledge-based society. Despite all the events, as a citizen of this country I’m convinced that it will be so. All you have to do is try. Lose. Try better. Succeed.