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Often, the most challenging times help us find more creative ways to survive and thrive. Right now, the pandemic is teaching us to cope with uncertainty, to come up with innovative ways to support students’ learning, to reduce digital inequality, to find ways to share, and to learn from others. Here we discuss efforts responding to the current disruption in Turkey that 

  • leveraged teacher agency to help improve the learning experience for students, 
  • eased the transition to distance learning for all stakeholders, 
  • and provided lessons learned from the Turkish context on how such efforts should be institutionalized so all teachers and students can benefit.

The Turkish Education System’s COVID-19 Response

Turkey, with approximately 16.5 million students and 1.1 million teachers in K1-12 levels, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a rapid and coordinated shift to distance education, starting on March 23, 2020. The Ministry of National Education (MoNE) pulled forward a one-week spring break to gain time to produce informational booklets and videos, set up 3 educational TV channels and created lecture videos for students in levels K-12. Since 2012, the MoNE has invested in a nationwide educational technology infrastructure that included the Education Informatics Network (EBA), a web portal for students and teachers to access and upload educational materials, videos, and assessments. Although it was not previously utilized widely by teachers and students, the existence of the EBA platform allowed the system-wide switch to remote learning to happen quickly. 

The shift to distance education highlighted already-existing challenges. Turkey has been facing many problems, including a resource gap between private and public schools, lack of technological facilities in public schools, a knowledge-based overloaded central curriculum, teachers’ lack of motivation due to systematic and bureaucratic obstacles to their agency, limitations of support mechanisms, and a lack of comprehensive support for children with the low socio-economic background (Education Reform Initiative, 2017). Together, these challenges have deepened inequalities in the education system. 

Moreover, as a consequence of its geographical significance, the Turkish education system serves a large number of refugee and migrant students who require special accommodations such as second language, academic, and psycho-social support (Crul et al., 2019). Refugee and migrant students face more challenges in access, and the digital divide has exacerbated inequalities. Consequently, the concept of the “digital gap” became a part of everyday discussions (Education Reform Initiative, 2020). Related to this challenge, policymakers, educators, and citizens are discussing how to enable access to customized education for students from diverse backgrounds, with different learning styles and needs in their learning process, as well as how to improve their access to and use of technology. 

The country has been trying to address these challenges amid the rapid shift to distance learning as teachers and students become familiarized with the use of technology, leveraging various education platforms and online materials properly. The 2020-2021 academic year started on September 21st, following an online catch-up program that lasted three weeks. Even though the educational plan for the 2020-2021 academic year is subject to change based on the pandemic’s progress, the MoNE continues working on improvements to the Education Information Network to make it more aligned with the requirements of distance learning. These improvements include strengthening the infrastructure of the network to support live virtual classrooms and increasing its accessibility across the country, as well as creating different types of learning content, such as game-based online platforms. 

Looking at Turkey’s educational response to the pandemic thus far highlights the importance of leveraging teachers’ agency and supporting them as they learn to adopt new practices in order to meet students’ needs. 

Filling the Void: Teacher Agency 

While much of the MoNE efforts and public attention has centered around the response in terms of digital content and access to devices, we have found that the role teachers play in supporting their students may have the biggest impact in successfully implementing distance education in Turkey. Before the pandemic, online, and face-to-face teacher training and conferences to share innovative educational practices were common to support teachers’ professional development. 

The need for cooperation between teachers and stakeholders of education and solidarity amongst teachers and parents arose as another significant focus during the pandemic. Learning from the experiences of teachers who participated in the Teachers Network, a network of sharing and collaboration where teachers grow and empower themselves through meeting colleagues and people from other institutions and different disciplines. Teachers were able to do creative and extraordinary things because of the continuous support stemming from network collaboration and community interaction, fighting loneliness, and having a venue to think of new ideas. Moreover, many realized how traditional school models prevented them from being open to innovative and creative ways of teaching. 

Teachers found themselves in a very challenging position, but some also found they had increased agency that led to opportunities to do things differently from the traditional structures of school. They supported their students by leveraging technology in new ways and became innovators in their practice. For example, due to its wide usage in Turkey, many teachers used WhatsApp to communicate with their students. Some took it further and launched their own Youtube channels where they uploaded lectures, as well as stories, games, and activities to enhance emotional connection with their students. 

Picture 1: Teachers from across Turkey perform body a percussion exercise during the Teachers Network annual gathering

In fact digital technologies, as stated by numerous teachers in online meetings, helped some kids who were usually not participating in lessons to take a more active role during remote learning. They also use digital tools to provide psychosocial support to students. Therefore, teachers rethought the opportunities that digital tools offer for a participatory learning environment. 

Picture 2: Teachers in the Teachers Network from across Turkey evaluate the previous year and celebrate their achievements. The theme of the gathering was ‘Here We All Belong,’ written on their signs.

Unfortunately, the Teachers’ Network and many of the innovative practices have reached a small portion of Turkey’s teaching workforce, and many teachers still struggle to support their students. Without a broader institutionalized effort to support teachers to become innovators, many teachers have not been able to realize their agency to reach some of the most marginalized students in the country, and they lack the social support they needed to actually do their jobs. 

Suggestions for the Future of Education

The pandemic has shown that:

  • The aim, organization, structure, delivery, and content of education need to be transformed in order to promote students’ 21st-century skills. The pandemic serves as an opportunity to look into the future, and design systems while keeping in mind the realities and expectations of children and youth who are digital natives. The World Economic Forum’s report named The Future of Jobs (2016) stated that problem-solving and critical thinking would be the top two skills of 2020. In addition, during the pandemic time management, creativity, communication, collaboration, and self-direction became as important as basic academic skills. Promoting and ensuring child participation in shaping the structure, content, and delivery of education would contribute greatly to the success of distance education efforts and help students to reach their full potential.
  • Cooperation on all levels is the key to tackle the challenges. Cooperation between parents/legal guardians, solidarity between teachers, communication, and cooperation with the civil society as well as official organizations became even more important during the pandemic. The efforts should continue to retain the gains and increase the effectiveness of distance education in the future. 
  • Opportunities for personal and professional growth works in favor of education, and well-being matters. During the pandemic, teachers not only strove to acquire or develop digital skills but also they continued delivering content. The realization of teachers’ agency proved a success in the maintenance of education. The rise of expectations on teachers and their responsibilities uncovered the significance of teachers’ well-being. More systematic support must be given by MoNE on a large scale to help teachers meet student needs in innovative ways. Models that connect teachers in collaborative networks could support a shift to 21st-century learning models that help students become well-rounded individuals to meet the massive environmental, economic, and social challenges of the century (OECD, 2018). 


We would like to thank Eileen McGivney for taking the time to review this blog post. We sincerely appreciate her valuable comments and suggestions that helped us to see all points of view. 


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