Pegor Papazian: Advisory Board Member of Tumo Center on education system

 Summarizing results of the first quarter century of Armenia's independence in various spheres


I am someone whose five children have gone through the Armenian education system’s standard program over the past eleven years: from kindergarten to the end of high school. Although we complain about our kids’ education all the time, I think that’s mainly a result of high expectations. For science and math oriented children, the Armenian education system presents the same kinds of competitive advantages that other post-soviet republics still have. In brief, it is a very technical education. There’s a high tolerance on the part of the parents and students for lots of homework with difficult problems and not a lot of concern for the psychological well-being of the children. If the student survives that (and sometimes that’s a big “if”), they end up being rather competitive.

But it’s not a necessarily a great pedagogy overall, because many children with great potential stay behind simply because they don’t fit into that model. My impression is that the model is optimized for creating a kind of elite that can win Olympiads. It reminds me of Soviet era athletes striving to win Olympic gold medals. It seemed like the whole state apparatus was working on growing that kind of athlete for almost diplomatic and political reasons. Well, maybe in sports and some other areas that makes strategic sense, but in education it’s not at all optimal. Because the general population gets a very uneven education in the process. And now, when the world is putting more and more value on soft skills in terms of the ability to collaborate, transparency, initiative taking, entrepreneurship etc., Armenia needs to do more to become competitive. On the other hand, science, technology, math aptitudes remain very much in demand. So I think Armenian kids have the potential to get to the best universities in the world with the training they get in schools. So I have mixed feelings about the school system. But I don’t have mixed filings about the university education system in Armenia. I think it’s rather dysfunctional and it’s critical that we figure out a way of moving towards a more competitive higher education system.

I don’t pretend to have a solution, but it seems that the problem is not about administrative issues, not about how the professors are paid, etc., even though those aspects need to be addressed. It’s more a problem of academic culture. For a large part of society, education is a kind of fetish. Many people study not necessarily for acquiring knowledge but because they just value a university degree. Of course that’s not entirely a bad thing. At least, it’s good to have high demand for higher education. But the bigger problem is how you recycle an academic culture into a more research-oriented one, to make it more functional and transparent.

One of the solutions in my opinion is creating institutions that work towards reforming the system from the outside. Being one of the founders and board members of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, I can say that Tumo is taking very much the approach of working from the outside with high-school-aged kids. Without trying to reform the education system per se, but complementing it, almost creating an alternative, which kids can experience and, as a result, become more demanding, see more possibilities in in their schools. Maybe the same should happen to universities with the help of external centers of excellence that will complement, challenge and at some point reinforce the education system. Reforming the system from the inside will probably take more resources than one can afford in Armenia. For example, to have labs or centers of excellence that are accessible for all the universities equally. Students and even professors who come in and out of such labs gradually acquire a new culture. That way they can contribute to improving their universities more effectively and more quickly. 

 We haven’t yet done a major study to understand the impact of Tumo from a systematic point of view and it’s still very early. However, we have some impressions at this point about the effect on kids who have been through the center. How it changes their mentality, makes them more self-confident. How they begin to learn more effectively and develop higher expectations of their schools, and later of universities. It also affects their civic lives. They become more aware, more critical in their thinking.

One parent complained to us that her girl is cutting her hair short and expressing too many opinions at home after visiting Tumo. Well, we think that might be a good thing. Opening Tumo centers in different parts of the country, beyond Yerevan, was an experiment for us. We wanted to see if we could use the same program, exactly the same approach in places like Gyumri and Stepanakert. And it worked. Because in any case, even in Yerevan, Tumo’s environment is such an alien one for kids that they have to completely reset their expectations.                                                            

 Tumo is not the only project working from the outside that can help the whole education system in this way. Another bright example is the Ayb School. It’s impossible to achieve systematic change across all schools at the same time. Maybe that can be attempted in a rich oil-producing country for example, but not in a country like Armenia with limited capacity. But highly ambitious schools like Ayb, they immediately deny the claim that it’s not possible to achieve world-class results in education in our context. Some people say it’s because of their financing, but I don’t think that if you gave the same budget to a regular public school it would suddenly become excellent. There’s something in Ayb’s approach that makes it a good model.

Let’s say someone works at Ayb, then leaves it and goes to work at some other school. They will take with them the culture they assimilated at Ayb. The same with students who graduate from there. Or just people, who are inspired by it. And finally, other schools try to challenge it, which begins to propagate improvements across the system. The effect of challenging, setting an example, proving that doing better is possible can be very powerful. And because Ayb is affordable to anyone through scholarships, it is not elitist, which is extremely important. Given the fact that we don’t have very strong state institutions that can implement education reforms on a large scale, the alternative is creating these types of islands of excellence. These bright spots will have a system-wide effect much faster than one might think. I would call them catalysts. They trigger change, but they also speed up the elimination of non-functioning parts of the system through competition and then start influencing the rest of the system by changing mindsets and infusing know-how, by osmosis. The other useful example is the Luys Foundation. They take a small number of university kids who are accepted in the best universities of the world, support them financially, and then expect that they will come back to affect change in Armenia. The resulting “brain circulation” is very important. International mobility is one of the advantages independence gave Armenia. We need to use it wisely.