Perspectives | Education

Rethinking teaching in the wake of the pandemic

How can Kosovo improve its dismal performance on international evaluations?

Despite its supposed prioritization by successive governments in the post-war period, Kosovo’s education system remains in a dysfunctional state and ranks as one of the poorest in Europe. There is an urgent need for fundamental changes at all levels to address long standing structural deficiencies such as low school budgets, poor infrastructure, inadequate and/or outdated curricula and textbooks, and a lack of professional development training for teachers, especially in the field of technology.

The clearest indicator of the poor state of Kosovo’s education system has long been the poor performance of the country’s students in internationally standardized tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The test evaluates education systems by measuring the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students worldwide. Kosovar students participated in the PISA for the first time in 2015 and they were ranked in the bottom five internationally out of 70 participating countries and in last place in the region.

This poor ranking was a wake-up call for Kosovo’s educators. In 2018, Kosovo participated in PISA for the second time and while students’ performance in reading and mathematics was equally poor, in science their performance was even worse. The 2022 PISA round is underway but the results won’t be published until next year. Despite growing awareness about the need to improve student performance, there is little room for optimism for this year’s results given the ongoing structural problems and the devastating effects of the pandemic on teaching and learning in the past two years.

One of the ongoing structural problems is the national curriculum, which has undergone many poorly coordinated changes. This has led to classrooms operating under new curricular guidelines but using old textbooks that don’t align with the new teaching material because the textbook publishing process was delayed. This has created confusion in classrooms, undermined teaching and impeded the learning process.

While teachers have been trying to figure out the new curriculum and the new textbooks, the pandemic made everything infinitely more difficult and forced teachers to simultaneously adjust to online teaching. Throughout the height of the pandemic Kosovo’s Ministry of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation (MESTI) spearheaded the implementation of online teaching in cooperation with schools and other educational institutions. This involved video recordings by teachers that were broadcast on national TV and the preparation of online lessons using platforms such as Zoom and eShkollori.

Kosovo’s education system remains in a dysfunctional state and ranks as one of the poorest in Europe.

Amid this chaos, a new generation of first graders was preparing to start school for the first time. Unfortunately, their first day of school didn’t include the traditional excitement of meeting their new peers and teachers. Even more difficult was the challenge of adapting to online schooling without ever having experienced normal school. These challenges were compounded for children in homes with unstable or unreliable internet connections or where there were distractions at home.

Typically, first grade pupils learn the alphabet, reading, writing and basic math problems and therefore need direct teacher and parent/custodian supervision. In contrast, online classes introduced during the pandemic were shortened, lasting about 30 minutes instead of the usual 45 minutes. This meant that not all subjects could be covered, nor could there be effective student engagement in class activities, teachers’ feedback or assessment.

Course correction

Successive governments in Kosovo have focused on building new school premises rather than developing the teaching capacities of the schools that already exist. While new school buildings go up, in education institutions across Kosovo there is a general lack of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment, teaching materials, school libraries, labs and computers. 

This lack has direct consequences on students’ learning results. Even though there are many international organizations that provide ICT equipment and other necessary learning materials, most of the time this equipment is not used due to the lack of teachers’ knowledge or lack of reliable internet in schools. The problem is even worse in rural schools.

MESTI’s strategy document for 2017-2021 sought to address some of these issues in its key objectives, which, among others, included development of a functioning quality assurance system in accordance with international standards, enhancement of teaching quality through an effective and sustainable system for teacher professional development and maximizing learning through quality teaching, implementing competency-based curricula, and by using high-quality teaching resources.

The strategy also clearly identifies the main challenges facing Kosovo’s education system. These include the quality of national tests, the analysis of test results and their usage in quality improvement, the lack of a licensing system based on teachers’ performance, the lack of mandatory professional development for teachers, difficulties implementing new curriculum and the weak integration of technology and online resources.

To address these challenges, MESTI has tried to develop a system for teachers’ professional development including a process to evaluate teachers’ performance, implementation of a teacher licensing system and pre-service teacher training. MESTI also plans to make the process of implementing new curriculum more smooth and to address the unsatisfactory level of integration of technology in school learning materials. 

However, according to a report from the Kosovo Education and Employment Network (KEEN) on the implementation of the 2017-2021 strategy plan, the establishment of professional development for teachers and the licensing process were delayed. The report also reveals that there is a lack of data on teacher training for the use of electronic materials. This is especially worrying given the acute need for effective and professional delivery of online learning during the pandemic.

The KEEN report also states that the new curriculum caused problems in the learning process since there were no guidelines provided on how to use the old textbooks in line with the new curriculum. Additionally, MESTI contributed only modestly to providing schools with computers, ICT infrastructure and other necessary teaching aids. Part of the problem stems from the fact that although most schools have internet, it is generally integrated into the learning process in a limited manner.

MESTI is currently drafting a new strategy for 2022-2026. It is essential that it address the urgent need for teachers’ professional development and the effective integration of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math) into teaching and learning. Many internationally acclaimed education experts regard STEAM (and its predecessor STEM) as an essential component of modern education. With the right strategy and its effective implementation, we can expect PISA scores better than our current dismal performance.

But it’s not just up to the ministry’s planners. School principals need to provide opportunities for professional development and the integration of ICT in learning through different educational organization partners in Kosovo. There are many international donors in Kosovo who offer teacher training on the integration of technology in education and who help supply schools with other learning materials. In order to maximize the benefits of donor aid, MESTI needs to demonstrate it has a clear and comprehensive vision, strategy and action plan.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.