Date: 15-04-2020

ISSA Member puts the focus on values in classrooms

Nedim Krajišnik is Program Coordinator at ISSA’s member in Bosnia and Herzegovona, Center for Educational Initiatives Step by Step (SbS). He is also a senior researcher specialized in Peace Education. For the past year, his organization has been offering an innovative training to more than 7,000 early childhood development (ECD) practitioners all over the country. Entitled the School of Values, Nedim explains to us how essential this new educational paradigm is for the future of his country, as it trains teachers to stimulate critical thinking in a child-centered classroom where everyone is encouraged to discuss and give their opinion on values such as empathy, freedom or equity.


Tell us about what inspired the School of Values.

I am 29 years old, so I suffered the war and lived my childhood surrounded by poverty, destruction and violence. Every single day of my life, still today, is affected by the war and the social conflict. My generation, as well as those older than me, are tired of this. When the every-day topic is something that dark and emotionally hard for people, society pretends that nothing happened even if everywhere there is something that reminds you of that past. In this complex situation, in a young democracy like ours, in which people often have very different and strong opinions about the conflict, Step by Step decided to intervene. We chose not to be blind about our past and, at the same time, we decided to work on a new educational program that, instead of placing conflict at the core of our actions, focuses on the current peace process in Bosnia, building up an ECD workforce that delivers quality education and, most importantly, that structurally teaches what peace and critical thinking are.


Once you defined the purpose of it, how did the School of Values come into place?

Values are not just there for us to relate to, everyone participates in their construction. To this regard, war destroys the grounds upon which essential and common values are built. Today we still see children coming to school with very different interpretations of what freedom or equity mean. Step by Step tries to develop a program that allows children to reflect and discuss these values, without imposing any on them. Teaching values in a pedagogical way is possible, it is scientifically proven. Because we find it so important, we have worked on drafting and developing the program for almost four years. It has taken us this long because we have tried to take into account all situations and make it applicable to all contexts regardless of the children’s background.


When teaching the school of values in such a complex context, are there many values common to all children?

Yes, there are, the universal essential values are there. If I ask: “can you name five for me?” Most of the people will find it difficult to define them because, in our society, values are something we all share but we don’t discuss. We think we are very familiar with what they mean but it is actually the contrary. When we speak out and talk about them, we realize people have a lot to say. We share these values but we have different opinions about them. This is the reason why we think it is so important to name them and articulate them in a wise way.


Could you briefly explain the main steps the teachers follow when implementing this program?

The program is based on three major steps. First is to name the values. Values are primarily personal and then societal so in order to build a common meaning on what empathy or equity mean, it is essential that all of us give our own opinion of it, so that we co-construct them together. Secondly, we believe values are not abstract concepts. They can be deconstructed at the level of behavior. Imagine that you say friendship is an important value for you, but for the past months you haven’t called your best friend. Values must have a reflection on your daily behavior. Lastly, when children are ready to internalize the values they have commonly agreed upon, they have to understand that practicing them may have positive or negative consequences. So first naming them, secondly, understanding the link between values and behavior, and thirdly, accepting the consequences their practice implies.


Is the post-conflict context a more challenging one when implementing the School of Values?

The lack of an educational background that focuses on this is not a problem related to the conflict itself but more to low quality education in general, one that has been focusing for years in developing the brain and not the heart. People still have a hard time addressing the emotional side of education because they are simply not used to it. In every training I see how practitioners are not speaking out about the integrity of the human being. They teach how to think, which is very important, but leave aside the teaching of values that allow children to live a better life. We must not be naïve—every school, as well as every family, has its own values. Nobody is neutral on this. But they are very often given to children, there is no room for questioning or interpreting them. By looking into the heart of children, we empower them so that they can freely express their feelings and thoughts on moral issues. Schools must be green oases where children feel free and safe to talk. This is also the grounds on which the future ideology of a country is constructed. This is why they are so relevant.  


How do teachers react when they follow your innovative training?

We work with a huge group of teachers, more than 7,000, which is a third of the total number of teachers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among them there are of course teachers who are not used to this new paradigm, others do follow it very well. What is common to all of them is the will to teach the children to think for themselves, and this is, in the end, a more challenging methodology than the traditional one. Before they come to the training they get a questionnaire in which we ask them: are you ready to have children that ask very tough questions? Are you ready to listen to all of them? If their answer is yes to all the questions, then we say that this training is for them. It is not easy to teach based on a program that is not teacher-centered and that is not meant to just deliver a service, as it has been the case until now.


You work a lot on raising the recognition of teachers at national level, also thanks to your Annual Award. Do teachers need this empowerment in order to be ready to embrace this new educational paradigm?

We have been working in the country for over 26 years. In the years after the war we concentrated our efforts on working on the basics, rebuilding schools and looking for teachers. So we knew we were late in adjusting to the European trends on quality education. However, some years ago many teachers were coming to us asking for an alternative on how to teach their children. The possibility of change was there, from the inside, and as Step by Step we felt it was our responsibility to work with them on this, because we believe that major advancements occur for bottom up, and not the other way around. Nowadays, we finally have a community that actively advocates for this new School of Values, that truly believes in it, and thanks to that, practitioners feel the strength to challenge the traditional system, because they see a good alternative to it. We are a young democracy that learns from doing.


What are the challenges ahead?

Our main challenge is to address more teachers with our training. We would love to get to more of them but as an NGO we don’t have the financial means to do it. We need to approach this goal in a more systematic way, addressing the ministries of Education at the same time as we remain creative in our fundraising.


Do you foresee the current worldwide trend of questioning some universal values as a threat?    

Not really, my main fear is that the discussion on moral values remains very much connected to religion, and it shouldn’t be like this. Values should not be accepted as a dogma, and as ECD experts, we shouldn’t raise ourselves in a superior way when it comes to teaching about them. In this era of pop-science and pop-culture, where information is not so much grounded in evidence-based data, it is more important than ever that we escape from trending or sexy topics and that we take our duties as educators very seriously.