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Professors detail segregation, social problems, parallels to American education in Kazakhstan project

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

LAWRENCE — It can be difficult to solve social problems when there is not a consensus on how to approach it or whether the problem even exists. Yet that is the situation two University of Kansas social welfare professors found themselves in when teaching in Kazakhstan, a divided and historically colonized nation.

Terry Koenig and Richard Spano, associate professors of social welfare, spent about four months teaching ethics and social welfare classes at Eurasian National University, the largest university in Kazakhstan, in Astana, the nation’s capital. What started as a cultural and educational exchange led to much larger lessons for both the educators and students. The professors have published an article in the Proceedings of the Social Development Conference – European Branch detailing their experiences.

Koenig was invited to teach and conduct a research study in Kazakhstan as part of a Fulbright fellowship and professional sabbatical. She quickly realized that university classes were split between native Kazakh-speaking citizens and Russian speakers. The idea to combine the two classes for the sake of efficiency was frowned upon at first.

“It seemed like we could put the two classes together, but that’s not how things are done in the universities there,” Koenig said. “But eventually they allowed us to do it as one class.”

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, has been independent for only 20 years. There is still widespread discrimination against native Kazakhs left over from the days of Soviet rule. Millions of Kazakhs were killed beginning during Joseph Stalin’s reign, and they are still largely considered second-class citizens. The northern part of the country is home to more of the Russian-speaking citizens, largely from urban centers, while native Kazakh speakers largely come from the south and more rural areas. That naturally posed problems in the classroom.

“The two groups of students wouldn’t talk to each other. I couldn’t even get them to work together in small groups to discuss ideas,” Koenig said. “I didn’t realize it at first, but even the way they were seated in the classroom, they were split right down the middle. What was happening in the class was what was happening in larger society.”

Spano joined Koenig later in the semester to help teach ethics and social policy. While they had made progress in working together, there were still challenges for students to overcome. When asked what they thought the biggest social problems facing their country, students listed a variety of responses, including homelessness, drugs, domestic violence and access to education. The students often disagreed on what the problems were, but even when they agreed they often had cultural disagreements on how they should be addressed.

Kazakhstan is in the process of setting up its first network of domestic violence shelters. There was vehement disagreement on whether there should even be shelters in the first place, much less on how they should address violence, as native Kazakhs largely believed the family should handle such matters.

“There were not only differences in language but in how they view aspects of their social problems and how they should address them, and even differences on what they thought their social problems were,” Koenig said.

Koenig and Spano note parallels they found between Kazakh and American classrooms in the article. While the cultural differences are greater in Kazakhstan, students are often from diverse backgrounds within the United States as well. Perhaps most troubling was the presence of a “banking approach” to education, Spano said. Kazakh students often didn’t want to do group work or speak up in class, holding to the belief that the teacher was the only one in the room with knowledge worth sharing. In the United States, there is often a trend to only give students the required knowledge and to expect them to move on. They addressed critical thinking and critical consciousness in their Kazakh classes, which is often missing from American education as well, they said.

“We’ve learned to accept the dominant views,” Spano said. “Critical thinking is vital. We tried to teach them to think differently, to develop critical consciousness. You have to become aware of what’s happening so you can address it.”

One example of expanding critical consciousness the faculty members point to is one of their class translators. A native Kazakh speaker, he has been part of the oppressed class throughout his life, yet when the word oppression came up in class, he was not familiar with it. Making people aware of societal and cultural issues from someone else’s perspective is important, but is not truly valuable unless one understands oneself as well. That lesson applies in classrooms all around the world, they said.

“We’re trying to prick their awareness of their own cultures and develop that critical consciousness,” Spano said. “How do you think about things? That’s what you take with you and that’s what an education should be.”

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