Unlearning slips of the past, earning tomorrow’s success

September 24, 2011
As the colors of autumn begin to fall playfully over the city, the desire to grow and not sit still stirs within. In fact Persian poetry and fiction is replete with the theme of the fall, its melancholic sunsets and the familiar feeling of nostalgia. Perhaps it is for the best that schools start in this season and the energy of ever curious young minds is to some extent channeled in a hopeful direction. 
Students get busy with preparation. Text books are purchased and uniforms are stitched. Pencils and erasers come out of the box and with them, an urge to make an effort and a chance for re-correction. Television and radio broadcast popular songs like “Hamshagerdi Salam” (greetings fellow classmate) celebrating the reopening of schools. The whiff of fresh print and the sound of blank paper are in the air. The first primary school in Iran was actually founded in 1896 in the city of Tabriz by Mirza Hasan Roshdieh. After that many schools in with the name of Roshdieh were opened in Tehran. Today, children enter school at the age of six and primary schooling until 5th grade is free and mandatory. If the child’s birthday falls in the second half of the Persian calendar and his 6 years is not complete, he would be enrolled for the next academic year. In order to avoid this small gap in sending their kids to school, some families register the birth date of their children accordingly. Most families send their kids to aamaadegi (pre-school) which is optional. During the one year period, children are somehow familiarized with an educational environment and get some ideas on how school would be. There are no exams in this period. 
In Iran, the 12 years of school are divided into three phases. The elementary school cycle covers first to fifth grade. At the end of each year, they have to pass a final examination in order to be promoted to the next level. Students in the 5th grade take a nationwide exam as it marks the end of one educational sequence. Those who pass the emtehan nahaei (final exam) can get to the next stage which is called rahnamaei (literally meaning, guidance or orientation), an equivalent for middle school in other countries. Middle school is a period of three years and it covers grades 6-8 for students aged 11 to 13 years old. During this period, students are educated on general subjects but gradually, their capabilities and interest start to show and with the help of their parents, teachers, and school counselor; they are able to prepare themselves and decide what branch of study to pursue in the next cycle. At the end of this cycle, students take a regional final examination which is supervised and graded by the educational board of each province. After passing the exam, students can go to the next important stage. 
Dabirestan (high school) is a four-year cycle and it covers grades 9-12 for students aged 14-17. The first three years are actually considered high school after which the students graduate with a diploma. The last year is called pishdaneshgahi (pre-university). A high school and a pre-university are necessary for those who want take the national university entrance exam. In this cycle, education is divided into two main branches: nazari (theoretical) and fanniherfeh-ei (technical/vocational). The theoretical branch also known as the academic/general branch is divided into three mainstreams: mathematics and physics, experimental sciences, literature and the humanities. The technical branch is divided into two mainstreams: karvadanesh (vocation and skill) and fanniherfeh-ei (technical studies). In this branch students primarily focus on training for the labor market. A typical school day in Iran can begin as early as 7:30 in the morning. In the schoolyard, students get into different rows regimented by grades. A few verses of the Quran are recited, a morning prayer is chanted and sometimes poetry is read through the microphone, usually by fellow students while others listen. After the ceremonious morning, students attend classes for the day. Due to the large student population in some areas schools work in two shifts. After the Islamic Revolution and Islamization of educational institutions, the previous gender gap in school enrollment gradually decreased. This was partly because with the advent of new Islamic rules even highly religious and traditional families opened up to the idea of sending their daughters to school. In fact, Iran has the highest female to male ratio at primary level of enrollment in the world among sovereign nations, with a girl to boy ratio of 1.22: 1.00. Presently the ratio of women to men in the academics is 60 to 40 percent. Schools open after the 12 weeks of summer vacation in late September until middle of June. There is also a two weeks holiday in spring with the Persian New Year. Additionally, there are lots of religious holidays during the year.
But for now we must deal with the framed tension of autumn in our minds and its curious desire to expand as the warm luxury of summer goes out of our skin. More importantly, we must prepare for the school of possibilities in life so that we become close readers of our very own deeds as we unlearn the rigid dogmas of the past, cherish the lessons of the present and earn the unique shades and new colors of our horizon.

Electronic wisdom and intelligent schools in Iran 

Technology has not only changed the composition of the face of our day-to-day but has also altered our definition of life and point of view. 
Now, thanks to modern technology and its ever rapid development, an intelligent school is not where only smart students are admitted and educated but rather an environment where children actually become intelligent. 
In fact, a good school is one that harmonizes its function with the current demands and values of the society.
Presently 800 schools have become intelligent in the province of Tehran and the government plans to encompass all others within the next two years. 
The main feature of an intelligent school is that the individuality of each student is technically but creatively integrated into the school’s educational system. Here, students are not only exposed to information but also have the chance to actually experience most of what they learn. 
Classrooms are no longer arranged in the conventional way. Students sit around a round table facing each other and the teacher. Classroom discussions and interaction are a priority.  
In an intelligent school in Tehran, each student has an entrance card and as soon as they get inside, a message is sent to the cellphone of their parents indicating that their kid has arrived at school. 
In the classroom, the teacher uses a monitor screen as the black or white board. The computers on the desk of each student are a substitute for paper and a CD is the new notebook where homework gets done and is submitted.
There are even e-libraries where students can have instant access to books even at home. The system also helps the school to keep a record of every book and its reader. 
Moreover, parents can also check the school’s website and get the latest updates about their children’s performance in school. By logging into an account, a parent whether at home or office, can instantly know what topics have been taught to the children until what day and what hour. 
These reports are posted daily by the instructors. Parents no longer need to go to school in person to be in touch with the teachers and staff.
All teachers are specially trained to teach in this particular ambiance. In fact, teachers are present to guide the students through the process of learning rather than just teach.

Same purpose, different paths

Like everything else that is classified by the ever categorizing human hand, Iranian schools also fall under two groups: state (dolati) and private (gheyr-e-entefaei). According to the Iranian constitution, elementary education is free and even compulsory (up to the age of 11). There are of course private schools even at the primary level, particularly in the capital city of Tehran. 
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Cultural Revolution in 1980, Islamic values were integrated into the education system. There are no coed schools in Iran at any level and boys and girls attend different schools. Girls wear a uniform of roopoosh (manteaux), shalvar (trousers) and maghnaeh (headscarf) which come in different colors. Most boy schools do not have a specific uniform except at the primary level. Students are expected, however, to wear modest outfits.
Whether public or private, all schools are under the direct supervision and control of the Ministry of Education which was actually established in 1964. Educational planning, financing, administration, curriculum, teacher training, grading, examinations and even textbook planning are the responsibilities of the ministry. 
The urge to enter private schools mostly comes into the picture at the high school level, because high school years play an important role in one’s chance of entering a good university. 
Admission to university in Iran is highly competitive and is achieved through a nationwide examination known as konkoor (national university entrance exam). Approximately 6% of upper secondary institutions are private. So, even if families cannot afford private schools at all levels of education, they prefer to invest more during the last years of high school and the pre-university course. In fact, there are many private institutions dedicated to assisting students and preparing them for the university exam. To maximize their chances of entering a state university, high school students start attending extra classes and taking mock tests when they register at these institutions. Konkoor institutions are an ever growing trend and business in Iran. 
Additionally, there are also schools for highly gifted children supervised by the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET). Admission to these schools is also competitive and based on an entrance test. Sometimes, depending on the financial status of the students, the fee is partially or fully waived off. The quality of education is almost the same as private school; however, some of their course may be more advanced than regular schools.

First day of school, lifelong impressions

The first day at school is remembered almost by everyone because the human mind has an inevitable tendency to stereotype on first impressions. Also it is the day when the world of pen and paper gradually begins to grow into the fading realm of dolls and toys. Children are separated from their families, perhaps the first time and for a longer duration. The first day of school is perhaps a tiny step on the path of emotional growth and independence. 
In Iran, a day is dedicated to first graders. Almost a week before schools officially open, prospective students participate in an event known as jashn-e- shookoofeh-haa (Literally, festival of blossoms, kids who are in a budding age). The event is centered on ceremoniously introducing kids to the school environment and making them feel comfortable. 
During the festival music is played, songs are sung in choirs and kids get to know each other in small group activities. The children are usually given a flower, gifts like notebooks, pens and other stationery. The event officially and simultaneously begins at schools across the country when the minister of education rings the chime in one of the schools of the capital city, Tehran. Another festival that is held during the first week of school is jashn-e-atefeh-ha (literally, festival of affections, love and sharing). During these days, stations are set up across the city and people offer their donation in cash and in kind to financially challenged students.

Facts

 Schools officially open on the first of Mehr (23rd of September), the seventh month in the Persian calendar and the first month of autumn. Sometimes certain schools announce their opening a few days earlier or later than this, but schools across the country officially start on the date that is announced by the Ministry of Education.
 The first day of the week in the Iranian calendar is Saturday. Thursday and Friday are weekends. Some schools work part time on Thursday. 
 Previously the academic year in Iranian schools was of a trimester system. Presently most schools have adopted the semester system. 
 This year about 13 million students aged between 6-18 years will attend school. About 1,100,000 of them are in the first grade. There are over 900,000 teachers employed by the Ministry of Education.
 As of 2010, total adult literacy rate is 89.1% with female adult literacy rated as high as 87.7% and a male literacy of 90.5%.
 All students across the country study the same textbooks and all schools follow the same national curriculum. 
 The medium of instruction in Iran is of course Persian (farsi). Arabic is introduced at an early age when kids are taught to recite some verses and small chapters of the Quran, however, it is not formally taught until middle school.
 According to the law, education at all school levels is free in state schools. Attending a private school is by preference. 
 English is officially included in the curriculum during middle school (at the age of 11). Presently, most private schools offer a separate English language program at the elementary level. Learning English as a second language is a huge trend and there are many language schools and institutions in Iran where students learn English as an extra-curricular activity.  
 Grading system is based on 20 and the passing grade is 10.

A Small school with great ambitions 

The world’s smallest school is situated in the tiny village of Kalou, 180 Kilometers from Bushehr, south Iran. Shahid Rajaei elementary school actually became famous when a young soldier was stationed in the village as a teacher. Abdol Mohammad Sha’raani who is barely 25 is an enthusiastic and visionary teacher to only four students, two boys and two girls all of whom are in different grades. His challenge is to keep all of them busy simultaneously with their respective lessons and assignments for each school day. Presently the village has a population of less than 40 people (seven families) and most of the kids are not of school age. Sha’raani writes a blog in Persian about his experiences in Kalou and the school. It was through this blog that the world got to know about his efforts and eventually the school was recognized by the UNESCO. Sha’raani has so far raised money for development of Shahid Rajaei by holding photo exhibitions of his school and publishing a story collection about his experiences.