Education and School Psychology in Northern Iraq’s Kurdish Region
A System Poised for Change

Amanda Clinton and Karwan Aref


International media coverage overwhelmingly portrays Iraq as a nation of violent conflict resulting from a combination of the presence of American-led coalition forces, an unstable interim government, and armed militias. What remains unseen and virtually unmentioned is the contagious optimism-charged energy pervading northern Iraq’s Kurdish region since the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which lasted over twenty years. The region of Kurdistan, now freed from the oppression that characterized the previous Iraqi government, is undergoing rapid and significant change across many realms, including education. Efforts are being made to shift from a rigid elementary and secondary-level instructional system based on teacher dissemination of information via hour-long lectures by “experts” to a more student-centered learning system in which children are actively involved in constructing knowledge. This article addresses these efforts at educational reform in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region and potential for the future development of school psychology.AmandaClinton_200807_1.JPG

The history of Kurdistan spans from ancient times to the present day. Currently, the Kurdish peoples inhabit the adjacent geographic regions of northern Iraq – the area discussed in the present article – as well as southern Turkey, eastern Syria, and western Iran. The Kurdish population in the Middle East is unknown, but the number of Kurds living in northern Iraq is estimated at 15-20% of Iraq’s total population, or approximately half a million persons. Kurdish, which is related to a sub-group of the Iranian language, is spoken in Kurdistan.

During Saddam Hussein’s regime from 1968 until 2003, Iraqi Kurds experienced violent oppression. As ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein established tight control over the Kurdish region. In 1988, Hussein committed the “Anfal” genocide campaign against the Kurds, mobilizing Iraqi troops in northern Iraq. Atrocities committed by Hussein’s troops included destruction and of thousands of Kurdish villages and the displacement of their residents into inadequate camps, as well as numerous cases of the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. Finally, approximately 182,000 Kurds were taken to remote sites and summarily executed.

In terms of education, Hussein attempted to repress the Kurdish culture by refusing to allow the study of the Kurdish language. Instead, Arabic was emphasized in the school system and children were not permitted to learn in Kurdish in government schools.

Thankfully, decades of suffering appear to have created a spirit of strength and resilience in Kurdish people, who are responding to the opportunity for change with palpable energy and optimism. Since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, Kurdistan has solidified its own government and encouraged economic and social progress, the latter including efforts to change the educational system.

Education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Although the Kurdish region is growing in terms of economic development, the educational system has evolved much more slowly. As a result, schooling remains highly traditional and oriented toward the system established by the Baath regime. Currently, children can attend preschool from 1 to 4 years of age, then begin kindergarten when they are 4 years old and study until the 12th grade. They typically study in two shifts, one group arriving at 8 a.m. and departing at 12:20 p.m. The second group arrives at 12:30 p.m. and studies until 4:45 p.m. The school week begins on Sunday and concludes on Thursday, since Friday is the Muslim holy day their weekend begins accordingly and includes Saturday.

At all levels of education, children remain in the same classroom during the school day. However, their teachers rotate by subject. Thus, a child would receive math from one instructor, who moves to another section of students at the end of their hour-long lesson, as another arrives to give classes in another topic, such as history. In effect, an elementary-aged child in primary grades may have as many as five teachers per day. Those of upper elementary grades typically receive classes from as many as six teachers per day.

Teaching methods tend to be oriented toward rote presentation of material by teachers. Typically, teachers walk around the classroom while reading their notes aloud. Some sit at a desk in front of the classroom to read their material. Students are expected to write down information presented verbatim – or near to - and to copy the images, equations or other details as they are presented on the chalkboard. Although this depends on the specific educator, interaction, even as basic as asking questions, between teacher and student is limited. Learning activities that engage the child in acquiring new information, such as interactive lessons or child-centered instruction, are rarely observed. A handful of exceptions to this style can be observed in projects aimed at educational reform, one of which is discussed below.

University-based teacher training programs focus on academic content and offer little or no guidance on methodology. Individuals who study to become teachers typically arrive at their required courses where their instructor sits in front of the room and reads aloud from a textbook. Topics include Arabic, religion, Kurdish, math, geography, and science such as physics, chemistry and biology. More recently, the Kurdish Ministry of Education has established teacher training courses, as has the University of Salahaddin in Erbil. These offer instruction on teaching methodology rather than exclusively on core content. Other universities in Duhok and Sulaimany endeavor to do the same.

KOMAK and the Future of Education in Kurdistan. The non-profit organization KOMAK (the meaning in Kurdish is multiple and includes help, backing, steady, support, prop, and sponsor) was founded in 1997 as a joint Swedish-Norwegian endeavor. KOMAK counts on the volunteer efforts of members, the majority of whom are Kurdish immigrants living in Scandinavia, including Norway and Sweden. KOMAK’s aims including supporting education and the development of democracy and a civil society in Kurdistan. Specific stated goals include eradicating illiteracy, improving education, working toward equality for men, women, and children and promoting justice. Current KOMAK projects in Kurdistan range from reorganizing schools and training teachers to the establishment of community centers for youth to civic activities such as establishing trash collection services training children and adults.

KOMAK has initiated an ambitious teacher training program that is designed to re-invent education in Kurdistan. Their schools provide teachers training in educational theory, methods and practice, as well as democratic, rather than punitive, behavior management. Additionally, KOMAK aims to establish schools that provide psychological services to children, including special education evaluation and placement as well as mental health interventions. These services are of particular import given the lack of opportunities for individuals with disabilities, as well as the significant psychosocial needs of children as a result of a repressive political regime followed by war trauma.

KOMAK schools are designed so that children have a single classroom teacher, rather than independent teachers who rotate from room to room and, therefore, rarely develop relationships with their students. KOMAK schools also include social skills and problem-solving training programs in addition to educational practices based on active learning and application of knowledge, rather than rote memorization. Furthermore, teachers are taught to establish clear classroom rules and to use reward systems to manage behavior rather than striking or humiliating students.

Psychology in the Schools. The educational system established by the Baath regime was one in which students had to pass each grade according to educational curricular standards. Otherwise, they repeat the grade. An elementary-aged child may repeat the same grade twice, at which time he is expelled from school. Effectively, the school system provides a report to the child’s parents in which they explain that their son or daughter is not capable of continued study. These children stay home and typically work. For example, a young boy who does not meet the minimum academic requirements to continue studying may help his father as a mechanic or a daughter could assist with shopping. Until the present, child labor has been very common in Iraq.

Children who experience sufficient success in the Kurdish educational system to reach high school can repeat the same grade twice from 9th-12th grades. If they fail after two attempts they cannot enroll in day classes but are permitted to study in night school, which is free of cost.

Educational options for children with disabilities remains limited. In three of Kurdistan’s largest cities – Erbil, Sulaimany and Duhok - private schools exist for children who are blind or deaf or severely impaired. In order to access these services, a specific medical report is required. Furthermore, parents must pay for transportation, which is often of great distance and significant cost. Students with learning disabilities stay in their local schools and are placed in a separate class. They remain at their indicated educational level (elementary, intermediate or high school) with the same teacher until aging out and, effectively, can no longer continue to study.

The opportunities and need for sensitizing classroom teachers in Kurdistan to the individual needs and differences of children is, clearly, great. As such, the aperture for training educators about topics in which school psychologists possess expertise is wide. Teachers and educational specialists, as well as coordinators from organizations such as KOMAK, are eager to learn more about behavior, learning and cognition, family-school partnerships, mental health issues and education, and special needs, among others.

Conclusions. At the present time, interest in improving education in Kurdistan is strong and its professionals are motivated for change. Organizations such as KOMAK recognize the importance of capturing this energy and enhancing learning for children in an effort to write a chapter in the country’s history that provides opportunities for all children to learn. Most certainly, school psychology will be a key factor in this process of educational growth.


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