A casually dressed handsome man with an interesting hairstyle has extended his arm to greet me. We shake hands, and, instantly, his aura makes me feel very welcomed at AYB school. A few minutes later I get a feeling like I’ve known Aram Pakhchanian for a long time. As I listen to him talk, I think of my youth and how different my life would have turned out if I had been given the chance to go to such an amazing school back in the day.
I often hear kids complain that they are bored in class. Why do you think school is boring?
ARAM: I believe kids don’t understand what they do in the class and why. In the past kids felt they totally depend on adults and adults felt total responsibility for the kids, so their voice was not heard. Everything had to be like adults thought it should be, and any disobedience was treated as a subject of punishment.
Now things have changed dramatically; we are facing the future world which is very much vague both for kids and adults. Nobody knows what to prepare for, so kids are reasonably challenging our capacity of leading them. They very often find out that adults are missing some key skills to operate in certain circumstances, so very legitimately they challenge our dominance. They complain about classes being boring, they misbehave, drop out, or isolate themselves. We should understand that our key effort should not be in instructing them anymore, but instead coaching them. We should help them find their ways forward. Instead of preparing them for our past, we should help them prepare for their future.
Of course, there is an important heritage they have to carry with them, but we should find new and creative ways of making them trust the importance of that heritage and fall in love with it. When I say all this, I don’t mean that we don’t know how to do what we ought to do. It’s just that teachers in the classroom, as well as politicians that define our ways, are so accustomed to the past routine that it will take some effort to change their mindset. People that are in the frontiers of education know the answers.
Does school start too early?
ARAM: Schools have two roles and both are important. That’s the place where kids learn but it’s also the place where they are looked after when their parents are at work. So the question should be “if we all start working too early?” or “if we actually work too much?”. I believe we work too much. We as people should be able to improve our productivity to the level where we will work just a few hours a day. That’s quite achievable taking into account the recent developments in technology. So I hope in some 10-15 years we will have a more relaxed society with people spending more time together and less time in the offices.
As a former student in a number of institutions can you describe great instruction?
ARAM: Well, I tried above, but let me add some more thoughts. I believe the word “instruction” carries a meaning that has to be downplayed as much as possible which is why educators prefer using the term “education” in place of this. There are four key capacities in the modern world that education has to develop: skills, concepts, attitudes, and knowledge. Let me elaborate on each with a few words. Skills are clearly measurable and they are probably what our educational system has to ultimately measure. Some are more important than others and should be placed in the center of education, such as the ability to learn, critical thinking, reflection, communication, collaboration, etc. As for concepts: they are the most important outcome of learning per se. Concepts are much more universal than subjects, they are at the core of our thinking. Subjects have to be aligned to develop an understanding of concepts. We should definitely move towards concept-based subject learning. Attitudes define who we are, how we perceive the world, and how are we understood by others. Attitudes are based on our value system, our moral and ethical principles. And then comes knowledge, which is well overemphasized in the current educational system. Knowledge has to be there to support skills. It is impossible to grasp concepts, define and form proper attitudes without first collecting knowledge.
How can schools support a safe and effective school-wide learning environment?
ARAM: Schools have to be focused on becoming communities because only communities can sustain and value systems. Without them there will be no common ground for everybody in the school to have a mutual understanding of one another. When we have the right value system installed, it then creates the right environment where everybody is aligned around the same goals and share the same motivation. Schools are built around the moral purpose of education, and as I mentioned above, attitudes are a key part of education, so having the right environment at the school should be a priority.
How do you resolve a conflict between adults in your school?
ARAM: I don’t think conflict is necessarily a bad thing. Conflicts and the resolution to conflicts lead to change. However, it is very important to understand why people get into conflicts. If these are tensions about how to achieve our common goals, if the purpose is constructive, they get resolved through a decision-making system. That is what happens most of the time. If, however, the conflict is about personal issues or it was not meant to pursue the goals of the organization, then the manager or managers who are responsible for the particular department should take responsibility to help resolve the issue at hand.
What’s a good method to support the growth of staff members as professionals?
ARAM: The key competence at the school is teaching. That’s where there should be a working system at any school, which is very often referred to as CPD – continuous professional development. To support CPD with enough “fuel”, teachers need to become a learning community. Through its constant research in education, OECD came to the conclusion that modern schools have to be learning organizations, which means that everybody learns at all times in the school. Teachers and staff are no exceptions. Teachers should to constantly familiarize themselves with recent evidence and practice by reading papers. They should observe each other’s lessons and learn from each other while reflecting on their own practice. Education is changing at a dramatic pace. Its role is becoming more and more important, and many people say that teaching is becoming one of the most important professions for the future of the world. Teachers should understand the importance of their mission and take the issue of their skills and capacities very seriously.
These days everyone talks about different aspects of change in Armenia. I, personally, believe the most important should be the Department of Education. How would you work with the Department of Education to cultivate change?
ARAM: We were and are here to help our education system become one of the best in the world and we are willing to cooperate with anybody who shares the same goals. I really hope that the new government will take essential steps towards modernizations of our rather outdated education system. It is not an easy task: the majority of education reforms in the world has failed, even in very capable countries. Reforms in education could only happen if the educational community is supportive of them. This means that the core ideas have to be properly communicated and tried before they are implemented at a larger scale. Ayb is here to be the laboratory, source of ideas, and one of the key actors. I hope we will build a constructive and efficient relationship with the Ministry of Education and move forward. But it’s not only Ayb that has the capacity and experience: they are other very interesting, successful and experienced educational institutions in Armenia who are also willing to participate.
What is the most recent book/article/study you have read about professional development and what did you gain from it?
ARAM: Well, I am currently a student at UCL Institute of Education in London, which means I am constantly in professional development. I read tons of books and papers as a part of my learning process which are mostly about leadership in education. The most recent one is called “School Leadership and Education System Reform” edited by Peter Earley and Toby Greany. It includes a very well-selected collection of chapters related to different aspects of education reform. My takeaway is the model of reform based on horizontal networks of schools. That’s one thing that is almost nonexistent in Armenia, but with some of the most open-minded school leaders, we are currently in the process of building such a network. It is called the Alternative Education Support Alliance.
Mistakes are a vital part of our professional growth. Can you describe a mistake you have made and how you addressed it?
ARAM: Well, I have made many mistakes. I am above 50, so I had plenty of time for that. Most recently my major mistake was to underestimate the complexity of our school as an organization: for the sake to save money and keep the school agile I was trying to keep the management structure at the school horizontal. As result, I had more than 20 direct reports and teachers were basically all reporting to me as well. That would not be sustainable going forward. To help us improve our management and governance structure, we have invited Ian Craig, the professor of UCL Institute of Education, to advise us. His observations and recommendations laid the ground for our structural reform, and now we are much better managed.
If your life was a book, who would you trust to write it?
ARAM: My wife. She is the one person I fully trust. If she ever lied to me, I know it was because she cared about me.
How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful?
ARAM: Success is a point during the time when you sum up what you’ve done and you weigh the outcomes against your goals. In that sense, I can say I am sometimes successful. I don’t believe in success as a permanent thing. You may argue Steve Jobs was successful, but he was first phased out from Apple, and even when he was back and acted very successfully as a leader, he was unable to win his battle against cancer. Had he taken it seriously enough, he might have still been alive. So, was he successful or not?
Do you think the school principal should teach? If they should, why?
ARAM: The school principal should practice so-called “instructional” or “educational” leadership as one of their priorities. That’s the OECD finding based on vast research. This means that he/she has to be involved in how teaching is done at the school, has to observe lessons, be concerned about curriculum while having an interest in the students and their needs. If he/she has time beyond that, teaching is a perfect way to help do all I have just described.
How do you choose new teachers and staff members? Are you the person who conducts interviews?
ARAM: I don’t always conduct interviews myself, as I trust the senior leadership team members. If, however, at any time they would want my opinion, I will take part in interviews.
Any areas for improvement for AYB?
ARAM: There are many areas, more than I can list. Ayb School is in the constant improvement process, that’s one of our priorities. We are currently focused on middle school, as we see many challenges there. The middle school state curriculum in Armenia is especially bad, as it’s overloaded and is very knowledge-centric, requiring a vast amount of pure memorization. All these factors create serious challenges around student motivation and ultimately their happiness at the school. We need to address all these issues as fast as we can.
The relationship between teachers and students. Let’s talk about this.
ARAM: We are partners with our students. We have very direct and simple communication. Many of our students call me “comrade Aram”, and this “comrade” thing, which I don’t oppose at all, as words “comrade” and “friend” in Armenian are the same. They immediately drop that “comrade” part as soon as they graduate and then I just become their friend Aram. As people we are all equal, nobody has any extra privilege at the school. We work together for the common cause and that is the future of our country. That’s an amazing feeling: to be aligned with your students as to what we do and how.
What motivates you in work and life?
ARAM: I like helping people through my services. It brings me joy when due to what I do people live better, become better, and ultimately succeed. That’s why I decided to work in education and that’s why I take on the additional social responsibility as much as I can possibly carry. I truly enjoy meeting and learning from people throughout my life.
Photographic art by Ken Holden