Alternative education in the Bulgarian school system

By Maggie Nazer

Maggie in High SchoolI learned to read at the age of 5 and eagerly wanted to start school. I entered the Bulgarian educational system at 7 and some thirteen years later I am happy I got out of it alive and somewhat sane. I hated school. I was always the brightest in class; my teachers needed someone to point to as an example but my classmates couldn’t quite stand it. Bullied and isolated, I came back from school crying every day for almost two years, before I conformed to my peer’s pressure not to stand out, all in attempt to bring myself happiness. I desperately wanted to be like everyone else. My lack of success in being likeable, combined with years of being imprisoned in school, naturally brought the thought of suicide. By the time I was sophomore in one of the most elite high schools in Bulgaria, school just stopped having any importance whatsoever. My classmates were unmotivated, my teachers even more so, school held no attractiveness, offered no stimulation. And while my mom would not let me be homeschooled because of the social conventions, I played along, changing the rules. Working at 15, running a charity and travelling internationally almost every month throughout tenth grade, I was compelled not to let the educational system ruin me. My grades were still among the best, and drinking beer at 10a.m. was not an option anymore. As I learned and involved myself in various non-formal education workshops and projects I once again experienced the joy of learning and dove into the excitement of actively pursuing self-development.

Poor neighborhood schools and elite High Schools in Bulgaria are alike in what they do the best: skillfully alienating and demotivating students. Evidently, formal education needs to be transformed to better suit the needs of students, engage and empower them through the incorporation of alternative education and non-formal education practices. The now popular Bulgarian alternative method of education, called Suggestopedia, in addition to my own experience of using non-formal education instruments to teach at a school in Bulgaria, serve as examples of how non-standard methods of education can revolutionize the school system in Bulgaria.

superlearning-2gSuggestopedia is a revolutionary method of teaching developed in the 1970s by the Bulgarian educator and psychiatrist Georgi Lozanov. Considered by UNESCO experts a “generally superior teaching method compared to traditional methods[1]”, the introduction of suggestopedia and the science of suggestion- suggestology, triggered a movement in Western Europe which emphasized the need for developing better methods for accelerated learning, and stimulation of the manifestation of man’s reserve capacities. The main tool of the educational-curative process is suggestion- a psychological process of light hypnosis or influence, invoked by the creation of a stimulating and engaging educational atmosphere. In his statement to the UNESCO committee Georgi Lozanov elaborates on the nature of existing educational methods, claiming that “all the methods so far developed are in conformity with the norms accepted by society that man’s capacities are limited”[2]. Contrasting to this assumption is Lozanov’s attempt to desuggest, or liberate, his students from this social norm and the fear and aversion of studying.    Positive suggestion is, therefore, introduced through the creation of a comforting environment and use of relaxing music, emotional stimulation via dramatic readings, role plays, and vocabulary games. While stimulating and humanizing the learning process through its emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual’s processes of self-development, suggestopedia does not “add burden” to the neurological system. The principles of “joy, lack of tension, and concentrative psycho-relaxation,” engage pupils on an emotional level- a trait shamelessly missing in the formal education system. Meanwhile, the “unity of the conscious-unconscious and integral brain activation” establishes a more holistic attitude towards learning as it utilizes both conscious and paraconscious activity, and incorporates all aspects of the Self: body, mind and soul.

DE-SUGGESTIVE_PRINCIPLES  Lozanov’s extensive educational work and research make him aware of the critical challenges schooling faces: “Instead of creating conditions for the joyous satisfaction of the personality’s basic need- the thirst for information, and instead of bearing in mind the brain functions, teachers often seem to want to “teach the brain how to work” [3]. In his attempts to resolve these problems he has become an advocate for spontaneous learning, simultaneous activation of “emotional and motivational complex, the image thinking and logical abstraction[4]”, holistic study of elements as invoked through suggestion or autosuggestion.

As a result, students who undergo suggestopedic language training manifest creative superproductivity and increase in memorization power; reveal their personal reserve capacities; and develop self-observation, and self-soothing skills. Introducing children and teenagers to suggestopedia or even incorporating it in the curriculum for foreign language study has already proved to be extremely successful. The suggestopedic values of bringing joy, giving freedom to creativity, spontaneity and personal expression, and appreciating human potential should indeed be prioritized in the school system, as they can transform the experiences of and relationships among students, teachers, parents, and thus the whole society.

Another example which illustrates the benefits of the integration of various methods of informal or alternative education in the school curriculum is my own experience of teaching students. Due to my extensive experience and training in the creation of programs and content to educate young people on different topics through the instruments of non-formal education, I got approved to teach two semester-long non-graded classes as a part of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Education program to integrate informal education in the classroom. Thus, twice per week I met with my two student groups. I did Dance therapy and Multiculturalism classes.

My Dance Therapy class consisted of fifteen lively, lovely and extremely loud and full of energy second graders. The program featured workshops exploring movement through various dance improvisation exercises. Aiming to establish trust between students, reduce stress and overcome barriers in communication caused by prejudices towards children from the minorities, I used dance to transform their energy and guide it towards positive social actions and creativity, thus decreasing the violent outbursts among the students. Very satisfactory was the student’s positive reaction towards group discussions, in which they shared interesting insights. For instance, once during a discussion following a set of movement and touch exercises, an 8-year-old girl expressed the fear she felt and her conscious decision to trust that “the other will be nice to you” which struck me with its profound meaning and clarity.

My Multiculturalism class was a mixture of 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. Teenagers at the edge of their confusion, mistrust, and lack of direction. As I stepped into the classroom and told them about myself and the program we were to have, they refused to believe it. Separated only by the mere gap of five years, we instantly immersed ourselves in a process of constant challenging and learning from one another.

Speaking English in class was as exciting for some as difficult and troublesome for others. The principal of the school put some of the most difficult students in my group just so that there would be sufficient number of students as, in general, students in Bulgaria are raised to lack initiative and engagement. Nobody expected anything from me, yet soon, I started bringing foreigners to the little school, setting up presentations about Algeria, Mexico, UK, and Morocco and attracting even students who weren’t initially in the group. A graduate from my high school who knew thirty-five languages came to give a presentation on learning languages, but rather than speaking to the students, he let them ask him questions. The conversation continued for three hours and everyone listened with full attention.

While some of the boys in the group were quite hard to handle, being open and authentic were my strongest instruments. Once one of these clever, but lazy and untrusting boys tried to challenge me and asked me why I came to work with students who are ill-behaved and careless. Speaking from my heart, I told him that I believe in the good nature of people and in their potential and that many times it is not that people are bad, but rather they wear masks of negativity either to protect themselves, or to call for attention. All of the boys were listening quietly and I was sure they all understood.

Yet, I wasn’t the only one to teach. There was a girl I let to join us even though she had not signed up for the class. She often distracted the boys and didn’t seem much interested in our activities. On one of the first trips we had, I decided to not take her with us so that the boys would be more concentrated. “I cannot help everyone”- I thought, just as almost any other teacher. My not letting her join the trip turned out to be a decision with consequences: the two boys that I spent so much effort to engage decided not to come to class anymore. I apologized to them, thus not only learning a lesson myself, but also showing them what the right thing to do is when you are wrong.

By watching short movies, learning how to give presentations, participating in fun educational exercises and, most importantly, sharing opinions and learning from each other, my students grew to engage learning. As I shared stories and inspired them to be open-minded, respectful and aware of their stereotypes, I pushed them to dream. To be self-responsible, create and reach out to the opportunities for learning. Two years later, there are still some of them who message me on Facebook saying that I have “ shown” them “that no matter who you are, you always mean something”, [5]that “we all change the World, every day… In many ways…”

Six months spent at a small school in Kostinbrod- a town some 15 kilometers from Sofia- proved to be transformational. Challenged to the extremes- having to hitchhike to get back home and remain positive in times when all felt meaningless, yet being able to follow closely the progress of my students and their exciting journeys towards self-discovery, I came to realize theurgent need to educate students in a fresh, stimulating way to help them manifest their talents, interests and exciting personalities. Non-formal education methods, in addition to the genuine love and care for students are, indeed, powerful tools which have the potential to transform not only the educational system, but the society as a whole.

Doubtlessly, there is much to change in the process of schooling in Bulgaria. However, practices as Georgi Lozanov’s Suggestopedia which is now quite popular and spreading across the country, and the Ministry of Education’s program allowing young people with different expertise to go into schools with fresh ideas and tools, showing the inspiring progress that is being made with the inclusion of non-standard educational practices and educators from different backgrounds.

[1] UNESCO Final Report on Suggestopedia from 1978

[2] UNESCO Suggestology and Suggestopedia- Theory and practice, Paris, November, 1978

[3] UNESCO Suggestology and Suggestopedia- Theory and practice, Paris, November, 1978, p. 23

[4] UNESCO Suggestology and Suggestopedia- Theory and practice, Paris, November, 1978, p.24

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