TBY talks to Leman Çetin, Founder of International Small Hands Academy and Utopya Primary School, on revamping and revolutionizing the education sector by offering an alternative approach to children's learning.

Leman Çetin
Prior to founding the International Small Hands Academy and Utopya Primary School, Leman Çetin was an English teacher at both state and private schools. The first Small Hands Academy was opened in 1996, and the second and third were opened in 1998 and 1999. She then went on to establish Utopya Primary school in 2007. She received her degree from Anadolu University.

Small Hands was founded in 1996 as a pre-school and kindergarten for children from two to six years old. What was your aim when founding the school?

My daughter attended a nursery school in England, and when we returned to Turkey I was so disappointed with the system. The educational system in Turkey is teacher-centered. The teacher talks and, sometimes, if the children are lucky, they can participate. Therefore I opened a school for my needs as a mother, but soon other mothers insisted that I open other centers. Now there are three Small Hands campuses, two of them on the European side of Istanbul, one on the Asian side, plus our Utopya Primary School with a kindergarten also on the Asia side of the city.

Can you tell us about Small Hands' nature concept?

The new generation doesn't have a chance to experience nature, especially children that live in the city. I believe the school plays a big role in the children's lives. Children have emotional and personal needs as well as educational needs. As educators, our job should be to cover a child's educational as well as developmental needs. However, society has changed dramatically, especially with the development of technology. Modern families have started living differently; children are loved in their family, but are isolated because parents come home late or when they come home they are tired and unable to engage. A school cannot be an ordinary, traditional school anymore. We try to give them as many real experiences as possible, especially with nature, and encourage them to do everything using their five senses. We also encourage them to be more independent and autonomous so they can be self-confident in the future. We learned about the nature education system in 2010 and implemented it. We have the same system for each school, but since each child has individual needs, we have to introduce different techniques and policies.

How revolutionary is this approach in Turkey?

Skills for the 21st century need to be established in children's lives. They need to see what the big picture is, and what kind of future is waiting for them. We look at what children might need. According to research, the neuron connections in a child's brain can be different depending on stimulation, real life experience, and the use of their five senses. Children need to be looked after, but they also need to have connections—everyone needs to network. The educational system in Turkey is related to the culture; teachers who are educated under the current dominant mentality are completely teacher centered. This affects education. Small Hands and Utopya are completely opposed to this.

How challenging is it to recruit teachers that are qualified and have language skills in Istanbul?

It is very difficult. We have American, Australian, English, German, Swiss, Danish, Japanese, Finnish, and Turkish staff. Our first criterion requires that our teachers enjoy working with children. The good thing about foreign teachers is that they don't do jobs that they don't like. Thereafter we look at their qualifications and their world view as we wish to employ those who have a big vision and see the big picture. We also need teachers that can build good relationships with the parents.

Can you tell us more about the congresses you organize?

We love to share our knowledge and to learn about other people's ideas and that's the reason we hold conferences and congresses. To date, five international congresses have taken place, which have been organized by Small Hands and Utopya. The topic is always “High Quality Early Childhood and Primary Education" and additional subjects are included in the program, such as different educational systems from different countries, philosophizing with children, nature education, individualized learning and brain based education, bilingualism, foreign language learning from a very early age, teaching 21st century skills, and many more. The aim is to make people aware and improve children's education for the better. These congresses help teachers who have a vision and those who will also continue with their own research.