This article explores foreign language education in Iran connecting to Iranian education history and some socio-political changes that occurred in Iran which brought some impact on education. Of course, it seems impossible to give a critical assessment of the Iranian education system which is beyond the scope of this paper; however, the article tries to provide some preliminary information about the educational system of Iran before the Islamic revolution in 1979 to provide a background for the post-revolutionary foreign language education. At the end, the problems of English as a foreign language (EFL) education in Iran will be discussed and some suggestions will be proposed.
Education has a long history in Iran. The documents from ancient Persia and the Achaemenes which date back to 550 BCE indicate that people were advised to acquire knowledge to understand the power of God and aide by his rules to achieve prosperity in both this world and the next. This religious orientation encouraged the governments to establish the first religious schools in specific areas and for government affiliates. Along with the expansion of education in the country, other schools were founded in residential areas for the middle-class. Although the schools mainly aimed at teaching religious principles, some other areas were also covered. They included political affairs, technical skills, military training and sports Davari Ardekani (2006). The first higher education centre, called Gundeshapour or Jondishapoor (currently a university with the same name in the south-western Iran) was founded in the third century. This place became a centre for some disciplines such as advanced medical and veterinary sciences, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, and technology and remained so for a long time (UNESCO documents,1995).
As Islam emerged in Saudi Arabia in the seventh century and it expanded to countries like Iran, education blended with Islamic values and there was considerable progress in many scientific areas. Modern education began with the Safavid Dynasty (1502-1736) and continued during the governments. The first European-modelled school, Darolfonoon (The Home of Vocational Skills) was established by the Prime Minister Amir Kabir in 1850 Britannica (2008). It was the source for the continuous progress and modernity in Iran Akrami (2004).
Based on this short chronology, modern education is relatively young in Iran. Apparently, the first modern school is no more than one-hundred-fifty years old. It is noteworthy to mention that the modernisation continued faster during Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979) with a systematic educational system developed by the ministry of education and implemented at public schools and some higher education centres and institutions (Farhady et al. 2010).
Public Education after the Islamic Revolution
After the Islamic revolution in 1979, Islamic values were implemented in the government’s infrastructure and almost all personnel were replaced. This led to bringing about new and sometimes inexperienced staff who were committed to bring about Islamic values in the education system as soon as possible. However, this reform could not be implemented due to the political, economic and social context of the country, especially the long-lasting war between Iran and Iraq.
Indeed, Islamic values were brought into the school which included segregation of males and females, Islamisation of textbooks, and observation of Islamic rules inside and outside of the school environment. Religious ceremonies were obliged at schools and students had to obey Islamic values (Secretariat of Education, 2006).
Foreign Language Education in Iran
Choosing which foreign language for teaching in the education system of a country is a matter of policy motivated by political, social, economic and educational factors. For example, when the first modern school in Iran was first established by a French priest in 1839, his main motive could have been religious though he claimed that he intended to promote modern sciences and French among Iranian community. French language gained a social prestige in the society and influenced the choice of foreign language teaching in the country, although this school was neither established nor managed by the government (Mahboubi Ardekani, 1975).
English spread out after the second world war and it reached to Iran too. Riazi (1995) says, ‘During the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979), close political, social, economic and military relationship between Iran and the US helped westernisation develop fast.’ Knowledge of English was an essential requirement for many job opportunities for the young generation.
Iran was conservative toward the bilingual and multilingual education system whereas countries such as Hong Kong, India, Japan and China had already responded positively to the issue of globalisation. One main reason was to keep national identity and unity among young school generation. This conservative view was even politicised after the Islamic Revolution due to the threat to Persian culture and Islamic values (Khubchandani, 2008). Moreover, later due to the political tensions between Iran and the US on one hand and the relationship between Iran and European countries on the other, the educational policy makers formulated teaching and learning in five other languages including German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian. However, due to insufficient number of teachers and low number of applicants for such languages, English continued to be the most dominant foreign language taught at high schools (Farhady et al, 2010).
Private schools and language institutes expanded after the public schools were closed due to the revolution. They continued to work under labels such as non-profit and promoted teaching English. They allocated time in the absence of English language teaching for elementary, junior and senior levels at education system (ibid). In the subsequent section, I will deal with the assessment system in public schools and universities.
Assessment of English at Public Schools
All assessment tools used in English are related to achievement test. At the junior high school, oral and written skills are treated as different subjects, and there are two separate scores on a scale of twenty. The oral exam includes memorisation of dialogues from the book, reading aloud test to assess pronunciation and intonation and short conversations in question and answer form based on the grammatical and functional points taught in the class. The written exam includes sections on spelling, vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension. There have been formative assessments too targeting the enhancement of students’ performance and progress on language components and skills. Teachers record the results in students’ educational files (Farhady et al., 2010).
The Central Office of Education is responsible for design, administration and scoring exams for grade eight which is the final year of the junior high school. But at grades six and seven, the local teachers should take care of the assessment (Secretariat of Higher Council of Education, 2006).
The assessment system of English at high schools is related to junior high school. There are some differences, for instance, teachers should give a diagnostic test at the beginning of each grade and several formative tests during the course. The diagnostic assessment aims to identify students’ weak points so that teachers can help their students. On the other hand, formative assessment aims to monitor active class participation, quality of student performance on assignments and informal assessments. There are 20 points allocated for the formative assessment related to activities like peer work, team work and outside-the-classroom projects. The scores are reported to school officials one week before the summative exam. The result is the combination of formative and summative assessment results. The summative exam is in the form of a written test. It tests vocabulary, grammar, spelling and reading comprehension. Speaking is assessed by making the students read the written text for pronunciation. Despite the mandatory nature of diagnostic and formative assessments for grades nine to eleven, teachers rarely use them due to lack of monitoring by the officials.
Local teachers at grades nine to ten are responsible for development, administration and scoring of written exams at private schools. But the final exam of grade eleven is prepared by language testing experts at Central Office of Educational Measurement and Evaluation. It is administered under the supervision of Central Offices of Education across the country. Because the test leads to the high school diploma, all necessary measures are taken into consideration by the Central Office of Educational Measurement and Evaluation to ensure test security and fair scoring of the test papers (Farhady et al., 2010).
Teaching and Assessment of English at Universities
There is usually a three-unit credit requirement for all university students of all majors. In addition to this general course, students may take up to four units of English for Specific Purpose (ESP) courses. The approach to teaching English at universities is translation-based. Because the main objective is to enable students of various majors read and understand materials written in English in their majors (Farhady et al., 2010).
The instructional materials at this level are prepared by an organisation called ‘Centre for Research and Development of Textbooks for University Students’ established in 1981. The English department at this organisation is responsible for preparing English textbooks for non-English majors.
Problems in Foreign Language Education and some Solutions
It seems that the major problem in foreign language education in Iran is a major change in the perception of educators regarding teaching, learning and assessment, but a concrete address to all these changes at the level of implementation in education requires much time. Moreover, these changes have brought dilemmas in the educational context. In addition, there is usually a large gap between the assumptions that the theory embodies and the real classroom practice. To be more specific, if there is a need to change instructional materials by a theory, it takes planning and time. Also, based on the effect of context of instruction, each environment has its own features. Every community has its own cultural and educational beliefs and it is managed by different people. Therefore, implementing the same theory in different contexts would require different procedures and yield different outcomes. Despite these differences, there are similarities regarding experience among members of communities; therefore, exchange of ideas among these communities would help them utilise successful strategies and avoid unusable ones (Farhady et al., 2010).
Language instruction in Iran is relatively seen successful as there is a huge amount of investment on teaching of foreign language in Iran. Research findings show that at junior high school level, where there are appropriate instruments for evaluation of learners’ language ability, they perform well above the ideal means of a sound educational system (Farhady, 2000).
Indeed, on the other hand, there is still a problem with the quality of teacher training programmes in the country. There are factors involved in language education that should be considered within the context of an educational community. To reach this, firstly, the community should feel responsible for the change from quantity-oriented to quality-oriented language education. It involves raising the culture of new trends for learners, teacher and parents, authorities and administrators. Secondly, the government need to feel responsible towards providing clear, practical and reasonable educational policies and support implementing them. This require funding, and quality personnel to achieve the change in the education system. Thirdly, teacher education centres should feel responsible for training teachers as the main sources of teacher education. They should promote practical ability of teachers in different contexts. Finally, universities should feel the responsibility to provide the future educators with a deep feeling of dedication, and commitment towards flourishing the nation. This requires a change in the concept of education in the country.
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*Mehdi Gholikhan is a postgraduate student in the University of Warwick. He has taught in different private and public language schools/ institutes/ organisations in Iran. During the past 2 years, he has been involved in designing and implementing an English course for Senior Managers in Iran. He was also responsible for an English Department at a private school in Tehran. He has successfully achieved his Certificate IV in TESOL form LTi, Australia back in 2013. He has also gained his ToT (Training of Trainers) Certificate form the British Council in 2015. He is currently a Hornby scholar at the University of Warwick.