Latinising the Kazakh script: A necessary step to reclaim identity

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 15.45.15Latinisation of the Kazakh alphabet is well under way.  The President has signed the Law; a working version of the new script has been approved; and responsible state agencies have been appointed.  However, the reform continues to generate heated debates in the media, on social networks, and in the old-fashioned offline (kitchen) conversations.  This is no surprise, as the rationales for the policy that are often voiced by officials and the majority of experts are vague and superficial: for example, Latinisation will help students learn English (my knowledge of the Latin script did not help me learn German); Cyrillic has too many unnecessary letters (well, get rid of them—no need to change the whole set); the Latin script will promote the integration of Kazakhstan into the globalised information space (but unifying alphabets will not make Kazakh and English mutually intelligible).  They seem to avoid the real reasons for the reform, which are largely ideological, and thus fail to convince people in its necessity and garner genuine public support instead of the usual compliance with top-down initiatives.  But if we look back at the recent history of alphabets in Kazakhstan (Latinisation in the late 1920s and Russification that followed just over a decade later), we will see why it is essential that the Kazakh script be re-Latinised, or, more importantly de-Russified. Continue reading Latinising the Kazakh script: A necessary step to reclaim identity

Equal opportunities for all of the university admissions

Doesn’t the phrase “equal opportunities” sound so appealing especially for disadvantaged sectors of society? Meaning well, leading world universities offer equal opportunities for all students despite their backgrounds and sometimes “equality” can be opposed to “fairness” in university admissions. Providing equal opportunities for students does not guarantee that they will be fairly selected while dividing available places between students of different backgrounds to make sure the places are equally distributed can deprive students from better schools of opportunities. 


A recent article on university admissions talks about the matter of “equal opportunities”  in Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK. These universities are known to be one of the best universities in the world with the brightest students. Admission process and criteria are also way above other regular universities so not anyone can pass, and normally those who pass already have necessary credentials. Of course, universities who accept students from best schools may be criticised for being biased and discriminative against disadvantaged students. In order to have an equal proportion of students from different backgrounds, the universities start accepting students who more or less qualify to study to give hope to people that there is “fairness” in the society and all of us have “equal opportunities”. A business dictionary defines equal opportunities as “principle of non-discrimination which emphasizes that opportunities in education, employment, advancement, benefits and resource distribution, and other areas should be freely available to all citizens irrespective of their age, race, sex, religion, political association, ethnic origin, or any other individual or group characteristic unrelated to ability, performance, and qualification” (Ramsey, 2017). The emphasis here is at the word opportunities, it means that universities have to give a fair chance to all the application despite their backgrounds, both educational and financial, but when choosing the ones who truly deserve to study there all aspects except for skills should be put aside. The article states that in selecting applicants it is “better to look individually, to pool information about bright youngsters who have been attracted to (or encouraged towards) widening-access schemes (this by the way is a genuinely simple and great idea) and to spend time on individuals, rather than on algorithms” (Ramsey, 2017). It seems to be a good strategy, and though it is much work universities need capable students so they should not neglect any way to find jewels.

A good intention of universities to provide equal opportunities for all students is commendable, but the process of selection should be fair. Still, it is difficult to define what is “fair” to students who are not at fault for having fewer credentials than other more advantaged students. Taking away opportunities from students form better schools in order to give places to less advantaged students is not the best example of “fairness”. What do you think? How to make sure that students have equal opportunities and fair selection?


Ramsey, C. (2017, November 2). University admissions: ‘equal opportunity’ should not mean punishing pupils from good schools. Retrieved from

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Want to find a way? Keep asking questions.

"I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other; 
but the great question is, what?"
Lewis Carroll (1865), “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

“That is a very good question!” the phrase we hear in response and the phrase that, due to my current research interest, recently has started attracting my attention. While my research is on questions asked by teachers in class, thinking about the ways and reasons for query is a skill that can guide every student when reading, listening, and working on a research project. Unlike other posts of mine, this one is not aimed at building or proposing an argument, rather giving a recommendation, as some resources related to my project, ultimately, can be of relevance for those involved in research in general.

The significance of asking questions was acknowledged long before our century. The works by Plato appraised Socrates’s teaching skills to use questions to guide learners in solving some geometric problems. Similar technique, recognized now as “Socratic method”, used (we know from Plato) to interrogate his opponents in public debates on moral principles. He was acting as a person knowing a little about the issue and constantly responding with questions. The Socratic method is, basically, asking a person, you are in dialogue with, a series of questions and follow up questions (Stenning et al., 2016). This can be very frustrating, for both, the person asking and the person answering the question: even a few questions might reveal that you do not know much about the topic. However, the realization that you may be lacking some knowledge on the area of your interest can be motivating for learning it deeper. Thus, ask as many possible question on your topic before you arrive at the most important one.

Once, you are clear with what you are going to research, you have two option to lead you through the process: “the sponge” and “panning for gold” principles (Browne & Keeley, 2007, p. 3). While the first is passive in nature, the second is more engaging and involves asking questions. I think you would prefer positioning yourself as active learners. Browne & Keeley (2007) suggest “[t]o make this choice, you must read with a special attitude—a question asking attitude…The writer is trying to speak to you, and you should try to talk back to him, even though he is not present” (Browne & Keeley, 2007, p. 4). This means asking every single material questions, such as, What is my conclusion? Why would I believe in what someone is trying to convince me? Posing questions to yourself leads to better understanding the topic and providing further directions for your work.

To conclude, the readings suggest that there are no right or wrong questions and there are no bad and good answers, as long as they are related to your topic. Keep asking questions and, more importantly, looking for the answers. This strategy will help you in making right decisions for your project.

Browne, M. N., & Keeley, S. M. (2007). Asking the right questions: a guide to critical thinking (8th ed.).  New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.



A note on keynote speakers @ NIS Con


(This photo is not actually from the NIS Conference; it’s Nick Clegg not engaging with his audience at the UK LibDem’s 2014 Conference. Source: Guido Fawkes)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a conference. I wasn’t fortunate to attend too many presentations, but I caught the main plenary sessions with distinguished guests from abroad. I felt quite impressed while I was there, and this impression probably lasted a few days. But if you asked me now, I wouldn’t be able to say what was so good about it. The glossy building… Big fancy ideas… Flashy slide shows and yellow socks… Was I fooled into believing that something important was taking place? I think I was. I think a good chance for an important and meaningful conversation about the state of education was wasted on what essentially amounted to a marketing campaign for NIS itself and the keynote speakers.

Continue reading A note on keynote speakers @ NIS Con

Integration without humiliation?

The United States has been tarred from its very inception by the sin of racism.  Although progress has undoubtedly been made in reducing the injustices toward Black people , and expanding their rights, it seems that this progress has slowed down in the past few decades.  The great leap forward that was the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s has been followed by a long period of stagnation and even reversal of some of its most important achievements.

One such achievement – the desegregation of schools – or, rather, attempts to repeat this achievement today, is the subject of a two-part This American Life podcast series.  While it is impossible to argue with the authors of the programme that school integration is extremely beneficial and is indeed the way forward in building a more equitable and just society, there was something in the way they framed the issue that left me a bit uneasy about the whole thing.  And I am not sure how to resolve it.  But let me first briefly recap the podcast itself. Continue reading Integration without humiliation?

Life without words

Words Season 8, Episode 2 by Radiolab

If you somehow skipped Episode Words on Radiolab, do find time in your busy schedule to listen to this interesting discussion. It is an nice synthesis of life experiences of different people brought together to discuss what words mean and what it is to live without words. Although the creators seem to inform listeners (they present accurate information in a descriptive way), the podcast is not only informative, but enjoyable as well. It is difficult to tell what attracts you most in this episode:  how the stories are presented, the stories themselves, speakers’ ideas regarding the meaning of language, or the combination of all three. Anyway, the conversation is not tied to any language theories and is easy to follow and understand.

The conversation starts with an incredible story of Susan Schaller who, like many of us, never thought of how it feels to be born deaf and live in a world without words, until she met a 27-year-old man and started to teach him the first words in his life. This moving story, which she later extended to a book, describes her understanding of how life changes once we realize that “everything has a name”. But let us leave this story on its own. Its goal here to pose a question, “What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols?” and the answer given is “thinking”. This idea sets the tone to the rest of the discussion.

Words are important for thinking, namely, for sharing thinking. The blog speakers report on how they arrived at understanding that. Neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor describess her perceptions of life without language, during recovering period after a stroke, as “peace”, solely physical experience, not connected to memories. Not diminishing the role of language for communication, she argues that by using language we become devoid of experiencing it. This is more clear on the example of Ann Senghasa, a  professor who spent 30 years understanding the language of 50 deaf children, who were not taught sign language. Put together, the children started creating a language from their own experience and eventually demonstrated more intelligence than older learners who were instructed in signs. Her central claim is that we build language to live in a community. James Shapiro, the Shakespeare Scholar, makes interesting contribution to the discussion. He enters the conversation explaining that Shakespeare created words for unnamed images and emotions that people had already experienced. He combined words different in meaning to label notions, which were easily understood by spectators and readers. Overall, the conversation explains that words are tools used to convey the concepts, feeling and actions we already experience.  Once we grasp them, we start connecting notions, then reflect on our understanding, exchange them within our communities; and this what thinking is.

The idea of the role of language for communication and thinking, raised in the podcast, is not new. However, fueled by its examples of people using gestures, mimes and whole bodies to share experiences, for a second I imagined us, instead of using words or signs, acting out notions to communicate. What would our life be like? Would we be different? More creative? Less thoughtful may be? Of course, we can turn to the dawn of human evolution for the answer. Still… Use your imagination and share in comments on what you see.

P. S. The video is inspired by Words, radiolab


Is form the new substance?

I have been thinking recently of the importance of packaging.  You go to the supermarket to buy, say, a detergent.  You look at the great variety of products in colourful boxes and, accordingly, the wide range of prices, and think: this is just a detergent, why make so many different kinds?  But on a closer inspection you find out that it is in fact one and the same product, made by the same company, almost certainly at the same factory in Turkey, with slightly varying smells, but sold under different brands, in highly distinctive packages, and for wildly diverging prices.  So what am I buying here?  The box with a brand name?  Continue reading Is form the new substance?

Critical Thinking vs Languages

What is more important for Kazakhstani students nowadays: mastering the three languages or developing critical thinking? The more I hear popularizing the former, the more confident I become in the latter. In the era of information availability the skill to differentiate facts from opinions, not accepting things without challenging them and “arriv[ing] at the truth” after careful examining the information (Wood, 2002) is more valuable than learning several languages and “arrive at” being multilingual.

From 1956, when critical thinking started attracting educators’ attention, many scholarly works on what CT is and the role of developing CT in education have emerged. Bloom (1956); Ennis (1987); Kennedy, 1991; Kuhn (1999); Mayer, R. E. (1983); Wood, R. (2002);  Paul, 1993; Nickerson, 1987 are only a short list of those who espouse CT as the school policies’ main focus (as cited in Mansoor  & Samaneh, 2014).  Despite, the model of education as global marketing workforce supplier in some countries underestimates the role of CT in mother tongue. Moreover, instead of developing students’ higher order thinking in L1, it “perpetuates”   the power of an international language “without associating it with learning skills”, so that a foreign language becomes a “stratifier” (Tupas, 2014, p. 119). Tollefson warns, “Those who can afford it go to schools with a high quality of English language teaching and learning; those who cannot afford it also go to English-medium schools (because of the belief that English is the way out of poverty) but end up being taught English deemed undesirable by society” (as cited in Tupas,2014, p. 119). The truth is that the quality of teaching languages is not equally available for everyone, and the necessity for various languages differs from area to area. The individual’s actual need for a language can be satisfied by asking questions oneself and others and gauging possibilities and aspirations, in other words, by being a critical thinker. That is why CT in education should be priority.

Regarding Kazakhstan, if we exemplify our blog experience (both Leadership in Ed. and Multilingual Ed.) as a minute model of Kazakhsatani education, the preliminary calculation of current topics shows that concerns around languages appear in the blog fifth as much as on critical thinking. Counting that a critical thinker can find ways to learn languages (and not only) independently, isn’t critical thinking more significant than a symbolic importance several languages?

Tupas, R, (2014). Inequalities of multilingualism: Challenges to mother tongue-based multilingual education. Language and Education, 29 (2), 112-124.

A question of discipline

Image credit: A. Kazhigaliyeva, A. Tazhiyeva, A. Chsherbakov.

The picture above illustrates the results of a survey my fellow students at NUGSE and I have conducted as part of our Linguistics class.  We asked the participants to give their free associations to a particular word in Russian, and then, a few days later, to the same word, but in Kazakh.  The word clouds show the associations given to the word education: the left one in Kazakh and the right in Russian.  Have you spotted the difference?  Clearly, the Russian associations are much more varied.  But, what is more interesting, if you look at the actual words, you will see that they reveal completely different views on the concept of education.  The one on the left focus on the institutional aspects: teacher and school, while the other one favours a personal development orientation expressed through more abstract terms: knowledge and learn.  The purpose of the exercise was to identify a Whorfian effect in Kazakh-Russian bilinguals.  It is unlikely that we have done that, but I think we have still found something interesting here. Continue reading A question of discipline