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Aurora Constantin, professor, PhD in Physics and PhD candidate in Scotland: I have always tried to make my students understand that what is most important is what they have managed to learn and apply and not the mark they got at a certain moment in t

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Aurora Constantin graduated from the Faculty of Sciences, department of physics in 1986. She worked as a teacher for 24 years and after she passed all teacher certifications in 2000 she received a PhD in the quantum theory of fields.

Her wish to follow a university career could not turn into reality due to the lack of access ways for the wheelchairs of people with disabilities in Romanian universities. She wrote and published articles and books, she took part in Physics and IT national and international conferences and symposia. Besides her activity as a teacher she also tutored students with special abilities for sciences. Throughout her educational career she received over 100 awards and certificates at Physics and Astronomy Olympiads and contests.

In 2008-2009, helped by a scholarship offered by Dinu Patriciu Foundation, Aurora followed an MA in IT at the University of Glasgow and currently she received a new scholarship for a doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh.

FDP: After you received a PhD in Physics in 2000, you are now following another doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh. What does this program consist of and why did you choose to continue it abroad?

Aurora Constantin: The ECHOES project for which I was selected to work is designed to create an interactive environment for learning by using the multimodal technology. The purpose of ECHOES is to support children suffering from autism but also those who are typically developed in order to improve their social communication skills.
Why Scotland and not Romania? I have often been asked this question, even by those who know me quite well. For me, as a wheelchair user, the answer is obvious: in Romanian universities there are no access ways for wheelchairs and this is an obstacle which is hard to imagine for a healthy individual. To make myself clear I have imagined the following mental experiment. Go in a small town from Romania, for instance Slatina, Olt county. Sit in a wheel chair and try to go by train to a university centre, for instance Craiova (because it is the nearest). You may encounter some problems the moment you enter the railway station. The only ‘accessible’ train stops at the second platform. Try to manage crossing the railway line in a wheelchair. It is obvious that you cannot make it without the help of two, three persons. Next let’s see how you will get on the train. You have to climb half a meter, maybe more. Finally, let’s assume that you arrive in Craiova and you solved all the problems connected to getting on/getting off the train and the crossing of the railway lines. Try to arrive at the University (by bus or by taxi). Once you have arrived there enter the university and look for the faculty of informatics. You will have to climb a lot of stairs. If you cannot make it, you should try to find another university. Maybe your luck will change in Bucharest. What do you think?

I hope now my answer is very clear. There is still a lot of room for the improvement of special access ways for people with disabilities in Romanian universities. Besides, we have to face a backward-looking mentality with respect to a disabled person. People still have preconceptions; they tend to label people (they use words like “handicapped” or “invalid”) and few of them are able to estimate and appreciate the real values of a disabled person. Their attitude and the language they use when talking to you seated in a wheelchair, for instance, are often offensive. Sometimes it is much harder to get over people’s preconceptions than to surpass physical obstacles.

Can you draw a parallel between the Romanian and the Scottish/British systems of education?

What I most admire at the Scottish education system is the flexibility of programs and fairness. Students are free to choose their courses, they can change their options. Work and quality are appreciated. The material resources are highly competitive and the courses, seminars and projects the students receive are in line with reality and are keeping up with the latest technologies. The students are stimulated to be creative and original both through the assignments they receive and the method of evaluation.
When it comes to accessibility for disabled students, the difference is huge. In Romania I have never heard of a service in charge of the problems encountered by students with disabilities, similar to Student Disability Service of the University of Edinburgh, for instance. I tried searching on the sites of our universities, but I haven’t found any. Just like it happened before the 1989 revolution, students with disabilities are completely ignored. Maybe I am wrong, I would be glad to be argued against.

The general feeling is that the education system produces weaker and weaker graduates – at least this is what the grades of Romanian students at international tests or the low percentage of passing the baccalaureate examination show. In your opinion which is the main problem the Romanian education system is facing: money, human resources, legal framework or a combination between all these factors?

I believe that all these factors are influencing the diminishment of the level of education in our country. My opinion is that a major problem is also the students’ schedule which is very tight. If you have 14 up to 18 subjects in one semester it is obvious that you cannot be good at all of them. Some students choose to focus only on the subjects they are interested in, but unfortunately, in many cases, students stop learning. Another reason for which Romanian students don’t do their best to learn is the fact that examinations (especially baccalaureate examinations) are not fair. For years in a row cheating has tacitly been accepted by teachers and students alike. It is clear that the motivation to learn decreases in this situation, either because one knows that there is a chance of making it without much effort, either because good students who have learned thoroughly become frustrated that some “truants” may get better marks than them at the baccalaureate examination. I have always tried to make my students realize that what counts is what they have managed to learn and apply and not the mark they got at a certain point in time, that when they learn the outcomes are visible sooner or later, that what is made of sand easily vanishes in the end. However, this is hard to understand when you are only 14-18 years old and you live in a society whose values are upside down.

In 2011 the new Law of National Education has entered into force. This was widely discussed during the last year. What is good about this law and what needs to be amended in order to improve it?

It is obvious I cannot make any exhaustive analysis of this law, not even if I had the time and room. Yet I try to offer some for and against examples. There are many good things inserted in the new law, such as a less busy schedule, the limitation of the maximum number of teaching classes, the incrimination of plagiarism and cheating, the compulsoriness that the teacher has an MA in education, the adaptation of the teaching subjects to the level of the students. I am however afraid of the way in which certain regulations will be applied, such as the avoidance of political interference with management positions or the involvement of the local community in the organization of the school. This sounds very nice, but I have my reasons to be reluctant with respect to the way in which such will be applied. For instance, I am afraid of abnormal situations where a teacher receives a negative evaluation by a council where a significant part consists of persons that are outside the education system. A fair teacher may be excluded just because a community does not like him or her. Let’s not forget that in many cases parents have a distorted opinion of teachers and this is owed to the fact that students try to find an excuse by blaming the teachers’ exigency or even worse, by invoking the teacher’s lack of professionalism even when this is not the case. I must also add that this scenario is quite likely and my opinions are grounded on my 24 years of teaching.
I also believe that the way in which the problem of the teachers’ salaries will be dealt with is crucial. Today very few young people are interested in becoming a teacher. Then it is no wonder why the grades of the teacher certificate examinations are so low.

One of the major problems Romania is facing is the immigration of talented young people to developed countries. Can we do anything to make them stay or to make those who already left come back to Romania?

Certainly, we can do a lot to support talented young people. Here is an example: the research sector should be strongly supported. There are a lot of young specialists who cannot come to Romania simply because they don’t have where to apply what they had learnt. But first of all, we should recognize their value and reward them for their efforts. This does not involve only the material side, but also a change of attitude. Young people must be appreciated for what they have accomplished, for their effort and especially for their potential. In Romania there is still a sort of skepticism and general derision with respect to serious people. Virgil Ierunca wrote in the 80s in “The secret of the lost letter": “Values change their algebraic sense, from minus to plus and vice versa. Bribery, truancy, and negligence can receive a +, and intransigence, seriousness, the feeling of duty receives a -”. Unfortunately, this state of affairs has strengthened in the Romanian society after the 1989 revolution and this saddens me very much. If we don’t give up our complexes and don’t learn again the definition of real values, then we will certainly ‘sabotage’ our own destiny, as Ana Blandiana rightfully stated.

What are you going to do after finishing your PhD? Will you continue to be active in the Romanian education system?

I will try to work in the research field, in projects involving in particular assistive education and technologies. My experience as a teacher will certainly be of help. Even now I am thinking of the projects I would like to develop. I hope with all my heart to find in Romania the necessary environment to put my ideas into practice.

14.11.2011

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