Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, but the country is still influenced by its Soviet past.
The fact that everybody complains about schools and that schools are killing creativity is sad. If we can turn education into something ... interesting, deep, that's the most important, making people like what they are doing. And I guess if we create more spaces and places like TUMO where you can make that happen, this can be a model towards what education should be geared to and how learning should happen.
“Armenia has been changing quite fast, but you can still feel the legacy and the luggage that came from the Soviet Union and its past … When I moved to Armenia, I realised that the Armenian educational system … was lacking the creativity, the flexibility, the problem-solving part, and there is a big need to link education with technology to be able to develop a new generation of competitive Armenians,” says Marie Lou Papazian, who is on a mission to offer an alternative to the traditional education model.
She is the CEO of TUMO, a free, creative after-school activities centre in Yerevan, Armenia, teaching “maker” skills, such as 3D printing, web design, film and animation.
At TUMO, technology and art merge to provide teens with a competitive edge in a digital world.
With access to state-of-the-art technology and some of the world’s leading professionals in web design, robotics, animation, film, music and much more, TUMO teens are encouraged to tap into their entrepreneurial intuitions to create and expand the boundaries of today’s cutting-edge industries.
“Being a teenager is really difficult in Armenia, a lot of the teachers are from the Soviet system, so you are a bit confused about what you learn, but here [in TUMO] … you meet new people, who have new ideologies … so this is a really unique place,” a student says.
The centre is committed to building relevant skills in a context where traditional industries are declining and the creative industries seem to offer new opportunities.
“In TUMO, you choose what classes you want, and, based on that, you go to workshops that you love … it’s really different. You are more free here than at school. In TUMO, you don’t have grades and it’s ok if you fail. You learn from failure. But at school, if you fail its bad,” one student explains.
The film follows teachers and students to find out how the learning offered by TUMO compares to Armenia’s very traditional state school education system. We meet teachers and students, as well as a former student of TUMO who is now using the skills and experience gained at the centre.
By Tim Froggatt
Two things struck me when I first arrived at TUMO to prepare for filming. One was the vast number of young people that eagerly attended. I’d got there just as the first afternoon session was starting and I had to fight my way through hundreds of spirited teenagers to make my way to reception. And the second thing was how high-tech it all is. Surrounded by banks of computers, information screens and visionary architecture, I really felt like I’d stepped into the future.
Hundreds of students were keenly learning about computer game design, web development and robotics. One of the students explained to me that Armenia doesn’t have natural resources like gold or oil. They can’t build their country around things like that, so their future lies with the people and with technology.
TUMO has developed its own state-of-the-art computer-based education platform, where the students can teach themselves about a vast range of subjects. They pick subjects that interest them and map out a journey of what they’re going to discover, planning two or three years into the future.
It’s a series of stepping stones, carefully designed to allow them to reach a particular goal. This “learning path” can adapt and adjust as they make progress or perhaps even change their mind.
However, I was surprised to discover that it isn’t only about the technology. By coincidence, whilst we were filming there was an abundance of activity in the arts – music concerts, furniture design, fashion workshops, graffiti exhibitions. There were so many different things. If it’s interesting and valuable to teenagers, then TUMO seems to do it.
Even in the artistic disciplines they make use of the latest technology. The students make videos of art and graffiti projects and publish them as part of their substantial online presence.
The music students’ own compositions were being professionally mixed, using industry-standard computer software by one of rock music’s most accomplished producers. Far from his home town of Los Angeles, he was relishing the opportunity to work with these young people. It was obvious that they loved working with him and he loved working with them. So much so, that the workshop sessions often extended late into the night or even into the weekends.
Likewise, when I visited another TUMO centre in Gyumri, I found out how one robotics student had kept her workshop leader there until after ten o’clock at night – so engrossed and determined was she to solve a difficult problem and learn something new. Of course, when faced with such enthusiasm, the visiting expert was more than happy to stay.
Whilst I was there, they officially announced they’d be opening their fifth TUMO centre. This new cutting-edge building will be based in the small village of Koghb near the Azerbaijan border, and it’ll serve many other villages in this remote region.
The challenges here will be very different from those in the bustling capital city of Yerevan. In remote regions with tiny under-resourced schools, they must, not only supplement the national curriculum, but also fill in the gaps that are missing in students’ education.
This centre will do much more than just educating the local teenagers. One of the things that TUMO does is to reach out and run events throughout the local area. It plays a role in enriching the wider community and sits as an integral part of society. The Koghb centre will be no different. They even have plans to work with young soldiers at a nearby military base. Military service is compulsory for Armenian boys when they turn 18, and provides a problematic interruption to their studies as they move from high school to university.
Despite all the challenges, I’m sure that this location will become just as successful as the ones that I visited.
Over the course of filming, I discovered that TUMO is fundamentally much more than its high-tech facilities. It’s a different way of doing education. It’s a philosophy about getting involved – giving students the chance to work in teams, to work on projects, to create things and to follow their passions. They learn more this way, because it makes them want to learn. And this has an impact far beyond just Armenia’s young people.
Indeed, it seemed that whoever I spoke to – the taxi drivers, the waiters, the market traders – they’d all heard of it and spoke with a big smile. Everyone was.