Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Pisa Fallout: Addressing the Critical Thinking Void Through Professional Development

Guest Blog – Nick Ironside is currently on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Banja Luka. All views expressed are his own.

In early November last year, I attended a “Dialogue for the Future” seminar in Banja Luka organized by the nonprofit group Genesis Project. Local educators, administrators, social workers and others invested in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s youth discussed concepts including high-quality education and examined how BiH could use data from the soon-to-be-released PISA scores (

Even though PISA wasn’t scheduled to release its results until December, both the seminar’s organizers and its attendees expected that BiH’s scores – this was the first time that the country was included in the PISA exercise – would reflect poorly on its education system. They didn’t need evidence from an international assessment to identify one of the more urgent challenges facing BiH’s schools—namely, the emphasis placed on rote memorization rather than the development of students’ critical thinking skills. 

PISA, which assesses students’ analytical skills and their ability to apply knowledge, confirmed the participants’ expectations when it released the results in December. The BiH scores suggest approximately half of the country’s students who took the exam are functionally illiterate in mathematics, science and reading (

The seminar’s focus on critical thinking and the concerns surrounding its inadequate role in BiH’s education system reflect what I hear more broadly in conversations with teachers, staff at youth NGOs, and students themselves. Their criticisms all describe a system that limits opportunities to develop and nurture students’ critical thinking skills. At a time when myriad media sources inundate people with an overwhelming amount of data and information, it is imperative that education systems guide students toward developing the higher-order thinking skills that will help them assess everything they consume. Neglecting critical thinking skills leaves students ill-prepared for a world where more information—reflecting varying degrees of reality—will continue to fly at them faster and faster.

There are multiple factors that contribute to a system where the development of critical thinking skills isn’t prioritized. For instance, one group of high school students in Banja Luka whose class I visited lamented the 15 separate courses they are required to take each semester. They attend most classes only once or twice per week. Cramming too much material into a small window limits the time students could spend assessing multiple perspectives of an historical event, or applying to different situations a concept they discussed in science class.

Some educators also raised this concern in early October when Civitas, the organization that designed the civics education curriculum in BiH, hosted its annual conference. Teachers commented on the challenges presented by once-a-week classes as they try to educate students about the structure of their government and promote civic engagement. Rather than reviewing theoretical concepts and then applying them in real-world situations, many teachers simply don’t have adequate time for the latter, leaving the purpose of civics education unfulfilled.

Students enjoy lessons requiring them to collaborate, analyze messages, and then share and defend their opinions. However, a lecture-style class directed by textbook material doesn’t lend itself to these activities. Teachers have reiterated their students’ criticisms. Some teachers point to a limited focus on methodology in pre-service teacher educator programs, and few or no opportunities to practice what they learn before taking on full-time positions. Others highlight few, if any, professional development opportunities to which they have access.

One of my conversations with a teacher illuminated the stark contrast that exists between teachers who have and those who have not had access to meaningful professional development opportunities. This teacher described a lesson they created asking students to evaluate different historical documents in the context of a specific event. Rather than lecturing the class about all of the information contained in the textbook, this teacher pulled some of the content and designed an activity forcing students to exercise their critical thinking skills. However, they created the activity using skills gleaned from professional development opportunities abroad. This teacher said their pre-service teacher educator program and the infrequent local professional development options available did not equip them with the skills necessary to produce such a lesson.

Improving an education system requires reforms at multiple levels. Making structural changes requires action from policymakers and often involves a drawn-out process. However, the aforementioned teacher’s comments about professional development mirrors what some of their colleagues highlighted at the Civitas conference. There, the same teachers who described strategies they used to incorporate practical application and critical thinking skills into their lessons also expressed a desire for more professional development. Educators who possessed knowledge worth sharing were asking for the space to share and learn.

Teachers shouldn’t have to wait for pedagogical institutes or ministries of education to organize professional development opportunities. A school employing 40 teachers possesses 40 resources, 40 minds brimming with ideas and experiences, all of whom could design a 20- or 30-minute workshop. Educators could organize these opportunities within their individual schools. Two teachers could present to their colleagues each month during a one-hour after-school session about a strategy they used to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills. Teachers could discuss how they can adapt these strategies to different content areas and grade levels. If two teachers present once a month, they would accumulate nine or 10 professional development hours each school year.

Of course, developing this culture and equipping teachers with skills to design creative lessons begins with university-level pre-service teacher educator programs. It also requires an environment in which teachers feel that such initiative will be nurtured, not deterred, and in which they enjoy the basic resources needed (in terms of their personal professional salary and the pedagogical materials/space needed to work in a 21st century school). In spite of years of acknowledgment that these weaknesses exist, discussions at the classroom level demonstrate that there has not been a concerted effort to begin to address these needs. Some teachers mentioned a lack of funding that hamstrings local education administrations. One teacher, whose only professional development activity for the past six years has involved an annual meeting with their supervisor, noted an interest in further developing their pedagogical skillset, but was losing motivation.

A 2017 USAID report highlights pre-service teacher educator programs in BiH as “one of the weakest points in the education system overall, particularly in regard to primary education,” and “Without reform in initial teacher education, the effects of the implementation of standards will be limited” This is a challenge requiring attention from individuals who shape policy. Localized professional development activities don’t require the same level of attention from the top.

Internally organized professional development initiatives won’t have as pronounced an effect on the education system as systemic changes to pre-service teacher educator programs. But they represent a start and are perhaps more feasible in the short-term. BiH’s PISA results underscore the urgency. Teachers can begin developing within their schools a culture that prioritizes professional development, collaboration among colleagues and dialogue about teaching methodologies. Teachers can initiate these workshops using the resources inside their school and in the near future without waiting for structural change, funding or months of planning. By learning from each other, teachers can acquire some of the skills necessary to adapt activities and promote the development of critical thinking skills. These workshops require a commitment from teachers, without which improvement in the quality of education BiH provides its students will not occur.

There are organizations providing professional development support for teachers; one NGO staff member highlighted the work of the Center for Educational Initiatives Step by Step, which spotlights critical thinking in its programming. NGOs must play a central role in delivering opportunities for teachers, particularly as a serious institutional void exists in this area. Professional development opportunities organized by external groups—or teachers independently holding sessions within their schools—cannot shoulder the burden in the long term. The decentralized nature of administrative education bodies in BiH hinders professional development across the country. Legitimate and sustainable improvement requires coordination across entity and canton lines, and then internationally.  

There are a few steps both the local and international communities can take to both improve the frequency of and access to professional development for teachers.

Pedagogical institutes, which are responsible for organizing professional development opportunities, should coordinate with each other and provide a centralized online repository where teachers can access information about professional development opportunities. They also should solicit feedback from teachers about potential topics for professional development sessions. This information, along with data procured from student performance and assessments like PISA, can guide the production of relevant workshops and seminars.

These surveys also create an opening through which teachers can volunteer to present to their colleagues about specific topics. Pedagogical institutes, schools, and NGOs all have the ability to provide teachers with the space and time to share their ideas. Offering teachers agency is pivotal in developing a culture that supports educators and their professional development.

Finally, uniform content standards would ensure that teachers in both entities and Brčko District develop lessons focused on the same learning outcomes. Designing such shared standards prioritizing critical thinking skills will result in teachers across BiH guiding students toward the same desired outcomes. Creating uniform standards also produces a situation conducive to idea-sharing and professional development opportunities relevant to all educators in BiH. The lack of a state-level education body capable of oversight presents a challenge when implementing uniform standards and coordinating inter-canton and entity activities. However, movement at the local level can provide at least a short-term shift toward developing a culture which values professional development and places critical thinking on a pedestal in schools.