Turkey's 'Mathematics Village': Changing education one equation at a time

Turkey's 'Mathematics Village': Changing education one equation at a time

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Founder Ali Nesin says his 'Mathematics Village' compares to the world’s best universities and Turkey's future intellectuals will be products of it

After teaching more than 10 years at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, in 2007 Ali Nesin founded his 'Mathematics Village' near the Turkish village of Sirince (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)
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Last update: 
Wednesday 20 June 2018 10:39 UTC

SIRINCE, Turkey – Morning sun rays filter through colourful stained glass windows, shining on a group of teenagers and students in their 20s sitting on wooden benches having breakfast. 

Near the small Turkish village of Sirince, which sits above the Aegean Sea about 10 kilometres away from the ruins of Turkey's ancient Greek city Ephesus, this scene could resemble any other summer camp if it weren't for the students mulling over intricate polygons and matrices.



Ali Nesin’s Mathematics Village in western Turkey hosts about 10,000 students a year (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

Created in 2007 by Ali Nesin, a visionary mathematician in his sixties with a PhD in mathematical logic from Yale University, Sirince’s "Nesin Mathematics Village" is entirely dedicated to studying maths. Standing on a hillside in the middle of an olive grove, it comprises about 30 buildings, mostly built from rock, straw and clay, over a surface of 13.5 acres.

“This is our kindergarten. The only place in Turkey where we can focus on our passion,” says Alp Bassa, a volunteer lecturer at the village and a maths professor at Istanbul's Bogazici University.



University students attend a lecture on the number theory and Zeta function in a classroom above the library (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

Every year, more than 10,000 students from primary school to university attend the village's maths programmes. Courses last from a few days to several weeks and are organised all year round, although most classes are held in the summer and during school holidays.

“We lack space to host all the applicants. We refuse many people. We can only host up to 500 students at once,” says Nesin.

Mathematical logic

For Serkan Dogan, a 22-year-old student at Bilkent University in Ankara, coming to the village was life-changing. He visited for the first time when he was 15 after learning about it in a mathematics journal. After he turned 17, he came back every winter during his holidays for week-long programmes.

Maths was all about memorisation. When I asked why formulas would lead to such or such result, I was told to remember the result without explanation. Here, I learnt how to solve the problems. And this reasoning can be used in everyday life

Serkan Dogan, student

Dogan explains that he was frustrated by the way maths was taught in high school. “It was all about memorisation. When I asked why formulas would lead to such or such result, I was told to remember the result without explanation,” he says. “Here, I learnt how to solve the problems. And this way of reasoning can be used in everyday life,” he adds.

For Begum Cakti and Buket Eren, students in their early 20s at Koc and Galatasaray Universities respectively in Istanbul, attendance at the village is a necessary step to becoming a researcher. “Here we have direct access to highly competent professors and we are studying with better students from other universities,” says Eren.



Programmes at the village can last from a few days to several weeks and the aim is to train Turkey's future intellectuals (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

When he first created the village, Nesin targeted only university students. After he found that the students’ level was too weak and they needed to learn more basic concepts, he shifted his focus to high school students and later primary school students.

This is our kindergarten. The only place in Turkey where we can focus on our passion

Alp Bassa, maths professor, Bogazici University

Atakan Sen, 17, a student at Galatasaray High School in Istanbul, says he came to the village because of his strong interest in maths.

“The rational thinking of mathematics can be applicable to many aspects of our lives. It is a waste to learn them without understanding them,” Sen explains. 

Prime numbers

Lecturers, who all work on a volunteer basis, are invited to teach what they enjoy and what they would not be able to teach in university or school settings. Ozer Ozturk, professor at Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University, says he continues to be amazed at the students’ motivation.

“Usually, when the bell rings the children just run away. Here, they ask the teachers to finish the [lecture] even if it means going over the lunch break,” he explains.



Students and professors often work over breakfast, lunch or dinner in Ali Nesin’s village (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

Some professors explore new approaches to teaching maths. “We want to change the approach to the subject in order to intrigue the students and make them understand properly,” explains Ozturk. For him, this should start at the earliest age possible.

Usually, when the bell rings the children just run away. Here, they ask the teachers to finish the [lecture] even if it means going over the lunch break

- Ozer Ozturk, professor at Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University

Over dinner, he experiments with a method to teach division using a "goose game" with his colleague Hakan Gunturkun from Galatasaray University. The game involves geese made out of napkins and a board divided into numbered squares and dice.  

“Children should start learning mathematics at an early age by playing games. It is intuitive and much more fun for them than sitting in front of a blackboard with abstract concepts and figures,” explains Gunturkun.

When asked whether their methodology could become common in Turkey, Gunturkun and Ozturk smirk.

“The education system in Turkey, like everywhere in the world, is very conservative. It doesn’t aim at developing the personality of the children, let alone their intelligence,” Ozturk says.

Like Nesin, who is still chair of the mathematics department at Bilgi University, the professors advocate a radical transformation of Turkey’s schooling system.



High school students attend a lecture in the library of Ali Nesin’s Mathematics Village (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

According to the survey of academic performance published in 2016 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Turkey slipped an average of eight places in the survey’s rankings for science, mathematics and reading to 50th among 72 countries, compared with the previous study three years earlierThis was despite a substantial budget increase from the Ministry of Education.

The education system in Turkey, like everywhere in the world, is very conservative. It doesn’t aim at developing the personality of the children, let alone their intelligence

Professor Ozer Ozturk, Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University

“Education is too centralised. There are 25 million students in Turkey. All study the same programmes with the same exercises; but their needs, languages, capacities are different. Plus the training of the teachers should be dramatically improved,” says Nesin.

Building blocks

The first stone of the Nesin Mathematics Village was laid during the summer of 2007. Ninety university students pitched their tents on an olive grove atop a hill a kilometre away from Sirince. The piece of land was owned by the Nesin Foundation and the construction was financed through donations made specifically for the village through the foundation.

In the mornings, university students would study maths and in the afternoons they would take part in the construction of the village as part of the camp’s activities.

“At the beginning, the village was just a building with chairs and two blackboards. The only things needed to make a mathematician happy,” remembers Durhan.



It took 10 years for Ali Nesin to build his village on land owned by his foundation (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

The construction work was done under the supervision of Sevan Nisanyan, a Turkish intellectual of Armenian descent, self-taught architect and expert in renovating historical buildings. Nisanyan is known for renovating his home village in Sirince and turning it into a tourist attraction. Although the first building was built by students, the rest was built by professionals hired by Nisanyan and Nesin.

Nisanyan now lives in exile in the Greek island of Samos after escaping from prison in July 2017. He was serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence on charges of breaking zoning laws in Sirince. 

However, there were also some other roadblocks along the way. In 2007, Nesin had a run-in with authorities over construction permits. He said that he had, in fact, applied for the permits but was denied them because of his background.

Maths and responsibilities go hand in hand. Both make students more independent. There are children here who have never done any domestic chores at home

Ali Nesin

The son of a controversial figure, Nesin’s name is associated with his father Aziz Nesin, an outspoken satirical writer, atheist and critic of Islamic fundamentalists.

Eventually, the police gave up on evicting Nesin and his students and the construction continued. He was sued that same year by the state for illegal construction and illegally creating an educational institution. He was acquitted in the first case, but the second case is still ongoing with little progress. 

“It is too late for that. Our village is too popular now,” says Nesin. 

In a little over ten years, the Nesin Mathematics Village has grown to include over 30 buildings, including two canteens, dormitories, comfortable bedrooms and classrooms, and even a hamam (Turkish bath).



The village is comprised of about 30 buildings, including dormitories, classrooms, a library and even a Turkish bath (MEE/Jeremie Berlioux)

The village was built and is run thanks to private donors whose names are listed on the wall of one of the buildings, and a small fee paid by students and visitors. The cost is about $20 a day, which includes food and accommodation for the whole programme. For students who cannot afford the cost of the stay, the Nesin Foundation provides grants. 

Education is too centralised. There are 25 million students in Turkey. All study the same programmes with the same exercises; but their needs, languages, capacities are different

Ali Nesin

The village is built around an old-fashioned library where the largest lectures are held. It now has open-air amphitheatres – the largest of which can seat about 200 people – and even an ornamental watchtower.

As well as learning, the students have their share of daily tasks. Each student helps out with washing dishes, tidying up rooms and common areas, cooking, serving food, and helping with the general upkeep of the village.

“Maths and responsibilities go hand in hand. Both make students more independent. There are children here who have never done any domestic chores at home,” explains Nesin.

‘An elite curriculum’

In the 1980s, after receiving his Master's degree from Paris Diderot University, Nesin got a PhD in Mathematical Logic from Yale University and later became a professor at Irvine University in the US.

When his father, Aziz, died in 1995, Nesin returned to Turkey to take over the management of his father’s “Nesin foundation,” a boarding school dedicated to the education of young orphans.

He was then asked to create a department of mathematics at Istanbul Bilgi University, which was set to open in 1996.

The future of the country lies in our hands. In ten to 30 years, these students will be the leaders, directors, scientists, professors, artists, lawyers and intellectuals of Turkey

Ali Nesin

“I accepted. It’s the dream of any mathematician to build a maths department. So I looked at what was missing in Turkey, which was an elite teaching of mathematics,” he says.

Nesin says he created a curriculum at the level of the world’s best universities. “At that time I believed that by training 10 elite mathematicians a year for 30 years, I would change Turkey and the world.” But his students did not meet his standard of education and struggled to make it to the next year.

“In 1997, out of 30 classmates, only four of us moved on to the second year at Bilgi University. The rest had failed,” says Salih Durhan, one of Nesin’s first pupils and a teacher at the village. “Nesin was teaching us subjects in a way that was completely new to us. In high school, we were just learning things by heart. We had never been taught to understand them,” he explains.

To help his students at Istanbul Bilgi University, Nesin arranged evening and weekend courses, which eventually shifted in 1998 to summer camps in Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast.

“Nesin used to say that mathematicians could not take a three-month holiday. It was kind of an obligation to come to the camps,” explains Haydar Goral, who was a student of Nesin’s in the early 2000s and is now a maths professor at Koc University in Istanbul. Goral has been a lecturer at the village since 2010.

In 2004, Nesin opened the summer camp to students and professors from universities other than Bilgi. “It is when I realised that Turkey needed a permanent place to study mathematics and that I should start working on creating the mathematics village,” he says. 

The mathematician has recently opened his village to activities related to philosophy and social sciences, as well as art. A long-term goal of Nesin's is to open a high school where he intends to implement his methods on a larger scale.

“The future of the country lies in our hands. In 10 to 30 years, these students will be the leaders, directors, scientists, professors, artists, lawyers and intellectuals of Turkey,” he says.