Narek Manukyan

Narek Manukyan (MPSIA ‘12): Transforming Education With Innovative Approaches

7 min read

Narek Manukyan (MPSIA ‘12) is UNDP ImpactAim accelerator lead, working toward addressing gaps in achieving sustainable development goals through innovation. Narek is also the co-founder of Paradigma Educational Foundation, which aims to enhance the quality of education in Armenia by providing educators with tools and engaging them in a variety of educational endeavors. He has been involved in transformative education projects for around eight years. As a consultant to the Asian Development Bank, he supported Armenia’s membership to the Global Partnership for Education and led Armenia’s national curriculum study commissioned by the World Bank. Narek believes that, in Armenia, we need to rethink how we perceive education and what methods we choose to transfer knowledge as a whole. In addition to crediting AUA for the education he received, Narek emphasizes the importance of the strong network he built. He spoke with us about his education and career path, his vision for the future of education, his plans, and more.

What brought you to AUA, and what role did AUA play in your career development?

Long before I decided to apply to AUA, I participated in the AUA debate club that was organized by Melissa Brown. The club provided the platform where one had a chance to meet different people, grow a culture of debating, and discuss various topics. Every time I came to the debate club, I also visited the AUA library searching for new resources to review and do advance reading to be well prepared for the debates. The AUA library was a revelation to me. It housed a diverse collection of English-language books ranging from history to politics, art, and poetry. So, initially, these were the two activities that connected me to AUA. Back then I was very much interested in political science and I was looking for a university that would be different from the universities in Armenia, and AUA clearly stood out. So I decided to apply to the Political Science and International Affairs (PSIA) program, which was a really good choice for me. Interestingly, many of my friends from the debate club also applied to AUA. The debate club functioned like a funnel that brought many of us to study at AUA.

AUA is a university where you must do a lot of reading and develop your analytical thinking skills rather than being taught ready-made answers. It offers a hands-on type of education that requires one to search for more literature to study and explore. AUA has not only granted me a good education but also gave me the opportunity to meet new people. As a student, I had a chance to meet brilliant professors who later became close friends. I definitely owe AUA for the strong network I was able to create.

Is there a professor(s) who inspired you here at AUA? Is there a skill that you learned which had a big impact on you?

I’m very grateful to all my professors who have had a significant influence on my educational career and inspired me deeply. I have had very positive experiences with all of them and maintain contact with most: Dr. Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, Dr. Jenny Paturyan, Dr. Lucig Danielian, and others. 

In terms of skills, it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific skill; rather, studying at AUA is more like a holistic experience: learning how to effectively communicate with others; how to best work in a group; how to interact with professors and so on; and such other important concepts and practices that one realizes in retrospect.

What inspired you to start the Paradigma Educational Foundation back in 2018? 

I wanted to do something in the education field because I believe that it is important for our country. I didn’t like school. That was the trigger. I didn’t want others to have that same dilemma. I believe in the notion that if you don’t like something, you need to change it. So that’s why I started Paradigma. I initially got involved with Ayb Educational Foundation, where I led the Araratian Baccalaureate Program. Then there were some ideas I wanted to put into action with a team of like-minded people, so I left Ayb and, months later, launched the Paradigma Educational Foundation to do exactly what I always wanted to do in education. 

You have been engaged in the sector of education and development for the last several years, managing large-scale projects with local and international partners. What are your thoughts on education in light of the transformation of the educational system?

Being the co-founder of Paradigma, I closely observe the system of education. At Paradigma, we strive to create transformative content. We’re more of a content creating foundation rather than a training organization. Initially, we attempted to understand how and in what direction the paradigm of education is shifting. Now, everything is pretty clear to us. What we are currently doing is to try to bridge the best available professional knowledge internationally with the best available knowledge in Armenia to create content that will produce high performance.

We are currently focused on transforming history teaching, trying to get people to think differently about education as a whole. What one can say about the system of education in a nutshell is that it definitely changes, but the direction of that change depends on us, the people involved in education. So, in a way, we at Paradigma try not only to foresee change, but also to affect change. 

Since its founding, Paradigma has been carrying out various educational projects. Tell us about those. 

We consider teaching history important for a nation like ours with a long history. At some point in life, history becomes a part of one’s DNA, whether one acknowledges that or not. History is a foundational subject, which can form one’s thinking if taught the right way. Still, in Armenia, history is mostly taught as a recitation of facts and figures, rather than using an analytical approach. This is what we want to change in the first place. To accomplish this, we sought out the best knowledge available globally, which led us to connect with centers of excellence, such as the UCL institute of education, the Canadian School of thought of history education, and a similar institution in the Netherlands. As we connected with them, we decided to produce a book that would show the architecture of what we projected history education could be. Based on that, we picked the strategies we would use in framing the book. We hired a local historian to provide local history case narratives for each of the strategies that we had selected, and that’s how we ended up producing a teacher’s guidebook titled “Why, How?” We were fortunate that the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation supported this initiative. 

As the book was released, we thought that a teacher who wanted to use our guidebook would also need more counsel or access to additional primary sources. Since we wanted to do something innovative, we researched what others were doing in the field worldwide. Although there were some good examples, they were not necessarily what we were looking for, so we devised our one-of-a-kind resource pack called “History #5” which is intended to fill the gaps in history class with relevant information about the daily lives of Armenian men and women, how they interacted throughout history, what challenged ordinary people, what society looked like, and so on. The pack has approximately 240 cards, all of which contain archival, primary-source information. There is also a QR code that leads to an electronic guide designed to assist teachers to plan their lessons based on the resource pack.

We shared the pack with colleagues from France and the UK and received very positive feedback. At the moment, we have a number of requests from teams in different countries asking to have something similar developed for them. They are considering partnering with Paradigma to create similar resource packs. 

I would like to mention that a key person who played a big role in this project is AUA professor Dr. Hourig Attarian. She connected our team to experts with whom we ended up working on the path of realizing our project. One of those is Dr. Melissa Bilal, assistant professor in the AUA College of Humanities and Social Sciences who was of great help in the creation of the resource pack. Melissa also connected us to others in the field. Then, one connection led to another. These are the marvels of being a part of a university that has a strong network of people ready to support you in realizing important projects.

Following the recent war in Artsakh, Paradigma collaborated with UNICEF, publishing a graphic novel for kids. How did you come up with this idea and what was your goal?

In Armenia, we don’t have many books that are both well-designed and practicable for kids. There are a few good ones that are rather expensive. Moreover, there is a subcategory that is totally missing, trauma books. So we asked ourselves: What sort of books would we create for kids who are experiencing trauma or are psychologically challenged? When the war broke out, we started to think about what we could do for those kids to help them overcome trauma. And we came up with the idea of creating the graphic novel “What Happened Then” to tell them stories to which they could relate, but also that would have psychologically appropriate content. We assembled a team of psychologists both from Armenia and from abroad, particularly the UK and the US. We drafted the narrative, which went through several stages of review and editing before it was published in 30,000 copies, all of which were donated to kids.

Hopefully, the book has been of help to the readership. We didn’t want to impose on them asking for feedback, because we thought it would be too much to ask from kids who had already experienced war trauma. We wanted to give away the book as a gift that wouldn’t require them to do anything in return. 

After we published the graphic novel, we decided to start other projects aimed at kids. At the moment, we’re working on a large project, which I believe is going to be ground-breaking. The project’s primary goal is to increase literacy while stimulating children’s creative thinking.

You have also been co-hosting the Education42 podcast on EVN Report. How did you come up with that idea? Who is your audience?

The podcast was initially not my idea but that of a colleague, also an AUA alum, Talin Saghdasaryan. At the moment, we’re done with the first season of the podcast, but we’re considering launching a second. We run the podcast in a somewhat non-traditional format without invited guests. What we do is select an education-related topic or issue of broad interest, research it and discuss it during the podcast. 

The podcast is meant for anyone interested in education. The first season has sixteen episodes, but we have also completed three additional episodes on how education was perceived by political parties during the recent elections in Armenia. 

What would be your advice to individuals interested in the education field?

I would really like to see those interested in education to pursue their careers by first completing academic degrees and getting engaged in research. Because, if we want to have a thriving education system in Armenia, we can’t do without scholars in the field. We often rely on anecdotal evidence rather than on research, and very often we lack substantive research not because of insufficient funding but predominantly because we do not have many qualified education researchers. If one wants to pursue a career in the field of education, one needs to approach it very seriously and work to become a qualified professional.