This is the day we had been waiting for; the chance to go into our partner schools. Natalya’s husband arrived to pick me up. He is a sculptor and artist. He was obviously very successful ‘pre-perestroika’ as he has a car. All the vehicles we saw in Sochi seem incredibly old, and made a dreadful noise. They gave off clouds of smelly blue smoke. However, the Lada got us to our destination. The school was in the middle of a dense urban development of high-rise flats. The area was quite run down with pot-holed roads and rusted metal lying around.
In Russia at that time, the schools were not named but numbered according to how close to the centre of the town or city they were situated. So school number 1 would be very close to the centre. Our school was School Number 15 as it was some way out. Some of my colleagues had much further to travel with schools numbered in 30s and 40s.
School No. 15 was an experimental school. The Director (Headteacher) and staff were ‘Methodists’ educationally speaking. They followed the Leonid Zankov (1901-1977) model and were influenced by sociologist, Tarasov. These were progressive approaches involving the integration of subjects and the development of the whole child. My interest was stimulated by the fact that Zankov was a colleague of Lev Vygotsky who studied the relationship between teaching, learning and child development. Vygotsky’s theory on the ‘zone of proximal development’ was to be the basis of the 4 year study I would work on with Natalya in our two schools. As Zankov was the first to test Vygotsky’s theories in the Russian classrooms in the 1970’s and 80’s, this was very exciting for me.
The method was based on the development of the 3 aspects of a child’s psyche, Intellect, Will and Emotions.
Intellect ~ development involves not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also various kinds of cognitive activities, such as logical thinking, observation, memory, and imagination.
Will ~ is described as the ability to set goals and motivate oneself to achieve them. Will grows out of wishes and desires, and develops as the child achieves his or her goals.
Emotions ~ enable learning where children feel safe and cared for. In the classroom situation, good teacher/pupil relationships were essential.
In the classroom Zankov’s theories required teachers to focus on:~
- Teaching at an optimal level of difficulty
- Emphasizing theoretical knowledge
- Proceeding at a rapid pace
- Developing students’ awareness of the learning process
- The purposeful, systematic development of each student
On the surface the classes reminded me of the “Montessori” classrooms of the sixties in Britain. However, I was soon to learn that it was far more radical than this.
Inside the school I was welcomed by a student of the ‘method’ from the university, and a lecturer who trained the student teachers in the ‘method’. We were joined by Valentina, an incredibly dignified lady who had adapted Zankov’s theories and devised the ‘method’ for the schools in this area.
I was taken to the Director’s office to be faced with a table, beautifully set and groaning under the weight of a feast. I ate pancakes with yoghurt and drank very strong coffee. After this I was taken on a tour of the school.
The first stop was the medical room which reminded me of a Chinese Chemist’s! I wasn’t far off the mark as I was greeted by a meditating acupuncturist in what looked like transparent pyjamas and bare feet. This charming man stopped meditating as soon as I walked in and offered to fix my ‘aura’. I accepted gratefully and was led to a bed where everyone watched as he manipulated the bones in my arms, hands, legs, and spine. He was horrified by the tension in my neck and treated this very efficiently, just like my chiropractor at home. He then taught me how to relax by pressing on various pressure points. As he pressed on one in my thigh, he looked worried and said I had a problem with my liver. This could have been due to all the vodka I had consumed to get me through our welcome meal, or it could be long term damage from my gallstone operation. Either way I was impressed.
By this time the doctor had a queue of children waiting outside his room. He allowed me to watch as he treated children for all manner of problems with aromatherapy, massage and chiropractic. This was definitely alternative medicine with a capital A and would lead to court cases for assault in Britain. But the most alarming thing was that the doctor mixed up his own medicines and even injections, which he gave to children, “to help them leave their parents and settle into school without any problem”. I could not help but worry that these children are being sedated from the age of 2.
There were 273 children at the school aged between 2 and 10. The school is open from 7am and most children stay until 7pm. However, they can stay until 9pm if their parents work unusual shifts; or they can leave early if parents are at home. The young children slept for 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon. All of the children were given 4 meals a day of very nutritious food from a detailed menu plan. All of this was free as the government was very concerned about the poor health of the population generally at this time, and the children particularly.
The children had a wide variety of opportunities in the school. There was a qualified gymnast to develop the children physically. I watched two of his lessons which reminded me of drill at the Victorian school in Blists Hill. There was a trained musician who taught the children to listen and speak through song, dance and drama. And there were students from the University on teaching practice working with classes. During the day I saw an integrated curriculum that was intended to develop art, language, music, and nature study.
Some lessons were heavily teacher led. For example The Butterfly lesson:
The teacher started by demonstrating how to “splatter paint” on a folded piece of paper. She then allowed the children to choose their own colours and do the same. She then demonstrated how to cut out a butterfly shape. The children had a stencil in front of them which they drew round. They then cut out the shape. Finally they drew around the butterfly shape and cut it out of their painted paper. The finished object was very professional. All the children finished at the same time and placed their butterfly on a perfect paper flower they had made earlier. They then sat on the carpet and the teacher talked about the life cycle of butterflies. She showed them photographs of butterflies and told them their names. The children then sang a song about a butterfly and acted out a little play.
During all this time the ‘nurse’ sat and watched every move the children made. She clearly had a different role to our nursery nurses as she did not help the children with their work, or take any active part in the lesson. I assumed that she did the setting up of materials and she may have done the clearing away.
The children all produced an attractive finished butterfly but I was alarmed to be told that these pictures would now be given to a psychologist to analyse for any mental health problems. One butterfly was shown to me and the Head said, “you can see this child has psychological problems because of the colours she has used.” It looked perfectly ok to me and I did wonder if they were being over-analytical.
The children did not take their artwork home until the end of the year, which runs from January to December. Much of their work is stuck into an individual record book. I looked through many of these books and they were all exactly the same, lots of Origami, scraps of material made into pictures, and cut out ducks, trees and animals. There was no evidence of children expressing their own imagination or creativity
Fascinating story of educational practices in Russia. The story of the nurse back in those days is a bit frightening. Do you know if Russia’s education system has changed in the interim since 1995?
The latest I heard (2011) is that The method is now widely used in all elementary schools. I have not been to Russia since 2008 so I am a bit out of touch but I will try to find out.