[xmca] The Russian Method

From: Dana Walker <Dana.Walker who-is-at unco.edu>
Date: Sun Oct 26 2008 - 16:22:05 PDT

Our faculty recently spent a week with a group of Russian educators from
Novosibersk, from the College of Psychology of Pedagogy. I thought some of
you might be interested in comments made by Sasha Sidorkin, Director of our
School of Teacher Education, in his blog, subsequent to their visit.

Dana Walker
Assistant Professor
University of Northern Colorado

Friday, October 24, 2008
The Russian Method

The group of Russians just left UNC a couple of days ago; they were here for
a conference on teacher education. The visit was a lot of fun; we went to
different places and talked about our work. I got to translate 9
presentations, which again brought me to the problem of translation. If
Russian psychology can be translated (Vygotsky and Leontyev, for example),
its educational theory and practice remains almost completely unknown in the
English-speaking world. Rooted in the same Progressive education ideas of
the early 20-th century, Russian educational tradition then developed
largely independent of the West, and produces both the most authoritarian
forms of education, and some of the freest and most creative. The problem is
what the Russian educators use a completely idiosyncratic terminology and
conceptual frameworks that are hard to translate. I discovered it very early
in my American career, because virtually nothing from my Russian
publications could be used for my American dissertation. I had to start from
scratch. The literal translation just does not make much sense. For example,
English does not have a word for Russian vospitaniye. It is a term for the
part of educational theory and practice that is not about knowledge and
skills, but is about attitudes, dispositions, and character. Vospitanie is
sometimes defined as helping a person to grow, and in a sense, wider than
education. Another problem is that Russian theorists tend to use awful
jargon, which does not make much sense in Russian either, and certainly does
not help people understand the discoveries Russian practitioners made. So,
OK here is my attempt to summarize the Russian method in a few lines:

   1. Transformation of peer culture into an educationally sound community.
This is, of course, not a new idea; it was known to Jesuits for sure, and to
many Progressives; it was and is used by Boy Scouts and many other children
groups. The difference is that the Russians for the first time figured out a
way of creating such peer communities without religious undertones, and make
it inclusive. They also created a number of techniques that can be
reproduced the communities do not depend on a charismatic leader.
Apparently, this works in both the K-12 and Higher Education world. The
student communities can be integrated with the academic learning. Adults and
children build relational network which them create additional motivation to
   2. The next discovery did not come until late 50-s. An educational
community needs a project, a goal larger than itself. It is hard to provide
such a goal for children and adolescents, because they are largely excluded
from production, nor do they need to sacrifice themselves in a war, or help
others. If religion is out also, it is not easy to find a project that would
require working together. A number of Russian educators stumbled upon the
same idea: they used techniques borrowed from the Russian theater actor
training tradition (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Mihail Chekhov), and from some
cultural forms of Russian intelligentsia. They invented the so-called
collective creative activity something between improvisational theater, an
elaborated game, or an invented celebration. It is hard to explain, and was
not really explained well in the literature, but this strange activity
provides enough social glue to hold these communities together. I suspect
the exact configuration of the collective creative activity depends on the
Russian cultural stereotypes and traditions, so it is not easily exportable.
   3. The Russians re-discovered group therapy methods. Basically, if you
consistently discuss with kids the relational side of things, it helps to
accelerate the community development. Again, over the years, these
techniques were standardized to a point where almost any competent adult
could do it.
   4. And finally, just in the recent decades, it became apparent that the
method works better if weaker dozes, where communities are not as strong and
tight, but still "good enough" to allow for the level of safety, engagement,
and satisfaction to keep most children happy.

I am not sure if any of this makes any sense, but here it is. Is there a
potential book here?


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