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Oct 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 learn.
  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?

Oct 9, 2008

Problem Solving

I greatly value people's ability to solve problems. It brings me great pleasure to see how an unexpected solution emerges. There is a little bit of magic in it – just by thinking about some problem or difficulty in a different way, people are able to overcome the problem or difficulty. Just by thinking. When I see a new gadget or a piece of software, or just a simple thing like a tool or an office form, I always look at a clever idea, at an elegant solution. And when it is there, I feel a strong connection to the unknown to me person whose mind created something out of nothing; some value out of an idea. It is also makes my day or even a week, when I find such a solution, or am helping someone else to find it. The occasion for this was a really simple solution for one organizational problem; the nature of it is really unimportant. My colleague actually found it, and I was just able to contribute to it a little. It may still not work, but it just felt great. So, I am sharing my joy.

An elegant solution is not always possible. We live with some problems for years and years, and nothing seems to be working. Or we have only small, weak, unoriginal and temporary fixes. Or we employ ugly solutions which are too wasteful, or harmful, or just …ugly. And when I see people doing something without an attempt at originality, it irritates me. It also bugs me when I am unable to figure out a way out of a dead end, big or small. And it happens very often.

I am not sure if this makes any sense, but this looking for good ideas in other people's lives and in my own is what really makes me tick. It is addictive and not always productive, because it often makes sense just to leave things alone. Not every problem deserves solving. Not every known thing needs improvement. A hammer is a hammer, and yet my heart sings when I see a clever hammer design in a hardware store. Observing and experiencing creativity is the most profound and also a very strange pleasure.

Oleg Gazman, a wonderful Russian educator is credited with the motto "Every action must be creative, otherwise why bother?" Is this an overstatement? Perhaps; he was just placing a lot of emphasis on creativity, because it empowers children, gives them the sense of agency, and also ultimately helps them to learn and mature. I.P.Ivanov, S.A.Shmakov, O.A.Gazman and other founders of the Communard's Movement elevated creativity to the level of a moral value, not just a skill or preference. In their eyes, one must be a problem solver, and a creative thinker. It is not a choice, but an obligation. Creativity is, of course, is really an aesthetic, not an ethical ideal. Yet somehow it makes sense to me. That is where my search for creative ideas probably comes from: many of my teachers were connected to the movement. I am not making any value claims here, just trying to explain myself. It is not motivated by the ego, not at all. In fact, it is just as much fun to observe human creativity as it is to engage in it. I am not overly concerned with work efficiency (although it does enter my reasoning, for the obvious reasons). It is just the appreciation of the process. I just love to see those elegant solutions hatch and grow, and love to contribute. Creative work is double fun when it is collective. So, it was a good week.

Oct 3, 2008

The theory of set

In the first half of the 20s century, a great Georgian psychologist Dmitri Uznadze developed the theory of set. He and his followers measured how our actions are shaped not so much by stimuli as by readiness to act in a certain way. When we act, we unfold pre-written scripts. This is why different people can look at the same thing, and see completely different pictures. We all tend to screen information according to the pre-existing beliefs and attitudes, unconsciously. Sometimes these differences become so large that people do not understand how others see the world so differently, without lying, or being dumb.

I still remember the effect of the Simpson trials, where Black and White Americans realized they saw the same evidence in a strikingly different light, and came to the opposite conclusions. Political seasons usually lead to similar experiences. For example, how can the same woman, whose life is very much exposed to everyone, cause such a different reaction in different people? While conservatives tend to love Sarah Pailin, liberals are genuinely in disbelief that anyone can do that. These gaps in perceptions need to be explained, and when the gap is very large, only two explanations generally work: the other guys must be evil or stupid. So, liberals consider regular people who vote Republican stupid hicks, and the Republican leaders are just plain evil. Conservatives tend to do the same: the liberals are stupid, corrupt, or perverse, or all the above. Again, this is done not to just malign people; how else do you explain the differences in perception? The famous principle "agree to disagree" is a really difficult trick to pull off. It requires one to have no theory of other person's motives. Humans have a hard time being agnostic about each other's motives; it is almost unbearable for us to not know why people act the way they act. We need a theory of the other to stay sane; we are built to interpret other person's actions. This is actually, what most of our complex brains are designed for.

Now, because of these gaps, and theories that explain them, it is very difficult to talk to each other. For example, if I want to point out a character flaw in Pailin that has nothing to do with her political view, my Democrat friends will ignore it, because it does not matter. Republican friends will ignore it, because I just talk like any other liberal. (By the way, what concerns me about Sarah Pailin is that slight motion of her lower lip when she is angry, like that of a child determined not to cry. If you don't know what I mean, turn off the sound, and watch her speak – the convention and the debate. I think it is more important than her inexperience, or lack of knowledge, or her religious beliefs; she's got some major issues with self-esteem, and is driven to success to compensate for it, not to achieve something. She should never hold power over other people; it is just too dangerous for her and others.) See, there is no room for details like that in the regular political discourse, because of the gaps.

This is not a political blog, so I also want to connect to our much smaller and much better world. We all face that challenge from time to time. Sometimes other person's actions are just so difficult to explain, especially if you and that person are facing the same set of facts. But remember Uznadze: we carry sets – complex, holistic tendencies to see and act in certain ways. While we may be looking at the same thing, we might see very different things. Then we tend to attribute evil intentions or stupidity to other people who might possess neither. The solution is to suspend judgment, and try to understand and give credit to other people. Agree to disagree does not work; try to develop a habit of inventing multiple explanations of other people's actions. This skill is essential for what Maxine Greene calls the moral imagination.