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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?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:37 PM

    Yes, it does seem as if there's a book here, somehow wrapping our American brains around the concept of community being even more influential than individuality. What have we, as a culture which thrives on ideals of independence, missed out on? What messages does this send to children and how do these affect the success of our schooling? It seems like the school day in America is a fairly bipolar series of events and expectations - at 10:30 on the playground at recess, we should play nicely and include everyone in our games, then at 11:00 when the weekly math tests are administered you should compete for the best grades and fastest completion. These are just a couple of fairly inadequate examples, but hopefully you see my point.
    As applied to my current interest in social clubs, and more specifically, the metaphorical literacy club, your Russian concepts of community and belonging become even more fascinating. My consideration of barriers to the literacy club, though initially thought of in academic terms, may be more closely associated to these concepts of belonging and social community than I had presumed.
    What is it about the Russian culture that supports and maintains these communities and what threads of this can be seen in American culture? In a recent glance at the PIRLS study, it appears that Russian youth tend to have the highest rates of recreational reading. Could this be attributed to higher desire to belong to this literacy club? Is the community of readers stronger simply because community in general is stronger? Ah...there's the book! (At least the one I'd be most interested in reading!!