Comments as part of Roundtable at AAASS
Boston, November 17, 1996
Stephen T. Kerr
University of Washington
The situation in Russian education over the past year has been marked by continuing differentiation in groups active in the field and the publications they produce. But political activism and the empowerment of educators remains generally minimal. Lack of resources and the low place of education in the budgetary priorities of most cities and regions has made it difficult for teachers to focus on much more than survival. The appearance of and strong enthusiasm for the new "Association for Developmental Instruction" (Assosiatsiia razvivaiushchego obucheniia) suggests that Russian educators are searching for a widely acceptable centrist position that is at the same time native to their own traditions and values.
The groups that began a few years ago to provide Russian education with alternatives are generally still active, though their configuration and ways of working have changed somewhat in recent years. The Eureka organization, still headed by Alexander Adamsky, appears to have switched its focus from working primarily with teachers to working more with administrators and school directors. The "Evrikantsy" also appear to be conducting more seminars internationally. Adamsky now edits Upravlenie shkoloi (School Administration), one of the new supplements to Pervoe sentiabria. The Association of Directors of Innovative Schools and Centers continues to unite the more adventuresome of the new schools, although they have had trouble in trying to have their group identified by the Ministry as the official "certifier" of "innovative status" (a tactic that in fact not all of the members of the group agree upon among themselves). New publications have also appeared from "Creative Pedagogy," headed by Vladimir Girshovich; in particular, Mir obrazovaniia (World of Education) seems to be oriented toward younger, more practically minded teachers. Its contents would not look out of place on the pages of such American teacher-oriented magazines as Phi Delta Kappan. The Psychological Institute of the Russian Academy of Education has started publishing its own applied journal. The new Association for Developmental Instruction has also started its own Vestnik (Courier) which will have to compete with these other offerings.
It will be interesting to track the fate of the various forces striving to increase the differentiation of Russian schools over the coming year, for the forced combination of the Ministry of Education and the State Committee on Science, Higher Education, and Technology Policy in the summer of 1996 was not seen by many general school teachers as a happy event. Kinelev, the new Minister of Education, is a technocrat with roots in the higher education community, and the influence that was still wielded by hold-over members of Eduard Dneprov's team in the old Ministry (Viktor Bolotov, Alexander Asmolov) will doubtless now decrease, especially as the person named as principally responsible for general education, Vladimir Shadrikov, is seen by many in the reform camp as only a hesitant supporter of real reform, although he is given credit for being an able administrator. Whether the "two cultures" of higher and general education can be effectively combined remains to be seen.
The chance for educators to become true shapers of their own destinies is hampered in today's Russia by an extreme lack of resources at the local and regional levels. Strikes and other actions in support of payment of owed back wages have become the principal focus of teachers' attention, and for good reason. But this makes any kind of real interest in such central pedagogical issues as the lack of appropriate textual materials and the virtual halt in creating new and interesting curricula almost impossible to spark. Strikes in a number of regions certainly called public attention to the plight of teachers, but their lot is seen by many as no worse than that of the many other groups similarly affected by the government's inability to collect and distribute tax revenues.
All of this is additionally complicated by the continuing catastrophic material condition of schools (decrepit or collapsing facilities, lack of materials and supplies, lack of heat and electricity, no funds for capital repairs), as well as by the extreme problems of physical health experienced by the majority of students in Russian schools. The continued exodus of young, bright teachers and the consequent aging of the teacher corps (including the necessity of re-employing many retired teachers) merely make these problems that much more urgent for Russian school directors and regional administrators.
The new popularity being enjoyed by the Association for Developmental Instruction, as noted above, may signal a kind of realization on the part of many Russian educators that the grand dreams for a full-scale renewal of the educational system that they willingly entertained just a few years ago are not likely to come true in the immediate future. The notions of Developmental Instruction, derived by Vasily Davydov, Vitaly Rubtsov, Boris Elkonin, and others based on the work of Vygotsky, Luriia, Elkonin, and others, are remarkably similar to the ideas of "constructivism" currently fashionable in the West -- students will learn better, it is argued, if they formulate their knowledge based on encounters with challenging problems rather than on the basis of being force-fed material to be memorized by rote. What makes Developmental Instruction distinctively Russian is its focus on the importance of the group and the cultural "surround" in encouraging development. Another feature that likely makes it seem appealing to many teachers is that it looks, on the surface at least, to be very similar to what exists in most schools today. About 2500 schools are currently affiliated with the new group, and it seems to have garnered much-needed support form the Ministry. The fact that the approach sports a native-grown theoretical base, that that base is well-elaborated, and that the advice and recommendations it offers seem eminently practical likely endears it further to Russian educators.
Given this reconfiguration of Russian education in support of more differentiation while at the same time seemingly reemphasizing the centrist position of most schools on a pedagogical continuum, what are some of the issues and questions around which joint work might profitably go forward between Russian and Western educators over the coming years? Here are a few suggestions: