Soviet school education as summarised by my dad

I have enjoyed following many debates about education since I joined Twitter and begun reading blogs. To get a bit of perspective on some of the things being discussed, I’ll sometimes ask my parents for their perspective and about their experience. They both went to school in the USSR, my dad also completed his degree in Leningrad.

I asked my dad about his memories of the Soviet education system. What strikes me is the importance of subject disciplines within the programme of study, and yet the fact that maths wasn’t a subject per se. Also, the fact that the best elements came from the Prussian gymnasium system is telling. And there’s an interesting reflection on a very specific type of group-work. Here’s what he wrote as I translated it (original Russian from his email to me is at the bottom of the post):

The successes of the Soviet Education system in the post-war period (from 1945 to the end of the 70s) were predicated on the inevitable need to maintain the military-technological race with the West. A mass of literate engineers and technicians was needed, able to read technical drawings, make basic calculations, master some sort of machine or mechanism. And the Soviet regime did not spare resources and effort on this – which was not so difficult to achieve in a country where the average standard of living was indeed very low. And the teaching profession, despite the low wages, was very prestigious – as opposed to today.
Until the end of the 40s, the basic provision of secondary education was seven years of school – to 14 years old, after which the majority of teenagers went to work or to a specialised technical school (tekhnikumy), either daily or in the evenings. From the end of the 40s, the basic provision expanded to a ten year model to the age of 17 (in towns, not in the villages). From the fifth to the 10th classes the sciences (hard and natural sciences) were taught very thoroughly – in more detail than in the West – and this is something that the immigrants from Russia were convinced of when they found themselves in Israel or in the USA in the 70s – so their level of preparation in the hard sciences turned out to be, as a rule, higher than their peers.
For instance Soviet schools did not have a subject called ‘mathematics’. Until the fourth class you were taught arithmetic, and from the fifth to the tenth class you had separate lessons in algebra, geometry, to which were added trigonometry in the final two years as a separate subject. Further sciences were taught as distinct subjects – physics, chemistry, biology and human anatomy, and even astronomy in some schools. In the cities, nearly every school you had physics and chemistry lab equipment – separate spaces with necessary equipment, setup, instruments etc. In some schools you even had biology labs. Of course I’m talking here about European and Siberian parts of the USSR, In central Asia the situation was worse – there they had fewer ten-year school programmes.
The educational system was founded on principles developed in Germany in the 19th century and widely adopted in the Russian empire. The German approach to education is systematic (and regular). In each subject the emphasis is made on each subject’s place in the universal order of things. That is to say on the subject-specific theory and foundations that belong to it, and how it differs from other fields of knowledge. For example, what does physics concern itself with as opposed to chemistry, or chemistry from biology. Secondly, the curriculum [literally – programme of study] is detailed and cumulative, designed over a 3-4 year sequence. Thirdly, the responsibility for the fruits of his efforts lies with the individual efforts of each pupil – and in order to strengthen this responsibility exists a system of assessed work and exams – both oral and written.
In the 20s and 30s the Bolsheviks still experimented with school education. For example, a so-called ‘brigade method’ was introduced, when one or another aspect of knowledge had to be mastered not by the individual, but by a group of students, or a ‘brigade’. Classes were grouped into small groups of three to five students, each group was given a separate task, and the marks were given collectively, and not to any individual student. But what would you do with the lazy ones? After the war, this method was rejected. In an unofficial way (for the fifth – tenth classes), the Gymnasium system of pre-revolutionary Russia was restored. At its core: cramming, obligatory use of summaries of each subject, obligatory homework, random marking of homework during the lesson which was graded, written coursework every three or four weeks or at the end of every term (of which their were four not three), exams in certain subjects at the end of each school year – i.e. in June. What’s more, in algebra, geometry and physics the exams were written exams. If you failed your exams you had to resit them in September.
That’s about all that I can remember right now. Pose me questions and I’ll try to answer them in detail as much as possible.

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