I was back in Russia last week, as part of a long-term research project in conjunction with the British Council; a project looking at what the success factors are for the consistent and pedagogically sound integration of technologies in primary and secondary. So far we’ve talked to pre- and in-service teacher training institutes, spoken to some people higher up the food chain, and visited some schools to see some classes. The next stage involves an online survey for learners, and the development and application of an observation instrument which will be used in schools throughout Russia – and I’m looking forward to returning in early November to do some observations myself.
Last week, however, we were talking to school principals and I got the chance to visit two quite extraordinary schools in Moscow…
The first was a primary school run by a charismatic man – I couldn’t get a photo of him, but he did leave me with his deputy for a while:
He’d arranged to give us a guided tour of the school, and had agreed with teachers that we might pop in and look around… Now you probably need to know that there is an ICT policy in place at primary level: there are new standards, new literacies and there is equipment in all primary schools (or at least that is the idea). There has been a great shift in the curriculum to collaborative, constructivist learning, groupwork, producing, mixing, creating…. So what did we see when we walked round the school?
Well, the first thing I saw was small classes, full of polite little people. They all stood up when we entered any of the classrooms, and they all said hello when passing in the corridors. Now I’m not much of a discipline person, but I do like a bit of education and politeness, which is what that was.
So let’s go into one of the classrooms… here the kids are the only ones who don’t stand up, or even notice us as we talk to the teacher. They’re all engrossed in self-set experiments with the modern LEGO educational kits. One group has made a monster that will chomp your finger off if you put it in its mouth, another has made a car that responds to sounds. They build using the pieces, and they learn from small rugged computers which tell them how the components work… The teacher is no spring chicken, but she claims to love the LEGO kits, though she is keen to point out that they still do a lot of stuff with paper, bits of metal and other traditional materials, and she smiles as she pulls put the lovingly cared-for old style meccano. The kids still love that too. The kids, engrossed in their experiments – and chatting away animatedly – fail to notice when we slip out of the door.
In the next classroom we see the new intake, who have been there just three weeks. They’re doing a bit of Russian language, whilst learning keyboard skills. The teacher walks around gently but firmly putting their hands back in the right place on the Apple Mac keyboards…. I still can’t touch type, but these kids will before they finish the first grade.
All the classrooms are bright and there are plenty of examples of the kind of activities we heard about the day before – kids working with traditional folk stories from Russia, but retelling then with their own drawings and models lovingly animated with stop motion digital photography, kids working with electronic microscopes connected to computers, kids working with scientific computers that can measure sounds, temperatures, light, air pressure and a lot more.
This is a busy school, a happy school and a productive school – there’s a beautiful balance of the traditional and the modern, handicraft and technology, solo and group work and the kids seem happy to switch between technology and traditional, between silent reading and animated discussion during groupwork. It’s a great experience. Back in the principal’s office we have a coffee and the principal bemoans the fact that teachers who come to the school directly out of teacher training courses still know nothing about computers and are therefore unable to help the learners towards the future which will undoubtedly be theirs. Plus ça change…
After lunch we’re off to a secondary school (actually it’s a kindergarten, primary, middle and high school stretched over a variety of buildings, but let’s not worry too much about that). The principal grants us an interview before the tour:
There’s something odd about the directors of these Russian schools, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…
The building is a pretty nondescript square with a courtyard in the middle and I’m already feeling bored as we start the tour. Nobody has been warned, I think – teachers open their doors and, on being told why we’re there, shrink back into their classrooms muttering about how today is exam day, so it wouldn’t be any use to us. And, to be honest, i can understand why – it’s rubbish being surprised like that…
Eventually the head of IT turns up and gives us a complete tour – we visit a Chinese class (many of the kids in secondary learn Chinese or Japanese, apparently) which is decked out like a Chinese garden – lots of wood, a fountain with fish in it… And engaged kids chatting away in Mandarin… Of course they are quite able to explain exactly what they’re doing – in English… so that’s at least three languages they speak well (puts the UK schools to shame). I try my hand at thanking them in Mandarin, but whilst they are good teachers, I’m afraid I’m a very bad student!
Next door there’s a classroom lovingly decked out as a replica of Pushkin’s library… a grand place to study a bit of literature…. We cross from one wing to another. The roof of the corridor that links the two buildings has been strengthened and turned into a glasshouse corridor where they grow lemons, avocado, coffee, bananas and more – it’s a beautiful little respite as you change classes. Out of the corridor into the art department, where we find amazing talent hanging on the walls, and a temporary exhibition from an old student who is now an artist.
Beyond the art to handicrafts and then ‘domestic science’, where the boys are also learning how to iron and cook. Up on the to floor a disused corridor has been turned into ‘imaginarium’ classrooms – there’s another LEGO centre, a class with electronic microscopes and another with working science machines built by the students. These are quiet, reflective spaces (with computers!)
Downstairs an educational psychologist is waiting for a client.. chairs in a circle, bean bags and sofas abound. everywhere you see signs of pride in the school – posters, celebrations, bands and music groups, poems and newsletters… they even have a school museum full of related artefacts. Hard to conceive, then, that this is one of the leading schools in the use of ICT – it’s everywhere. They have masses of technology, three internet connections (for a bit of redundancy) and talented staff who are international award winners in collaborative training, projects…
Our guide has a Nespresso machine…. which is a fine way to end a near perfect day. The sheer numbers in the Moscow region (not to mention Russia as a country) are unimaginable for most countries, but here something positive is being done, and learners are being prepared for those putative jobs that don’t exist yet, whilst looking after their culture and history. These kids will leave school typing beautifully, writing beautifully, speaking at least three languages, knowing their way round a variety of technologies, with a portfolio of artwork, playing an instrument and valuing the beauty of collaboration and creation.
I would have taken a job in either place…. but nobody offered…..