“There Is No Such Thing As An Abstract Student: Sukhomlinsky Speaks To Teachers

Alan Cockerill, who is the leading supporter and promulgator of Vasilii Sukhomlinsky’s educational philosophy in the English-speaking world,  has recently translated some chapters from Sukhomlinsky’s seminal work:  One Hundred Pieces of Advice for Teachers.  I include an excerpt that Alan published in one of his newsletters:

“Imagine that all the seven-year-old children commencing grade one were required to complete exactly the same physical work, carrying water for example.  One is already exhausted after carrying five buckets, while another can manage twenty. If you force the weaker child to carry twenty buckets it will overstrain them.  The next day they will not be able to do anything and may end up in the hospital.  Children’s capacity for intellectual work is just as varied.  One understands, makes sense of things and remembers things easily, storing them in their long-term memory.  Another experiences intellectual work completely differently, taking in the material very slowly, and storing knowledge in their memory for only a short time;  though it often happens that the slower student achieves more significant success in their studies and in their intellectual development than the one who found it easier to study in the beginning.  There is no such thing as an abstract student to whom we can mechanically apply guidelines for instruction and education.  There are no prerequisites for ‘success in study’ that are the same for all students.  And the very concept of ‘success in study’ is relative:  for one success in study means getting an ‘A’, while for another a ‘C’ is a major achievement.  The ability to determine what each student is capable of at a given point in time, and work out how to develop their intellectual capabilities further, is an exceptionally important component of educational wisdom.”

Note:  Alan Cockerill’s Sukhomlinsky page is located at:http://theholisticeducator.com/sukhomlinsky

 

Sukhomlinsky And His Children

The famous Ukrainian educator, Vasilii Sukhomlinsky, had a special relationship with the children with whom he worked.  He had the ability to immerse himself into the child’s awe-struck world of wonder and discovery.  Sukhomlinsky knew how to instruct without being didactic.  He was ever sensitive to a child’s desire to learn and ask questions.

In China, virtually all of his works have been translated and he is considered one of the greatest of the world’s educators.  In the West, alas, such is not the case.  However, through the efforts of Australian Sukhomlinsky scholar, Alan Cockerill, Sukhomlinsky’s name is gaining prominence.  Alan has established a site and a newsletter to promote Sukhomlinsky’s multi-faceted pedagogy.  He has translated several of Sukhomlinsky’s works and has been a tireless supporter of the Ukrainian educator’s work.  Most importantly, he has put together a video showing Sukomlinsky interacting with his children.  The video is in Russian with English subtitles.  To watch this brief video, please go to my facebook page at:  facebook.com/robertmkweiss.

“How Can Mothers Give Birth To Such Monsters?

It was late at night.  Most of the patients were sleeping, but one was not.  He was tossing and turning, hovering between sanity and insanity.  The pain from the shrapnel wound he had received fighting for the Ukrainian resistance had not subsided, but that was not what was troubling him.  Only a few hours ago, he had learned of the death of his new wife and child.  His wife had been the prettiest girl in the village and they had looked forward to a long life together.  She, too, had been a fighter for Ukrainian independence, but had been captured by the Germans.  In a narrow prison with grimy walls, she had been tortured, and finally hanged, but not before she saw her baby’s skull shattered at the hands of the Nazis.  One thought tormented Vasya:  “How can mothers give birth to such monsters?”   He continued to moan from pain and despair.  Where was his future happiness now?  He thought back to his first date, and the sparkle in his bride’s eyes.  The Ukrainian steppe, which once seemed a boundless reach of possibilities, was now shrouded in gloom and uncertainty.  The more he thought, the angrier he got, and gripped the bedsheets, clenching his teeth.  Yet those actions assuaged some of his anger and he thought of his dead child and the many helpless children that are subjected to man’s inhumanity.  A new look shone in his eyes.  This was a confident look, a look of determination.  Vasya had made a decision:  “I will give my heart to children.”

Suddenly, his mind spun out a series of ideas.  He thought of his mentors:  Anton Makarenko and Janusz Korczak.  Makarenko had transformed would-be delinquents into future lawyers, doctors, architects, builders, teachers.  He had written his Pedagogical Poem in three parts after Dante, showing the progression from student hell to student heaven.  However, to achieve his aims, he had to make use of corporal punishment, and sheer intimidation.  Vasya would have none of that.  He would build the pride and confidence of his pupils, but he would do so from trust and love, not from coercion.  Korczak had been a hero to Vasya.  He had marched with his students to the gas chambers at Treblinka,  accompanying them as their teacher and friend to the very end.  The “Old Doctor”  had placed great emphasis on the health of his students.  This was a concept Vasya could embrace, because he believed in beautiful, healthy children.  He could not know that on the other side of the globe, in the despised imperialist U.S., another writer, the children’s writer, L. Frank Baum, had said the same thing many years before:  ” In all this world there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child.”  Vasya would see to it that the children had ample time for exercise and he would expose them to the elements to strengthen their bodies.

The mind that had been immersed in gloomy thoughts, now spun out more and more positive, expansive thoughts.  Vasya turned once again to his Ukrainian homeland with fruit trees, winding meadows and the ripening fields of grain.  Yes, he wanted children to experience nature in all its grandeur.  He wanted children to experience the awe and mystery of their natural surroundings.  And the thought came to him:  “I will build a school of joy.  I want students to feel beauty in all its manifestations.  Nature will be a wellspring for reading, writing and counting.  Already, he could see parts of future compositions floating about, lighting up the dreary hospital room:  “The Little Sun has arisen.  The little birds have wakened.  A lark ascends into the sky.  The sunflower has also awakened.”  And I will teach the children fairy tales, and we will listen to the music of the streams…

Vasya had exhausted himself with his thoughts and he fell asleep.  However, he never lost his concentrated look and his determination.  From dawn until the evening he would work with students, teachers, parents, and other staff, to create his special school in Pavlysh.  Despite attacks of angina and weakness, he would persevere, and fight for the dignity of children to the end.  When the doctors opened him up at the last, they could not believe he had lived as long as he had, so damaged was his body.  But Vasya had triumphed to become Vasilii Sukhomlinsky, one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century.

A proud Vasilij Sukhomlinskij

A proud Vasilii Sukhomlinsky

Remembering Mikhail Krasovitsky: Vasilii Sukhomlinsky: The Ukrainian Teacher, Part 2.

Only now is it becoming clear what courage Sukhomlinsky showed in actually coming out against the one-side conception of the dynamics of children’s collectives, a conception, sanctioned in theory and practice:  the stringent demands, the linking of responsibility and dependence, the subordination of personal interests to the interests of the collective.  In his opinion, the main thing was to create a healthy community of children in which an atmosphere of respect for the individual and for the interests of each child within the community fostered the good.

It is known that in former socialist society an atmosphere of hostility developed in relations among people, including rudeness, malevolence and disrespect for individual identity.  That atmosphere left its mark on the schools, as well as in teachers’ attitudes towards students.  Even now, lack of culture often predominates, trampling on a child’s self-respect.  In these circumstances, one hears Sukhomlinsky’s voice:  “Benevolence, reasoned goodness, that’s what should be basic to the life of a children’s collective.  How beautiful this world is, and, at the same time, how profound, how complex and many-sided, the goodness of human relations.

Sukhomlinsky came out against our practice of group discussion of a student’s misdeeds.  The so-called “personal matters” method of imposing a form of conduct defined for adults was introduced in its distorted form in the schools.  In extreme cases, such group pressure(literally, torture) led to suicide.  And Sukhomlinsky insisted that it is inadmissible to take as an example for discussion in a collective the misdeeds of a child related to abnormal family circumstances, parental arbitrariness, the mistakes of the teacher, or perhaps a child’s response to some intimate experience.  “It might occur to the teacher to ask,” writes Sukhomlinsky, “What is it that is useful for the collective to look over in the child’s behavior?  Nothing.

It is difficult for the American reader to understand how courageous one had to be to resist in thought or deed the authoritarian pedagogy in those years.  Sukhomlinsky paid for it with his health. He was constantly persecuted by zealous guardians of Leninist-Marxist dogma, or by those who were just spiteful, such as Boris Likhachev.

Yet he was awarded the Medal of Socialist Labor.  He became a corresponding member of the Academy of Science of the USSR.  He was awarded every kind of honor.  His books were published, although some of his publications were warehoused for twenty years.

We have to allow that Sukhomlinsky, like many others, had to praise the Communist party in his works.  He had to write about teaching schoolchildren devotion to the ideas of communism, though it was obvious that many of these ideas contradicted his humanistic view.  If he had not, his work would not have seen the light of day.

But very frequently, using communist phraseology, he came out against lies in educating children.  For example, he asserted that it was inadmissible to create an atmosphere of “ideological sterility” around children and young people, to close one’s eyes to what is evil, unjust, vicious, or inconsiderate in life.  He insisted that above all the teacher must display honesty.

It is still incomprehensible how the following incident, drawn from one of Sukhomlinsky’s works, was published in those years.  During a political information meeting required in all classes, a 10th grade Komsomolka(member of the Young Communist League) was speaking about life in the USSR and abroad.  Of course, here everything was great, and there everything was terrible.  And then a boy asked this question:  “My mother sat for a month on the ground cleaning off beets…  She got sick, and is now in the hospital.  Why do women have to do such strenuous work?”  “Do you realize what you are saying?”, the teacher got angry.  What sort of Pioneer are you?”  “What kind of teacher are you?” asked the boy.  “Why should a person sit for months on the damp ground?  And you teach us to defend the truth!”(Personal note:  In 1973 I was in Leningrad with a group of fellow American students.  As part of our daily routine, we were required to attend lectures emphasizing the superiority of Leninist-Marxist doctrine.  When it came to a meeting of philosophers, my patience reached an end, and I blurted out:  “Isn’t the business of philosophy to encourage questioning?   What if someone entered your philosophy group with a different point of view?”  There was a shocked silence and threatening looks from my fellow Americans.  At last the answer came from the group:  “We wouldn’t need him!)

The posthumous fate of Sukhomlinsky’s works recapitulates the fate of many progressive ideas in our country.  Sukhomlinsky’s books were published, his birthday celebrated.  The Pavlysh school bears his name, and his daughter, Olga, is the head of a department in a Ukrainian teacher research institute.  Conferences take place celebrating his work, but only a small percentage of teachers have read his works in the original.  So, unfortunately, many of Sukhomlinsky’s ideas are entirely excluded from the schools.

One of Sukhomlinsky’s books is entitled, I Give My Heart to Children.  And I believe that says it all.

Vasilij Sukhomlinskij and his children after a harvest

Vasilii Sukhomlinsky and his children after a harvest

Remembering Mikhail Krasovitsky: Vasilii Sukhomlinsky: The Ukrainian Teacher, Part 1.

Mikhail Krasovitsky was the former Director of  the Institute for Advanced Teacher Training in the Ukraine.  He was also a member of the Advisory Board of Medford Education International, and a participant in the Educational Reform Symposium.  A man of considerable learning, and a vibrant personality, he was a supporter of Ukrainian educator, Anton Makarenko, who worked with troubled teenagers that were displaced by the Russian Civil War of 1917 and World War I.  Makarenko’s  Pedagogical Poem(with a nod to Dante), delineates his struggles with local authorities and his would-be delinquents and how his adolescents become responsible human beings.  He does not shy away from depicting life as he sees it, not refraining from coarse terms, corporal punishment,  class warfare and the like.  The book makes for compelling if disturbing reading today.  But Mikhail was also intrigued by the personality and teaching approach of Vasilii Sukhomlinsky, perhaps the greatest poet of all the famous educators.  Sukhomlinsky recognizes the enormous impact nature has on a child’s developing mind.  In the following article, Mikhail gives a moving and informative tribute to this outstanding teacher.  Parenthetical comments are mine.

He died in 1970 at the peak of his creative powers.(He died from shrapnel he received while fighting in the war.  The doctors were amazed he had lived as long as he had, so great was the internal damage surrounding his heart.)  He was a teacher and school director(principal) in the village of Pavlysh located in the Ukrainian steppes.

He wrote more than 600 books and articles(more than 30 books, and the rest were articles) in which he described his pedagogical experience and illustrated all the difficulties and fine points of a teacher’s work.  His best books include:  The Birth of the Citizen(This is debatable.  It reflects Krasovitsky’s attachment to some of the Communist ideals.), I Give My Heart to Children(A fine book that is also marred by numerous references to evil imperialists and an idealizing of Communist principles.), 100 Suggestions for a TeacherConversations with a Young Director, and How to Educate a Real Person.(The use of the word “real” is unfortunate.  Back issues of Soviet Life make extensive use of it to portray the ideal Communist future.  Socialist realism, the accepted literary style under the Communist regime, uses it as a sine qua non.)

Sukhomlinsky tried to discover the unique personality of each child, to understand his/her internal world, and on that basis alone establish relations with him.  He wrote: “…  There is not a single pedagogical norm, there is not one truth, which can be applied in one way to all children.(This statement shows him to be at odds with many educators of his time, who treated children like machines that required the same mechanisms to make them run.)…  To educate a person–one must first know the person’s soul, see and feel his/her individual world.”

He believed in the beautiful world of childhood.  To one teacher who was beginning to be exasperated by children, Sukhomlinsky responded in this way:  “There is nothing in a child that requires a teacher to be brutal(At that time corporal punishment in school was common as it was in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Children were not considered as fully developed human beings, a major principle of Polish educator, Janusz Korczak.), and if vices or flaws arise in a child’s soul, then those evils will be overcome best of all by kindness…  I abominate nagging suspiciousness of children.   I abominate the formalistic regimentation of demands and prohibitions.

Sukhomlinsky thought the most important element of a humanistic education was the ability of a teacher to expereience the world of childhood, to see the world with the eyes of a child.  He wrote:  “The child’s world is a special one.  Children live by their own notions of good and evil.  They have their own criteria of beauty.  They even have their own way of measuring time:  in a child’s world a day is like a year and a year–eternity.(For more on this topic, see Jean Piaget’s, The Child’s Conception of Time, and Kornei Chukovskij’s, From Two to Five.)  In order to enter into this fairy tale palace whose name is childhood, you must be reincarnated, become to a certain extent a child.  Only under such circumstances will you be able to exert a benevolent authority over the child.

The area of the Pavlysh school is located in a unique site.  Here Vasili Sukhomlinsky created “a school under the blue sky, which became the most important factor in the educational development of his students.

The pride of the school was its garden:  pear and apple trees looked in the “green classes” from all sides.  In one of the corners of the schoolyard the children planted grape vines;  in other places there were green glades, flower beds with roses, chrysanthemums, tulips.  There was also a little corner for dreams(a gully behind the school), an island of wonder where under the green tree tops children made up and told fairy tales.  There were even little groves of trees in the schoolyard.  The parents had built the children a greenhouse, so that the school cafeteria would always serve vegetables.  All this was a marvelous aid in helping the children study, dream, create fairy tales, listen to the music of nature.

In the Pavlysh school there was a tradition:  the little ones planted trees in the spring, apples and grapes for their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers.  Then they brought their relatives the fruit grown by their own hands.

Vasili Sukhomlinsky taught little children to feel and understand another person’s spiritual state, to empathize with him/her.  Not far from the school there were women working on a sugar beet plantation.   Sukhomlinsky taught the children to look into their faces, and try to feel and understand what each was feeling–untrammeled peace or the dark cloud of grief.

In order to teach children compassion, sensitivity, and sincerity, Sukhomlinsky wrote the text Thoughts About a Person.  These are short stories, which were intended to arouse feelings of charity and compassion in his students.  Here are some themes in the conversational tales:  Why are there tears in the grandmother’s and grandfather’s eyes/  Think about how your actions might affect another person’s feelings.

In real life situations Sukhomlinsky taught his students sensitivity, charity, genuine humanity.  On the outskirts of the village lived a girl Natalka.  From early childhood she had been very ill, and could no longer walk.  Natalka’s whole world consisted of a green courtyard, an apple tree, two beehives, a well, storks on the shed, the dog Palma and rabbits.  Doctors took care of her, but did not promise to cure her.  The children and the teachers came to her assistance.  They planted many flowers in the courtyard.  The teachers came to her house, and taught Natalka to read and draw.  They brought her to school for the holidays.  In two years she was back on her feet.  The doctors said it was not only medicine, but joy that cured her.

Vasilij Sukhomlinskij accepts flowers at graduation.

Vasilii Sukhomlinsky accepts flowers at graduation.

The Circles Of Sukhomlinsky By Nata Krylova, Part 2.

Sukhomlinsky’s ideas are from the Second Circle:  1.  The main educator’s skill is the ability to feel the inner world of kids.  The main task for the educator is to teach a child to feel another’s heart;  2.  Learning is part of a child’s spiritual life.  3.  School is the heart of four domains:  the Motherland, the humane, the book, and the native word.  4.  The educator and the child are connected by heartfelt threads.  Sukhomlinsky uses the following concepts as key-words:  spiritual community, heart, deep love, many-sided emotional attitudes, attachment to the child.  That is the OTHER LINE of concepts, different than that used by scholars, who consider research problems only on the first level!

The Third Circle:  Teachers’/Kids’ Community.  In the last years of his life and after his death, Sukhomlinsky enters into the Third Circle;  the spreading of his ideas and growing popularity.  The lines of like-minded educators grow.  We can talk now about the time he lives in as a Historical Circle, in the same way we talk about “Pushkin and his Circle/Surrounding,” or “Shakespeare and his Circle/Surrounding.”

The seeds were sown.  Many teachers followed Sukhomlinsky’s lead.  There was a time for Pre-reformation.  The school reforms and the education in the middle of the 80s had begun.  The new conception of “Educators for Collaboration” was published, summarizing all that had been done in teachers’ Humane Community after Sukhomlinsky’s death.  That community has maintained a connection with the kids’ community in their schools.

The Fourth Circle:  Common World Space.  It is possible that there are the same or similar circles for the development of  educational ideas in various countries.  At the intersection of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have a real opportunity to bring together humanist educational ideas and values of different cultures, including Sukhomlinsky’s ideas.  It doesn’t mean that those ideas will become the same.  It means that educators can enter into the common spiritual space for the upbringing of kids in the Second and Third Circles and there is more which each teacher can give his/her heart to children.(I Give my Heart to Children was the title of one of Sukhomlinsky’s last works.)

Vasilij Sukhomlinskij explores a field with his student.

Vasilii Sukhomlinsky explores a field with his student.

The Circles Of Sukhomlinsky By Nata Krylova, Part 1.

Nata Krylova was the Chief Researcher for the Institute of Pedagogical Innovations in Moscow.  The late Oleg Gazman was its Director and inspiration.  I became acquainted with Profs. Gazman and Krylova when we participated in  The International Educational Reform Symposium, sponsored and hosted by Medford Education International.  The IPI had plans to publish a series of volumes highlighting specific problems in education.  The series was called New Educational Values.  MEI worked jointly with IPI on New Educational Values 2, and my article on obstacles to learning was translated into Russian.  At that time(1995-1997), Russian educators were coming to terms with a new focus on the individual in education as opposed to the collective approach of the Soviet Union.  Vasilii Sukhomlinsky was one of those educators that managed to encourage the development of the individual within a collective setting in the Ukraine.  He still had many detractors and his life was not an easy one.  He wrote over thirty books, but only a few have been translated into English.  This is, in part, due to a lingering suspicion of educators that lived under a repressive regime.  It was one of the goals of the Symposium to equate educators from around the U.S.  with this famous, and highly innovative Ukrainian  educator.  Papers on Sukhomlinskij were presented and photographs and other archival materials were displayed.  Nata contributed the following article, The Circles of Sukhomlinsky, to the MEI newsletter in 1997.  What follows is Nata’s article with my commentary in parentheses.

It was not my lot to make the acquaintance of Vasilii Sukhomlinsky; he died in 1970 when I was a post-graduate student.  I did not know very much about the controversy surrounding his name and “abstract humanism.”(the word “abstract” was taboo in the USSR since it ran counter to the belief that all ideas should be concrete and grasped easily by the masses.  The formal term was socialist realism.)  I read his I Give my Heart to Children(one of Sukhomlinsky’s last books, which details his experiences as a Director of the School of Joy, a kind of pre-school.)  when my son was little and my daughter had just been born.  While reading the book, I couldn’t find any reason for the charges that had been made against Sukhomlinsky.(In particular, Boris Likhachev wrote scathing essays, denouncing Sukhomlinsky as a betrayer of socialist principles.)  However, criticism of his work continued right up to the Congress of 1988 by which time it had become an anachronism.

Now I have read the book again in a new sociocultural context, and asked myself why the critics were indignant.

The First Circle:   Concrete Life.  Is an educator that acts outside of accepted policy or is governed by social relationships at fault?  No.  Otherwise, Korczak should not have gone to Treblinka to perish with his pupils.  Otherwise, Sukhomlinsky shouldn’t have worked as a principal at Pavlysh.  But those social contexts are not so simple.

The Second Circle:  Spirit/Inner World.  An educator acts through a network of social relationships, therefore s/he not only introduces the child to concrete society, but the World of Mankind.  And the child is a Child for Humanity and a Citizen, not only of a country, but the World.  This point of view was not accessible to critics “from pedagogics”, who stopped on the first level, and who couldn’t or didn’t want want to enter the Second Circle.

Sukhomlinsky and Korczak took this step.  It seems to me that a certain measure of talent, and a certain moral mission emanating from the heart, are only revealed to the educator in the Second Circle, in which there is no place for the formal roles of the teacher and pupil, but where an adult and a child enter into eternal relationships to create a new space of their co-existence.

Vasilij Sukhomlinskij examines a tree.

Vasilii Sukhomlinsky examines a tree.