Friday, April 4, 2014

Student Woes!

By Stephen Wilson

            Endlessly novel subjects, increased testing, and a new timetable, exams, competitions and concerts take its toll on school students! School days are hardly the best days of their lives!

            Being a Russian school student is not getting any easier. On the contrary, it has become much harder over the last 20 years. This is not just due to the introduction of the recent unitary state exams, but to a combination of many pressures. In contrast to the relative simplicity of the Soviet system, a new curriculum has led to a mushrooming of subjects each enviously competing for the student's attention and adding yet more and more homework. And the pressure of having to acquire the best education in order to attain  places at the best         universities and so having extra private lesson only adds to the stress. School students now find themselves in a highly competitive and often callous society which refuses to forgive the most accidental mistakes.

            Therefore it is no understatement to assert that students are under too much pressure. A lot of this stress is needless.

            For instance, take the number of subjects which students now study. There are so many (the number varies with each school) that school students can't count the total. To the question 'How many subjects do you study?' they answer either 'I don't know' or 'about 17 or 18'. They have to study mathematics, Russian, literature, and some science subjects, but they are now studying new subjects such as 'Social Knowledge' (a topic that covers social issues and problems as well as the Russian constitution) and only from last year 'The basics of World Ethics' which is a course which covers facts about the main religions; Buddhism, Orthodoxy, Islam and other religions. Attempts by the Orthodox church to impose the teaching of only their faith were rejected in order to avert and avoid looming religious conflict. Other topics might be 'The History of Moscow' or 'The Environment'. Depending on the student, some are either welcomed or viewed as 'a waste of time'. Many of the students see those additional subjects as a distraction or rude interruption of their 'real studies'.

            That is not the only pain. School students have to take part in many celebrations,  concerts, competitions and sports whether they like it or not. They are not optional, but compulsory activities. One 16 year old student called Nastiya told me, ' We are asked to take part in school Olympic competitions, perform in concerts for major celebrations such as the       'Day of defenders of the Fatherland' on the 23rd of February, International Women's day on the 8th of March  and 'The Day of Victory. This leaves me with practically no free time as I have extra after school lessons, private lessons and competitions'.

            'Can't you just refuse to, say take part in your volley-ball team?' 
            'You can't. If the teacher asks for to join the team you must go. There is no choice in it'.

            I recall that in Scotland you had a choice. It was entirely voluntary. I will never forget an English teacher pleading with all her heart for children to take part in the drama performance. This would be impossible in Russia. Another difference which is worth noting is that children stand as soon as a Russian teacher enters a classroom. They still hold a degree of respect
for teacher which is often lacking in the West.
           A further burden is that the new state exams are viewed as more complex and less straightforward as the previous Soviet ones. With a rising uncritical cult of technology, middle-aged and elderly teachers are being asked to abandon the black board and chalk and use either electronic boards or white boards. Nastiya told me, 'This has made life more difficult for many of the older teachers. They often use the technology incorrectly or press the wrong button. It would be easier if you left them with blackboards and kept the old textbooks. There is never enough marker pens around. They always run out quicker. So teachers often can't use an effective marker. (Compared to markers, chalk is exceedingly cheap and accessible. A small box of chalk can cost as little as 12 roubles. One marker 120 roubles!) So along with the loss of
blackboard so goes basic common-sense.

            Replacing textbooks with electronic books is much cheaper. Now the teachers don't give out copies of 'War and Peace' but ask them to down-load it'.

            Any foreigner who stays in Russian long enough can't help being struck by the number of celebrations taking place in Russia. There are Soviet holidays, Orthodox church holidays and even new Western ones such as Saint Valentine's day'. Compared to Britain, the number is staggering. For school students they are not 'days off' or 'leisure'. On those days they might have to compose and deliver a speech or recite a long poem by Pushkin.

            Another additional pressure is constant testing of school students. In a way, this is replicating what is going on in Britain and America. It can lead to absurd situations. For instance, instead of a student studying to speak English, he might be just preparing tests or silly tests. I remember how a Moldovan police inspector once visited the office I was working which had been robbed. The first thing he said to me was not, 'Did you see or witness anything suspicious?' he spoke, jokingly, 'There are many beautiful parks and monuments in London'. In fact, they are still asking school students to memorize this text on London. Some things never change!

            The impact of endless testing on school students has been well documented and debated. What has received less attention is how it might make teaching worse. Teachers who are being solely judged by what marks students get in tests end up mainly preparing people for some silly multiple-choice grammar tests. The joke is that students know the rules of English grammar, but can never speak English. However, they still get fives. This pressure on getting students to just prepare for tests narrows their practical skills of conversation. Yes, you should assess students, but not all the time. Both the teachers and school students feel the pressure of testing. And a lot of those tests are badly designed and prepared by officials and not professional educators. That is professors by name and appointment rather than practice.

            Nastiya told me that many of the younger teachers often can't answer difficult questions. If the question is not related to the official textbook and exam preparation guide, they are helpless. In contrast, the old teachers can. So an old history teacher will be able to answer complex questions of history just from memory. The main thing is that they retain a passion for their subject. The older teachers more often don't do everything by the book. The younger ones straight out of university do things by the book and are helpless without the state textbook! You might have expected the opposite in the sense young people would be less conditioned by officials! Nastiya's experience at school proves otherwise. The older teachers can sometimes be more questioning and independently minded.

            With all this additional school work it should come as no surprise that many children fall prey to illness. Every year Moscow is hit by flu epidemics. Some parents speculate that the extre work is weakening their immunity system.

            It  is claimed  that all this extra homework is creating an imbalance where children are doing far less sport and play. It can be easily forgotten that sport is an education and that socializing with others is also an imperative education.
            Exam pressure is intensifying. After the scandal of last year when some school students cheated en-mass, the government is now taking no chances. Video cameras are to be installed in exam halls to diligently monitor the students every move and mobile phones are to be forbidden. School students are expected to do everything by the book, and not mobile phone.

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