Friday, March 3, 2017

By Stephen Wilson

MOSCOW -- The Deputy Russian Prime Minister has recently declared in a speech that it is high time that the traditional layout where school student desks (Парты)
are arranged in straight angled rows facing the teacher with all eyes facing the teacher at the blackboard must be replaced by new arrangements and a novel methodology which acknowledges the individuality of pupils.
The Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets ,at a forum in Sochi, made a speech calling for the radical restructuring of the geography of Russian school classrooms as well as teaching methodology, which she believes is not only 
outdated but hinders the effectiveness of education.
"Classes are arranged in an incorrect manner , where they are organised in straight-line angled rows . Therefore , students are in the habit of sitting behind the teacher at the blackboard in ranks just as we studied in childhood..... This
incorrectly influences the individuality of school students. In order to develop as a team and achieve their aims , children must sit in another way' , declared Olga Golodets. Her views are echoed by an educational expert , Irina Abakino, who states : "The organisation of the Russian educational system is too conservative and less effective than in other countries . At this moment , one of the most effective education systems is in Finland and Singapore where the teacher is more of a facilitator who helps organise students into groups which
does not stifle their self suffiency. As a rule. school children are organised into smaller groups ... Schools are run on the principle of open spaces , without long corridors. Finnish visitors to Russian schools are astonished at how Russian schools waste 15 % of space on designing long corridors".
The speech provoked exasperating groans and complaints from many teachers who have long identified such problems. If the Russian minister is so concerned about improving efficiency why have they been forcefully implementing, without proper consultation , a process of 'optimisation' which has led to the closure of many schools, the redundancy of many teachers, increased class sizes and
the firing of many experienced teachers who oppose those changes ? How can the quality of education be improved by getting one Russian English teacher to take over the jobs of his three fired colleagues ? This speech on methodology
simply heaps all the faults of the education system on the shoulders of teachers who are blamed for being too authoritarian, conservative and an obstacle to progress.
Any foreigner who visits a Russian school might well be slightly shocked . As soon as a teacher enters a classroom the school students usually abruptly stand up and after a class ends , younger children race up to the blackboard to wash it for you.
This is not a school to which most Scottish or American teachers are accustomed to. Tom Hawks, who visited some Russian schools in Moldova ,states in his work:
'Playing the Moldovans at Tennis ' that he was shocked to learn that in some places in the world they still respect teachers.
One of the downsides of Russian schools is the fact that some teachers attempt to severely control the physical activity of young children who are made to rigidly sit behind their desks, in silence, facing the teacher. This can stifle and repress both the physical and mental activity of the pupils. There is no doubt that this strict control is partly based on the fear that granting a little freedom of movement might lead to disorder in the classroom.
Nevertheless, we can overstate the role of the geography in the classroom.
Rearranging or tinkering with the furniture won't always bring wonders and is often simply cosmetic. There are even many extreme ideas in the air which are so against common sense that they would impede the work of teachers.
Daniel Ogen was once teaching very well in a Russian school . Despite the fact that Daniel had thirty years of experience as a teacher, a young man barely out of university came to check his work . After the lesson, the young man advised Daniel to radically rearrange the furniture by putting the chairs and tables in a different way . Daniel told me : " I just decided to calmy listen to him and then told him ; " Thank you for all this new information. It was very useful and helpful".
"It was the best way to get him off my back so that I could carry on teaching."
One trendy idea was to throw out all the tables from the classroom. This notion, which became popular in the late 1990's, coincided with the idea of furnitureless offices. It never worked in the offices or the schools. Both the teachers and office workers found that they felt more secure and confident with a place to put their text books. In fact , both children and teachers were tripping over their books while moving around. The office workers who were deprived of their beloved tables left the office to work in much more comfortable cafes in the nearby vicinity. The offices became 'free' desolate empty spaces.
The notion that the role of a teacher should be reduced to a 'facilitator' or 'helper' , represents a negation of the role of the teacher. The facts are that there will always be a tension or gap between the student and teacher.
For a start, the teacher is an authority figure has has more knowledge than the student. Even Paulo Friere stated that you had to acknowledge this fact.
They are not equals as the school student requires a role model to follow or look up to. Removing the 'barriers' between students and teachers flies in the face of common sense.
Olga Golodets needs to not only talk to a few academics or psychologists but listen to the voice of the most experienced teachers who know how to handle children with or without any novel changes in the geography of the classroom. Geography doesn't determine everything!

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