George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

From Russia, with Learning: Redefining Education in the Former Soviet Union

Project-based learning has replaced grim Communist Party pronouncements at the core of the Russian schoolroom.

January 11, 2008

Twenty years ago, students in Russian classrooms stared at CommunistParty slogans placed above their blackboards. "What is good for thecountry is good for you," read one particularly grim pronouncement.Those days are over, comrade. New thinking in Russian education is turningstudents from pawns of propaganda into something downright revolutionary.

Instead of the party line, Russian educators are now advocating for a student-centeredcurriculum using project-based learning that has much in common withthe global movement toward twenty-first-century skills.

Starting in 2004, the government of the Samara region produced a curriculumthat includes active, hands-on learning on topics and projects relevant to students'lives and communities, including organizing work in project journals and presentingthe products of their work.

One middle school project involved the study of herbal medicine. Medications arevery expensive in Russia and are often unavailable in villages. Eighth graders from asmall, rural school, who decided to investigate medicinal herbs, learned about whichherbs could grow in the area, when andhow to gather and dry them, and whichdrugs they could be substituted for. Inanother project, sixth graders wrotefamily stories tied to Russian history.

Most rural schools in Russia are the centers of local cultural life in their area. Manyschools have museums with exhibits on distinguished people, World War II heroes,and important local historical events. However, high school students serving as museumtour guides in one village noticed that most visitors' questions focused not on thearea's history or people but on its natural beauty. The school lies in Samarskaya Luka(Samara Bend, where Europe's biggest river, the Volga, makes a loop), in the center ofa world-famous preserve with huge pine forests and preglacial relic plants.

A project that involved more than forty students set out to explore the naturalriches of the area. They joined with a number of local groups and began to explorewater sources, soils, vegetation, and rocks, producing a map of water resources andcharts of winds and atmospheric precipitation. Students interviewed teachers andparents and consulted with geologists, foresters, and agronomists. As a result, theschool museum now has a section on the natural riches of the area, complete withstudent guides happy to share their newfound knowledge.

Educational researchers in Samara are studying new forms of curriculum andinstruction to support this philosophy of student-centered learning. The goals ofmodern Russian education are being redefined through a new approach that willencourage student participation, conversation, and leadership, connecting challengingcontent to real-life experience.

Irina Fishman is an associate professor at Samara State Teacher Training University, in Samara, Russia, and a Fulbright New Century Scholar.

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