George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.
By Irina Fishman
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Twenty years ago, students in Russian classrooms stared at Communist Party slogans placed above their blackboards. "What is good for the country is good for you," read one particularly grim pronouncement. Those days are over, comrade. New thinking in Russian education is turning students from pawns of propaganda into something downright revolutionary.

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

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

One middle school project involved the study of herbal medicine. Medications are very expensive in Russia and are often unavailable in villages. Eighth graders from a small, rural school, who decided to investigate medicinal herbs, learned about which herbs could grow in the area, when and how to gather and dry them, and which drugs they could be substituted for. In another project, sixth graders wrote family stories tied to Russian history.

Most rural schools in Russia are the centers of local cultural life in their area. Many schools have museums with exhibits on distinguished people, World War II heroes, and important local historical events. However, high school students serving as museum tour guides in one village noticed that most visitors' questions focused not on the area'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 of a world-famous preserve with huge pine forests and preglacial relic plants.

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

Educational researchers in Samara are studying new forms of curriculum and instruction to support this philosophy of student-centered learning. The goals of modern Russian education are being redefined through a new approach that will encourage student participation, conversation, and leadership, connecting challenging content 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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