The Instructors and Principal at a Leningrad School Challenge Rigidities in Soviet Education

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Early in the day at Leningrad School #307. In one room 6-year-olds study arithmetic, the blackboard reading 8.4 = 8+8+8+8 = 32. In another, second graders attend the day's ethics lesson: "The Strong Should Always Help the Weak." In yet another, high school physics students stand at attention as their teacher, Fyodor Mikhailov, 55, enters to lecture on electromagnetism. The robust Mikhailov strides energetically as he talks, a great wing of hair falling across his broad forehead. Attention is complete. When he asks a question, students stand to answer. They would give the same respect to any teacher, but Mikhailov also is the school principal, the dynamo who drives this educational enterprise.

If Western visitors are always shown the best in the U.S.S.R., then Leningrad School #307 may be considered a Soviet "New Trier," a counterpart to the innovative and well-equipped suburban Chicago high school. And the comparison is revealing, for the school run by Mikhailov, like so many Soviet institutions, is a product of human passion and material scarcity. The pale yellow school (the upper-and lower-school buildings are separated by a street) is 50 years old, and the teachers seem apologetic, almost embarrassed, by the threadbare structure. The parquet flooring is loose in spots, the stairs worn and the bathroom plumbing merely functional. Equipment seems short. There is a poster on the physics room wall, for instance, showing different kinds of calculators, but no real calculators, much less computers, are in use. A small motor is jury-rigged to a piece of clothesline to draw the gray wool curtains when the venerable movie projector is used.

A few hours at the school, however, make it clear that material problems don't matter. A little goes a very long way here. The classrooms are electric, inspired by some of the best teachers one might find anywhere. Their techniques have given the school a nationwide reputation in a country where lessons and textbooks are rigidly standardized across the land.

As Mikhailov explains it, the school's innovations rest on independent study. All of the school's 1,226 pupils (some 60 percent come from factory workers' homes) perform independent study in addition to the regular curriculum. Children ages 7 to 9 work in small groups—studying birds, flowers, fairy tales—and make semiannual reports. "This helps orient children to books," says Mikhailov. "They learn research." At 10, each child can study whatever subject he or she wishes. There have been notable successes. Mikhailov cites a girl who decided to study the poet Pushkin from the fourth grade on. By high school she was a recognized expert. A boy became interested in tropical coral, and soon Soviet sailors were bringing him specimens from around the world. "One of my students has chosen to study the physics of medical treatment. To advise him I have to study," says Mikhailov. "So in a way this is a method of teacher education."

Four years ago the school began an innovative two-year "pedagogical program" for high school students ambitious to become teachers (who make about $225 monthly). Drawing students from all over the city, the program last year had 1,200 applicants for 105 openings. Mikhailov sees this program, which emphasizes personal relationships, as particularly effective in the moral instruction of "hothouse" kids, those growing up in modern Soviet families that typically have only one child—"with everything they want and a higher standard of living." (There is a widespread fear among Soviets, in fact, that they are raising a generation of spoiled brats unresponsive to the virtues of Communist collectivism.)

Closely allied with the school's student-teacher course is its "human studies" program, whose head is the controversial Yevgeny Ilyin, 58, a seminal figure in contemporary Soviet education. Theatrical, galvanic and the author of five influential books, Ilyin, a teacher of literature, has been criticized for emphasizing the student more than the subject being taught. "In a literature lesson we deal with two masterpieces: the book and the student-reader," he says. "I synthesize these masterpieces."

He performs as an "actor" in class and tries to put his students within a work of literature, forcing them to face the same moral dilemmas as the work's hero. "I believe a teacher must be an actor, an instrument of the lesson," he says. "As a result of a wound I received during the war, I became a stutterer. This required me to conquer myself, and I did it by acting." After 31 years as a teacher, Ilyin is seeing his ideas gain acceptance. Usually there are a few adults in his classes—teachers who come from all over the Soviet Union to watch him work. "There are two principal ways of teaching. The first is to try to awaken the person in the student; the second is my way, to work with the person to awaken the student—for his whole life, so he will always read, study, learn."

Principal Mikhailov, once an auto mechanic, would echo those sentiments. Like most U.S.S.R. school administrators, he entered teaching through the Communist Party, being chosen to lead a summer camp of Young Pioneers in 1956. "I was so frightened I couldn't sleep," he remembers, "but surrounded by children and teachers for the first time, I was magnetized. That's when I decided to study teaching, that's when I learned how to educate myself."

Mikhailov and his wife Antonina, 49, have two grown children and like to slip away when possible to their summer dacha, where he designed and built a special sauna. His procedure for taking a sauna is as rigorous as his running of the school. First he takes a superhot steam, then does 90 modified pushups in a tub of freezing spring water. Then he gets into a hot tub, "and I feel a little bit unsteady," he says. "When my body warms up, I stabilize. Then I wash and dry in the open air. Then I start over in the steam room, but this time I do only 80 plunges into cold water, and so on. The next time 70 plunges. The process takes about three hours. When I finish I feel like I have been born again."

Mikhailov, who neither smokes nor drinks and skis cross-country 24 miles at a clip, recommends such a sauna after any "shock" in life or at work. And he has a further lesson for his teachers. "I tell them that they are eternally alive," Mikhailov says, "because when they die their thoughts and ideas will live on in their students."

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