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Russian Schools Are Changing Rapidly, But Not Always for the Better

According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) entitled Measuring Innovation in Education 2019: What Has Changed in the Classroom?, Russia ranked among the top three countries where schools are changing most rapidly.

Researchers at the HSE Institute of Education determined which of these changes are indeed important for improving the quality of Russian schools, and which merely point to quantitative changes.

The OECD report, Measuring Innovation in Education 2019: What Has Changed in the Classroom?, was published in January 2019 and presented at a conference in Paris. Faculty members of the Centre for the Study of Innovation in Education at the Institute of Education of the HSE participated in the Russian component of the study.

The report looked at how schools in 53 countries (including 47 OECD countries) have changed over the past decade. Russia has once again demonstrated growth in many respects, ranking third in the overall index ranking. Only Slovenia and Canada ranked above Russia, while the United Kingdom, Singapore, the United States, and South Korea ranked far behind.

‘The View from Above’

Despite the fact that international reports like this provide a ‘top-down look’ at the data, without considering their national context, they still offer something to think about, says Diana Koroleva, Director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Innovations. Moreover, there is a lot of interest in the topic of educational innovations in Russia. On April 1, the sixth annual Innovation in Education Competition (IEC) will begin. Every year this competition receives several hundred applications, and the winner receives a grant for an internship anywhere in the world.

The report was largely based on international comparative studies that evaluated the quality of education (such as PIRLS, PISA and TIMSS), says Tatiana Khavenson, a researcher at the HSE International Laboratory for Education Policy Analysis.

Over the course of these studies, children perform tasks, and they, in addition to their teachers, also fill out ‘contextual’ questionnaires where they answer questions about their school, how the educational process is organized, and so on. Based on these responses, it is possible to draw meaningful conclusions about what is happening in schools and in classes. At the same time, Tatiana Khavenson emphasizes, the authors of the report consider any and all changes in the classroom to be innovations in education. The researchers examine all the data with the question “how was it then, and how is it now?” in mind.

On March 12, the researchers of the HSE Institute of Education and invited experts discussed the main findings of the report in relation to Russia in three areas: resources, practices (homework, independent learning, active learning, etc.) and teacher professional development.

Libraries, Computers, and Parents

As the report indicates, Russian schools are drastically increasing their resources. Russia is ‘ahead of the rest’ in terms of providing school libraries (with a 100% rating). Russia also ranks highly in terms of student access to computers with a rating of 94%.

‘At the presentation of the report in Paris, these figures drew particular interest,’ says Diana Koroleva. ‘It turns out that we do not fit the general trend in this regard. In practically all other countries the amount of school resources is decreasing, but in Russia it is growing.’

Researchers at the Institute of Education suggest that there is a problem, however, with the quality of these resources.

Most often our school libraries are places for storing and issuing textbooks and, sometimes, housing some fiction. But the global trend has been to turn libraries into creative spaces

The same goes for computers. In European schools there are limitations on the lifespan of a computer—after a certain time it is written off as obsolete—but in Russian schools, very old equipment remains in use. Moreover, if students have their own gadgets that can be used in the learning process in the classroom, computers are not so important.

Russian schools actively make use of an external resource—parents. Parental involvement in student educational activities received a rating of 100%, and Russian teachers consider this to be normal. But the involvement of parents in extracurricular activities (when they go on field trips with the class, conduct vocational guidance classes, etc.) is increasing at a lower than average rate in comparison with other OECD countries.

Director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Innovations, Diana Koroleva, and Tatiana Khavenson, Researcher at the HSE International Laboratory for the Analysis of Educational Policy
© Mikhail Dmitriev / Higher School of Economics

Active Learning, Homework and Cramming

The report also showed that Russian schools have begun to implement more active learning. In science lessons, children conduct experiments and research, study natural phenomena using computer simulations, and so on.

At the same time, Russia again surpasses the entire world in terms of homework load. Russian teachers assign homework 98% of the time, while in the some countries homework is assigned only about 8% of the time.  

‘OECD experts say that homework is an outdated practice, but it can be effective if you discuss and correct completed assignments in class or arrange peer review sessions,’ says Diana Koroleva. ‘Discussing homework in Russian schools has become more common, but we still lag in student self-correction and peer review.’

Another conclusion of the report was that Russian schoolchildren have begun to use computers more often for research in all subject areas, and in elementary school, computer usage has increased from 10 to 75%.

In addition, in Russian schools there is more of an emphasis on ‘memorization practices’ or, in other words, cramming

‘We know how to cram, and we continue to improve in other areas. Among OECD countries we have no equals,’ Diana Koroleva says. However, she clarifies, in the understanding of the authors of the report, ‘memorization practices’ refers not only to habitual systematic memorization, in which foreign colleagues do not find fault, but also the systematic application of knowledge in practice.

What about the Teachers?

The OECD report assessed teacher participation in advanced training programs and the prevalence of peer education.

As it turned out, the popularity of IT application programs in teaching and evaluating educational achievements has grown, but Russian teachers have become less involved in programs on teaching content, teaching methods, and thematic planning. ‘Perhaps this is due to the fact that the quality of advanced training programmes lags behind the needs of our teachers—this is a problem that has been getting much attention in Russia,’ says Diana Koroleva.

As for mutual learning, there is growth. Teachers are discussing approaches to the teaching of certain aspects of subjects, collaborating on teaching materials, and observing each other's classes. But the question of whether they started doing this themselves or if it is a result of their participation in formal training programs remains to be determined.

© Mikhail Dmitriev / Higher School of Economics

High Costs

In evaluating and interpreting the findings of the OECD report, it is important to bear in mind that we are dealing primarily with the collective views of teachers, says Viktor Bolotov, Academic Supervisor of the HSE Center of Education Quality Monitoring. Moreover, in Viktor Bolotov’s view, in each country they understand the questions in their own way, so it’s unproductive to compare the answers of teachers from Singapore to those of teachers from Moscow.

On the other hand, Galina Kovaleva, Head of the Center for Educational Quality Assessment at the Institute of Educational Development of the Russian Academy of Education, believes that no matter how much you may criticize its methodology, the report still demonstrates positive and negative changes in national systems.

A key takeaway in relation to Russia is the high cost of education, and this is primarily evidenced by the practice of involving parents in the educational process

In addition, she believes that children waste study time on homework. At the same time, professional development training programmes do not teach teachers methods of teaching, preferring instead to ‘entertain’ them with information technologies that do not specifically relate to the academic subjects they teach.

Galina Kovaleva argues that the growing prevalence of cramming is due to the requirements of standardized tests (in Russia, the Unified State Exam and General State Exam). In her opinion, these exams hinder the development of Russian schools, and this will likely be reflected in the latest international comparative studies of education quality, the results of which will be presented soon.

Looking Ahead

Nonetheless, experts’ forecasts regarding changes in Russian schools over the next 10 years are generally optimistic.

According to Alexander Uvarov, a professor at the Department of Information Technologies at the Institute of Childhood at Moscow State Pedagogical University, the personalization of education will continue to grow thanks to computers and other digital tools. Elena Lenskaya, Dean of the Faculty of Management in Education at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, believes that advanced training will begin to take the needs of teachers into higher account. And Tigran Shmis, the head of educational projects at the World Bank in Russia, predicts that the role of formal systems and institutions in school development will decline.

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