THE EFFECTIVE SCHOOL REPORT’S MAY 1993 ISSUE CARRIED “DIALOGUES IN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION” by Nick Zienau which discussed a conference in Sochi, Russia organized by the Ministry of Russia and a Norwegian network known as IMTEC which works with the U.S. Department of Education’s Midcontinent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL), the developer of Tactics for Thinking.

The writer has selected the following curious excerpts which indicate that some fairly weird activities are taking place in Russia dealing with education and brain research, activities in which European and American educators are involved:

Even organising a conference seemed beyond the capacity of the Ministry of Education itself! Some Westerners even left in impatience at the dreadful lack of movement in either the practical organisation of the event or in moving the discussions on beyond what seemed to them endless bizarre philosophical ramblings.

So after 3 days in Russia, I was amazed when in a shoddy hotel in Sochi on the Black Sea, I first heard a young woman speak about Educational Cultures, alternative schools and with passion about philosophy and pedagogy.

As Tatyana Kovalyova talked about her school in Tomsk with 25 teachers and 25 philosophers working together, I realized what an enormously different value is placed in Russia on education than in a rich West where 30 kids are likely to get one teacher between them. I could also see what an impact this had on the degree to which very fundamental processes of learning were understood and experimented with.

Active physicists and intellectuals seemed to be there as well as professional teachers, schools in which university staff taught seven-year-olds mathematics! And yet they were really interested in how children and people learn as a science—they kept talking about research they were doing. Their continuous interest in research reminded me of TV plays about Crick and Watson researching the structure of DNA or the Manhattan project in the war when a team of scientists searching [sic] for the key to atomic bombs before the Germans got them. It was that same feeling of being in at the moment of discovery of some basic understanding of how the world works.

A lot of stuff is written in Europe about the ideas of the “learning organisation” but it was in Russia that I really found out what such a thing feels like. In Europe I believe we have always been restricted in these principles of learning by the resistance to new thinking that adults develop. In Russia and in particular in Eureka [Russian term for large teacher professional development seminars] I found a whole-hearted commitment to change and development that both impressed me and at times alarmed me.

There is a kind of ruthlessness which seems associated with doing anything quite so single-mindedly, and so it is with Eureka. In the Russian context it seems rather natural that such a complete and radical approach to change is now possible. The question that I think Alexander and his colleagues confront us with is how far are we in the West really prepared to look at our basic assumptions and the evidence that things need to change? Firstly, there seems an overwhelming need internationally to improve and develop the education system to prepare the next generation for a hugely different world.

The ending of the cold war makes it possible to reunite threads of thinking and development in education and learning that have been long kept separate. We believe we have reached a point of synergy between our team in the West and that of Alexander in the East that will result in an innovative new step in group learning for educators and those interested in the subject of learning systems. In the end, my best recommendation must be that I see the seminar in California as a further challenge, a further opportunity to develop together and a real chance to be at the cutting edge of development towards a 21st century that I want to be around in. Hope to see you all there.

(Nick Zienau is a senior partner in Zienau Consulting which together with Cascade International of San Francisco is organising the seminar. The Russian partner in this enterprise is Eureka Free University, Moscow.)