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Russian Educators Exchange Ideas with TC Faculty, Students

It was supposed to be a child's mathematics exercise:

What is the square of a rectangle where the sum of the sides is 21 centimeters and the width is 11 centimeters longer than the height?

Lyudmila Adamskaya, principal of the Eureka School in Moscow, described it as "an easy math test for 9-year-olds."

After a few minutes of muttering and many sheepish smiles, only a few of the graduate students and teachers in the seminar room at Teachers College were brave enough to offer a solution. On the whole, the Americans were stumped, because they did not understand the goal of the exercise.

With the help of an interpreter, Adamskaya explained that the goal was to "create the space of the possible," to stimulate children's critical thinking skills. To do, what some American business consultants would refer to as "thinking outside the box."

Adamskaya was one of nine Russian educators who spent two weeks at TC working with Leslie Williams, Professor of Education, as part of a student-faculty exchange between the Eureka Free Educational Center of Moscow and Teachers College.

An informal agreement that educators from the two institutions would work together grew into a three-part event in the United States. Professor Williams and her guests visited New York City schools, met with graduate students, and participated in a seminar on Lev Vygotsky, a leading Soviet psychologist in the 1920s and 1930s. Their work together culminates with a visit to Moscow this month by Williams, graduate students and New York teachers.

The New York and Russian educators were interested in what they called "the paradox of practice and theory"--whether you can actually separate theory from practice. Both groups also were interested in the work of Vygotsky, who presented revolutionary ideas about teaching, learning and development. He believed that children learn by doing.

The Russian educators learned a lot from their visit, she said. "They had many stereotypes about American schools," said Williams. "They thought American schools were chaotic. They didn't understand the structure that was there." They did not understand, that is, until they visited schools in New York City, including P.S. 87, one of TC's Professional Development Schools.

The Russian educators were terribly impressed by the Russian collection in the TC library, such as N.K. Krupskaya's In Search of New Ways and Problems of People's Education. The TC library has books by followers of Vygotsky and John Dewey that no longer can be found in Russia. It is believed that the works were destroyed during the Stalin regime.

They also left the Americans some ideas to consider. In some Russian classrooms, for example, there are two adults, a teacher and a tutor. In Russia, the tutor is more like a master teacher who develops individual learning plans for students and guides the teacher. Typically, the teacher-tutor team works with 20 to 25 students.

Lara Steensland, a recent TC graduate who is now a kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn, said she would like more information about how they developed that approach. "When we think of the second person in the classroom, there's a real hierarchy," she said, noting that the tutor would not be on top.

Diane Scott, a master's student and a first grade teacher in Brooklyn, said it was interesting to see that "like us they are now using cooperative learning."

Although it was a challenge to communicate through interpreters, Professor Williams said she loved the experience and is looking forward to visiting Russia this month. Her Russian hosts will give her and a group of graduate students and teachers a tour of innovative schools in their country.

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