Part 1 – Shatsky: the great experimenter

Stanislav ShatskyStanislav Shatsky, a leader of progressive education in Russia, was at the centre of a state-backed attempt to introduce progressive teaching methods into classrooms. Pre-1917, Shatsky set up settlements for children of the urban working class that promoted self-government and taught skills relevant to the needs of the children’s local communities. Although he initially maintained his distance from the Bolshevik Revolution, an increasing realisation that the educational leaders of the Soviet state (particularly Krupskaya) shared his progressive philosophy led Shatsky to join Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Education).

Placed in charge of the First Experimental Station (a wide collection of schools focused on research), Shatsky was central to the development of a new pedagogical method.  A strong advocate for the central role of schools against those (such as, Shulgin) who argued for their ‘withering away’, he championed the complex method of learning. The method was based on the themes (or ‘complexes’) of nature, labour and society and involved pupils in, for example, organising their surroundings, labouring with tools in the garden and workshop and learning about the social influences on their development. Lunacharsky (the Commissar of Narkompros) approved of the method’s “obliteration” of boundaries between separate subjects in the early years of a child’s education, arguing that “the world is the only subject of study and it must be studied in such a way that it does not become fragmented in the child’s consciousness.” Dewey likened the method to project-based learning that had started to appear in US schools.

However, the complex method  faced insurmountable problems in the early Soviet state. Chief among these were the desperate economic conditions, which meant the state was unable to provide the training and resources that teachers needed to understand and implement the method. Always sensitive to the experience of classroom teachers, Shatsky knew changes could not be achieved simply by decree. Moreover, he realised from his contact with teachers and frequent visits to schools that Narkompros would have to compromise. Nevertheless, Shatsky held to his core belief that education should originate in and develop each child’s experience of their local culture. In 1928, he wrote: “Instead of providing [children] with ready-made static equipment and apparatus we should see it as natural and proper to provide them with components out of which they might be able to construct objects and installations serving to illustrate the laws they are studying and coming to understand.”

By 1929, when Lunarcharsky resigned as Commissar of Narkompros, progressive educators were under personal attack from new state apparatchiks. As Stalin’s reaction grew in strength, the threats against Shatsky increased. His house was burnt down and in 1932 the First Experimental Station was closed. Shatsky died in 1934 in a ‘House of Preliminary Detention’. Curriculum reforms between 1932 and 1936 that reintroduced Tsarist traditional methods (including a centralised curriculum, separate subjects and textbooks) wiped away the experiments of the 1920s.

A selection of Shatsky’s writings have been published in English under the title A Teacher’s Experience (Progress Publishers, 1981). In the next two posts, we will present extracts from key texts first published in 1918 and 1922.