Mary Sue Burns, a chemistry teacher at Pocohontas school district near Beckley, West Virginia was a Fulbright Teacher for Global Classrooms in 2014. She observed a chemistry lesson at the Michurinsk Lyceum in a city southwest of Moscow. Michurinsk Lyceum is a high school where nearly all of the students went on to university. She wrote about her experiences in her blog
My question was “How is effective STEM (Science. Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education implemented in Russia?” Answering this question became more complex than I anticipated. I went with a definite preconceived vision of what effective STEM education looks like.
My priorities for my students were, and remain, to promote higher order critical thinking, problem solving skills, collaboration skills, active inquiry, and creativity. I measure their success, and therefore my own, by their college and career readiness. In West Virginia, only a small percentage of my students are subjected to a standardized test specifically in the content of the courses I teach. And even, then, there is minimal personal consequence. Ironically, I suspect the Russian students would do better on our state tests. However, keep in mind that our state, like most, does not have the budget to adequately test the objectives we value. So, our tests are only one small indicator, limited primarily to recall questions.
For a little perspective, here are some images of my students:
Here are the supporting questions I [was] asked along with some of my observations:
How do societal values impact decisions? Just as in the US, many Russians see a university education as a gateway to a better job and a better life. Thus getting in and getting funding for this is valued. What is different is that the Russian student’s future is dependent on the results of the national exam. Grades, teacher recommendations, community service, special talents, special initiatives, extracurricular dedication……none of this matters. So, they work hard towards passing this one exam in the subject of their interest, say chemistry for example. They may spend after school sessions in private tutoring for exam preparation. The exam must be heavily weighted with detailed factual content. These students could repeat facts, and give lengthy speeches on the properties of elements. My students would not be able to recite this information.
What is the role of experiential learning? I observed a chemistry lab at the a city. A lab assistant (a school employee, not the teacher) set up all the equipment and measured out all the chemicals in advance of the class. At the appropriate moment, the teacher led the students in the steps of the experiment (which was to view the production of carbon dioxide by reaction of calcium carbonate and hydrochloric acid). The students executed the lab in pairs, all pairs adding the reactants, sealing the test-tube with the stopper, and positioning the outtake tubing in limewater, in perfectly choreographed unison. They did not wear goggles. They did not clean up; the lab assistant would do this.
I also observed a robotics activity with younger students. The activity was to build vehicles out of Lego parts using different gear ratios. Each group of students followed a set of directions with a prescribed set of gears. It seemed like kind of a speed contest. Each group consisted of two girls and two boys. For the most part, a boy seemed to take charge of the construction and relegate the rest of the group to searching for parts, even though several girls tried to budge in on the construction. I asked the teacher if she ever had a group of only girls. She did not think that would be a good idea because then they might be at a disadvantage. The students raced the completed vehicles. The teacher explained why one was the best (at least I think that is what happened).
How is student engagement supported? If you have to pass a high stakes exam and your entire future depends on it, then you are engaged!
How are instructional materials utilized? Every classroom was equipped with a teacher computer station and smart board. The teacher presented material and then quizzed students via the smart board. Internet resources were used as well as teacher-made presentations, and text provided presentations. Students used the smart boards, as well, to respond to teachers’ questions and to do their own presentations. The text books were small, but jammed with information. Students were expected to read, at home, and be prepared to repeat information. Sometimes worksheets were also part of the homework. The computer lab was used exclusively for programming classes. Internet activities were not done at school. Students seemed to have internet access at home and they used it there to complete research assignments.
What teaching strategies predominate?
Direct instruction was a predominate strategy. My host teacher, Yaroslava, participated in an exchange program to the US and spent several months observing, collaborating, and teaching in California. While there, she incorporated a variety of strategies into her English teaching repertoire which she now enthusiastically uses with her students. There are four other teachers in her department which she fondly refers to as “my girls”. She is clearly an inspiration to them urging them to try alternative strategies and to present at regional conferences. They are excited about this divergence from straight direct instruction and recognize the benefits for their students’ English proficiency. That being said, they are still bound to that national exam and feel that any time spent on more interesting activities must be quickly and efficiently made up in order to remain on target for that.
Do I have any conclusions? I have described what it looked like to me. As for any conclusions, I am still trying to process my ideas on this. I am left thinking that, if I were a chemistry teacher in Russia, I would probably have to change my ways. I currently tell my students not to memorize things that are easy to look up and that there are often multiple paths to the solution of a problem. When chemistry students at Michurinsk were doing a problem using a strange step by step prescription that involved way too much work, in my opinion, their teacher explained that they needed to do it that way in order to be successful on the national exam. So, if success on that exam is the goal and the student’s future depends on it………. Well there you have it.