Encounters with Soviet People (Final Part VIII)

Aug 19, 2008, 1:27 PM |

The following is the last installment from Frank R. Thoms unpublished manuscript that I received from my Peace Corps assistant and Kazakhstani friend Tatyana Kazanina.  I knew Tatyana from training Peace Corps volunteers in Almaty the summer of 1993, she died in May of 1997.  However, I never met Mr. Thoms but would like to if he is still alive.  He had written what I thought were valuable insights into the Soviet educational system for my 30 plus Peace Corps volunteers who read what I had typed up.  In the seven prior installments of his book “Encounters with Soviet People” Mr. Thoms shed light on perhaps why the Soviet Union fell apart.  It was based on lies, cheating and pretending.  I believe Putin is trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, it won’t work for a number of reasons. 

For now, as of yesterday’s start of the fall semester, I’m encouraged by meeting my students from three different classes in our “westernized” university in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  I am now encountering Kazakhstani students who were educated by Soviet teachers.  Each student has a different story to tell about what their parents or grandparents have told them what it was like living in the former Soviet Union.  I will let that unfold as the semester progresses.  Enjoy what Frank R. Thoms observed about cheating and prompting in the classroom, it still goes on to some extent even today, no matter our best efforts to have that cease.

p. 149 At the end of the lesson Ludmilla gave a quiz, three problems for the whole class to solve…The murmuring persisted.  Lukasha turned around to ask Kiril for the answers, which he read from the text on his lap under the table (though he told me he knew all the answers).  While Ludmilla carried equipment to her laboratory some students held up their papers for others to see, and others shouted information across the aisles.  It was a quiz show where the contestants collaborated before giving answers.  By the time the bell rang, the room was in complete bedlam as the students delivered their quizzes to her [Ludmilla] – no doubt all with the same results.


p. 184 “…I heard students whisper to one another before answering my questions.  Initially, I thought they were nervous and were having difficulty with my American accent.  I soon became annoyed with this practice, however, especially with some of the younger groups who sounded more like a cacophony of locusts than students speaking English.  But, what surprised me the most were the teachers.  Whenever the class became silent with one of my questions, their teacher would lean towards the nearest studnt from her seat in the back corner and whisper an answer, sometimes voicing it loud enough for others to hear – including me.”


p. 185 “At my own lessons I tried to persuade students not to help each other, most often telling them that I was more interested in knowing what each of them knew rather than what all of them knew…I struggled with this issue during my two months at School 185, but it was not until my last week when I observed some of my colleagues that I began to gain some perspective.  At some of the lessons I watched students whisper as much or more than they had with me…the importance of whispering in the classroom – what the Soviets call pod skazavats or prompting… “Of course we prompt each other,” Nick answered without hesitation.  “It is an important part of our schooling.  Without it our class would not be able to get our work done.  You know the teachers can give us a mark every day, so we must be ready for every class.  And, there is too much homework.  We have to help each other.”  He smiled and added, “it is important to help my friends, more important than helping myself.”


p. 186 “Prompting kindles the collective spirit in Soviet schools.  Prompting ensures that everyone learns, that slower students will not be left behind.  Prompting provides for success at every lesson.  It enables lessons to move along, to keep pace with the demands of the curriculum.  Without it there would be silence, the dreaded silence of failure.  There is no time for waiting in a Soviet classroom, no time for pausing, no time for reflecting.  More like heavy metal rock music than a symphony, a typical lesson resonates with overlapping sounds.

In essence, prompting is a leveling process, one that keeps everyone in the mainstream.  It replaces personal responsibility.  It eliminates personal initiative.  It underlies the collective spirit where everyone learns to stay together, where no one is allowed to get ahead.  It nurtures an excellence of the middle, a perpetual mediocrity.  It disallows excelling that breeds envy.  Prompting ensures that all is well in the collective.  Buried deep in the Soviet psyche, it is endemic to schooling.


p. 187 “Students and teachers alike have admitted to me that prompting is necessary to help the poorer students.  In Liuba’s case it enabled her to get through her English classes as the camaraderie of the collective ensured that she belonged and would get by.  Yet, the irony was that prompting harmed her chances of learning.  Her classmates, by covering for her at every opportunity, denied her the right to discover her own abilities.  Her teachers, by condoning this process, admitted that they had given up on her potential to learn.  Prompting also serves a greater purpose in Soviet society.  It acts as a mouthpiece for perpetuating the expectations of the system, a system that specifies what students must learn.  By encouraging them to repeat collective thought, prompting prevents any deviations in thinking to appear in the classroom…And more insidious, prompting induces brighter students to concentrate on expected outcomes rather than to think on their own.  The collective becomes the focus of learning – what we know becomes more important than what *I* know.


p. 188 “Prompting is as much a part of Soviet classrooms as the uniforms.  Whenever I came as a guest to a school, each classroom performed according to a script.  The teacher in the front acted as producer and director.  On command, students stood and recited.  Though teachers chose the best ones to speak, others prompted to avoid any hesitations…But, before and after such performances – at the rehearsals of everyday school – prompting dominates as it helps the actors with their lines and hones their responses.


p. 189 “With great pride students who knew me well told me about different forms of cheating.  The most common included writing on their hands and thighs, on the inside of their jackets, and on pieces of paper with answers to their friends when the teacher was not looking.  Some bragged about developing new techniques, for instance, imprinting information on plastic notebook covers with a sharp point that they could read when held to the light at the proper angle.  Another spoke of a method that utilized new pens with windows near the top, which, when the button was pushed, the information appeared.  Cheating, like prompting, is endemic to most Soviet classrooms and is known either as shparlgaka, which means “crib” or as shpora, which literally means “spur” [on a saddle].


p. 190 “Zoya’s conention that cheating was not a problem if the teacher looked the other way (“looks through the fingers” in Russian) is symbolic of the denial that is pervasive in the Soviet educational system – a denial that persists despite countless efforts at reform.  “The teachers pretend to teach, and the students pretend to learn.”


p. 192 “Prompting and cheating provide knowledge for those who need it. Without them, the system would grind to a halt.  Knowledge, after all, is power in a society that has restricted access to information, where Xerox machines are locked up.”