Encounters with Soviet People (Part VII)

Aug 19, 2008, 1:03 AM |

p. 191 “Like prompting, cheating serves the collective.  But unlike American students, Soviets do not cheat from one another but with one another, the brighter students helping the weaker ones.  Students refer to the process of cheating during a test as bolshaya naglost – literally “big insolence, impudence, or effrontery,” and figuratively, “the teacher is near but not looking.”  Like prompting, too, cheating enables some teachers and their students to proceed through assignments with success.


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.


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 student 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.  But I surprised myself when I leaned towards a nearby student during an impasse at a lesson to whisper to him.  Not only was I shocked that I did it, but that I did it naturally – and I did it several times.  As concerned as I had been with whispering’s effect on my teaching, I was pleased to discover that I had integrated myself into the Soviet way.


…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 much 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.”