In Russia, teachers embrace new ideas about moral education

Authors Maria Skrebtsova and Alesia Lopatina, drawing on Bahá'í principles, develop a series of primary school workbooks that are filling a critical need for moral education in former Soviet states.

PENZA, Russian Federation — In United States dollars, the books don't cost very much: about $2 each. But on a teacher's salary in contemporary Russia, it is a considerable sum, and the decision to buy requires a bit of sacrifice.

"I had the choice to buy some clothing or the books," said Irina Melnikova, a 35-year-old pre-school teacher at Public School No. 48 in this medium-sized industrial city on the Sura River. "But I decided that to grow as a professional, I need the books more than other material things."

Ms. Melnikova is not alone. Since the first edition of The World of Love and Unity was published in 1996, it and subsequent titles in a series of books by Maria Skrebtsova and Alesia Lopatina have sold more than 120,000 copies in Russia and other CIS-member states.

The books, which offer step-by-step classroom lessons in moral education and other topics, have been purchased mostly by primary school teachers, who nearly always pay for them out of their own pockets.

Teachers and school officials who have begun to use the books say nothing else compares to them in Russia. "These books are very much needed by Russian society," said Tamara Tkatchova, director of the Ozarenie School (Reflections School), a public school in Kazan, Russia, with about 250 students in grades 1 through 11. "They stand in contrast to everything else like them."

Relying on donations from parents, Ms. Tkatchova has purchased a full set of books for each classroom. She and her staff have built a major portion of the school's curriculum around the books, developing a series of "positive thinking" lessons from them, which are used at the start of every school day.

"I want my children to be compassionate and loving and wise, and these books help us to develop those qualities in the children," said Ms. Tkatchova.

Authors Skrebtsova and Lopatina say the secret behind the series' success is the incorporation of universal moral and spiritual principles, principles that they have drawn from the wisdom literature of all cultures, and especially from the world's great religions.

"We start from the premise that what is 'good' comes from the prophets of the great religions — and also from our common human heritage," said Ms. Skrebtsova, a 36-year-old former teacher of French and now full-time author.

And while the books are not specifically religious in their orientation, they also draw extensively on the moral and spiritual principles of the Bahá'í Faith.

Those principles, say Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina, who are both Bahá'ís, suggest a new direction in education where the child is viewed not merely as an empty vessel to be filled up with knowledge and information but rather a unique individual with an innate sense of right and wrong, a sense that must be brought forth and properly developed if true learning is to be achieved.

"The Bahá'í writings speak of the human being as a 'mine rich in gems of inestimable value' that can be revealed only through education," said Ms. Lopatina, a 53-year-old former pre-school teacher, who also has degrees in mathematics, physics, and psychology. "Our books seek to 'open the soul' of the child to bring out the gems that lie hidden within."

The concept is finding favor among the many educators who have discovered the books. They say the current educational system in Russia lacks any overall direction in terms of moral education, and the approach offered by Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina is sorely needed.

"Under Communism, there was a lot of ideology," said Larissa Roguleva, 35, another pre-school teacher in Penza. "There was the Party, the Young Pioneers, the Young Communist League (Komsomol), all the rituals of the State. And in all that were moral examples to teach our children, like about wartime heroes and sacrifice.

"But now that is all gone and there is nothing to replace it," Ms. Roguleva continued. "But, for me, these are the first books that fill that gap."

Ms. Melnikova, the teacher in Penza who bought the books instead of new clothing, said she has seen a distinct improvement in the behavior of her students in the classroom since using them — a change that has been confirmed by the childrens' parents as well.

"Parents have told me that their children pay more attention to their advice, and that their children have started thinking and analyzing their own behavior more," said Ms. Melnikova. "The children don't behave just out of obedience, but out of their own reflection on what is good."

The methodology of the books is sophisticated but easy to use. Each book is divided into a series of classroom lessons. Each lesson begins with a preface for the teacher, suggesting a goal or purpose for the lesson. This is followed by a fable or legend, which is read to the class or by the class. That is followed by discussion questions. Finally, the lesson is reinforced with a list of creative activities, such as the playing of a classroom game, an artistic exercise, and/or a short written assignment.

For example, in one of the books, a lesson entitled "Cooperation" begins with a series of questions, such as "What kinds of things does your family do together?" and "What qualities does a person need to be called a good co-worker?"

It then offers a short tale, titled "The Forest Singers," written by Ms. Skrebtsova. The story tells of rehearsals among forest musicians — a fir tree, a cricket, a nightingale, and a bluebell flower plant — that goes poorly because each is "singing his own song." But the sun urges them to work together.

After a successful concert, the sun observes that the best present the forest ever received was when everybody learned to think "about someone else before himself."

The lesson then offers more discussion questions and lists some suggested activities. These include a game in which children try to tie a knot first with one hand, and then with two; a written assignment to list tasks that people can't do by themselves (such as building a house, steering a ship, etc.); and an assignment in which children talk about what kinds of laws might make life better for everyone around the world and then draw a picture of a new world that shows what would happen if such laws were put into effect.

In contemporary Russia, where tight budgets for education have left few resources for new instructional materials, the books by Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina stand out as highly innovative and appealing.

"These are very practical books," said Galina Gerasimova, a teacher of grades 1-4 in Public School No. 7 in Orsha, Belarus. "I knew everything I should teach the children, but I didn't have concrete tools to do it. I was like a musician who knew how to play, but just didn't have sheet music."

Ms. Gerasimova started using the books three years ago and has been so taken by them that she has bought nearly 100 copies and given most of them to her fellow teachers and friends. "Every time there is a holiday, I present one of my friends with one of the books. I think these books are the best gift. So that kindness would disperse over the world."

Another thing that sets the books apart from other volumes on moral education in Russia and, perhaps, around the world, is their extensive use of myths and legends — more commonly known as fairy tales. The authors have used both traditional tales and composed new ones themselves.

"In old times, many people enjoyed fairy tales in Russia, and Russian people continue to like them very much," said Alexandar Tkatchov, a teacher at the Ozarenie School in Kazan, where the books are used extensively, "because wisdom was given from people to people through fairy tales."

Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina say that the legends and tales not only have universal appeal but also offer an easy medium for moral instruction, which they see as the heart of their project.

"We believe it is not possible truly to educate children unless there is a moral basis underlying the process," said Ms. Lopatina, adding that attempts merely to teach "knowledge" — such as science, mathematics, and history — become a fruitless exercise in memorization unless the students see a purpose for learning.

"Teachers spend years of their lives getting children to assimilate knowledge, while the children make every effort to repulse that knowledge, to avoid lessons they neither like nor understand," she said.

So Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina decided to collect legends and tales that recount humanity's spiritual accomplishments. The purpose is to "stir the mind and heart of the pupil from the very beginning, to impart to him the thirst for knowledge," said Ms. Lopatina.

Teachers say that approach works. "When I started my teaching, I thought just giving information — just pure knowledge — was the most important point," said Alla Markova, 33, vice director at Public School No. 151 in Penza. "But after a while, I realized that moral issues and development of character were also very important. If a person has very good logic and very good grades, but no ethics, that can be dangerous.

"But if you work with the system that is in these books, you can achieve very good results. It is a system that you can use in every subject. If you teach ethics first, you can teach the logical aspects of any science afterwards," said Ms. Markova.

In their effort to promote their method of moral education, Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina have founded the Center for Moral Education and Creative Development of Personality, which is based in Moscow, where they both live.

The Center, with them as principals, serves as both a publishing house for the books and an agency for their promotion. And to that end, Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina have crisscrossed Russia and the CIS member-states over the last nine years, giving workshops and lectures based on the books and their principles.

So far, they have published 14 books, expanding beyond titles that simply present lessons in moral principles to volumes that also include elements of biology and language development. For example, one book, Tales of Words and Letters, includes more than 100 stories, games, and activities about letters and words. They are currently working on a book using the same methodology to present mathematical concepts.

Nevertheless, the presentation of moral concepts remain the lynch pin of their approach. "For example, our stories about letters and words not only help children to learn reading and writing quickly, but also teach them to be friendly and kind," said Ms. Lopatina. Other moral principles stressed in the books include the equality of women and men, the importance of service, and the concept of world citizenship.

In 1998, the Russian Association of Book Publishers awarded an honorary diploma for the books, designating them the "Best Books of the Year."

But teachers who have discovered the books — and who use them in their classrooms — are in fact the biggest supporters of Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina.

"These books are a mine of wisdom, of parables and legends, in which all the world's wisdom is concentrated," said Elena Morozova, a 26-year-old primary school teacher at Public School No. 38 in St. Petersburg. "They prepare the children for the future, for all problems of life that people must deal with."