Professors go back to schoolroom

August 2, 1996

University professor Isak Frumin spends most of his time at school.

An associate professor at Krasnoyarsk State University, Siberia, Dr Frumin, a mathematician, is also head teacher of Russia's first university-established experimental school.

Set up in 1987 by KSU's progressive former chancellor Benajamin Sokolov as an integral part of a new department of education and psychology, the "Univers" school-laboratory is home to the university's department of development psychology and many of its teachers are also university lecturers.

Regarded as one of Russia's best schools and most interesting university projects, its first chair of governors was Victor Bolotov, now a deputy federal education minister.

"We are a large, normal high school in a largely working-class district taking a rather unusual approach to the challenges of education, " says Dr Frumin.

Unlike many experimental schools set up by other universities, "Univers" is not selective or designed to feed students to its parent university, although many of the 93 per cent of graduates who go into higher education enter KSU.

The aim of the school, part of Russia's eastern-most university department of education and psychology, is to provide a practical test bed for new approaches to solving age-old problems of learning and teaching.

Why do teenagers lose interest in studying? Why do girls and boys tackle problem-solving in completely different ways? How can youngsters from delinquent and deprived backgrounds be supported to realise their potential? These are the sort of questions Dr Frumin and his colleagues work with every day.

"Usually educational psychologists take these problems at face value, but as a laboratory school we take a different approach: we start by searching for the deeper psychological and methodological reasons behind such difficulties.

"We reformulate the questions: for example, many teachers complain that kids are not responsible. Perhaps that is because children do not want responsibility, they already have everything they want . . . or maybe we should look at how our society has ruptured traditional forms of coming of age, depriving children of that gradual exposure and involvement in adult life," Dr Frumin says.

The experiment in which a teacher tested the theory that drinking beer or vodka with his tutor group would prevent students abusing alcohol on their own, is not counted among the school's successes.

But many of the methods and approaches tested over the past nine years have drawn critical acclaim from the hundreds of university professors and educationalists who visit Krasnoyarsk every year.

Boris Khasan, director of the KSU Psychological Centre, is based at the school where, over the past seven years, he has conducted landmark longitudinal studies on gender and education and this year published Russia's first book on the different educational mentalities of boys and girls.

His work on conflict, where his approach is that conflicts are not only inevitable, but that their successful resolution is integral to learning, is winning widespread acclaim in Russia.

"For the past 10,000 years or more we have been developing weapons to solve conflicts, not methods to use them positively," says Dr Khasan. "People spend so much time trying to restructure the outside world, rather than on self-development, which is the key to progress."

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