Volume:9, Issue: 2

Sep. 30, 2017

Sukhomlinsky and Holistic Education in the Public School Classroom
Ginther-Hutt, Kaitlyn L. [about]

KEYWORDS: Sukhomlinsky, holistic education, philosophy of education, school of joy

ABSTRACT: This paper reflects on the career of Vasily Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970), the Soviet education philosopher who taught and administrated classrooms of holistic instruction. The goal is to show Sukhomlinsky’s key ideas, and how educators can apply his philosophy in the classroom. Sukhomlinsky believed in five main pillars of education: health education, moral education, aesthetic education, intellectual education, and work education. With the restraints on curriculum and practice in the public school classrooms holistic education often gets forgotten. Teachers can implement Sukhomlinsky’s “school of joy” mentality in their classrooms by getting to know students’ inner world, expanding the classroom walls, and minimizing punishment. To teach like Sukhomlinsky is to teach to the whole child and that is where American educators could benefit adapting and using his holistic method.

Let us enter the fairytale palace of childhood with a child’s ardent heart, a heart beating with the pulse of a child’s life, with the thought that I too was a child. Children will trust you when they feel in their hearts that you understand this simplest, and at the same time wisest, of truths. A child is a child

Sukhomlinsky & Cockerill, 2016a, p.224.

Vasily Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970) is renown as the “most influential Soviet educator of the post-war period” (Cockerill, 2011, 198). He was a practicing classroom teacher and, for 23 years, principal of a school in a Ukrainian village. His school became known as “the school of joy” and was oriented towards the joy of childhood, confidence and respect for children, positive intellectual relationships between teachers and students, and moral and values education (Papadopoulou, 2008, p.1). Sukhomlinsky believed in holistic education and the teaching of values. He connected physical, moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and vocational education with practical training in good works (Cockerill, 2011). His teaching philosophy became known as “holistic education”; one in which the whole child was taught to, not just the intellect. He believed that “children should be educated and raised in a spirit respecting human rights, care of the environment, and love for one’s home country and family (Papadopoulou, 2008, p.1). Through his career he wrote over 500 articles, 40 books, and many periodicals which are still being translated, widely read, and esteemed today (Cockerill, 2016).

Sukhomlinsky rapidly caught my attention as an educator truly concerned with the wellbeing of the whole child. Though there are many with similar philosophies, Sukhomlinsky is unique because he truly believed, wrote about, and taught his own philosophy. Sukhomlinsky’s philosophy, and holistic education as a whole, is important for the educational community as the many academic pressures and standards cloud, and in some cases conceal, the presence of holistic education in the classroom. Students have increasing demands to meet academic standards while the main concern in classrooms remains behavior. I believe personally that if a more holistic education philosophy was implemented that higher academic achievement would be met with better behavior as well. Sukhomlinsky believed that people should understand the value of work, effort, and determination. By teaching the values that he outlines and teaching in the gratifying, joy-giving, interesting way he suggests, students would be more interested in school, have less negative behavior issues, and higher test scores. Although this is speculation, and we do not have much research on the outcome of the students who were in Sukhomlinsky’s school, we have many studies that show us the benefits for students enrolled in classrooms promoting holistic education.

Universal Values in Education

Sukhomlinsky is just one of many educators who raised the idea of values and morality being taught in school. He stated that “education is first and foremost a constant spiritual interaction between teacher and child” (Sukhomlinsky & Cockerill, 2016a, p.265). Many researchers suggest that values education is “an essential part of schooling” (Cockerill, 2011, 198). The development of key universal values, such as empathy and autonomous reasoning, are developed in a child’s schooling years. Multiple agencies assist in developing these values. The teacher, the student body, the family, and the public all shape who the child becomes and the health and values the child lives with (Cockerill, 2011). Sukhomlinsky wrote that “without moral integrity everything else loses meaning” (Cockerill, 2011, p.200). The idea of the “precedence of universal human values” and the “promotion of the free development of personality” were strong aspects of his holistic approach to education (Papadopoulou, 2008, p.1). Sukhomlinsky integrated universal norms in his primary classroom that served to shape moral values in students.  Five main pillars can summarize his holistic educational philosophy: health education, moral education, aesthetic education, intellectual education, and work education.

Health Education

Described as the “most important task”, concern for a child’s health was at the top of the list for Sukhomlinsky (The Holistic Educator). He believed that educators must know the health of each student in order to properly teach them (Sukhomlinsky & Cockerill, 2016b). Daily routines, exercise, diet, and hygiene were monitored and students were taught how to take care of their bodies. The more demanding subjects were taught in the morning and students were given plenty of outdoor time. Students were trained and encouraged in such a way so they could achieve optimum health (The Holistic Educator).

Moral Education

Sukhomlinsky believed that children should develop morals through their actions (The Holistic Educator). By practicing actions that cared for the environment, family and classmates, and elderly people, students became moral beings that cared for all living things. Cockerill summarizes Sukhomlinsky’s moral education as follows:

  1. Never forget that you are living with other people. Act in such a way that others benefit. Not all your desires may be satisfied.
  2. Be grateful for all the good things you enjoy as a result of others’ efforts. Repay kindness with kindness.
  3. One cannot live honestly without working.
  4. Be kind-hearted and help those in need. Respect and honor your mother and father.
  5. Do not be indifferent to evil. Actively oppose it (Cockerill, 2011, p.200).

Students were encouraged and taught to develop sensitivity to those around them at an individual level. Sukhomlinsky wanted students to instinctively help people, animals, and plants in need. He wanted this moral attitude to be acted upon until it came naturally to students.

Aesthetic Education

One major aspect of Sukhomlinsky’s philosophy is a child’s interaction with nature. Sukhomlinsky would have students attend to the health of trees, patching up broken branches and learning how to take care of plants. In a kindergarten that Sukhomlinsky started in his school he had the children spend their entire first year outside, learning through their interactions with the environment. He believed that children should be out in nature as much as possible to appreciate the beauty of nature and associate learning with images found in waterways, fields, and forests (The Holistic Educator, n.d.).

Intellectual Education

Sukhomlinsky believed that students could be taught without harsh punishment and that it was possible to bring up a child doing things that were only good for them. Education did not necessitate punishment tactics in Sukhomlinsky’s classroom, as he believed that punishment damages the child’s consciousness, which affects their ability and drive to learn (Papadopoulou, 2008, p.3). School should be something that students enjoy and discover for their own and something that they find deep interest in. Sukhomlinsky believed that the secret for a child’s interest in learning is not in the amusement of the lesson but rather in the child’s success in that lesson. The moment that they understand the concept and surpass difficulty gives students true joy and encourages them to seek more knowledge (Papadopoulou, 2008). Sukhomlinsky also believed that children should be given many images to explain concepts and that students remember things more clearly when they are given an image with it (The Holistic Educator).

Work Education

Students were encouraged to find their greatest strength, something Sukhomlinsky called the “golden vein”. To find this is to find the optimal point of creativity in a child and to encourage a child’s success in this area is the greatest of works. He constantly encouraged the natural curiosity of a child and remarked on how easy it is for children to learn when it “is connected with play and, most importantly, nobody is telling them that if they do not learn their lessons, it will be worse for them” (Sukhomlinsky & Cockerill, 2016b, p.89-90). Sukhomlinsky believed that children succeed best when they are able to most clearly express their natural talent (The Holistic Educator). In the Sukhomlinsky Lesson YouTube video we can see and hear Sukhomlinsky teaching his class. He teaches through a series of questions, allowing children to discover on their own and ask more questions as they learn. At the end of his lesson children are left with knowledge learned and a brain full of questions. They are leaving his lesson more curious, with a thirst for more knowledge. This kind of hands-on, engaging, curiosity based learning is exactly the model Sukhomlinsky wrote about and promoted.      

Values Education in Public Schools

Reading Sukhomlinsky should inspire an educator to think of modern, traditional education differently. I came away from reading Sukhomlinsky’s books with a large list of questions on the applicability of his methodology in the public school classroom. I think this is just what Sukhomlinsky would have wanted from those reading his books. Assessing his holistic education philosophy and thinking realistically about the rules and parameters allowed for public school teachers, there are some practical ways teachers can incorporate more of Sukhomlinsky-like teaching methodology. First, teachers can learn the deep inner world of their students and support their positive characteristics (Papadopoulou, 2008, p.8). Treating students like humans and taking deep, personal time to get to know them and their families makes the child know they are loved and cared about. In a loving classroom, students feel safe to learn. One step an educator can take in this direction is to go to the class’ Physical Education time and lunchroom occasionally. Educators can have fun and interact with students in a different environment while also learning about the health of their students. Educators can also make it an importance to stay in contact with families and communicate frequently with them. Getting to know a child’s family and home life will greatly inform educators on how to best support their students.

Second, teachers can emphasize the role of nature in the education of children (Papadopoulou, 2008, p.8). Teaching outside and using the outdoors teaches students to value their environment and also teaches them in an aesthetic way. One step an educator can take in this direction is to determine/plan lessons that can be taught outside. Teachers can read books out loud while students are sitting in a field, students can examine plants and bugs outside to write a report about, teachers can teach about math using active games outside with students. Getting students outside to learn and interact with their environment benefits the students in a variety of ways. They are able to learn in a more aesthetic way, and also learn how to care for their world.  

Finally, teachers can work to decrease punishment in their classroom and have intentions to increase joy in instruction. Students who were encouraged positively were more excited to learn and more curious in the classroom. One step an educator can take in this direction is to incorporate a positive behavior intervention system. Determining with students the values you want in your classroom, phrasing them in a positive way, then encouraging one another to follow those values is a joyful way to encourage positive behavior and thinking in the classroom. Positive behavior intervention may include values like “be safe”, “act responsibly”, or “make wise choices”. These three points of application are only meant to be a starting point to incorporating Sukhomlinsky’s philosophy in the public school classroom. By getting to know the inner lives of students, getting outside, and maximizing joy in the classroom, educators will begin the valuable application of holistic education in the classroom and will be able to further the work as they see fit.


Teachers benefit from teaching with a more holistic philosophy. Intellectual education on its own cannot stand. “When formal education overemphasizes intellectual development to the neglect of moral and physical development, the result may be an amoral, physically weak genius. One sided development is a deviation from the natural person” (Gutek, 1995, p. 230-231). Sukhomlinsky believed this quote wholeheartedly and lived his life teaching with the whole child in mind. Educators today would do well to read his writings and examine the practical ways his philosophy can be implemented in the public school. Through health education, moral education, aesthetic education, intellectual education, and work education students will be raised holistically, not one part overshadowing the other.

In the end, I hope to remember Sukhomlinsky’s words that “a child is a child” (Sukhomlinsky & Cockerill, 2016a, p.224). A child is not a series of test scores or report cards, a child is not just part of my job, and a child is never ordinary. A child is a human being who deserves to be known, well loved, and taught to their highest level of natural curiosity.


  1. Cockerill, A. (2011). Values education in the Soviet State: The lasting contribution of V.A. Sukhomlinsky. International Journal of Educational Research,50, 198-204. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2011.07.005
  2. Cockerill, A. (2016, October 03). Vasily Sukhomlinsky: The teacher who changed the world. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/conversations/vasily-sukhomlinsky-educating-the-heart/7878410
  3. Gutek, G. L. (1995). A history of the Western educational experience. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  4. Papadopoulou, E. (2008). The humanitarian pedagogy of Sukhomlinsky and the application of his ideas in preschool education. International Views of Early Childhood Education,1-9.
  5. Sukhomlinsky, V. A., & Cockerill, A. (2016a). My heart I give to children. [Kindle].
  6. Sukhomlinsky, V. A., & Cockerill, A. (2016b). The school of joy. [PDF].
  7. Sukhomlinsky Lesson. (2015, June 24). Retrieved August 17, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCksMOPYzas
  8. The Holistic Educator. (n.d.). Vasily Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970). Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://theholisticeducator.com/sukhomlinsky

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