Volume: 2, Issue: 3


When Will Our School Learn to Take into Consideration Life’s Lessons?
Конышева Н.М. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: educational problems, educational standards, instruction generated health problems, total verbalization in instruction, hands-on activities in learning, the need for active student involvement in class, social significance of active learning opportunities.
SYNOPSIS: Professor Konysheva describes the medical implications for children who are schooled in “total verbalization” learning environments. She describes the psychological and physical problems that result from a completely oral form of knowledge delivery; she calls for revision in Russian schools; and she stresses the need for schools of general education to provide greater opportunities for hands-on, active learning activities throughout the education process.

When Will Our School Learn to Take into Consideration Life’s Lessons?
Concerning the Failure to Take Advantage of Hands-on Learning Experiences

 “The Common Pathological Frustration” of Education in Our Homeland

For the first time in an article of pedagogical content, we are forced to use specifically medical terminology. It is a fact that the “general pathological frustration” of our children in the system of education in our homeland was noted in a report by a doctor of medicine, V.R. Kuchma, director of the Scientific Research Institute for Hygiene and Wellness of Children and Teenagers of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences made at an All-Russia seminar for the preparation of new educational standards in October of 2007. His speech, based on many years of medical statistics, to all intents and purposes confirmed and generalized the troubled observations of teachers and parents of students in recent years. The numbers for healthy children have fallen off precipitously. Moreover, now we are commonly finding such health problems as:

  • Nervous, mental, and growth disorders
  • Breakdowns in the motor-support system
  • Vision problems
  • Sickness of the gastro-intestinal tract.

This report points out that among the causes of the aforementioned conditions, in first place, stands instruction, indicating that these problems have their origin, for the most part, in the child’s instructional environment! A very potent factor seems to be excessive verbalism as the sole means of instruction. This domination of verbal information forces our children to memorize. In describing our national education system, academics more and more often mention a very menacing combination of words, “total verbalism.”

Once Again About What Is Primary and What Is Secondary in Education

Today the situation in our general education schools is such that we need a reasonable revision of the priorities which recently have arisen there. To begin with, let us take this opportunity to ask the question, “Where did this idea of ‘total verbalism’ come from?” The answer is apparent. “It filled a niche in educational instruction which until quite recently was occupied by subjects that required the active and creative participation of these very same students. Our educational system gradually forced these kinds of subjects out of the curriculum. In spite of medical statistics and scientific data, however, the fundamental section of the national educational standards didn’t exactly “reject” the importance of hands-on, student participation during lessons in the classroom. The standards insured that everyone, for a single hour each week, would be provided with creative and active lessons in the fine arts, technology, and music.

Unfortunately, this dangerous tendency “of reducing student active participation” often doesn’t generate enough anxiety among educators. In some schools, teachers and the educational administration completely banish from the school so-called “heightened standards” as the “reprehensible” classes for children with “advanced intellect.”

Gymnasia and lyceums3 are candid concerning other educational institutions. They despise the kinds of lessons that require active participation of the students because, in their opinion, they simply take away time from “serious and necessary” classes.

In connection with these types of schools, I would like to turn attention to an interesting fact. In accordance with the latest medical data, the pupils from such schools particularly, demonstrate a high level of “common, pathological depression” which is most noticeable by a lowering of physical and psychological health. The majority of these children demonstrate a heightened level of general fatigue and neurotic behavior. (V.R. Kuchma)

What is this then, an accidental coincidence, or is there still some connection between these facts? Alas, there is not at all an accidental coincidence but a real legitimate connection. With more attentive study, it is easy to observe that in schools of higher standards, education is built, almost exclusively, on the mastery of abstract concepts and models as well as all kinds of abstractions. The oral mode of instruction holds a high priority in the value system of such educational institutions. Lessons that include practical, hands-on activity do not exist.

Unfortunately, no scientific data at all exists that is based on the consequences of including practical activities like experiments and real-life experiences in the teaching of subjects of a “less abstract level.” Experience tells us that active learning lessons could solve a whole series of critical problems which our educational system for the past decade hasn’t been able to figure out. Lessons that incorporate practical, hands-on activity could provide a noticeable counterbalance to the menace of total verbal instruction.  Our general education schools could see benefits from active learning in some of the following ways:

  • The opportunity for the instigation of cognitive activity and the intensification of intellectual development due to a combination of diverse forms of cognition with varied aspects of the activities.
  • The opportunity for the social adaptation of the student’s personality through the process of developing practical skills, socially valuable personal traits and creativity.
  • The opportunity for the harmonious development of the personality on the basis of the most realistic assessment in the educational process of the nature of the child’s logical development and his/her functional potential.

The Psychological Mechanism of Subject-Oriented Activities and their Role in General Education

Of all the lessons taught in school, Technology (practical work) is the sole lesson that is wholly based on the transformational, subject-oriented, active participation of the very ones being taught.

In its ideal form, the psychological mechanism of subject-oriented activities provides purpose and meaning for the special cognitive activity of the students. They will find this purpose in the organizational stage of the activity. This is necessary in the lives of young children, and this necessity to be active is granted to children by their very nature. If they ignore the practical phases of acquiring experience and knowledge about the surrounding world, further development will simply become impossible.

In light of contemporary scientific data, we understand that the cognitive activity of an individual is only conditionally able to consider, separately one from the other, practical, sensible knowledge, and we add the word, rational. Clearly effective thought is by no means “a level” or “a step” in the development of cognitive activity. It is one of its equivalent forms standing side by side with graphically figurative, verbal, abstract, and other kinds of thought. It has been evident for a long time that abstract thinking, by definition, requires the ability to lift one’s mind above mundane life. However, as it turns out, abstract thinking is most productive when combined with practical activity.

The important role of manual or physical participation during instruction and in the very process of organizing cognitive activity is based on significant scientific-pedagogical and psychological research. In particular, it is well known, that the leading segment of cognitive activity appears to be the operational part. In the stages of lesson organization this ought to be definitely represented in a material or physical form, in other words, carried out through manual operations. Activity takes on a mental form only after passing through the materialization and external speech forms. If this process is not taken into account in instruction, the typical obstacles in educational-cognitive activities will always recur.

Teachers observe that more than half of the students in classes 5-7 (and by our observation, even beyond) demonstrate low levels of basic logic operations such as comparison, classification, generalization, and others. Not a single logic operation is able to develop reliably in the absence of essential sensory experiences. One can only extend understanding of objects and phenomena through comparison, generalization, and classification on the basis of an ability to see and pick out characteristics and other indicators. The mechanism that organizes this ability, in its own turn, passes through a series of logical stages, and, in accordance with the data from psychological research, the first step ought to be through activity in a material or physical form. Only when a student has made a good assimilation of external attributes through an active participation with physical objects is he/she able to move on to activities employing hypothetical models, and only thereafter proceed to verbal descriptions of them. Let it be understood that this mechanism of active participation in learning teaches through an organization of instruction.  Mastery of other abstract activities assumes, at the first stage of the activity, an involvement with objects and physical models. For example, during instruction in mathematical calculations or problem solving, the teacher conducting these lessons definitely uses the corresponding props. On the other hand, teachers and parents of students know very well that the intense pressure and pace of instruction will allow little time for hands-on, participatory activities. It is simpler and quicker to provide information to students in oral form then “to pass on” study material through more time consuming experiments and other kinds of participatory work. As a result of these pressures and this relentless pace, there has arisen in pedagogical use in recent years the concept of “sensory hunger” which very eloquently characterizes the state of affairs in our national instructional scheme.

The Remedial Prescription

Meanwhile the recommendations of psychologists prescribe that the base stage of each cognitive activity be organized to include a degree of detail as to what is essential. Students, most emphatically, need sufficient time using material objects during learning activities in order to assimilate knowledge through the use of their own hands and do this unassisted!

 It is perfectly obvious that, for this to happen, the corresponding conditions need to be created. Lessons involving practical work such as in the various technologies, like no others, can guarantee these conditions for students. More than that, by virtue of the specific character of these lessons, one may place before the students intellectual problems of an even higher level than is usual. There are always possibilities for a clear transformation of abstract connections and dependencies into a form that is understandable to a child. The likely result would be an opportunity for a deeper understanding of these connections and dependencies. This approach completely acknowledges the psychological mechanism for solutions to intellectual problems. In a series of studies, which already appear to have become a classic, the works of L.A. Venger, P.Ya. Galperin, S.L. Kabylnitskaya, A.K. Markova, N.G. Salmina, N.F. Talyzina, and others, prove that the necessity for hands-on operations depends on the complexity of the problem to be solved by the student. The more complex the problem is then the greater the need is to transform the foundational and logical connections from an internal and abstract strategy to an external and physical plan of attack. (3, 6-9)

Consequently, all attempts to place purely abstract forms of instruction into elementary school instruction, in the first place, are actually contrary to the laws of child development! “In fact, here we have a violation of the classical principle of pedagogy known as ‘the sequencing or consistency of instruction.’ New stages of knowledge would be constructed on top of incomplete or poorly formed precedents.” (9, 95). As a result of the violation of didactic principles, the harmonious development of the child would be disrupted. When development during childhood is distorted in a complex human organism, all interrelationships “rebuke” the primary functions of the intellect, and are able to cause considerable changes in the future adult organism. By this same negative model, these distortions can influence even the anatomical development and formation of vitally important organs. (1, 9)

The uniqueness of lessons that include practical, “hands-on” work (Technology) consists in the conceptual (abstract), figurative (visual), and practical (hands-on active) components of an intellectual activity occupying positions of equality and actually interacting among themselves. Of course, this doesn’t happen automatically. It is produced by setting problems before students that force them into uniting intellectual operations with active participation. Active intellectual tasks that require hands-on participation by the students assist the development of such important qualities of thought as constructive ability, versatility, flexibility, and divergence. Taking into account the age group peculiarities of young children, participatory forms of the cognitive process result in a considerably greater promotion of the child’s intellectual development than if his/her learning experiences were solely based on abstract instruction.

The Social Significance of Hands-on Learning Opportunities

Hands-on learning opportunities play an exceptionally consequential role in the formation of students’ socially significant abilities and creative, personality qualities. Only during these kinds of lessons do students gain any real experience with the practical, transforming activities involved in the study of a trade, a craft, or other type of handiwork. A skilled person, under our current conditions, is very likely in need of special “cultivation.” Significantly, a number of the social problems of the young are connected in part with the fact that many of them simply have nothing to do. Accordingly, these unemployed young people “turn off” social-mindedness. That frequently leads them to an anti-social way of life. On the other hand, a person who has something to do with his hands and is not prone to laziness, as a rule, has and strives to enrich a personal lifestyle of creative, original, talented, and outstanding self-expression. Hence, there results the “proud dignity” (as expressed by the writer V.I. Belov) which always was characteristic of the skilled craftsman, and the harmony with himself and the surrounding world. Craftsmanship develops in one a taste for creativity as well as the habit of a productive view of activity along with everything else that flows from a positive personality. It is not by chance that creativity in handicrafts is so appreciated, encouraged, and developed throughout the whole world.

For many of our students, only a general education school is able to be really helpful in introducing them to a healthy and interesting occupation. Of course, all kinds of creative children’s groups, schools, and special interest clubs exist. However, they are far from being accessible to all children these days. There are a variety of reasons for this lack of access ranging from the high costs of such pursuits and the employment situation of the parents to an insufficiently attentive attitude to the proper development of their children. It is an obvious fact that a person cannot develop an interest towards something that he doesn’t even know exists. If a school provides the necessary information or knowledge that certain types of activities and opportunities exist, then someone with the corresponding skills and abilities might develop an interest and desire to find such classes, clubs or groups, and attend one or more of them.

Furthermore, one must not forget that occupations and studies are productive activities. They foster the development by a person of an entire series of qualities which are of value in the social arena. These include the love of work; a conscientious and responsible attitude in carrying out work; the ability to work cooperatively with others; and a sound attitude towards human creativity, the creative possibilities of a person, his/her creative talents, and intuition. Thus, it is perfectly apparent that lessons which include practical applications actually do possess the ability to encourage more productive socialization and in so doing also encourage the social adaptation of an individual.

And so, we suggest that the need has become urgent for us to begin a review in our general education schools of the place of lessons that are based on children’s active and creative work. Such study subjects as technology, for example, by taking into account their educational, formational and health-saving potential, meet the contemporary, socio-pedagogical requirement and deserve wider introduction into our system of general education. In order to carry out the necessary changes in education, it is first necessary that we protect ourselves from the prevalent error about the role of these lessons and their place in the development of the individual. Among the world’s progressive systems of education, courses in technology traditionally occupy a more solid position than in our system. This position is justified by the great results and the high regard for such systems throughout the world. Over the course of a century, in the very elite schools of Europe, instruction in practical technology has been widely utilized as a means of developing creative initiatives in students. We must remind ourselves that our Russian system of national education has its own positive traditions of this sort to remember and to regenerate, now, when they are so necessary.

Provision is made in our new national educational standards for such opportunities but as far as their actual implementation is concerned, much will depend on how the teachers and the administrations in place in the educational institutions of the country understand the problem. It entails the allocation of additional “paid” hours for extracurricular work, from which there will be, possibly, a thoughtful increase in the number of hours spent on creative practical forms of activities of the kind necessary for our children. In this complex situation, such actions would constitute very real steps on the path toward bringing our educational system into a healthy correspondence with the laws of human development.



  • Amosov, H.M., Your Child: Health and Education, Moscow, 2002.
  • Belov, V.I., Essays on the National Aesthetic, Moscow, 1989.
  • Galperin, P. Y.; Kabylnitskaya, S.L., The Experimental Formation of Attention, Moscow, 1974.
  • Konysheva, N.M., Theory and Practice of Teaching Technology in Elementary School, Smolenck, 2008.
  • Kudryavtsev, T.V., The Psychology of Technical Thought, Moscow, 1975.
  • Markova, A.K., The Formation of Motivation for Study in School-aged Children, Moscow, 1983
  • “The Peculiarities in the Psychological Development of Children from Ages 6 and 7,” edited by Elkonina, D. B. and Vengera, A.L.; Moscow, 1988.
  • Salmina, N.G. Opinions and Functions of Materialization in Instruction, Moscow, 1981.
  • Talyzina, N.F., The Formation of Cognitive Activity in Young Students, Moscow, 1988. 

1 Reprinted in an abridged version upon written consent of the “Nachalnaya Shkola” (Elementary School) Journal Editorial Board. First published in “Nachalnaya Shkola” in 2009, #1.

2 Konysheva, Natalia M. [In Russian: Наталья Михайловна Конышева], Ph. D., Professor and Chair, Department of Theory and Methods of Preschool and Elementary Education, Institute of Education and Educational Psychology at the Moscow City Pedagogical University.

3 After the perestroika Russia has started opening new types of general education schools, among which the most popular are gymnasia and lyceums. These schools are different from common public schools, usually providing a larger number and variety of specialized programs and intensive instruction in clusters of subjects, e.g., Mathematics and Physics, or Chemistry and Biology, or Russian and Foreign Languages, etc.  Many existing schools, especially in Moscow and some other large cities, were renamed into gymnasia and lyceums, which is not only prestigious but also provides teachers who work there with some benefits, mostly of a monetary type. [Notes of the editor].

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