Critical thinking in the former Soviet bloc

During four decades of Communist rule, education in the Soviet bloc meant mostly pouring facts into the minds of students, not encouraging original thought.

But over the past five years, the concept of critical thinking has begun seeping into schools from the Balkans and Baltics to Mongolia.

The messengers are volunteer educators from abroad who are training teachers and professors in 29 former Soviet bloc countries. The Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking project (RWCT) is funded by George Soros's Open Society Institute in New York.

Organizers say the project is making learning more engaging for students and providing them with the skills needed to participate in a democratic society, such as listening with respect, constructive problem solving, and forming opinions.

"We found a very serendipitous relationship between how children learn best and behaviors needed for a civil society," says project codirector Jeannie Steele, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Under communism, education was dominated by a rigid model in which the teacher transmitted information from textbooks during lectures, says Vesna Mihokovic Puhovski, a Croatian history teacher who participated in RWCT training in 1997. "Students took notes and forgot them soon without any understanding about what they were forced to memorize," Ms. Puhovski says. Original opinions were discouraged and most books from Western countries were simply banned.

Where only a single disparaging point of view about Albania's monarchy was presented under communism, students are now free to debate their history from all sides.

"There is no right or wrong answer," says Bardhyl Musai, an Albanian university professor who took the training in 1997 and now runs an Albanian nonprofit organization to promote democratic values in education.

"Students have different notions, and teachers are promoting that in the new environment," he says.

The RWCT students range from elementary school teachers to college physics professors. Most participants teach language and the humanities, but the program will instruct teachers from any discipline in which learning from a book is the norm - including driver's education, says Charles Temple, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and a RWCT codirector.

A team of four Western instructors visits each country periodically over a three-year period. It's a "train the trainer model" in which the instructors teach the new techniques to a batch of local teachers during visits in the initial year.

The instructors often encounter teachers who are eager to learn but are burdened by working in poor conditions for little money. Wendy Saul, an education professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, remembers visiting a school in Azerbaijan where large chunks of the gym's cement floor were missing. Other schools, Ms. Saul says, had broken desks and classrooms with no heat.

In the second year, they train those same teachers to teach others within the country. Some 25,000 teachers have now received the training, and they teach close to a million students.

In Albania, the program introduced a more analytical and interactive approach to education, Mr. Musai says. But teachers had to overcome skepticism: Many people in Albania believed that critical thinking meant criticizing the government rather than using higher-order thinking skills or presenting a personal point of view.

Evidence so far suggests RWCT is improving education in other countries, too.

An independent evaluation by the American Institute for Research last year found RWCT has improved teaching practices, classroom dynamics, and critical-thinking skills.

"Slowly, they make changes in the whole atmosphere in the school," Puhovski says.

Teachers with RWCT training spend less time lecturing and more frequently engage their students in small-group activities and pupil-led discussions, the evaluation found. Teachers are also more likely to report that they enjoy their jobs.

"The project gave heart to people struggling to maintain a professional level in conditions that weren't very supportive," says Prof. Allison Preece of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who has served as a volunteer RWCT trainer in Macedonia and Armenia.

RWCT organizers are now expanding their efforts beyond the Soviet bloc to other countries where repressive regimes discouraged creativity in the classroom.

Professor Steele recently returned from instructing Burmese refugee teachers in the jungles of Thailand. The program is also assisting teachers in Guatemala.

"The repression there was very similar to what teachers experienced in central and Eastern Europe but even more so," Steele says.

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