Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | August 19, 2008

Manifesto of meritocratic eliticism: comments

My alma mater, FMSh, a preparatory boarding school of Novosibirsk University, celebrates 45th year of its work. My physics lecturer at the School, Evgenii Bichenkov, republished a short article, Physics and Mathematics School in a third of century (Физико-математической школе – треть века), written 10 years ago. My old friend owl translated it into English.

The document is a manifesto of the meritocratic eliticism in education, a recipe for building a highly academically selective and academically intensive school. Such schools do exist, and even in Britain. Recently I had a privilege of giving a talk on mathematics at Chetham’s School for Music. It was out-of-this-world experience. Squeezed between faceless shopping malls of central Manchester and the grimy Victoria train station, lies a self-enclosed tiny kingdom where children’s eyes shine with intellect and, for the lack of better term, emotional intelligence. It instantly reminded me my FMSh — although in FMSh, perhaps, the students’ aurae had bit more narrow spectra, with less prominent range of artistically mediated expression of emotion. But see it for yourself: this was my class.

Class 10-7, 1973

Can you guess who on this graduation photograph (ФМШ, class 10^7, June 1973) is the writer of this blog? Here is a link to a larger picture.

But let us turn to Bichenkov’s Manifesto.

[...] What new was brought by the school into the practice of school education? What are the principal results of its activities in teaching basics of sciences at a school level? [...]

So, what has been achieved by selection of students? I am deeply convinced that the very fact of selection and creation of children’s collective on the basis of selection is beneficial for a child. When they come from their schools, where all roles and places have been already assigned and fixed, children start their internal competitions for distribution over the scale of of their hierarchy of values. They cannot not to do that — such is their nature and their age. It is important that at that age they are offered decent moral and human rules of competitions and shown some good examples. It appears that the Novosibirsk FMSh has succeeded in that.

To anyone familiar with British state schools, this is the first bit of strangeness: open and honest competition between students. Students were constantly challenging each other to solve problems, puzzles and conundrums, and the art of practical jokes was developed to considerable sophistication.

Next. To what degree selection was determined by true abilities? Did results match the declared aims?

Here I cannot give a definite answer. In many ways, the selection can still be affected by chance. The selection is obviously influenced by personal aspirations and interests of the child, by the family, teachers, friends, acquaintances; the results of olympiads are affected by competitiveness, persistence, level of maturity, after all. And of course, choice manifests the personality of the teacher, examiner.

Please notice that Bichenkov accepts as inevitable that different examiners apply different criterea for selection; it does not matter for him whether the criterea are uniform; what matters is that they should be fare and allow the examiner to select the best candidates. Crucially, selectors were professional researchers. I was picked at a regional Olympiad in Ulan-Ude by Yurii Nikolaevich Mal’tsev who at that time was a PhD student at the Novosibirsk University. Another important feature of the selection process: it was based entirely on competitions in physics or mathematics and face-to-face interviews. Previous school performance was totally ignored – no questions were asked. Standard forms filled in at interviews simply had no fields for school marks.

Some social engineering was present in the form of preference given to children from places in the middle of nowhere — I personally benefited from this policy. Interview forms had fields for  profession and education of both parents, with preference, again, given to children from less educated families.  This shed some light on the peculiar social  geography of the Soviet Union — there were obscure settlements in the middle of nowhere, not shown on any map, where a parent of a  bright and surprisingly well educated child could happen to have a PhD  and work as a Senior Designer.

When we passing  through last admission procedures to FMSh, my roommate, although he came from a place, by world standards, seriously in the middle of nowhere,  was hiding the fact that his father, a geologist, just got his PhD in Geology. My friend also was an example of another phenomena: many students in FMSh happen to have very professionally successful parents. His mother was the head of a geological search party, and had under her command a hundred of  tough men in the middle of taiga forest. I once witness on of her men talking to her – his attitude was almost religious.

A question arises at that point about choice of a teacher for gifted children. From the very beginning we put forward one restriction on the choice of a teacher — a teacher had to be a scientific researcher working in the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences. For all its apparent weakness, this restriction has happened to be a rather refined and correct criterion of selection; it moved aside some applicants to a post of a teacher at the FMSh who had nothing to offer besides their eagerness to get employment at the school, who had no any other objective qualifications for work with gifted children.

The word “teacher” here means a teacher of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology. On day one we were told that our teachers had no teacher training and that we had to be prepared to accept their occasionally eccentric behaviour. Our teachers could be late for classes and otherwise not very organised (or just too busy in their main job), but they were able to solve, on the spot, almost any problem, and answer almost any question. If they could not, they honestly told us so, but on many occasions came back next week with a solution. I remember my biology teacher heroically staying awake in the class despite not having any sleep for three days — in molecular biology, experiments could be very long and taxing on the researcher. Crucially, our teachers shared the academic ethos of the professional research community.

Other disciplines (history, literature, etc.) were taught in more traditional way, by normal school teachers, although very good ones. These disciplines were allocated less time than in normal schools; I remember we covered War and Peace in four hours, discussing (in an exceptionally heated debate) just one topic — Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. Well, ours was a boy-dominated establishment, and the military history was of more interest to us than Natasha Rostova and other sideline characters; I believe her name was not even mentioned. Our teacher was a very clever woman and kept a silent smile throughout our shouting match, without any attempt to interfere.

It turned out that, in the environment of Akademgorodok, being a scientist almost perfectly matched the requirements for a FMSh teacher, both in professional and human aspects. We live in a very specific community where we meet each other face-to-face and know by work, and have to constantly reckon with that. We were lucky that from the very foundation of Akademgorodok a scientist had been judged by his or her work, and judged according to high standards. Under such conditions a bad scientist just could not be a teacher at the FMSh, and if this happened, this happened only due to administrators’s mistake which had been soon corrected. I do not know how to select teachers in other places, not in Akademgorodok.

Besides teachers, FMSh also had tutors (or wardens; the Russian term is воспитатель) who were in charge of general discipline, well-being and upbringing of children. A tutor was in charge of a class of about 20–25 students. Tutors were a mixed bunch, and criteria for appointment were less certain. Some of tutors were excellent, some awful. It was quite common that students felt their intellectual superiority over their tutors and could be quite cruel to them. I can tell a number of anecdotes, but, perhaps,on another occasion.

From our experience, the principal criterion of selection is personal achivement in a previous job: if an applicant is an engineer, he has to have success in his projects and be full of ideas; if a teacher, then an imaginative one and a school’s favourite; if a student, then an academically outstanding one, but also with an inventive soul, a good guy. The school workforce should be open to change, to flow of people. It should attract people of diverse interests and personalities. One may say that selection should use the principle of mutual complementability of people. In the environment of Akademgorodok, this principle emerged naturally. There were several different schools of physics and their representatives began to mix in physics the department of FMSh, cooperating and enriching each other with their knowledge. At first it had happened accidentally since the work at school could not be compared with a work at an university neither in pay nor prestige.[...]

My teacher of mathematics was a first year PhD student, but a very bright and successful one. He, by the way, introduced me into his area of research – group theory – and later became my PhD supervisor. But I can confirm what Bichenkov is saying – our teachers radiated intellectual confidence and success. This is why they could teach us criteria of success, of well done job. I am prepared repeat that as mantra, again and again: giving students criteria is the key to quality education.

I have expressed my opinion about two most fundamental questions for the specialized school: “Who is to be taught?” and “Who should teach?”. The third question is “What is to be taught?”. I will discuss it using physics as an example, but I will take risk of drawing some general conclusions. In our teaching practice we have worked out some “boundary conditions” which in many respects guide the development of our courses. Within the formal time frame of the so-called teaching plan, the main principles are the following:

Short training period, one or two year. We have to admit that the three year programme of study at the boarding school was not a success.

Perhaps, this was because the school was not about teaching a bulk of material, it was about giving criteria.

Short terms. The autumn term lasts from 1 September to about 10 December; two next weeks are reserved for midyear tests and examinations, then follow three weeks of winter vacations when children have a much needed rest from the dormitory. The second term lasts from 20 January to 20 May followed by examinations and summer vacation. In addition, there are short holidays in November and May.

Well this was longer than university semesters are in Britain now. But I ca testify that a long winter break was badly needed, indeed; I was returning to the parental home completely exhausted. My vacations were not rest, they were convalescing.

I have seen something similar in Cambridge: relatively short terms of very intensive study, with long periods of recuperation afterwards.

Short weeks. For all the intensity of studies, a working week in FMSh is five days.

We had classes on Saturday, but Thursday was a “reading day”. At some point I was spending Thursdays lying in bed and reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories, like The Pavilion on the Links or his travel books Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and An Inland Voyage — this was my way to learn English.

Short lecture courses. No lecture course can take more than two hours a week. At present, the total of compulsory lessons does not exceed 32 hours a week.

We came to this constraints not straight away and not straight on. Our starting point was Lavrentiev’s somewhat aphoristic quip: ‘A student should have free time to think about what he is actually taught.’

It was very explicitly conveyed to us: we were given a lot of free time with a very specific purpose: this was time to think.

The content of physics course in FMSh was shaped by number of very different teachers. They worked in various fields of physics in different Institutes and they were people of different ages. Being limited in time and striving for expression of their own scientific interests, they could succumb to oversimplification of scientific knowledge and resort to primitive popularisation of science of the kind that all the standard school courses had suffered from. The other danger was an excessively deep development of a few narrow themes. Having swung between these extreme points, we selected only the most important and essential topics within modern scientific knowledge. As a result, our compulsory courses contain only fundamental knowledge. It turned out that this knowledge was compact, logic of its usage was clear, and the transparency and depth of its inner connections were striking.

Bichenkov based his course on famous The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which became our principal textbook in physics. Feynman’s militant scientific reasoning and academic integrity so powerfully professed in his books was fitting with the ideology of FMSh remarkably well.

As evidence of appreciation of our program I’ll cite the words of one of the former FMSh students; he is now 40 years old and his scientific career has been very successful. He said: ‘I studied physics in details at the Physical Department of Novosibirsk State University. I caught its basic principles, the pivot, the inner logic at FMSh.’

I am not a physicist, and all physics that I learned in my life I learned at FMSh. Later, at the university, it was accompanied by reading Max Born’s Atomic Physics — but it fitted into Feynman’s philosophy so smoothly that reading it was a purely aesthetic experience.

Perephrasing Lenin and Tony Blair, I can only say:

criteria, criteria, criteria.

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