Tags: Classroom Teacher | PSHE & Citizenship Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Teachers tell of going to the Ukraine for a Teachers’ International Professional Development and a unique education experience.

The motion for debate was ‘Strong dictatorship is better than weak democracy’. Making the case for the opposition, Olga, a slight17 year-old, was taking no prisoners. Eloquent and incisive, she marshalled her arguments with formidable skill and played on the natural sympathies of her audience, carrying the day convincingly.

Apart from the sheer quality and sophistication of the argument, two things made this round of the school debating competition remarkable: first, here were four fluent and articulate speakers conducting the debate, not in their native Russian, but in almost faultless English; and second, this was no sterile, academic topic, but a potent, living issue in a country where democracy is a mere twelve years old, still full of promise and a precious possession to be cherished and nurtured.

Spellbound observers of the debate in the ‘Juridical Lycee’, a specialist college in the city of Odessa, we were a group of ten Wiltshire teachers on the first day of our ‘Teachers’ International Professional Development’ visit to this Black Sea port in southern Ukraine, in April 2003. This stunning opportunity was available to us thanks to a scheme funded by the DfES and organised by the British Council, which sees teachers from this country travel to destinations all over the world to:

  • Gain insights into many different aspects of education around the globe.
  • Return enriched with new ideas and broader horizons.

The scheme offers, in the words of the British Council, ‘a focused and challenging learning experience through a period of immersion in the education system of another country’.

Our group – seven primary teachers, two secondary, and an LEA representative – had signed up for a trip with a focus on ‘citizenship education’, initially without knowing what our destination would be. When we heard that it was to be Odessa, we all had to admit that we had little idea of what to expect or what we might learn. In the event, though, the experience far exceeded anything we could have anticipated.

In our preparatory meetings, we had formulated a number of broad aims for the trip:

  • Through experience of a different educational, social and political culture, we hoped to enhance and extend our awareness of the nature and functions of citizenship education, and to gain a broader, international perspective to inform our vision of its place in our own school curriculum.
  • We expected that observation and discussion in the host schools would allow us to share good practice, to compare and contrast teaching and learning styles and practical approaches to citizenship education – both in the classroom and in the life of the school community.
  • In our individual schools, and in clusters of neighbouring schools, we hoped to use the impressions we gained and the memorabilia we brought back to learn about and celebrate Ukrainian life and culture, and so to enrich learning about diversity.
  • We hoped to establish links and create opportunities for ongoing communication between the host schools and our schools in Wiltshire, for the benefit of teachers and pupils in both countries.

An enriching experience

For all of us in the group, the visit was an outstanding success. It fulfilled and exceeded our expectations, and provided an immensely stimulating and enriching experience. The care taken by our local hosts was exemplary, both in the prior planning and organisation of the visit, and in their unstinting efforts throughout our stay to ensure that our experiences were rewarding on both a professional and a personal level. Our reception in the schools we visited was unfailingly generous and welcoming, from staff and students alike, and we felt extremely privileged by the amount of thought and effort that had gone into setting up an interesting and varied programme in each establishment.

Our programme provided for visits to a diverse range of schools in Odessa, both state and private. It included specialist and experimental schools as well as those with a more mainstream character. We were able to see a variety of age groups, and every day provided a fascinating mix of activities, incorporating opportunities to tour the schools and gain general impressions, to observe lessons, extra-curricular activities and some stunning cultural displays and performances – a concert in our honour in every school we went into! We even had the chance to become actively engaged by doing some teaching our-selves. In the course of all this, we had plentiful opportunities to meet and talk with both staff and pupils, aided partly by the widespread excel-lent command of English and partly by the superb support we had from our interpreters.

It happened that our visit coincided with the Orthodox Easter weekend, and this gave an added dimension to the striking emphasis that we observed in the schools on Ukrainian culture and heritage: the powerful resurgence of Orthodox Christianity is one feature of a general reaffirmation of national identity, socially, politically and culturally, by contrast with the Soviet past.

Across the range of schools we visited, we felt we were able to observe a significant spectrum of educational settings, embracing schools whose goal was to challenge and extend some of the brightest and highest-aspiring of Odessa’s young people, as well as those whose mission was to nurture and improve the life chances of youngsters who were neither so gifted nor so privileged. All this provided us with a rich variety of impressions and the opportunity to make all sorts of comparisons and contrasts with education as we know it. Many of these impressions related in a general way to the quality of life and educational experiences in the schools, although probably the most significant and telling of our observations concerned our specific area of focus, namely citizenship education.

Appetite for learning

There were a number of features of the general education-al context that we found consistently striking across all the different schools we visited. The learning environment was invariably extremely well ordered, with high standards of behaviour in all the settings we observed. While the classroom culture appeared to our eye ‘traditional’ and quite formal, this was achieved without any evidence of repressive discipline – on the contrary in fact, relations between teachers and pupils seemed excellent. The wide-spread evidence of a real enthusiasm for learning powerfully struck us. It was clear that the majority of pupils attach great value to education, and pupils and teachers alike take immense pride in high achievement. Older students in particular work very hard, in an ethos of high demands and high expectations.

While much care was taken to make class-rooms and corridors attractive, the material resources available to schools seemed limited. In most of the schools we saw, for instance, there was little access to ICT facilities. However, the strong impression we gained was that schools take a very balanced and rounded view of education. While there is in some respects a strong vocational element in the approach taken, considerable value is also placed on the development of creative and artistic talents, and on providing access to a range of extra-curricular opportunities. The emphasis placed on language learning was especially striking, and we were able to appreciate the impressive levels of competence achieved in English! The teaching and learning styles that we observed were very mixed, ranging from conventional, didactic methods – some-times lecture-style teaching – to some very imaginative group work and active learning approaches in a style that seemed more familiar to us.

In relation specifically to Citizenship education, there was much that we found stimulating and inspiring. It was this area that made us particularly conscious of the fact that the education system we were observing was set against the background of Ukraine’s recent emergence as an independent and democratic nation. It became clear to us that education for Citizenship was widely recognised as a central strand in the curriculum. Interestingly enough, it is not some-thing that is imposed by their National Curriculum. It app-ears instead to gain its status from the natural commitment most teachers have to educate the whole child, and to contribute to pupils’ personal and social development and their preparation for the demands of life. We did encounter the teaching of Citizenship as a discrete subject, but often it emerged as a cross-curricular theme and was used to great effect in other subjects as a means of ‘earthing’ learning in real issues of life and society, providing relevance and a means of engagement for pupils.

Evident in all the schools we visited was a powerful and impressive tradition of developing pupils’ oral skills, and their confidence and fluency in presenting and expressing themselves clearly and articulately in front of others. This was a common and accepted part of the teaching process, with immense benefits for pupils’ skills of communication and participation. Pupils respond-ed well to the high expectations teachers had of their ability and willingness to tackle serious issues and think critically and reflectively, to engage in discussion and debate, and to formulate and express personal opinions.

In the lessons we saw, we noted a strong focus on learning about civic rights and responsibilities, understanding constitutional rights, and generally promoting pupils’ awareness of their role in the communal life, growth and development of the nation. In effect, what we saw was an emphasis on learning to be democrats, which we could readily identify with, infused with a strong vein of nationalism, which would sit less comfortably in the UK context. Beyond the classroom, there was much evidence of the value placed on promoting pupil participation – for instance through school councils which combine a consultative role with opportunities for pupils to take on real responsibility for aspects of the community life of the school. In some cases we also saw pupils involved in peer support and peer mentoring schemes.

Lasting impressions

At the end of ten days rich in discoveries and new experiences, we took away a mass of vivid impressions – these amongst many others:

  • A vision of citizenship as embedded in the educational culture through a real value placed on education for democracy: to sit in a Science lesson in the country of Chernobyl and listen to pupils debating the pros and cons of nuclear power was striking testament to the cross-curricular impact of citizenship in allowing all learning to be actively related to real life issues.
  • The realisation that the clearly articulated, perfectly formed sentences with which pupils would answer questions in the classroom were not – as I confess we initially thought – part of a staged performance for our benefit: when we asked them questions they would answer in the same manner, illustrating graphically the value that accrues for pupils from the promotion of oral skills, and of confidence in presenting, performing and debating.
  • School Council members who introduced themselves to us as ‘Cabinet Ministers’ – for leisure and cultural activities, for student behaviour, for charities, for debates and the school newspaper – illustrating the use of school councils not only to promote consultation and involvement in decision making, but also to allow pupils to take active responsibilities for aspects of school life.
  • The active and constructive use of homework in the form of independent learning, research or reflective tasks that feed directly into classroom activities, giving a point and a natural sense of purpose to homework and an affirmation of the work done through the sharing of outcomes in class. In a lesson on the theme of peace and conflict, pupils had prepared statements about changes they would like to see to reduce conflict in the world: in the lesson, each child was given a piece of paper cut out in the shape of a dove, on which they wrote their statements, then each in turn came to the front to pin up their dove and explain their ideas to the class.

Back in our Wiltshire schools, insights like these have particular application to the implementation of citizenship in our own curriculum. They high-light the many dimensions through which we can promote a citizenship ethos that cuts across the whole school life and learning experience of our pupils. There is much that we have learned and would wish to share with colleagues about the potential impact of citizenship aims and values, if diffused through the curriculum, to promote engagement, to give learning relevance and significance, and to engender skills and attitudes that heighten pupils’ capacity to participate creatively in their own learning.

On the basis of our experience, other visitors to Odessa can be assured of a warm welcome and generous hospitality. As a city, once you see past the first impression of grey, faded grandeur, you will find Odessa to be colourful, vibrant and attractive – a city and people of great charm and character. The spring seems like the ideal time to visit, between the bitter cold of winter and the full heat of summer – we were amazed by the way the trees in the boulevards seemed to burst into life during the ten days we were there. Things to be wary of include the roads – made interesting by gargantuan potholes and erratic driving; and there is undoubtedly a book to be written one day on “‘Odessa – Toilets I Have Known”: those we encountered ranged from the frankly awful to the bizarrely splendid!

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to all those adults and young people whose openness and kindness made our visit to Odessa such a rewarding and unforgettable experience – and most especially to Elena Urazova, our guide, interpreter and guardian angel, for all her tireless efforts on our behalf. TEX

First published by Wiltshire County Council in the Wiltshire Journal of Education

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