Critical Thinking in the Former Soviet Bloc

Article excerpt

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. …