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
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
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
"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. …