Who was Sukhomlinsky?
A school teacher and principal, Vasily Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970) was one of the most influential Soviet educators of the post-war period. His school in the small Ukrainian town of Pavlysh became an educational magnet attracting thousands of visitors, and his books were read by millions. His idealism and his deep love for children led him to develop a holistic system of education which placed great emphasis on children’s health and on their moral and aesthetic development, as well as on intellectual and vocational development. He attracted criticism from some in the Soviet educational hierarchy for laying too much emphasis on the individual, supposedly at the expense of the collective. A close examination of his work shows this criticism to have been misguided. His work is likely to be of interest to anyone interested in humane and holistic approaches to education.
Sukhomlinsky’s Holistic System of Education
V.A. Sukhomlinsky was a humanistic educator who saw the aim of education as being to produce a truly humane being. For him this meant someone who was strong and healthy (physically and emotionally) and who was a personification of kindness. It meant someone who had a deep appreciation of beauty, who had developed their intellect (and was observant and aware of their environment), and who had developed their talents and used them for the benefit of society.
The core of Sukhomlinsky’s system of education was his approach to moral education, which involved sensitizing his students to beauty in nature, in art and in human relations, and encouraging students to take responsibility for the living environment which surrounded them. Sukhomlinsky taught his students that the most precious thing in life is a human being, and that there is no greater honour than to bring joy to other people. He taught them that to bring joy to other people, and especially to their families, they should strive to create beauty in themselves and in the environment. There was thus a very close connection between moral and aesthetic education in Sukhomlinsky’s approach.
Another aspect of being truly human was the development of the intellect, so that the horizons of the mind grew ever wider, gradually encompassing the whole world and reaching into the depths of space. Sukhomlinsky could not agree with those who sought to give education a purely utilitarian focus, who thought that knowledge was worthwhile only if it found direct application in the work place. For him the study of foreign languages and of astronomy were essential in order for a person to appreciate the world of which they were a part, and to broaden their minds.
The foundation of all personal growth is health, and Sukhomlinsky gave a great deal of his attention to ensuring that children enjoyed optimum health, especially in early childhood, when character is formed. He took children out into nature often, combining physical exercise with lessons in thought and in the appreciation of beauty. Especially in the primary school, he thought it important that children’s thought be associated with vivid images, such as were to be found in the fields, forests and waterways within walking distance of the school. If thought were divorced from the children’s direct experiences, it would exhaust them. (At the bottom of this page you can read an account of an outdoor lesson.)
It was also important that children’s learning, the work of their intellects, be associated with practical works which put their knowledge to use. Only if children’s knowledge was used to improve their environment and the lives of people around them, would it lead to the formation of an active philosophy of life, to a practical moral stance.
Sukhomlinsky’s holistic educational philosophy thus rested on five pillars: health education, moral education, aesthetic education, intellectual education and work education.
Educating the heart
Sukhomlinsky sought to prolong children’s childhood, to keep them optimistic and open to the world, to preserve the freshness of their emotional responses to the world. He showed them that although they were small, they could do a lot to care for the environment in which they lived and to bring happiness to the people they met. He sought to refine their sense of beauty, being very selective in the impressions he fed to their young minds. He took them to the most beautiful natural settings he could find. He taught them to listen to the music of nature, the rustle of grasses and of leaves, the song of the lark. He played them music inspired by such natural sounds, and showed them paintings of natural beauty. He did not swamp them with a surfeit of images and sounds, but allowed each new exposure to beauty to be memorable.
He taught them to become more aware of the inner world of other people, to read others’ eyes, to recognise feelings of joy, of sorrow or confusion. He tried to ensure that children took joy home from school to their families, to ensure that every child uncovered some latent talent or ability at which they could excel. Not every child could excel academically, but each could shine at something and find a way to bring joy to others. This was the foundation of their self-respect and their moral development.
‘I am not afraid of repeating again and again: concern for health is the educator’s most important task. Children’s spiritual life, their outlook, their intellectual development, the soundness of their knowledge, their faith in themselves, all depend on their joy in life and their energy. If I were to measure all my cares and concerns for children during the first four years of schooling, a good half of them would be about health.’
Sukhomlinsky worked closely with parents to try and ensure that the children he taught enjoyed optimum health. He gave advice on daily routines, diet, exercise and hygiene. Children were given medical examinations two years before they started school, so any health problems could be addressed well before children commenced studies. At school, lessons were programmed so that the most demanding subjects were studied early in the day, when students were fresh. Special attention was given to students’ posture, and to the provision of appropriately sized furniture (on an individual basis). Many lessons were held outdoors on field trips or in specially constructed ‘green classrooms’.
‘There is no person in whom, given skilled educational work, a unique talent will not unfold. There is no sphere of activity in which the individual will not flourish, if only we, the educators, are able to entice a person with that most noble of creative endeavours – the creation of joy for other people.’
‘The repeated experience of joy accompanying good deeds in childhood is transformed over time into that voice of conscience which bears witness to a high level of moral consciousness.’
Sukhomlinsky believed moral education involved the inculcation of ‘moral habit’ (habituation to moral actions) and ‘moral consciousness’ (the positive thoughts, emotions and acts of will associated with moral actions). It was necessary for moral fables and explanations of moral principles to be accompanied by practical opportunities to practice moral actions. He saw to it that there were many such opportunities for his pupils: caring for the environment, caring for family and classmates, caring for elderly people in the community.
‘In aesthetic education in general, and musical education in particular, the psychological aims of a teacher who is acquainting children with the world of the beautiful are important. For me the most important aim was to educate an ability to relate emotionally to beauty and a thirst for impressions of an aesthetic nature. I saw the main aim of the whole system of education as being to ensure that the school taught people to live in the world of the beautiful, so that they could not live without beauty, so that the beauty of the world created beauty in themselves.’
‘Beauty only ennobles people when they labour to create beauty.’
‘In the places of beauty which each class creates in the school grounds are roses, lilacs, grapes, pears. A concern for beauty is experienced as a concern for a tender, delicate, defenceless being, who would perish if people did not care for it.’
‘I advised teachers: if a child does not understand something, if his thought beats helplessly like a bird in a cage, look carefully at your work. Has the consciousness of your child become a little dried up pond, cut off from the eternal and life-giving source of thought – the world of objects, of natural phenomena? Connect this pond with the ocean of nature, of objects, of the surrounding world, and you will see how a spring of living thought will begin to flow.’
‘A child thinks in images. This means that if, for instance, he is listening to a teacher’s description of the journey of a drop of water, he is picturing in his mind’s eye the silver waves of morning mist, the dark storm cloud, the claps of thunder and the spring rain. The brighter these pictures are in his mind’s eye, the more deeply he comprehends the laws of nature.’
‘The first thing that catches the eye of a child who enters our school in grade one is the array of interesting things that all, without exception, are busy with. Each pupil has a favourite workplace, a favourite hobby, and an older friend whose work serves as a model. The overwhelming majority of pupils are not only learning something, mastering something, but passing on their acquired skills and knowledge to their friends.’
‘We view our task as being to ensure that all of our pupils in adolescence and early youth consciously finds themselves, discovers themselves, and select that path in life where their work can attain the highest degree of mastery – creativity. The key to achieving this is to discern in each child their greatest strength, to find that ‘golden vein’ from which can flow individual development, to ensure that children achieve outstanding success for their age in that activity which most clearly expresses and reveals their natural talents.’
A Lesson in Nature
We went on journeys to the sources of words with sketch books and pencils. Here is one of our first journeys. My aim was to show the children the beauty and the subtle shades of meaning of the word ‘ЛУГ’ [Ukrainian for ‘meadow’—pronounced approximately as ‘loogh’, where ‘gh’ is like a voiced version of ‘ch’ in the Scottish word ‘loch’]. We settled ourselves under a willow that leant over a pond. In the distance a green meadow was bathed in sunlight. I said to the children, ‘Look at the beauty before us. Above the grass, butterflies are flying and bees are buzzing. In the distance is a herd of cattle that look like toys. It seems as if the meadow is a light green river and the trees are its dark green banks. The herd is bathing in the river. Look how many beautiful flowers early autumn has sprinkled around. And as we listen to the music of the meadow, can you hear the soft drone of the flies and the song of a grasshopper?’
I draw the meadow in my sketch book. I draw the cows, the geese scattered about like white fluff, and a barely perceptible puff of smoke and white cloud on the horizon. The children are spellbound by the beauty of the quiet morning and they are also drawing. I write underneath the drawing: ‘ЛУГ’. For the majority of children, letters are drawings. And each drawing reminds them of something. Of what? Of a blade of grass? Bend the blade over and you have an ‘Л’. Put two blades together and you have a new drawing, an ‘У’. The children write the word ‘ЛУГ’ below their drawings. Then we read the word. Sensitivity to the music of nature helps the children to sense the meaning of the word. The outline of each letter is memorised. The children impart to each letter a living sound, and each letter is easily memorised. The drawing of the word is perceived as a whole. The word is read, and this reading is not the result of lengthy exercises in phonic analysis and synthesis, but a conscious reproduction of a phonic, musical image, which corresponds to the visual image of the word that has just been drawn by the children. When there is such an integration of visual and auditory perception, infused with a wealth of emotional colouring—which is contained both in the visual image and in the musical sound of the word—the letters and the small word are memorised simultaneously. Dear reader, this is not a discovery of some new method for teaching literacy. It is the practical realisation of that which has been proven by science: that it is easier to memorise something one is not obliged to memorise, and that the emotional colouring of perceived images plays a crucial role in memorisation.