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World lit and Russian math to start the new year; What the Soviets are doing in math class

I think it is only fair to Monitor readers to start off this story by explaining that I am a longtime friend and sometime colleague of Robert B. Davis , a mathematician (University of Illinois at Urbana) who is the principal author of "An Analysis of Mathematics Education in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

Absolutely anyone at all interested in present-day schools or schooling in the USSR should locate this 178-page monograph (ERIC Clearinghouse, Ohio State University, 1200 Chambers Road, Columbus, Ohio 43212). I know the title sounds as though it is a volume devoted to how Soviets teach their children to solve equations like the following:

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(sin X) (cos X4 - 2 sin X) plus cos X (1 plus sin X/4 - 2 cos X) equals 0. (You can find this on Page 73.)

But Dr. Davis has done a great deal more. He has delved deeply into the Soviet education system and, more like a perceptive journalist than a mathematician, has found the context in which the teaching of math resides. It is a masterful piece of work. You will not learn more about USSR math than you wanted to know (not unless you read those portions of the paperback), but you will learn more about the Soviet education system than you have even known before.

Furthermore, although the book is an analytical monograph, the writing is essentially informal and hence, readable. Example: "The first thing that strikes you, the moment you enter a Soviet school, is the orderliness. Children are polite to adults, polite to one another, and attentive during lectures. For US visitors, this is a surprising novelty." And let me hasten to add that Dr. Davis is no stranger to US classrooms coast to coast, public and private.

And you will learn that "the general atmosphere in schools is regularly reported as warm, caring, even loving."

Also, "Beginning with the fourth grade, mathematics is alwaysm taught by a specialist teacher who teaches nothing but mathematics.m This applies to every grade level, from Grade 4 upward."

Do you know that Soviet children spend part of every day in a Pioneer Palace? And that these institutions combine the sorts of activities we might find in the US in the YMCA/YWCA, museums, zoos, Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts, piano lessons, music clubs, student orchestras, computer clubs, ballet lessons.

Do you know that there is no "tracking" or "streaming" of children in the first six to eight years of school? That all children get the same basic instruction in academics? And that this is a deliberate Soviet policy?

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Or that children from ages 7 to 15 take the following courses: Russian language, world literature, world history, social science, natural history, geography, biology, physics, astronomy, drawing, chemistry, English, other foreign languages, physical culture, labor training, and as Dr. Davis observws wryly at the end of this long list, "of course, mathematics."

But enough of this. If you want to know about Soviet schooling, get hold of this monograph. And if you are studying mathematics in the Soviet education system, you must.

Thank you, Bob Davis. I learn when you teach.