The civic responsibility of teachers: a view from Russia

epishkola - kto ia?

Late last Spring, my Russian colleague Mikhail Epshtein publicly shared a letter he had originally sent to the school community of which he has been principal for over 20 years. Epishkola is a private progressive school in St. Petersburg, born in the liberalizing era of the early 1990s. It is a school that continues to evolve its philosophy and practice of progressive education – albeit in an atmosphere of increasing fear and repression. In his letter, Mikhail mourns the dismantling of a “cornerstone of civil society” in the city. TSRNO, a non-profit incubator whose beneficiaries included Mikhail’s school, was targeted by a new law that designates non-profit organizations as “foreign agents,” effectively removing them from society and shutting them down. However, Mikhail’s letter doesn’t focus on the threat to his own school and other non-profits posed by this event. Rather, it focuses on his own complicity in what happened. His interpretation outlines the civic responsibility of teachers. My translation of Mikhail’s letter follows (click here for the original Russian version); in an upcoming blog post I will discuss connections with the education context in Chicago.

ABOUT CITIZENSHIP: Reflections at the broken trough

by Mikhail Epshtein

I wrote a private letter to colleagues – teachers, graduates, parents of students at the school, in which I have been working for 20 years. But writing it, I realized that what had happened could be important beyond just this community. I decided to publish my thoughts more widely. As an opportunity for all of us to reflect… on our near future.

This is the situation, which, unfortunately, has recently become the usual: prosecutors come to a non-profit organization in order to close it, or at least drastically complicate its life. The formal reason for coming? The organization has received grants from foreign foundations. Informally, though, the reason is that the organization has dared to act independently: it comes to public authorities with new ideas as to how they can improve their activities for the benefit of their citizens.

And for our government such impertinence is offensive, so, instead of stretching out a hand of cooperation, it clamps down on troublemakers by establishing draconian laws against NGOs.

This time, prosecutors came to check on the St. Petersburg NGO Development Center (TSRNO). The specialist found that TSRNO has committed two serious offenses (in essence – criminal offenses): it receives grants of foreign funds, and engages in political activities. So, under the guise of the Center, a nest of “foreign agents” has hatched.

And so, the employees of the organization get to choose one of two things: either “with feeling, with propriety, with deliberation,” drowning in a sea of ​​bureaucratic problems, or, self-destruct immediately.

TSRNO is one of the oldest non-profit organizations of the city. It helps other nonprofit organizations to operate more efficiently; it organizes dialogue between the community and the city government and business. I believe that TSRNO today is one of the cornerstones of civil society in St. Petersburg.

Our private school is one of these non-profit organizations. We have cooperated with TSRNO for many years. And, along with other colleagues involved in this work, I have been friends with people in this organization for almost 30 years. I know their motives and am deeply aware of the importance of this organization for the city. Of course, they are not in any way “foreign agents” – in whatever sense this term is used. They are people who freely and thoughtfully try to make life in Russia better.

What exactly is the “political activity” TSRNO does? It is charged with the desire to actively cooperate with the state, preparing draft legislation, participating in the examination of laws and so on. Today, this is called “undesirable activity.”

I, like my colleagues at TSRNO, believe it is important to cooperate with foreign counterparts – for the common good. I do not see why we have to be closed off from the outside world. I have lots of friends and partners in different countries, and I know that they wish us only well. And our organization has received numerous grants from foreign organizations and we used the money to develop the school. Should we therefore be considered foreign agents?

I see what is happening in the country – again, as in the 1930s and at the turn of 1940-1950-s: mutual hatred is being sowed, people are being forced to hang labels on others, labels which will block and ultimately shut down their activities.

But why do I go on at such length and with such pathos?!

Because this story is very personal to me.

* * *

The fact is that that prosecutor, who came to TSRNO and charged it with being a “foreign agent,” happens to be a graduate of our school.

What are my feelings and thoughts about this?

First. I consider it necessary to apologize to my TSRNO colleagues and the entire nonprofit community of the city. I apologize for the fact that it was a graduate of our school who was the prosecutor taking part in this awful event.

We took part in his education for 10 years. Hence, we bear some of the blame for his choice.

Second. I feel personally guilty in this situation.

Guilty in the first place toward our graduate who is now working in the prosecutor’s office. Obviously, we were not able to make school a place that would help him understand the value of civil society. We weren’t clear enough in telling him about the persecution of the Communist regime, the atmosphere that prevailed in the country during that time, the role of the interrogators and the judiciary, and about the mechanisms that initiated and maintained the persecutions. We did not create the conditions for kids to be able to get experience in civic participation in the life of the school, city and country. In the time that he was in our school, we didn’t succeed in instilling in him a sense of the joy of freedom – his own and others, and of the need to defend this freedom.

This guy always wanted to be a lawyer. And we didn’t succeed in warning him about the moral complexities that he would inevitably face while working in the prosecutor’s office at this time.

Third. I do not think it’s right to gloss over the situation. It is necessary to talk about it and to draw conclusions.

Many believe that a particular contractor is not at fault. They submit that this decision came down from above, and the employee of the prosecutor’s office just did what his bosses told him to.

But I do not think it’s right to put this all at the feet of the system. There are always specific actors. Remember, like E. Schwartz in the play “Dragon?” “I was taught …” – “We were all taught…” -“But why did you have to be the best student, you bastard?!”

Yes, of course, we can blame Stalin and the Communist Party in general for the repression way back then, but there were also those many individual neighbors and co-workers who “knocked,” and the many specific investigators who abused people in the dungeons, and took pleasure in it.

There are always specific people who could have, in their particular situation, done something differently.

It’s convenient to hide behind the “system” in doing harm. But I think that in these cases, the country must know the faces of its “heroes.” And it is important to publicly name all those involved: including that official, who had the power to make the lives of a large number of people really hard, and the school in which he was raised.

Maybe, if this kind of public naming had been done at the time, we would not now be experiencing this apparent return to the past.

Finally, the fourth matter. We need to think seriously about what this story pushes us to change in schooling. This young man was our student for 10 years. And he was a very diligent and successful student. In terms of learning the curriculum.

But his participation in “the TSRNO story” once again shows that academic success is not enough: it is important to help students to make ethical decisions in difficult situations – for example, when it comes to a choice between conscience and career.

We need to understand – as we continue to work to the socio-political situation that is emerging now in this country. The difficulty is that we are in a very contradictory situation.

We in the school can not (in fact – we aren’t allowed) to actively and thoroughly acquaint children with the current political situation; we can not articulate our point of view on what is happening. If we do, we pull children into political debate, and they and their parents may have different ideas about what is happening. Plus, there isn’t enough time for anything but physics-mathematics-geography …

But teaching the values of freedom must be more central in the educational program of the school. We must not fail to warn children about the time in which we live today, what difficulties they will face. They did not live in the Soviet Union, but we did, and we have experience.

Otherwise, I fear, very soon we too will find ourselves “foreign agents,” and our graduates will come to designate the school as unreliable and close it.

So I ask: Is it worth ten years of diligently providing children with an arsenal of intellectual tools, only then to see them put to use as prosecutors who destroy what is civically and humanly precious to us?

“Collective Creative Action:” Notes on informal education in Russia

I base this article on impressions, conversations, and reflections on a trip to Russia in the Spring of 2015, serving as an Advanced Practitioner Fellow with the U.S.- Russia Social Expertise Exchange’s Education and Youth Working Group. My huge thanks to U.S. Russia SEE for this fellowship opportunity. My trip was hosted by Mikhail Epshtein in St. Petersburg and Denis Rogatkin in Petrozavosk; I am grateful for their generosity in introducing me and other fellows to youth centers, schools, and individuals to help our Working Group learn about youth development in Russia. I am also grateful to Mikhail and Denis for helping me with this article. All mistakes in fact and interpretation are my own responsibility.


The woods enters into kids’ spirits, it sees in them protectors, people of consciousness and experience.

Kim Andreev

Do kids learn more on their feet or sitting down? Responding in the moment and planning for the next moment, or hearing about the past? Reading the stories of past heroes, or participating in a local social action project? Most teachers I know see these questions not as either-or, but aim for a balance of academic training and experiential learning in their classes. In Russia, the education system is set up to emphasize both – but separately, and somewhat in tension with each other. This article will explore this tension, and its implications, looking at some aspects of the relationship between formal and informal education in Russia. Informal education, embodied in the phrase “collective creative action,” focuses on the relationship of the individual to society, with awareness of the developmental stages of this important relationship.

The widespread education practices that I refer to here as “informal education” emphasize creative freedom and active social responsibility. They offer models for democratic education in an environment of both social stresses and governmental controls. This is relevant to both U.S. and Russian contexts of increased standardization and testing, when many students and teachers feel disconnected from learning that relates to real-world challenges and opportunities. In Russia, the education system is not set up to meet the challenges of significant demographic and political changes, such as the influx of migrants from former Soviet republics, the lack of young people entering fields of science and technology, and an aging teaching population.

For their part, U.S. schools are not equipped to deal with the problems emerging from a profoundly unequal society. In many urban areas of the U.S., the graduation rates of students is only 50%; the retention rate of teachers in the same areas who remain in the profession for more than 5 years is also about 50%. Young people, especially African American males, who leave school are less likely to gain stable employment and more likely to be incarcerated, leading to the catastrophic situation referred to in the U.S. as the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

In the face of such challenges, reforms rise up to overhaul schooling systems, often failing to take into account the personal and interpersonal learning processes that accompany academic learning. Education that focuses on these processes can be a powerful support for young people as they develop to meet the challenges of the world they enter into with focus, hope, and respect for others. Rooted in the strengths and knowledge of each individual, informal learning counters dehumanizing systems with reliable, realistic approaches to social health.

At a time when disagreements, disapproval, and distrust at political levels distort the way American and Russian people see each other, I want to highlight an area of common ground between our two countries. A close look at how Russian educators are approaching the relationship between informal and formal learning yields perspectives that point to new possibilities in the field of youth development. While counterpoints and different interpretations are necessary to fill out the picture more, in this article I focus only on a few aspects of these perspectives.
Doroga 1

Formal vs. Informal education in Russia

In Russian schools, as in schools in the United States and in many other countries, most students spend their days doing the routine work of preparing for exams, learning formulas, reciting vocabulary: the customary occupation of young people being trained in standard knowledge for a standardized world. They sit in desks; they are mostly quiet; they follow the temporal and spatial coordinates laid out for them on schedules and calendars. While many teachers want their students to ask questions, to imagine, to innovate – to practice the capacities best suited for a changing, challenging world – the structures of school block these capacities. Many schools reproduce the hierarchies, competitiveness, and boredom of adult society. In the words of a Petrozavodsk teacher, “schools are cemeteries of talent.”

But out of school, young people take part in a very different kind of education. They engage in elaborate role-playing games in explorations of gender equity; they ask questions in city council meetings about proposed development in their neighborhood (and observe the fury of the developers, unused to such challenges!); they create television programs that illuminate important issues; they dig in the dirt, climb trees, imitate different bird cries… experiential learning opportunities available to Russian kids seem to be infinite. And these are not special programs for special kids – enrichment learning is for everyone. Visionary and dynamic young adults staff these programs; they make a decent living and often spend their whole lives doing this work. The field of informal learning is more systematically developed in Russia than in the United States.
The out-of-school learning system is well-funded, rooted in the work of professionals with many years of training, and broadly respected.

In Russia, out-of-school learning is called pedagogy, and involves extensive, cutting-edge study in adolescent development, social theory, and philosophy. In-school learning, on the other hand, focuses less on the people and relationships involved in learning and more on subject matter. It is conducted by teachers who are certified as subject matter experts, but whose work is highly regulated by official standards and assessments. I found that classroom teachers’ discussions of the education profession were often permeated with pessimism and resignation. The exams, the authorities, the students, the parents, other teachers – all were getting in the way of the kind of education the teachers wanted to be able to deliver. It was discouraging.

In out-of-school spaces, however, educators expressed possibility, movement, hopefulness. The vitality they express directly reflects the energy and engagement of the young people they work with.

A few examples (with links) illustrate the dynamic nature of these out-of-school programs:

*A youth-produced video by teenage “Doroga” journalists, on naturalist-educator Kim Andreev, with footage from 50 years ago and today:

*“Parallels,” an intertwining of youth and adult programming emphasizing collaboration, creative connections, local and global partnerships, and ecological work:
http://ped-paralleli.ru/

*Engagement in real-life problem-solving in physics, chemistry, and technological development through the School League RUSNANO:
http://schoolnano.ru/

Each of these examples is one slice of a myriad of activities associated with these organizations. Out-of-school education programs are exponentially expanded versions of the tables that Montessori children circulate amongst. An array of intriguing choices — and an assumption that what the child chooses is just right for him or her at that moment – ensure that a great number of young people in Russia find something meaningful that they can find themselves in, expand into, and connect in with others. Of course, not all out-of-school programs are equal in quality (and in funding), but the models are widely available and supported.

The Pedagogy of Informal Education

Foundations of informal education include social learning, deep and broad expertise in child and youth development, and equality in relationship between adults and children. Russian out-of-school educators make up a vibrant community of innovative practitioners and visionary researchers. They draw upon and continue to develop the work of influential philosophers and psychologists of education. These foundations anchor their work in shared commitment and lifelong personal and professional connections. O. S. Gazman and I. P. Ivanov were two especially influential figures in the development of out-of-school pedagogy. While Gazman emphasized the importance of independent thinking and action, and Ivanov developed transformative technologies of group work, both educators, and their successors, have created a rich field of social learning with significant cultural, educational, and political dimensions.

Doroga 4

It is impossible to understand the importance of non-academic learning in Russia without knowing about Vospitanie, which has to do with the development of values, creativity, and social capacities like communication and leadership. It is sometimes translated as “upbringing,” but the concept is both more specific and more far-reaching. School and out-of-school learning share with parents the responsibility for vospitanie of young people, and out-of-school learning professionals especially familiarize themselves with the psychology and sociology of youth development. Although the new education state standards in Russia put a premium on education that fosters self-determination, initiative, and social responsibility, the state does not provide the supports needed for schools to meet such standards. Out-of-school learning programs are in a position to offer these supports (Rogatkin, 2014).

The education theories of L.S. Vygotsky have familiarized non-Russian educators with what I am calling informal education. Vygotsky emphasized the social bases of learning, human development, and emotional life. Intellectual learning is limited and distorted without grounding in relationships. “Human learning,” Vygotsky writes, “presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” Vygotsky’s models of educational relationships have helped educators all over the world to align learning conditions, conversations, and activities with children’s natural developmental processes. Education philosopher Alexander Sidorkin explains:

The best Russian schools I know are much, much more than just academic institutions. They possess the charm of a community, a family, a club. I have made one puzzling observation: when academics in students’ minds move to the second place, a school often gets better in academics. In order to improve learning one needs to improve teaching—this is an assumption that is much too linear. Those two processes are connected rather indirectly, through some mysterious medium, a nutritious broth that is as elusive as vital for the education. Vospitanie is an art of creating such a medium.

A glimpse at one of the most influential forms of vospitanie will give an idea of this educational art. The Communard movement of youth leadership developed in the 1960s and 1970s in Russia, and though it no longer exists as a formal organization, it had a lifelong impact on participants and adult leaders alike and its effects continue. In his book on self-government in Russian schools, for instance, Denis Rogatkin adapts social learning processes he participated in as a young person for contemporary school contexts. He writes that the role of self-government is “to release into life a new generation of people, whose activity will change society for the better.” Fresh ideas for a changing world grow through the process of sustaining the spirit of creative social responsibility across generations and contexts.

The philosophy embodied in Ivanov’s term “collective creative activity” took hold in a generation of young people and in the practices of informal education they carried out. Participants in the camps and programs run by Communards (as well as Scouts and other youth groups) went on to develop transformative educational programs that continue to thrive throughout Russia, propagating values of interdependence, critical thinking, and belief in the power of youth to change the world.

Informal education in action

Informal learning prepares young people to meet real-world challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, it creates space and supports for them to make an impact on society, in present contexts and in shaping the future. Informal educators support young people’s development through creating generative learning conditions. As Sidorkin notes, “One of the lessons of the Communards’ experiment is that an educator does not have to function as an organizer and authority figure in order to achieve educational goals. In the domain of vospitanie, indirect influences are more effective than direct ones.”

Through intentional small group activities, informal education fosters the development of the individual and the collective. Group work is based in several principles at the core of informal learning in Russia; these build on the foundations of informal education mentioned above:

1) An emphasis on play, and a well-developed developmental framework associated with games;
2) Equality in adult-child relationships, marked by lateral and mutual learning experiences; and
3) Metacognition about social and individual learning processes, expressed in real-time communication and action.

I will return to the programs mentioned earlier to demonstrate each of these areas. Bear in mind that that these examples offer a small representation of the thousands of informal learning programs in Russia, and that though I will focus on one aspect of each program, out-of-school learning programs generally combine all these three areas.

PLAY: Informal learning engages the intellect, creativity, and emotional literacy through sophisticated frameworks of play. As I explained in a blog post after visiting the office of “School League RUSNANO,” in Russia a number of camps are designed to focus on a key idea, which provides a generative focus for groups interested in different activities and questions. For a week or multiple weeks, young people engage in a large-scale roleplaying game involving intensive collaborative interdisciplinary work that is physical, social, and intellectual. It is an “immersion” experience and experiment. One camp, for example, was organized around the theme of “Chaos and Order.” Young people from the Epishkola School wrestled with ideas of physics, literature, philosophy, math, and history as they worked their way through a living social maze of order and chaos. Experientially digging into the complex world of The Dictionary of the Khazars, they navigated ideology, loyalty, passion, and treachery in their interactions with one another, with the help of intellectual lifelines that scientific and philosophical thinking offers to human society. This kind of “immersion” experience can be seen as an enactment of Vygotsky’s theory of play: “As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.”

EQUALITY: Whereas hierarchical structures can clog relationships and innovation in Russian society, informal education breaks down hierarchies, beginning by transforming the traditional adult-child relationship. At Youth Union “Doroga” in Petrozavodsk, young people participate in programs that draw out their capacities as leaders, thinkers, and observers of the world around them. From in-depth reporting on youth-related issues and stories, to outdoor education that children engage other children in, the activities Doroga supports center around confidence in young people. On the day I visited Doroga, for instance, 5th graders stationed themselves along a low-ropes course to guide the 4th grade participants. They didn’t tell them what to do; neither did the teachers who were present: adult and youth leaders alike respected the children’s problem-solving process. This kind of approach lends itself to systemic change, such as the model restorative justice program that Doroga runs at a regional level, advocating for community-based restorative practices in place of traditional juvenile justice measures.

METACOGNITION: Learning that heightens consciousness is the holy grail of education. Informal educators insist that people must experience uncertainty, risk, and supports for reflection and dialogue to grow in consciousness. This is a vital foundation for self-sustaining lifelong learning. Paralleli is a program that began as a camp combining the aims of young people engaged in real-world social problem solving with those of education researchers developing new approaches to group dynamics. Like the School League RUSNANO programs and Doroga, Paralleli is based in games and structures of mutual trust between adults and young people, but its leaders put special emphasis on the articulation of learning in real-time feedback structures. Paralleli leader Irina Rynkevich describes camp as a parallel world, one that you step into out of your world not to escape but to be able to enter back into the world with greater clarity. Like a novel or a film, camp has an arc that when examined leads to stronger self-awareness, intuition, and relational presence.

One compelling sign of the effectiveness of the principles of play, equality, and metacognition, is that the informal learning structures that include them continue over time and across generations. In Russia, the designation “youth” extends well beyond the teens and even twenties, and it is common to meet people in their thirties who are still involved in Scouts or other youth programs, either as participants or as leaders. The continuity of these youth programs has enabled the informal education community to develop a sophisticated social pedagogy.

This has important affects on political and cultural life. Alexander Sidorkin emphasizes that even under Soviet repression, strong currents of freedom have coursed through Russian education, especially in the forms of vospitanie that emphasize “collective creative activity.” “Most of the ideas about democracy, social engagement, and civic norms people had came from schools, summer camps and Pioneer Palaces.” He suggests that the current of freedom sustained in youth culture was strong enough to weaken the Soviet Union, which in fostering independence and interdependence in youth culture allowed for its own demise.

In Russia, informal education directly addresses questions of how people respond individually and collectively to changes in society. Informal education programs are taking on challenges such as the “brain drain” that is depleting Russia of its strong scientists, and the integration of migrants from former Soviet republics. The long history and pedagogy of social learning continues to evolve in out-of-school contexts. School programs that draw on the resources of out-of-school organizations experience the benefits of more authentic learning. These benefits include not only the growth of individual students, but wider social change. Increasingly, organizations are evolving programs that apply social technologies focused on equitable relationships, systems analysis, and self-awareness, to fields like multicultural education (see “Paralleli” and Project ‘Respekt’) and nanotechology (see Nanoschool).

Progressive Education in Russia and America

The philosophy of informal learning in Russia is relevant to a central concern of progressive education in America – the relationship of youth and society.

Informal education in Russia closely corresponds with the progressive philosophy that John Dewey lays out in his writing – a philosophy considered by many to be the most powerful and sustainable model of education developed in America. Dewey’s description of “Utopian” schools was clearly based on what he saw in the Soviet Union when he visited in the late 1920s. First and foremost, the relationship between adults and youth is one of mutual respect. As Dewey describes it, it is not a relationship of teaching – which he connects with acquisition of knowledge and achievements (and an overly acquisitionist society), but not with actual development. Rather, Dewey, writes, the ideal adult-child educational relationship is lateral, organic, shaped by curiosity about the world, the self, and one another:

[Adults] associate themselves with the young in carrying on some line of action. Just as in these older studios younger people were apprentices who observed the elders and took part along with them in doing at first some of the simpler things and then, as they got more experience, engaged directly in the more complex forms of activity, so in these directed activities in these centres the older people are first engaged in carrying on some work in which they themselves are competent, whether painting or music or scientific inquiry, observation of nature or industrial cooperation in some line. Then the younger children, watching them, listening to them, begin taking part in the simpler forms of the action –¬ a minor part, until as they develop they accept more and more responsibility for cooperating.

Like the informal education practice I described above, Dewey’s “Utopian” schools feature, in addition to adult-child equality, a strong emphasis on play and on consciousness. Though he recognized the role of indoctrination in Soviet schools, in his view, the independent thinking and capacities for collective activity that these schools fostered in young people undermined the force of indoctrination.

However, as I mentioned earlier, informal education was and is practiced more out of schools than in schools. Whether writing about American schools or learning in the Soviet Union, Dewey focused predominantly on schools, contributing to a tendency in American attitudes and policies to saddle schools with the responsibility of solving the problems of society. Education historian Lawrence Cremin criticizes Dewey’s neglect of out-of-school learning:

to think comprehensively about education, we must consider policies with respect to a wide variety of institutions that educate, not only schools and colleges, but libraries, museums, day-care centers, radio and tele¬vision stations, offices, factories, and farms. To be concerned solely with schools in the kind of educational world we are living in today is to have a kind of fortress mentality in contending with a very fluid and dynamic situation. Education must be looked at whole, across the entire life span, and in all the situations and institutions in which it occurs… wherever an effort goes forward in education, it must go forward not in isola¬tion from other educative institutions but in relation to them.

Cremin argues that to be conscious educators, we need to focus squarely on the relationships between the various areas of society and family life that impact children’s development. Educators outside of school contexts understand this: “For day-care workers, pastors, editors of children’s encyclopedias, and directors of senior citizen’s centers, the message is the same: Whatever is done, to be effective, must be done with an awareness of what has gone on and what is going on elsewhere.” Schools need to be working in tandem with other areas of society; by the same token, education policy must put the impact of social conditions front and center in shaping education. As educators Volkova, Stepanova, and Stepanov write,

Traditional education…underscores people’s dependence on decisions taken by others, and strengthens social inequality and subservience to authority, power. [In this new century,] we need people with a new mentality, who aren’t slaves…with a deep faith in themselves, their abilities, the ability to realize one’s own and the common happiness.

For over a century, Russian educators have been evolving models of social learning that offer a working technology of democratic education. Our world remains in need of effective approaches to education that fosters relationships across differences, self-reflection, and cooperation for the common good. For much of this century, however, models developed in Russia have been inaccessible to Western educators, in part due to the association of social learning with Soviet ideology. Now that concerns about communist indoctrination are a thing of the past, it is high time to move past the obstacles presented by terminology. Widening windows of professional pedagogic exchange will strengthen the foundations of humanizing and relevant education for both of our countries.

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