|Education and Production in the Russian Federation: What are the Lessons? (IIEP, 1997, 76 p.)|
|Chapter II. The Russian experience of education cum production|
Sooner or later it is necessary to ask about the educational dimension of the work experience. What do the students learn from working? How useful is this learning? What are the non-cognitive results? In what ways do the values and attitudes of students change as a consequence of having had firsthand working experience from an early age?
The results have not been as effective as expected. During the course of primary and middle school years, students were taught to develop some respect for the working class by reading required newspapers or fiction stories glorifying workers, studying in biased textbooks and meeting with carefully selected workers at school functions dedicated to the Soviet working class. Nevertheless, the students lost their awe and respect the moment they were old enough to participate in the internships. There the harsh reality of an ordinary factory was encountered.
Thus, the experiment to create in students a positive attitude to manual work may have failed - unfortunately, there is no reliable empirical research to confirm or deny this assumption. In some cases, it clearly led to cynicism. Yet, for unexpected reasons, the internship had a positive effect on students' performance in later school years. After the factory internships, students were driven to study more diligently, in order to have a better chance of getting into higher education, rather than going back to bleak factory life.
In the course of the years, the need to combine education with work lost its momentum, especially in cities (collective farms continued to rely heavily on student's help during harvest time), whilst official ideology started to stress other reasons for production, such as professional orientation and as a practical preparation for life.
Perhaps we can say that from a pedagogical perspective, the inclusion of 'labour' components as part of the general school curriculum made more sense than the internships. They contributed to children's motor development, self-esteem, and, indeed, practical preparation for life.
Nevertheless, the situation of vocational and technical schools has little in common with that of academic schools - which never took production too seriously. For this reason, the interest in analyzing the Russian experience lies more in the vocational and technical field, where production activities were conducted with a great sense of commitment. The comments that follow focus on these training programmes.
The acquisition of skills sounds easy to gauge, since there are processes of certification at the end of the learning. But even there, the criteria to get certification in different skills are notoriously weak and heterogeneous. To judge by the quality of the workmanship displayed at vocational schools, the level can be quite low in many - but not all - schools. Be that as it may, it is in vocational and technical schools that Russians learn their trades and where productive activities play a major role in the curricula.
One should not confuse a vocational or technical school certificate with that of a secondary academic. Vocational and technical schools have always offered long programmes, lasting thousands of hours, compared with the somewhat amateurish and improvised training associated with secondary academic schools. The market can clearly differentiate between the two kinds and recent data indicate that, particularly in the case of vocational school graduates, their skills are well rewarded (de Moura Castro, 1994).
However, it is quite clear that the bulk of the productive work in schools is not organized around tasks which increase in complexity and modulate the degree of difficulty and learning to the pace of students. Most of the production work is repetitive and essentially very easy. Students experience the kind of repetitive work that is typical in conventional production lines, such as feeding parts to a press, operating a loom or machining the same tractor wheels. Without question, something is learned in these repetitive activities. Yet, casual observation suggests that a plateau is soon reached, long before the students move on to something else. Too many schools prepare students for easy and repetitive tasks.
In other words, the school appears as a place where you repeat a watered-down version of what work is going to be. And in this setting, the productive activities complete the preparation of the students by mimicking factory life.
What is worrisome is that school production is not seen as a unique moment to experiment, to do what is not commercially viable in a regular factory. Instead, it is seen as putting the beginners to work on something simple. For instance, in a school attached to a textile factory, the looms are older and do not permit the same levels of quality as in the factory - which by Western standards are quite basic. Learning is narrowly understood as imitating the simplest production process used by the factories, and accepting a lower level of quality because they are students.
This is similar to what takes place in schools in developing countries which try to produce - in fact, it is possible that the Soviet Union may have been the source of inspiration for these experiments. In contrast, the relatively few technical schools in industrialized countries have a different philosophy with regard to production lines. They tend to view production as an experimental activity, to try out new ideas and to engage in the development of products and processes. Certain schools exist which only do the R&D stage of any production. Once a product is ready for production, it is offered to someone else to produce, usually a former student who may want to create a new enterprise.
In particular, Russian schools prepare workers to operate in factories which practice a high degree of division of labour. Students are not encouraged to master the non-manual aspects of production, such as design, production planning and control, cost monitoring, quality evaluation, marketing and purchasing.
A technical school in Moscow was planning to create an assembly line to produce commercially simple computers, based on the Z-80 processor. This computer had been developed by an independent research group. This is exactly the opposite of what good technical schools in the West would do. They would develop a new computer but refuse to produce it commercially, since the assembly of printed circuits and cabinets is merely a repetitive work with insufficient learning content. They would encourage an outside enterprise to produce it.
To be fair, the best Russian technical schools also do some creative R&D. The airframe engineering programme has been mentioned. We could also cite a school in St. Petersburg (attached to a nuclear submarine factory) where teachers were doing research on new alloys for metal-cutting tools which seemed as state-of-the-art as anything the leading Western schools are doing.
Looking at the broadest question, does the experience of production help in forging a working ethos among vocational and technical education students? Unfortunately, this central question cannot be properly answered with any satisfactory degree of accuracy. Be that as it may, visits to schools and factories seem to indicate that the major variable explaining the consequences of the production experience is the ethos of the enterprise associated with the school. Given the proximity between enterprises and the vocational and technical schools created to prepare their workers, it is the work environment at the factory that will largely determine whether the student will love or hate work as a result of producing while still in school. A survey of enterprises done in connection with another paper by the authors suggested that many Russian enterprises elicit a very antagonistic reaction from their workers. Students attending schools catering to these enterprises are likely to have a similarly negative attitude. Fortunately, not all enterprises are like that.
Another way of looking at the issue is to ask whether vocational schools with their strong emphasis on production have created workers who are able to adapt to new situations and, in particular, to create their own jobs and small firms. It should be clear from the outset that one cannot evaluate the value-added of a segment of a three-year long educational process. Yet, we can look at the impact of the whole educational package and evaluate how much it may have helped students. It seems that against all odds and dire predictions, vocational school graduates are relatively better off in the job market than graduates of other institutions (namely, technical and academic). Their unemployment rate is slightly lower than that of technical graduates and dramatically better than those of academic secondary schools (with the caveat that comparisons with the academic schools are based on less reliable evidence) (de Moura Castro, 1994). If this is the case, it is likely that production experience, which is more intense in these schools, may have helped them to succeed in the labour market.
That, of course, does not invalidate previous comments on the shortcomings and weaknesses of the present system of exposing students to productive activities.
The following conclusions seem relatively safe:
(i) The average Russian vocational or technical school systematically puts its students to producing something simple and unpretentious. A ceiling in the learning curve for that activity is reached long before the students move on to something else. By contrast, the average Western vocational schools rarely, if ever, engage in production.
(ii) Both in Russia and in the West, the leading-edge technical schools may have projects which are creative and bold. In other words, the higher end schools on either side have a greater probability of having more creative projects that are done on behalf of outside customers.
(iii) But even the more sophisticated Russian technical schools also engage their students in simpler production activities. The R&D projects are not sufficient to occupy the hundreds of hours of student time that the curriculum allocates to productive activities.
(iv) Production is expected to bring changes that go beyond the directly productive skills. It is hoped that it will create a more favourable attitude towards work and, in particular, towards manual work. Whether the experience with production will contribute towards creating a positive work ethos probably depends more on the particular conditions of the enterprise associated with the school rather than on any particular feature of the 'education cum production' programme.
(v) When we look at the entire package of vocational schools with their strengths and weaknesses, it seems clear that the institutions where 'education cum production' was taken to its most extreme levels, are offering their students a package of skills which turns out to be well received in the market. Graduates of PTUs are doing better than predicted by most Russian and foreign observers.
Prejudice against manual occupations is a universal feature of societies, varying only in level or intensity. Indeed, statements about the superiority of non-manual work can be found in old Egyptian writings. Even in European countries of today it stills exists. It would not be realistic to expect that it would have disappeared in Russia. The meaningful question is whether the Russian experience of putting students to work attenuates this prejudice. The opinions among Russians are very contradictory. Some claim that the entire experiment is a failure and that nothing can be gained by it. Others question the sense of getting students used to the authoritarian and obsolete realities of the factories, before taking up jobs in these same factories.
This is a very frustrating situation. Earlier, official ideology assumed that this prejudice had been wiped out. Now, the mood tends to be quite corrosive towards anything that comes from the old regime. The researchers and teachers spoken to probably exaggerated the inefficacy of the school-work experience in attenuating prejudice and creating a more positive attitude towards work. No concrete evidence could be found either way.