|Education and Production in the Russian Federation: What are the Lessons? (IIEP, 1997, 76 p.)|
If 5,000 vocational and technical schools produce systematically and many academic schools try something along the same lines, this means that production in schools cannot be an arcane and esoteric art. There is much to be learned from the Russian experience. Both the achievements and the shortcoming are full of lessons.
(i) Production and learning are not incompatible in schools. Even in exceptionally extensive systems of education and training it was possible to have practically all schools producing something that found consumers in society. This is a lesson to be learned.
(ii) This production, however, took place in a country with central planning and a chronic scarcity of consumer goods. The experience of market economies where private enterprises are more competitive and efficient shows how much more difficult it is to find a market niche in which schools can sell and break even. In market economies, a good combination of production and learning is a very unstable equilibrium. Either schools sacrifice learning to keep production viable or learning takes precedence and production becomes a token activity. As Russia moves towards a market economy, the same might also happen there, suggesting that the experience is not reproducible in a market economy, at least not on the same massive scale.
(iii) The Russian experience seems to indicate that using the school space and students in production is no insurance that this process will have a meaningful educational content. Learning does not take place by chance or by mimicry of factory processes, unless we are merely referring to learning to put up with the drudgery of repetitive factory work.
(iv) In a system in which students spend from 30 to 40 hours per week in school and a lot more doing homework, the hours used for production do not seem to hurt learning. They may have modest educational consequences, but there is much time left to negotiate an academic and vocational curriculum. However, in most developing countries, the school week is much shorter and production activities may subtract precious time that could be used for core curriculum learning. Under such conditions, productive activities have to be justified by their educational content or by the dire need to break even.
(v) The entire or predominant funding of schools by means of the sale of production was not possible even in Russian schools, where markets could absorb as much as they produced. Some particularly enterprising headmasters managed to amass vast sums of money by a strategic choice of products. But these activities took place as a side activity of the school and reflected the unusual entrepreneurial abilities of some people rather than any concept uniting production and learning. It would be naive to believe that in market societies the average school can repeat such achievements and maintain itself by the sale of its production, unless learning becomes a minor or negligible goal.
(vi) The discussion of such broad orientations for schools, and the vital question of financial survival by means of the sale of goods should not obliterate a less formidable but perhaps more lasting achievement of Russian schools: the attempt to give students contact with real work. Starting with the obligation to clean schools and execute minor repairs and maintenance, up to the participation in community work, bringing students into contact with work remains a good idea that could be imitated elsewhere.
(vii) Ultimately, what is more important from an educational point of view is not the experience of production per se but the higher order of learning that takes place when students see the concrete applications of the theories they learn in the classrooms. Production in schools or in factories is one means of accomplishing this merging of the world of words and symbols with the world of concrete objects and processes. But it is not the only one. This booklet has tried to show that under certain conditions this might be a very attractive alternative. But certainly it is not the only or the easiest one.