Journalist, critic, and curator Anna Narinskaya spoke to Ekaterina Kadieva and Sergey Kuznetsov
This weekend, journalist, critic, and curator Anna Narinskaya spoke to Ekaterina Kadieva and Sergey Kuznetsov. Here’s how Anna herself described their interview on her Facebook page: ‘I’m seeing a lot of parents venting their frustration with schools on Facebook. I no longer have any school age kids, but in one of my recent posts here, I have endorsed the school my son had graduated from which helped us immensely. Now, I’ve decided to give some exposure to the international (this word is very important here!) school founded by my friends, Ekaterina Kadieva and Sergey Kuznetsov. Having gained quite a bit of experience thanks to their previous project, the Marabou Educational Camp, they launched Le Sallay Academy, an international middle school. This school features a blended learning model: periods of online classes interspersed with three-week in-person study sessions. Last September, a Russian-language subsidiary of the school - Le Sallay Dialogue – was opened in Russia, with its in-person sessions held outside Moscow.
While I believe in what Katya and Sergey are doing, I had some questions about this endeavor of theirs – so I went ahead and asked these questions to them. Here, give it a read. It is a substantial interview, but it just might help you when you’ll be thinking about schools and all that.’
Anna Narinskaya: There used to be a time when everyone in Russia was all about finding a ‘good public school’, and it had to be a public school specifically. Private schools were perceived as ‘education lite’: providing good food but putting no real pressure on students in terms of learning. What is the situation now?
Sergey Kuznetsov: I’d like to say a few words about this juxtaposition between public and private schools. You don’t often get to meet people who support private schools, and it’s hardly surprising: society today puts a lot of emphasis on the ideas of educational equity and rejection of any discrimination, so private schools which charge people for something the state supposedly provides for free may seem a bit inappropriate.
However, of late, I have been reading the British historian Neil Ferguson – who I like a lot, and whose quote I even used as an epigraph to my own book The Roundelay of Water (published in 2012 by Astrel. - Ed.). And he actually makes a case for private schools, suggesting they ensure a competition of ideas and approaches which is ultimately good for the educational system as a whole.
And, to get back to your question, I think the prejudice against private schools in Russia dates back to the 90’s when not only the proverbial intelligentsia was experiencing an obvious aversion to the places catering to the New Russians, but also – and even more importantly – public schools had way more freedom. At the time, Soviet era public schools with specialized curricula in various subjects like languages, math and so on were undergoing reforms and expanding their existing programs, and at the same time, new schools were emerging – my daughter went to one of these, it was known as the Donskaya Gymnasium in the nineties, and is now called the George Vernadsky Lyceum. In other words, the selection of available free schools in the public education sector was so huge that most parents simply did not see the point of sending their kids to a private school when they had access to a reliably good regular public school.
As we all know, everything has changed in recent years: the government started to get involved with education, and Moscow had to endure the consolidation of schools which had a fairly negative impact on the situation there. What’s more, the pressure from the authorities in terms of ideology is getting more and more heavy, so, understandably, people are starting to consider transferring their children to a private school. Besides, destroying a good public school is a simple of matter of replacing the principal, because once you do that, the school in question is no more; as strange as it may seem, private schools are way more stable in that respect, especially if they are doing well financially and don’t have to rely on a rich benefactor to cover all their expenses. In the latter case, there are, of course, other risks that you have to take into account.
And, obviously, since you mentioned ‘education lite’, it’s worth noting that the market segment of cushy private schools that do not provide proper learning but strive to make their students feel as good as possible is an international one. But such schools can be easily spotted by simply talking to the school’s representatives or other parents, so, I think, any parent will be able to tell that kind of school from, say, Khoroschool, the New School, or our own Le Sallay Dialogue.
Anna Narinskaya: Is it really necessary to put pressure on the kids, to make them study? Schools and parents are now clashing all the time, trying to settle who is supposed to be the ‘bad cop’. I still remember those phone calls from a really good public school: ‘You have yet again failed to ensure they had done their chemistry homework!’ But who is responsible for it, really?
Ekaterina Kadieva: That’s a very good question, thank you. First off, I'll just say right away that I can only comment on middle school, since in almost all of our projects, we work with children aged ten to 14, and I don’t really have much to say about elementary school. As for high school, I don’t really want to talk about it.
But, if we are discussing middle school, there is one major problem encountered around the globe: as confirmed by all kinds of research papers and tests, children lose motivation to study just a year after starting middle school. Why does it happen?
There are two reasons. The first one has to do with the fact that middle school - almost everywhere and most of the time - is currently using obsolete curricula. What I mean here is not the technological tools like the Internet and what have you, but the content-related things.
In order to understand how it happened, we’ll have to delve into history for a bit here.
The middle school as we know it emerged in the 19th century. Why did kids go there back then? Firstly, so they could stay at a warm and dry place, but that factor lost all meaning for most of the people reading this a long, long time ago. Secondly, school provided a social escalator: if you learned to read and count, it meant you had a chance to escape a life of menial work and to ascend higher in society. When it comes to middle school specifically, this has also lost any relevance; that is, while there are clearly some places that help children get into good high schools and later win admission to good universities, these places are few and far between, and they are usually filled with students who don’t really need any social escalators in the first place. Conversely, things that are taught in a regular middle school nowadays do not provide children any advantages on the job market. Today, you won’t meet a lot of parents who would say to their kids: ‘Learn your history (literature, geometry, etc.), and you’ll succeed in life!’ or even ‘Figure out how a combustion engine works, and you’ll become a driver or a repairman!’ Let’s be honest, these are not really seen as great career choices these days.
Finally, there is a third factor: even as recently as when we were children, most kids in this country in intellectual, visual, and sensory terms were living in a fairly poor environment. In school they could at least see a human skeleton, a globe, or a movie. I mean in school, a kid could have a look at something he did not have access to at home, and this also used to provide some motivation. But with the advent of the Internet, this became irrelevant as well.
So, what do we have left now? Nothing but a curriculum that is based on outdated standards and therefore isn’t very interesting or very useful from the point of view of kids.
In elementary school, children still discover a lot of new things: they learn to read, to write, to count, to communicate with each other as a social group, etc. However, afterwards they go to middle school where they have to dedicate more time to studying, but feel the intellectual challenge, if you will, is becoming way less complex. And, of course, their desire to learn promptly dissipates.
So what are we doing with our own school? We are changing the curriculum in order to restore that intellectual challenge, so that it became deeper and more complex, and the lost motivation mechanisms I spoke about were replaced by another, by far the most important one – curiosity.
So, to get back to your question, I can say that if a child finds learning interesting, there is no need to make them study or put any pressure on them. And, obviously, actually making learning interesting is something the school is responsible for, not parents.
This is not to say we don’t provide any feedback for parents or don’t request anything from them. As you know, our school features what is known as blended learning, which means we alternate between periods of online classes and rather lengthy (two- or three-week) in-person sessions during which the students and teachers are all living together on a health retreat or in a country hotel. And, for online classes, we have some very specific requirements the parents are expected to meet: all the kids must have a study area, they are not to be distracted during schooltime neither by their siblings, nor by their mom and dad, and so on. But these are what I call technical requirements, and we do not expect parents to ensure their kids finish their homework. Moreover, we think that if mom and dad had wanted to devote themselves to Johnny’s education, they would have homeschooled him. But since they sent Johnny to a school, we are responsible for Johnny’s education now. Incidentally, that’s also the reason why we give homework to the kids, and not to whole families as it sometimes happens. We have never made parents spend their weekend doing arts and crafts or working on their map drawing skills.
That said, the school can’t be held accountable for whether a child does his or her homework or not. How can it be? The kid is supposed to do it at home! Thus the school can’t do it, and the parents don’t have to do it – so what’s the solution?
This brings us to the main reason why we insist that even our younger students, ten-year-olds, have to do homework. The truth is that the only person that can be held accountable for their homework assignments is the student him- or herself. In other words, what is really learned here is not even the ability to work independently, but responsibility.
How do you motivate your kid to do their homework? Using the very methods I’ve just described. On one hand, the homework has to be interesting enough in and of itself; on the other hand, school in general has to be so interesting and great for the kids, that, in the worst-case scenario, all you’ll have to do ‘make’ them study is reminding them that if they don’t, they won’t be able to go to our school anymore, and you’ll have to transfer them to another place where, as you put it, they will be ‘made’ to learn.
I can’t really tell if this approach is universal, but it seems efficient enough among our students: they want to stay in our school, so they do their homework.
Anna Narinskaya: In modern ‘forward-minded’ schools, the promotion of social inclusion is expected. We are not talking about special needs children, but even if we take kids with dysgraphia or ADHD, how can you mix them with ‘neurotypically abled’ students within the same classroom and keep your education quality as high as ever?
Ekaterina Kadieva: I’ll start by mentioning what is always said when it comes to promoting inclusion: it’s good for neurotypical kids to communicate with non-neurotypical children not so much because of some humanistic reasons (as in ‘Here, look, some children are not like you’) as because non-neurotypical children develop various interesting coping mechanisms to deal with their challenges, and these mechanisms can be something other kids should observe and sometimes learn. This is true for any school that promotes inclusion.
But if we get back to our school, our blended learning model where kids live together for two or three weeks and then take online classes for two months, works great for such kids. For instance, there are children who sometimes want to hop around or mumble something in the middle of class, and for any regular school, it would be terribly distracting both for the teacher, and for students. But during online classes, you can simply turn off your microphone and mumble anything to your heart’s content, or excuse yourself and hop around for a bit. Other children are quite the opposite in that they find it difficult to study in large classrooms where it gets very noisy, and there are distractions everywhere, but during online classes you’re only hearing the teacher and the students who answer questions, so it is generally as quiet as it would be if you were simply staying home. So many students have an easier time concentrating when studying online, and even during the terribly organized distant learning many people noticed that.
In short, online learning proved to be far simpler than the traditional model for many special children, which is appreciated both by them, and those around them.
But, obviously, things like dyslexia or dysgraphia are different, and in these cases we employ more-or-less conventional methods: our teachers receive relevant training; sometimes a special learning education expert is present in the classroom, and they can take students to a separate virtual room where they can explain something or give them a hand without bothering other kids.
Here I simply must say a few words on how important our in-person sessions are. I’ve already spoken quite a bit about outdated curricula sapping the motivation to study in middle school, but there is another reason: for all intents and purposes, regular schools don’t have the resources to concern themselves with the social and emotional development of children. Teachers simply do not have any time for this, as they have classes to conduct, so it’s ‘class-recess-class' - and then everyone goes home. And children aged ten to 15 are in a time of their life when they are learning to understand themselves and other people and discovering their emotions; so, if their school does not help them with it, many of them come to see the process of socializing with classmates as a painful experience even if there is no bullying or harassment involved. And, of course, these students lose all motivation to go to school or even to study at all.
For many special needs children – for instance, those in the autism spectrum - the goal of inclusion is not just ensuring they study in class and do not distract other kids, but also seeing that by the moment of graduation they would learn how to communicate with other children, express their emotions, and understand
those around them.
And so, our in-person sessions which comprise four two-week periods a year at Le Sallay Dialogue School and four three-week periods a year at Le Sallay Academy are extremely important precisely because there we have the time to deal with these problems: during the sessions, kids spend half of each day learning, and the other half – playing with their counselors. That is to say, they think they are playing, whereas their counselors, as we know, took a great deal of various training courses and have as their primary task promoting the social and emotional development of kids, including special need children. Both the games and the so-called 'counselor activities’ are designed to handle this task, which includes integrating special needs kids into society. It bears mentioning that we believe the best pedagogical approach is not just explaining something to kids verbally, but to show them some alternative behavior patterns, to create situations that can help children learn something new - for instance, how to socialize with their peers.
It bears repeating that in our experience – both in our schools, and at Camp Marabou – these conditions help special needs children integrate into their communities with comparative ease, and, more importantly, other kids often do not even register their specialness. And, yes, we had our share of complicated cases where we accepted kids who were not able to communicate with their classmates at all in their previous schools, but after coming to us, they all eventually said: ‘I never thought I could make friends with my peers, you have assembled some kind of wonder children here.’ The thing is we don’t assemble anyone, we have no admission tests or any kind of selection process. We simply take steps to provide positive dynamics within the student body, and we have our special learning education experts, counselors, and psychologists working on it. By the way, I can’t help sharing some great news: we have just come to an agreement with Marina Slinkova, one of Moscow’s best child psychologists, and starting next year, she will be working at Le Sallay Dialogue, including participating in our in-person sessions, communicating with children during online learning periods, etc.
So, getting back to your question, I can say that, on one hand, online learning makes some aspects of inclusion simpler, and on the other, our in-person sessions allow us to better organize the socialization of these kids and avoid the possible frustration from their classmates, which often becomes a source of complaints.
To top it off, we have small (four to six people), multi-age groups, which means that, unlike a regular school, we are able to avoid the situation where you have students of different levels lumped together in a single group.
Anna Narinskaya: Your tuition fees are pretty high. Why? Can you give a blunt, straight answer?
Sergey Kuznetsov: I think Katya has just given such an answer.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we were aware that online classes cannot be conducted efficiently in groups over five or six students. Having seven students in a group is almost an extreme case for us. So go ahead, do the math yourself: when a regular school teacher conducts a class, how many students are usually present? For us, it’s just five. Besides, since we are striving to assemble a team of good and fairly experienced teachers, – let’s just say we’re not talking about sub-market-rate salaries here. So, a low student-teacher ratio, good salaries, and two to three months of full-board accommodation a year – how can all this be cheap?
Back when we were working on a new school for Russia, we tried to make it as cheap as possible: we reduced the duration of in-person sessions from three to two weeks, compressed our curriculum a bit... In the end, we were able to go as low as €10,000 a year, which is cheaper than most Moscow’s private schools, even if we are every bit as good in terms of academic merit, let alone social and emotional development aspects.
I would also like to reiterate that we have scholarships. These are mostly for Le Sallay Academy, our international school where tuition fees are higher, but this year, our Dialogue school will be having a scholarship with 100% coverage for a single child from outside Moscow. So, while we’re at it, I’d like to announce to all Russian parents living outside Moscow they can send their application, and their kid will have a chance to enroll at Le Sallay Dialogue for free.
Anna Narinskaya: School is increasingly becoming a sort of a launch pad for future success. But kids’ plans for that future don’t always involve staying in Russia. Which universities and what kind of exams is your school adapted to?
Sergey Kuznetsov: As I was saying, we have two schools, and they will have different answers to your question. I must say right away that universities lie outside our focus. Since we’re a middle school, our primary task is preparing our students for high school, or, as it is known in Russia, lyceums or senior school.
So, our Russian school, Le Sallay Dialogue – just like most Russian schools, I think — is geared toward helping students finish the ninth grade and pass their OGE exam, so that they can pursue their education in a Russian school.
Our international school, Le Sallay Academy, is already teaching children from a dozen countries, so we are naturally preparing them to pursue their education outside of Russia. As I’ve mentioned already, our curriculum is fairly extensive, so, by and large, if a child has been with us since age 10, then towards the end of their studies we usually have the opportunity to dedicate a part of their school hours to exam preparation. And we can cover all the exams necessary: our STEM curriculum almost always corresponds to national requirements, and within our humanities program, we are trying to imbue our students with a very systematic and structured understanding of world history and literature. So if some of our kids must pass a test on Austrian or British history, they will of course have to take steps to prepare, but they won’t be starting from scratch, since the history of these countries constitutes a part of European history which they know quite well at this point. And it doesn’t matter to us where the kid came from, the UK, Austria, or Russia. In other words, the students of Le Sallay Academy can pick any country to pass exams there: one of our kids who came to us from Moscow has just been accepted to King Edward's School, Witley, a very respected boarding school in England with a 500-year history and good ratings. So yeah, Le Sallay Academy can well be a launch pad for people who would like to pursue their education in Europe.
Moreover, Le Sallay Dialogue is also designed as a launch pad of sorts: we actually founded a Russian-language school because, among other things, we saw that a lot of good kids who we would love to accept cannot be with us because their English proficiency is just not good enough. So you could select this kind of two-level plan: two years in Le Sallay Dialogue, then, after learning English – onward to Le Sallay Academy, and from there, you can go wherever you want.
Anna Narinskaya: There is an enduring myth (and personally, I think it’s not completely untrue) about how Soviet education was good (and the system still survives in some schools), while Western education is completely eroded and considers cooking as important as math. Where are you on this scale? And what kind of educational system do your schools have - ‘Western’ or ‘homegrown’?
Sergey Kuznetsov: That’s a tricky question. In terms of STEM – and, more specifically, math – we mostly adopt our ‘homegrown’ traditions, because for historical reasons, Soviet and later Russian and Ukrainian schools taught math the way we like – that is, in an interesting and fairly in-depth manner. After we moved to France, our son said after returning from school: ‘I have no idea how I will be studying here. They are just starting to add fraction, and we learned it three years ago. I’ll bore myself to death.’ By the way, this is a middle school problem specifically: in high school, they tend to learn everything they haven’t double-time, so by the moment they graduate, they usually catch up with their Russian peers; however, in middle school, our ‘homegrown’ program is way closer to what we consider the proper way.
That said, in humanities, many Western curricula prove to be very strong and interesting – for instance, we were very impressed by the traditions of philosophical education they have in the U.S. and especially France. But, of course, when it comes to humanities, we have slightly different programs at Le Sallay Dialogue and our Academy: the Dialogue has more Russian literature and history, naturally. However, in both schools we use our own proprietary curriculum which does not have separate courses for history, geography, literature, and social studies, and instead features a unified humanities program which includes all these subjects combined. These programs are slightly different in our two schools, but their principles stay the same.
I guess I should mention one more thing. Both in Russia and in the U.S. middle school is becoming very ideologically charged (this trend is much weaker in Europe). Teachers and/or authorities just can’t help themselves from trying to use school as a tool to raise ‘good people’ or ‘good citizens’ - hence lessons of patriotism in Russia, while on the other side of the border we’re seeing lessons of tolerance and the idea of making cooking and math equally important in school. Teachers are allowed to hold political views, of course, just like you and I, but we believe that school is no place for teachers, school authorities, or, God forbid, the government to instill the ideas they deem good into kids’ minds. Our goal is to teach children how to think, to analyze, to search for and assess information, and then let them draw their own conclusions in terms of politics.
Of course, as you and I understand, personal is political, that is, almost everything around us is political. In this vein, you can certainly find some political bias within our schools. But we are convinced that lessons of tolerance – and I’m sorry – are stupid. You just need to organize the social life of students in such a way — and, as I said before, we pay a lot of attention to it, - so that they internalize some of the beliefs you and I consider basic. If children see their teachers and peers treat everyone respectfully whether they’re neurotypical or not and no matter their race or sex and gender, you don’t need any tolerance lessons at all – just like you don’t need a lesson about ‘Why it’s bad to steal silver spoons”. I would even go as far as say such a lesson would be harmful, since we all understand there is an argument to be made in support of stealing silver spoons, and it would probably be wise not to goad kids into trying to make a case for it.
As I said before, our approach is showing the kids healthier behavior patterns rather than trying to explain them verbally. I’m convinced this method is way more efficient. To this effect, our schools obviously do have some values, and we do talk about them with parents as we’re accepting their children, but as for the kids themselves, we are trying to show and not tell.