Volume:1, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2009

Reflections about School Holistic Systems and “Educational Spaces”
Demakova, Irina D. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: a school holistic system; an educational space; Anton Makarenko’s ideas; a full-time school; interschool relationships; a systems-forming activity; Janusz Korczak; integration of diverse children; summer camp’s activities; a social environment.


SYNOPSIS: The author, a very famous humanistic Russian educator, shares her own experience of constructing different school holistic systems, first, as a school teacher, and then, as head of the Russian J. Korczak’s Society and a founder of the integration summer camp for children, teenagers, and young adults. The article describes a unique and constructive process of mastering a social environment that allows the creation of a new educational practice and improves the quality of life for both children and adults. The paper does not give ready-made answers, rather it  raises serious questions.

Reflections about School Holistic Systems
and “Educational Spaces”

There are certain questions today that remain unanswered in the use of holistic systems and the creation of new educational spaces; such questions as, does every school need a school holistic system; is character formation provided by any school connected with the presence or absence of such a system; how many components does any school holistic system have, and how should they be related to each other to sustain a creative and joyful school life for children? As long as answers to them are discussed and debated, school holistic systems may remain dynamic and poised to create transformative educational spaces.

My intent here is to examine the use of “school holistic systems” and how they are currently implemented in Russian educational settings.  Instead of engaging teachers and staff to foster a more participatory discourse to engage schools in making changes to their practices, schools are being ordered to “make changes”.  A great majority of school officials uses obsolete memoranda and dictums to put in place a holistic system in a short period of time.  I have observed first hand how‘ officials send out orders and instructions to every city school or even to every regional school to create a “school holistic system” in unrealistic timeframes.

Authoritarian processes are being used regardless of the fact that the creators of this concept (Ludmilla Nowikova, Natalia Selivanova, Vladimir Karakovsky, 1996,ii etc.) have repeated frequently that it may take years to build a school holistic system, and what is more important, once done, it does not remain stable, it goes through a number of stages – birth, development, apogee, fading, and death. “Death” can be explained by the loss of the creator of basic school ideas in the school – she or he either left the school (or died). Some original ideas might become outdated and unable to meet modern school demands. However, this is not a dangerous or frightening process; some time later a new person will show up in the school, and she or he will introduce new ideas, and the “school holistic system” will develop again.

Where to start: with “thinking” or “doing”?

While writing this article, I have realized that in my forty years of educational practice I actively participated in the creation of only three educational holistic systems.

From my experience of creating the school holistic system at Moscow School No. 630 (1960-1980). The pedagogical staff of this school has created a school holistic system, which was based on the ideas of Anton Makarenkoiii. The school principal, a very talented educator Svetlana E. Karklina, devoted her whole life to studying, analyzing, implementing, and developing these ideas. Karklina managed to inspire us, school newcomers, young college graduates, with the following ideas of her favorite Makarenko: goals as perspectives, “tomorrow’s joy,” a collective and a personality, productive labor, etc. All of these ideas corresponded with our first Soviet “full-time” school that was built specifically for the children of textile workers in the suburbs of Moscow.iv  Students spent whole days at school and went home only at night to sleep. As teachers, we were in need of a school holistic system to make the children’s time at school exciting, to arrange successful creative activities for them, to help them better understand themselves, and finally to develop their love of the school, each other, and us. The primary strategic goal of our school holistic system was to create opportunities for the students’ self-realization.

During the school year our students had plenty of opportunities to participate in different extracurricular activities – clubs, sports, school radio, newspapers, school drama and music groups, and a film studio. They could also work in different workshops, being engaged in simple but productive labor to make some money. Finally, they were able to realize their potentials in different self-governing organs and in preparations for numerous school festivals. During numerous vacations our students had opportunities to travel all over the country, and to participate in different winter and summer tourist trips, and in summer camps. With passing years this wide network became stronger with many traditions that were created, developed, and held by the school collective of adults and students.

We started, as every successful teacher would in this direction, with modeling and working out a project of our school holistic system. The model was our dream image of the school holistic system where, in accordance with the plan, students should become more active. This is very true and confirmed by many great educators, for ex., Janusz  Korczakv wrote that in pedagogy “nothing can be built without children.” The next stage was projecting – that is the step-by-step practical realization of the main model ideas.

It is clear that any school holistic system starts when the creator of the ideas begins working at the school. The ideas will be accepted and implemented depending on how strongly the “creator” is committed to them and how enthusiastically she or he can express them.

As any other school holistic system, ours was a complex of components interconnected in space and time:

  • The original concept that combined our ideas of the “full-time school” with Makarenko’s ideas on education. This combination was very productive; it stimulated our search and allowed us to compare our school’s results with the similar schools’ activities. Let me also note that when the school principal Karklina was transferred to another position, her ideas remained in use for a long time.
  • Different activities that allowed implementing the original concept in the specific situation of the “full-time school.”  There were plenty of various extracurricular activities, and teachers who were fans of these activities, arranged them. The latter were mostly creative in nature: arts studio, film studio, school museum about the school graduates, etc. For eighteen years I was the head of the Komsomolvi variety theatre where most of the graduates would participate in writing scripts and performing plays about our school life. In this situation the process of developing conditions for creative activities could be considered a school systems-forming activity.
  • Subjects of the school educational activity were mostly teachers and children, due to the specific nature of our students. I can also add here numerous school friends and graduates. Let me stress that the parents of our students were the least important in our school holistic system.
  • Relationships that allowed all school subjects to feel as one interconnected community. Genuine warmth of these relationships is the primary school achievement. Students and graduates would always mention this human warmth in their school essays and compositions; teachers would take great care about these relationships. These connections between students provided a long-lasting brotherhood that helped many of the graduates in their post school difficult life situations.
  • The environment mastered by the school subjects has been recently named “an educational space.”  For our school this space was immense and covered practically the whole Soviet Union.   During school vacations, our students visited many cities, participated in tourist activities within all climate zones, floated on the rivers, traveled on skis and bicycles.  All this provided them with the feeling of belonging to the life of their people, expanded school walls, increased a number of friends, influenced the formation of the positive self-esteem, and helped to make a correct professional choice.
  • Management and self-management that provided for integration of all educational components and made it one entity.

Back to the question in the subtitle, where to start – with thinking or doing? I would recommend both at once. It is especially important to realize what activity should be considered systems forming.

What does it mean – a systems-forming activity?

A systems-forming activity is an activity which constitutes the basics, the foundation of a school holistic system, and which helps to strengthen its structure. This kind of activity can be better at solving any primary conceptual issues. How is the activity decided on? How is it created? How can it be recognized from the hundreds of other important and useful activities that are not systems-forming? As an example from my own school experience, I will show how I managed to recognize it.

I will be talking about the years from 1962 to 1966 when I was trying to develop a class community within the school. When I was first appointed a classroom teachervii, I was truly amazed how many students, especially boys, had not found their place in the school community. And we are talking about a school holistic system of the highest possible level that provided them with a wide variety of opportunities. The students from my class group studied quite well, they were active members of self-governing organs, they spent plenty of time in the school workshops, and they volunteered in different activities such as helping junior students and participating in sports and field trips. They were also drawing, singing, and performing in the school drama theatre, and they participated in every school festival as well.  But I felt that the older they became, the less satisfied they were with all these different activities. Probably it was too easy for them, or it did not allow them to “test” themselves and to express themselves to their utmost. This made me think about the necessity to create a smaller school holistic system, a holistic system of one class group with an emphasis on the needs of my physically strong, super active, super energetic, dynamic, ready-for-risk, critically-minded students.

I was unable to find anything useful at school or anywhere in Moscow. Then I reached out to my colleagues, and with their help I succeeded. I arranged two summer geological expeditions for twenty students from Grade 9, and next year for Grade 10. We worked as assistants for topographers, demolitionists and “electro scouts”, first in Kalmykiaviii, then in Kazakhstan.ix 

As a classroom teacher I tried to use extreme situations, then watch, and analyze how my students would overcome the difficulties. When I say ‘extreme’, I mean experiences that were radically different from the school environment: constant heat, lack of drinking water, more than modest meals, participating in firefighting, working together with well-trained workers, etc. In these situations my students learned a lot about their own strengths and weaknesses, learned how to make decisions and how to express their leadership abilities.  After these trips, my students became absolute leaders in every sphere of our school life; they managed to fulfill the most difficult tasks, they were not afraid of life and were ready to face its difficulties. This class group remained together even after school graduation. Years later, they are still in friendly communication, and are helpful and supportive of one another. We still celebrate April 9 together as their class group birthday.

Any school holistic system cannot develop in a closed space

The notion of an “educational space” has recently been introduced in educational theory. Theoreticians consider that an educational space is the space specifically organized by teachers together with students, as Ludmilla Nowikova called it; this is “a space within a space.” This space creates new opportunities for developing children’s’ personalities. 
The analysis of different research findings allows us to pick up some basic ideas about this phenomenon:

  • A space is a cultivated (mastered) environment (natural, cultural, social, informational), adapted for solving educational issues.
  • Notions of “environment” and “space” are not identical: if an “environment” is a reality which does not grow out of the constructive human activities, then a space, on the contrary, arises out of the pedagogical mastering of this reality.
  • An educational space does not grow by itself or because of somebody’s order – it can be created within pedagogical reality by organizing special activities.
  •  An educational space can help humanize children’s lives only if they accept this space as part of their community – one filled with many important questions to which they are trying to find the answers. Children must perceive it as their “own territory” which they are responsible for and which they are ready to protect.
  • Creating an educational space involves a number of internal processes, connected to a variety of pedagogical activities, and also some external challenges that include mastering the surrounding environment by the community of children and adults.
  • The primary feature of any educational space is its active character. It is understood as an ability to support a certain (sufficient for all participants) level of emotional and intellectual intensity, to stimulate “an interrogative” children’s attitude to the world and a creative search for answers to any questions which come up in the process of their activities. An active educational space is excellent because it provides every child with a chance to meet new people, new subjects, and new phenomena; it also increases the number of situations that might surprise and interest others in themselves.

Now I am going to present a few facts and ideas from the experience we have gathered creating the Korczak camp “Our House” beginning in 1993. This camp was organized by the Russian Janusz Korczak Society (RJKS) – a nonprofit organization founded in 1991. Our camp has an integrated character and it accepts both healthy children as well as children with health problems, orphans and children from full families, and children of different races, ethnicities, and countries. The fundamental ideas behind the camp are taken from the concepts of J. Korczak about children’s rights, and about a dialogue of adults and children as a dominant feature of their communication, and finally about forgiveness as the main principle of any pedagogical activity.

In 1993, the camp was named “Our House”, the flag which replicated the Korczak’s flag (golden clovers against the green background) was made as well. For the first time we celebrated there Korczak’s birthday and remembered him on his death date. We have also used famous Korczak’s “tools” – “Bulletin Board,” a “newspaper-diary,” “lists of fights.”

During this same time new educational forms and methods were created that were focused on the specific idea of integration: the environment was made closer to home-like – children were united not into teams but into families with ten to twelve members. Every family had two “mothers” and one “father,” whose last name every “family” member would bear. In such “families” seniors would help juniors, healthy members would help the sick, adults would help the children, and children would help the educators. There was a very flexible mode of life which provided a high level of freedom – children were allowed to move to another family or to another room at any moment; they were also allowed to skip participation in any activity if they didn’t feel like doing it. Campers were engaged in numerous clubs, conducted by their camp leaders. A system of camp traditions and festivals was created as well. For example, before going to sleep children would participate in the “Small eagles’ songs’ circle”, and camp leaders would have an educational meeting, similar to pedagogical clubs. And a camp connection or spirit would remain among the students even after returning home to Moscow. Over the next year there would continue to be an analysis of data collected during the camp, photo albums prepared and final reports written up.

Over the many additional years a system of activities was developed with a primary impetus towards the integration of healthy and non-healthy children in mutual activities, the physical rehabilitation of Special Education children in adequate sporting events, the development of a legal culture, and building up within the camp a true democratic community where adults and children had equal rights.

In every camp we are always openly talking about our mistakes, misunderstanding, and conflict situations. Similar to Korczak’s children’s houses, we usually have self-governing groups, such as a children’s parliament.  We also publish our own newspaper, and we do cleaning and on-duty services ourselves. Again, replicating Korczak’s designs, we have mailboxes where children can put their anonymous letters and notes; we conduct plebiscites about the most important events – all this together provides educators with valid feedback and allows them to effectively make decisions.

Role playing and psychological training conducted by camp leaders or invited specialists are quite popular. Another popular activity is studying the cultures and traditions of other countries. Having camp leaders from different countries stimulates a child's interest to study foreign languages; learning new cultures and traditions widens a  world outlook,  develops patience and willingness to accept people of different races, ethnicities and religions.

It is quite clear that mastering an environment is never a routine process, rather it is constructive and builds new educational practice that improves the quality of life for both children and adults. One of the main characteristics of an educational space remains its openness, one, which is achieved by a specific psychological climate, an atmosphere of trust and acceptance of everyone the way she or he already is. In these circumstances any tension, uncertainity, or fears that children have, can be easily overcome. Children stop being overly protective of themselves and open themselves up to the educational influences of others, while at the same time enriching the communication space with their own personality. The goal of such communication is the individual feeling of success, and the purification,  relaxation, and freedom which comes with it – everything which provides a catharses in its cultural sense.  


1. Slovar-spravochnik po teorii vospitatelnykh system (2002) [Словарь-справочник по теории воспитательных систем]. Composed by Pavel Stepanov. 2nd revised. – Moscow: Pedagogical Society of Russia.
2. Razvitiei lichnosti shkolnika v vospitatelnom prostranstve: Materially vseross. nauch.- praktich. Konf. P.2. (1999) [Развитие личности школьника в воспитательном пространстве: Материалы всерос. науч.– практич. конф. Ч. 2.] –  Ioshkar-Ola: Mariysky Institute of Education.
3. Gusinsky, E. (1994) Postroenie teorii obrazovaniya na osnove mezhdistsiplinarnogo sistemnogo podhkoda [Гусинский Э.Н. Построение теории образования на основе междисциплинарного системного подхода] –  Moscow: School.

i Demakova,  Irina Dmitrievna [In Russian: Ирина Дмитриевна Демакова] is Professor and Chair, Department of Education and Psychology, Moscow Academy of In-Service Training for Educational Workers.

ii See: Karakovsky, V.A., Novikowa, L.I., Selivanova, N.L. (1996)  Vospitanije? Vospitanije… Vospitanije! [Караковский В.А., Новикова Л.И., Селиванова Н.Л. Воспитание? Воспитание... Воспитание!] – Moscow: New School.

iii Makarenko, Anton Semyonovich, [In Russian: Антон Семёнович Макаренко (1888-1939)] was a Ukrainian and Soviet educator and writer. He was one of the founders of Soviet pedagogy who elaborated the theory and methodology of formation in self-governing, child collectives as well as the introduction of productive labor into the education system.

iv Primarily these were children of the workers from two factories named after the Soviet political leaders M. Frunze and M.Kalinin.

v Janusz Korczak - Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit (July 22, 1877August 1942) was a Polish-Jewish children’s author, pediatrician, and a famous educator and founder of a number of children’s orphanages in Poland.

vi Komsomol is an ideological teenagers’ and youth organization which promoted Communist ideas and which existed in every Soviet school till the perestroika.

vii A classroom teacher is a person who is teaching a certain subject at a school and who is appointed by the school principal to be also responsible for one classgroup, which includes a number of responsibilities – meeting with the group at least once a week, checking students’ academic success, dealing with academic and behavior problems, arranging meetings with the students’ parents, etc.

viii Kalmykia (The Republic of Kalmykia) is a federal subject of the Russian Federation.

ix Kazakhstan was one of the Soviet republics before the perestroika, now it is an independent state.

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