Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

A colloquium about educational literacy
Demakova, Irina D. [about]

KEY WORDS: colloquium, culture, literacy, educational literacy, a facilitator, Korczak, principles of effective educational activities.
ABSTRACT: The paper raises the issue of educational literacy. The researcher shows how a modern teacher can move from a traditional model to a modern understanding of literacy as deep mastery and appreciation of values, goals, content, functions, priorities, and criteria of efficiency of one’s educational activities. One of the most important ideas is to base educational activities on Korczak’s humanistic principles and acceptance of children’s rights. The author shows how the idea and concept of educational literacy can be fully realized in different types of educational activities with an example of a children’s integrated camp “Our House”.  


The word colloquium (when translated from Latin) means a conversation with the goal to evaluate the knowledge of learners and enrich their experience of this or that issue while communicating in an informal manner with a professor or instructor.

In winter 1994, I participated in an unforgettable event – an international colloquium on the topic, Korczak: caring about education, which was organizedin the city of Sion, a capital of the canton of Valais, Switzerland. A year later, Swiss Korczak Society published a book in French under the title, “Shock in the world” edited by Professor V. Halperin (1).

The program was full of interesting and challenging meetings. Especially I remember one of them with the topic that sounded casual, informal, and cheerful: “How educators should talk, debate, travel, share joy and sadness with children, and how they can still remain themselves and feel happy.” 

During the last 20 years I have used this “Swiss game” in my work with educators and teachers, and observed how walks, debates, and adventures happened in real life of the international integrated Korczak’s camp “Our House.” I was lucky to be the leader of this camp since 1993. This camp is very special: during the last 23 years it became a home for children with disabilities and children who are physically healthy but come from orphanages, large families, full and single-parent families, and families of “new Russians”; children at-risk and children with problems in communication, children who are not accepted by school teachers; representatives of three races, 15 nationalities, and four different countries from age 6 to 17. The demographics of the camp leaders are no less peculiar. This is usually a very international team: we have leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States of America – all of them are active participants and volunteers in the Korczak movement in their countries. They are usually students from schools of education, or other schools, young teachers, social workers, psychologists, interpreters, actors and actresses, musicians, engineers, united by their interest of working with children. Over the last years more than 2,000 children spent summer and winter holidays in our camp (7).

Long-term observations and the analysis of multiple surveys brought us to the following conclusion: regardless of the work we do with children or for children, we need to be knowledgeable or educationally literate if we want to achieve a positive result.


What does it mean to be educationally literate? Any dictionary would tell you that a literate person is the one who can write and talk without mistakes. If you check the Internet you would find a number of humorous remarks about literacy on different personal blogs, for example: "Why should anyone be literate? On the one hand, there were always very few people who were really literate in the history of mankind. You can always find people who make mistakes and don't talk properly among general secretaries, scientists, and even writers. On the other hand, the borderline between people who considered themselves intelligent, educated, and well read was usually between different public layers though today this borderline could be even within one family, within people with higher education diplomas, people who have a good sense of humor and spiritual knowledge. Why is the protest of the literate minority becoming louder and louder lately? We will not touch upon the issue of destroying the Russian language – the language has usually managed itself. Let us try to talk on the topic: "what is literacy for us today?” For many people literacy is an indicator which shows who is theirs and who is not. It is always a pleasure to talk with their person who is knowledgeable and cultural, who speaks a beautiful and rich language. The society today is eager to find the beauty and the luxury of human intercourse, and quite often considers receiving this luxury via Internet. Literacy is an art, which allows us to receive pleasure from mastery and artistry. There are very few literate people on Internet; they are usually hidden within some smart web portals. We need literacy to find people like us in the crowd, to rise above the daily routine, and to receive pleasures from our existence” (2).

Educational literacy: a traditional approach

Synonyms to the phrase "educational literacy" are being prepared, being knowledgeable, being acquainted with something, knowledge, and competence. Clearly, educational literacy includes literacy in its traditional sense of the word: literate speech – written and oral, literate or adequate behavior, literate or acceptable, appropriate dress code. Is it possible that an absolutely literate teacher would work poorly with children? Is it possible that the teacher, who is not literate, is at the same time loved and appreciated by his/her students? Without doubting the necessity of literacy in its traditional sense as a requirement for any educated person, I consider that there is one very important feature and that is being educationally literate. For me it means that the teacher is ready and able to understand everything that is happening in the lives of his/her students, evaluate it, and offer a way out of difficult and sometimes conflicting situations. This is also an ability to communicate with students – to talk with them, to involve them in different events, to evaluate their success, and to provide acceptance in both children's and adults’ communities.

Educational literacy is a set of knowledge, abilities and skills; it is also an ability to transfer to others one's own knowledge and educational experience. A teacher comes into the classroom, greets students, checks their homework, explains data, arranges for exercises, gives home assignments, says goodbye, and leaves the room. All these actions he/she is supposed to produce in a literate way: politely, without accusations, without shouting, and without hurting anyone's feelings. Educational literacy is no less important in after-school activities as well. It could be a homeroom teacher meeting or a discussion, a field trip, an excursion to the museum or a trip to a summer camp, etc.

Going through different dictionaries I found many similar terms: psychological literacy, computer literacy, research literacy, methodological literacy, etc. Let me add here one more very important idea – having education means being absolutely literate in in one’s public and personal life.

While providing continuing education to teachers I repeatedly asked them questions from the “Swiss survey”. The analysis of about 300 surveys’ responses allowed me to make conclusions of how teachers understand the term “educational literacy”.

What is a literate way of talking with modern children?

We should talk with children as if we talk with adults: kindly, calmly, respectfully, emotionally, politely, and convincingly. It is very important to have a sense of humor. It is necessary not to prevail over them, to be frank with them, not to hurt their feelings, to be kind with them, make them feel as if they were our partners, and we –  their older friends; it is also important to create game situations in which adults are not leaders, but equal play partners. It is critical to learn how to steer the conversation back on track, to educate children gently, helping them with advice, listening to them with care and love, and share their feelings. Long live dialogue!

What is a literate way of debating with modern children?

Firstly, it is important to define a topic of your debate and to understand why the student has an opinion different from yours, and then try to decipher the ways of how he/she came to this idea/opinion. It is crucial to keep calm during the debate and to exhibit no superiority, to talk kindly, without interrupting anyone, and to listen to every opinion, look for examples, comparisons and analogies from your own experience and similar situations which you are aware of. It is important to persuade students that you mean well. At some point of the debate it is critical to consider a different opinion and to share an idea that you as a teacher could be wrong as well. Try to look for the opinions of your student’s friends. The most important key is to remain kind and patient and to say good-bye to your debater cheerfully. Also try to consider different options during your debate but if this is impossible, postpone the conversation, and in the meantime think over the topic and let your students examine it as well.

What is a literate way of traveling with modern children?

While preparing for a trip, a teacher should pick up an assistant, conduct a meeting with the students and tell them about the project, its goals and details, and work out a cultural part of the tour together them. It is very important to be ready with the lyrics of songs to sing, games to play, and topics to discuss. At this preparatory stage it is crucial to create an atmosphere of trust and emotional stability when every student believes he/she is accepted and loved. A teacher should use such personal traits as intuition, sincerity, and a sense of belonging.

From the personal journal of the head of the camp “Our House”:

When I pronounce these two words together – Our House, I can visualize different attractive pictures, including the sea and the seashore. Our healthy children received a lot of positive aesthetic emotions from the sea, when the blind ones could compensate for their regular limitations: they felt free and happy while swimming, and the adults did not stop them being in the water for hours. In 1993, our summer camp was in the city of Taganrog on the Azov Sea. This sea is known for being rather shallow, and for many children it didn't look like "real", but for many others it was an eye-opener as they saw the sea for the first time in their lives. The blind children tried to swim very far away from the shore, and this became a big problem for team leaders and for other students who were accompanying them. This swimming and the accompanying swimmers became a daily ritual. Especially important it was for Serjezha K. who lost his sight when he was 12 – the boy liked chemistry and explosions. Once he was preparing a chemical mixture and the bowl exploded in his hands leaving him blind. We tried to understand Serjezha’s intentions and support him in his swimming ideas. One day the weather was really bad from the morning, it was windy and raining heavily. The boy was silently waiting behind the door of the team leader. When the team leader woke up and saw the boy near the door, he understood everything. So two of them left for the sea, they came back in an hour, wet and tired but extremely happy.

In 1995, the camp was in Sudak on the Black Sea.  Once we were lucky to rent a yacht and take a large group of children into the sea. At some point the captain decided to let children have fun and allowed them to swim in deep waters. The excitement was so strong that he did not even finish the phrase, and all the children were already in the water – blind together with the healthy ones. The team leaders were utterly frightened but they did not prevent it and did not try to push children out of the water – they just waited and helped everybody back on the deck when the time assigned by the captain for swimming was over. Only much later they learned that the captain never realized that some of his passengers were blind. It goes without saying that children would remember such moments forever.

No less memorable was the participation of the blind children in the mountain climbing in Sudak. The professional mountain guide could not really understand the idea of using the tour for both – children with a normal sight and the blind. Being truly experienced in mountain climbing and having a kind heart, he finally agreed to accept blind children but on the premise that those with normal sight would protect them on narrow paths. Children walked in a chain –  children with normal sight worried because their responsibilities were very strong. And no less was the risk. When blind children were returning from the ‘campaign’, their usually lowered heads (a typical posture of a blind man) were raised high as a symbol of victory. These episodes have allowed us to understand that an educational literacy is not a dogmatic follow-up of once established rules but an ability to use extreme situations as a tool to empower children and raise their self-esteem, to persuade them in the ability to live a full life and realize all the given potentials.

What is a literate way of sharing sadness with modern children?

The best way a teacher can do is to hug, hold tight, comfort, sooth, cuddle, talk heart to heart, invite to his/her house, give hope, sing a song together, and find a positive moment in a difficult situation. A teacher should persuade a student not to despair: a number of good people is definitely more than bad ones. It is also important to listen carefully and find a topic that will be close to their hearts but not sad, something with a good positive ending.

From the journal of the camp “Our House”:

July 22, 1994. “It is the birthday of Janusz Korczak. Our family had a candle celebration. The main organizer was our team leader Galya. First, she read a story by Korczak and then told us about him. Everybody was amazed when we heard a story of his life in the ghetto and his death. I was most amazed with the reaction of Serjezha Bykhov – a boy from the family foster house. He was very sympathetic with the children who lost their lives. After that I brought him to the main building and together we came up to the portrait of Korczak. I asked the boy about Korczak. Serjezha became very serious and said: “He was a very smart and kind person who definitely loved children” (Dima Prevo, team leader, Kiev Ukraine).

What is a literate way of sharing joy with modern children?

The best way is to ‘shine’ and show joy even in most difficult situations, never to give up, be a leader, drive children’s desires into a useful and interesting track, and to ensure a safe way of expressing their emotions. Try to rejoice with children, decrease the distance between them and yourself, the distance that a teacher doesn’t need in such moments at all.  A teacher should also try search and find more reasons for keeping him/herself in good mood and preserving positive emotions. He/she should organize many joyful festivities with songs, games, and invited guests.

From the journal of the camp “Our House”:

July 22, 1994. “Sunrise. Everything starts with little things… Let some time pass. The sun will get stronger and finally it will reveal itself to us.” I was happy experiencing this morning and a quiet beginning of the day. Waiting for the sunrise we were approaching the sun. The silence was still there. We were supported by the light of the candle and the song. The sun was hidden from us. But at some moment it got strong and showed itself to us in its full beauty” (Annegret, team leader, Dresden, Germany).

“The faces of children were quiet and full of expectations. The candlelight was shown in their eyes. The flute music was accompanying the action. In pairs we were approaching the seashore anticipating the sunrise. Upfront we could see Korczak’s green flag with golden clover on it. The children were serious, full of some new and indescribable feelings. They were excited with the story of this great doctor and educator, and the fate of his children.  Sharing their experiences, children were saying that the idea of such a camp was great, that they were so impressed with the atmosphere of mutual trust and support which was started long ago by Korczak who realized that children needed help and everybody wanted to be loved. In the evening we were celebrating Korczak’s birthday. In accord with our long-term tradition we would pass a cup to one another and each who hold the cup should say greetings and wishes. Children were remembering their teachers, wishing that people started learning from those who were next to them and that Korczak’s activities would survive new generations. They were saying, thank you to Korczak for his help to children, regardless of their nationality, and were expressing their birthday greetings... The day was interesting and challenging, and went great.” (Igor Rubashkin, Kiev, Ukraine).

Educational literacy from the wisdom of humanistic education

Since 1990s when we learned more about humanistic education and psychology, the term ‘educational literacy’ was very much enriched. Today, it includes a conceptual construction of a teacher’s educational activities.

Our values

Childhood is an ultimate value for educators. One of the most fundamental ideas of the humanistic education that every educator should share is the following: childhood is not preparing a child for an adult life; this is life itself. D. Uznadze wrote about the situation called “a primary tragedy of education". Clarifying the essence of this “tragedy” the researcher mentioned that educators usually build their work with children around future interests, future demands which the state imposes on schools; this is the main reason why the interests of today’s life of children are subordinate to the interests of the future life, and therefore, children are supposed to sacrifice their current needs. Humanistic educators have shown some time ago that childhood is life, and any school is a space and time where children spend their current lives.

The content of the educational activities of the teacher

Thus, the content of the educational activities that provide for a humanistic childhood include the following: studying every child; creating all necessary conditions for his/her self-realization, self-development, and self-education; establishing different activities for children; providing for conditions which will make every child feel comfortable within a children's community or children's – adult communities as well as among teachers.

Psychological features of the educational activities of the teacher

The most important teacher’s psychological characteristics include empathy, acceptance, acceptance, congruence, creativity, suggestiveness, and the ability to reflect.

Indicators of success of the educational activities of the teacher

Educational literacy means the ability to determine the parameters/indicators of one’s students’ success in character-building and moral development. A distinguished Russian scholar Ludmilla Novikova named the following indicators: children’s orientation towards common human values (a child is a member of the world community, a citizen of his/her own country, a family member and a future family-‘builder’), intelligence (people of a “special construction”: easy to communicate, free from prejudices, including those of a chauvinistic type), creativity (in different children creativity manifests itself in different ways – in games, in realizing their fantasies. A teacher should predict and develop a creative beginning in a child because being creative is extremely important for anyone to enter the world of his/her own profession or a lifelong hobby); also adaptivity (an ability to adapt to the surrounding world, to its differences and changes, to a certain environment, and make sure that you will not get lost in this environment), self-esteem (independence in statements, responsibility for behavior, freedom combined with responsibility), self-sufficiency (the ability to estimate one’s own value in the system of projecting one’s own education, fate, and future which in response empowers the efforts to fulfill “self-projects”. The foundation of all this is self-realization). The most important conclusion that the researcher made was — humanism remains the primary indicator of an intelligent person (6).

An educational literacy is an ability to define criteria of successful educational activities. Among the indicators of successful educational activities, which lead to humanizing children’s lives, we can name the following: children’s physical health, their psychological balance, high and adequate self-evaluation, realization that school years are an important time period in a school graduate’s life and also a successful and joyful beginning of his/her biography. We consider the most important result of education to be a developed sense of self-dignity together with compassion and passion for freedom. Among other indicators of successful educational activities we should name positive children’s mood, optimism, the ability to be active, the capacity to favorably present their own positive qualities, build relationship with younger children, peers, older students, teachers, children with disabilities or children at risk, etc.

One of the priorities for us in this respect is the ability of the teacher to be a facilitator. A teacher-facilitator is creative and constantly developing this creative potential in oneself. Such a teacher would never accept a traditional model of a child’s fate (as old-school educators would) as a sacrifice and self-limitation of the current life for the sake of an uncertain future. A teacher-facilitator lives in the present and helps children to do the same. “The ability of the teacher being a facilitator” is understood as a combination of five arts: the art of respect, the art of understanding, the art of help and support, the art of agreement, and the art to be oneself” (3). Facilitation is, in our opinion, a new culture of educational activities — a humanistic culture.

The Swiss book about Korczak that we have mentioned earlier, spoke about his tragic fate and his educational heritage. Going through the pages of this book a reader will understand that an educational literacy should include the principles of humanizing childhood which Korczak brought to our attention: the acceptance of the fact that Childhood is self-valuable, as much as the rights and freedoms of children in their school years. Decoding his own principles Korczak wrote: “Childhood is the most important period in one’s life.” He would repeatedly underline the importance of a happy and joyful childhood in the formation of a personality, considering that without a complete and content childhood the rest of one’s life could not be considered fully realized. “Today should be bright, full of joyful efforts, childish, and without responsibilities which exceed one’s years and efforts. I am obliged to provide a child the chance to spend all his energy, to give this child all the sun, all the air, all the kindness which he deserves regardless of his merits or vices, positive features or drawbacks” (4; 5).

The educational literacy of the teacher should always be connected with the children’s rights. Korczak named 19 children’s rights: the right to be respected for his/her ignorance and the labor of learning; the right to make mistakes, to fail and have tears; the right to have secrets; the right to live in the present; the right to protest the injustice; the right to be taken seriously; the right to be himself or herself; the right to optimal conditions in which to grow and develop; the right to have secrets; the right to be taken seriously, etc.

The third Korczak’s principle is about the acceptance of children’s freedoms within the educational space during their school years.

If a teacher works on the basis of literacy, then he/she understands the essence and the reason for such activities, and he/she is followed by numerous letters from the children…

Leaving the camp leaders’ meeting that was devoted to the 10th anniversary of the camp “Our House” children left their farewell letters in a pink journal, presented to the camp by Anna Nikolenko (a team leader, Dresden, Germany):

“Hello, my dearest! Thank you so much for making my life deeper, warmer, and full of sense, and me—much better. You and “Our House” reassured me that the good and the dignity are alive and welcome in this world. Now I know where to find them whenever I need—I know this “place!” Olya Chikina (a team leader, Ryazan, Russia).

“Dear children, thank you so much for “Our House”. You presented me with this fairytale when I was a child, and I keep coming to “Our House” as to an absolutely magic place full of happiness and love.” Sveta Kotova (a team leader, London, UK).


  1. Le choc de la Paix. Avec Korczak au carrefour des valeurs éducatives. (Introduction et commentaires, Leo Barblan). (1995). Paris, Genève. Editions La Nacelle: Association Suisse des Amis du Dr. Janusz Korczak et Institut universitaire Kurt Bosch.
  2. Lovtsov, Alexander. Retrieved from: http://shkolazhizni.ru/archive/0/n-47419/  
  3. Bratchenko, S. L. (1999). Vvedenie v gumanitarnuiu ekspertizu (psikhologicheskiie aspekty). (Introduction to a humanistic expertise of education (psychological aspects). Мoscow, Russia: Smysl.
  4. Lifton, Betty Jean (2004).  The King of Children: The life and death of Janusz Korczak. Transl. to Russian. Moscow, Russia: Rudomino.
  5. Korczak, J. (1990). Kak lubit’ rebenka (How to love a child). Moscow, Russia: Politizdat.
  6. Karakovsky, V.A., Novikova, L.I., Selivanova, N.L. (2000). Vospitaniie? Vospitaniie … Vospitaniie! (Education? Education… Education!). Moscow, Russia.
  7. Demakova, I.D. (2013). Janusz Korczak: zhivaia pedagogika izmenyajushegosya mira (Janusz Korczak: a real education of the changing world). Moscow, Russia: ANO TSNPRO.

1 Demakova, Irina Dmitrievna [In Russian: Ирина Дмитриевна Демакова], Ph.D., Professor, Head of Education and Psychology Department, Academy of Qualification, Improvement and Professional Retraining, Moscow, Russia.

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