Volume: 5, Issue: 3


Nadezhda Popova's "School of Life"
Богуславский М.В. [about]

KEY WORDS: school of life, pedagogy of action, innovation in education, integrated curriculum, action-based approach, projects’ method.
ABSTRACT: In this paper Professor Boguslavsky describes a professional life of a less known but no less meaningful Russian educational innovator Nadezhda Popova who managed to create a model of a full-day school and implement an integrated curriculum in Moscow elementary schools in the early 1920s. Popova’s achievements are very impressive and would certainly serve as thought provoking to anyone who is interested in the history of Russian education.

Nadezhda Ivanovna Popova (1877-1964) can certainly be called one of the best Russian educators of the past though she was hardly considered prominent in official circles. It happened so that in my previous papers prepared for this journal, I tried to cover more famous thinkers and educational practitioners. Finally, time has come to talk about one of the few Russian teachers-pioneers who made a difference in the field of Russian education.

Popova was not under arrest in the 1930s, and one can say that her life was relatively good in comparison with those (from 1920s-30s) who faced the tragic fate of spending their days in Soviet GULAGs. But let us try not to jump to conclusions – Popova’s life was never a bed of roses and she had to drink its cup to the bitter end.

Popova realized her calling relatively early, and at the age of 16, she started working as a teacher in a Moscow municipal elementary school. By this time she had already graduated from the famous Mariinsky female gymnasium, mastered three foreign languages, and received a teacher’s certificate. Some years later she entered and successfully graduated from the History Department of the Moscow higher training female college. While studying there, she met with some brilliant thinkers of her time (Boguslavsky, Soloviev, 1992). By 1905, Popova became one of the leaders of the All-Russian Teachers’ Union and an organizer of its Moscow office.

In 1906, Nadezhda founded what was called later “A Circle of Moscow City Teachers” which in many ways predetermined her future life. That was a very particular and all female body of ten teachers who decided to make a Copernicus’ discovery in elementary education. At the start they worked independently from the theory of a famous German philosopher and pedagogue August Lay (1862-1926); but later on they began grounding their work in the ideas of his “pedagogy of action” (Lay; 1910; 1914). Lay was determined that actions (not words) played a decisive role in organizing any creative and practical activities that involved students. Lay believed that only uniting peers in the so-called school communities could increase the process of building their character and personality development and improve the process of socialization (Lebedev, 1993).

Using Lay’s ideas as their theoretical grounds, Moscow teachers worked out a number of innovative approaches of how to combine the principles of a labor school with an instruction process in elementary grades. In an attempt to briefly describe the essence of their innovative work, I would say that it helped to bring together different and disconnected branches of elementary education. After these ideas were introduced to the field of education, there inevitably appeared lots of their followers, admirers, and conservative believers but Popova’s “Circle” was the first. In one of their major collective volumes, Moscow teachers wrote, “For a child every spec of the sand becomes not only a subject with certain qualities but also a subject that plays an important role in nature and in life itself. All the elements of animate and inanimate nature are interconnected, and due to this fact they are very interesting for the children to study which in its turn helps them to go deeper and learn more about the surrounding world. This is in itself a goal of elementary education” (Four Years of Teaching, 1919).

This approach put an end to the traditional teaching of independent subjects of Russian, reading and math as well as geography, “the world around us” and history, though the latter was considered a progressive achievement in elementary schools of that time.

The rest of the paper deals mostly with the dominant features of Popova’s  educational credo. First and most, she announced the necessity of combining instruction with real life. As she stated in the aforementioned book, “Ask a graduate student about the life and occupations of people in different climate zones and s/he will be able to give you a smart answer; ask the same question about the people living in her/his hometown or about the local flora and fauna, and the student gets stuck with the answer. The student will be knowledgeable about the life of knights from the past but walk her/him through the hometown, point to the Town Duma and ask what is happening there, and you won’t get an answer. In her/his day-to-day life in her surroundings s/he remains ignorant. The knowledge and facts received in schools, students are not able to connect with their current lives.” (Four Years of Teaching, 1919).

The Moscow “Circle” teachers considered that the solution to this tragic ignorance was to find out what their students really liked and what caused their interest. Those teachers were pretty sure that schools should challenge students right from the start, should deepen and widen their children’s natural desire to orient themselves in the surrounding world. In other words, teachers should take a lead in “children’s natural development” (Four Years of Teaching, 1919).

To achieve this goal, Popova with her colleagues suggested to integrate all the subjects studied in the first three years of elementary grades into one, called “Learning the World” which would introduce children to the nature around them, as well as to the social life of people and social institutions. Popova firmly believed that studying this integrated subject should precede teaching the Russian language because the knowledge of the language should be grounded in a certain level of concepts and notions.

For Popova, studying local lore should be dominant because “it develops love and appreciation of one’s home and nature, and also an interest in the local social life, making them more meaningful for children and developing a capacity to better understand the surrounding world and find one’s place in solving current social issues.” (Four Years of Teaching,1919). Implementing this kind of approach allowed teachers to use every school subject as mutually enriching and supplementing others, it also helped to develop one’s consistent and comprehensive worldview.”

Thus, Russian schools of that time faced a dramatic change – a turn from traditional teaching of the language and reading to “nature studies” and “social studies”; from independent teaching of such important disciplines as geography, “the world around us” and history to an integrated subject “Learning the World” which was supposed to become the only one to study. Popova was certain that studying this discipline and applying an action-based approach would potentially help students to develop a comprehensive worldview.

It is obvious that just stating such innovative ideas and explaining them in their theoretical works would have been enough to make the names of the Moscow “Circle” teachers forever meaningful in the history of Russian education. Apparently, it was not enough for those teachers – they made the next and very important step and started developing and using an original elementary school curriculum which was based on the formulated principles and which was supplemented by their methodological rationale, strategies and interventions. And this lasted for the next ten years.

Try to imagine that those teachers worked in different schools all over the city of Moscow, and most of them were not only supported but, on the contrary, opposed by their schools’ administration. More so they did not possess any funds for textbooks and teacher’s manuals. All their modest teaching possessions they had to move from one school to another, and that was very time-consuming. Classrooms were not at all equipped with their instruction style, and when they were teaching how to deal with some labor tools, they had neither necessary materials, nor the tools themselves.

Regardless of all their professional misfortunes and hard living conditions, those ten teachers managed to succeed and create an original curriculum for the elementary grades.

But the “history clock” showed a different time, it was the year 1917, October revolution was behind the corner. Popova put aside her work at school and returned to an active social life taking the lead (as before) in the Moscow Bureau of the All-Russian Teachers’ Council which united progressive teachers from all over the country. She was quite successful in this, and when in December 1917 (shortly after the Revolution) the Moscow Bureau announced a teachers’ strike against the Bolsheviks all four thousand teachers supported it with only fifty who refused to be part of it. But most importantly, the students’ parents, regardless of an official massive and critical counterpropaganda, overwhelmingly supported the teachers. First, it came as a shock, and then they realized that this support and parents’ trust in them should be considered as the highest level of gratitude to the generations of Russian teachers who committed themselves to hard work in schools and due to this achieved this exceptional level of influence, trust and gratitude. (Popova, 1917).

But everything comes to its end, and when the strike was over, Popova realized that the Bolshevik regime was firmly established. She decided to turn her attention to what has later become most meaningful for her – the creation of the famous “School of Life”. Officially the school title read as, “Experimental School of the Moscow Department of Public Education named after Kliment A. Timiryazev.

…Years later, deprived of her activities, seeing the tragic demise of her personal and collective enterprise which she had been so committed to, Popova would go back in her memory and reflect on what had happened and why. This reflection on the past allowed Popova to restore in her memory the former days and school activities and to bring back the life she had lost.

…Looking back, she could reconnect, at least spiritually, with her first students who were expelled from their former schools for the “bad behavior”.  In her mind she could easily visualize them the way they looked in March 1919 “extremely nervous, overly excited and very much underdeveloped; the boys were teasing girls, using curse words; they were also gambling on cards, hitting each other, rushing here and there, and everybody was trying either to steal or to break something. Their parents could not afford time or energy to really educate them at home. Usually those children would spend most of their lives in the streets. And those were the children who she was supposed to raise to a high conscious social and citizens’ level, to make them responsible for their behavior, provide them with an adequate education and develop a habit for a socially-oriented labor.” (Popova,1925).

In short, Popova’s “School of Life” became a social arena for implementing all those innovative theoretical and methodological ideas that she had managed to work out together with her Moscow teachers’ circle during the previous decade.

This school was a true school community where the main “systems’-forming activity was labor training interconnected with the surrounding life, research methods and games (used as teaching methods as well). The core of the curriculum was “learning with passion/enthusiasm”, stimulating students’ cognitive interests based on studying their individual characteristics, giving them full independence in choosing activities, increasing to the utmost the connections between school and life, with the maximum use of agricultural labor.” (Popova, 1925).

Instruction was based on the “projects’ method.” Teaching tools were selected from the surrounding life and in accordance with children’s interests. For example, children would study math while learning how to distribute certain foods, how to calculate the size and space of certain facilities. (Popova, 1926).

Summer classes were oriented towards creative agricultural labor and an overall comprehension of the world of nature. In this respect, children would study certain integrated topics instead of separate ones, such topics as “a vegetable garden”, “a field”, “a river”, “a peasant’s house”, “a workshop,” etc. (Popova, 1929). Mostly, classes would happen during children’s active work or a visit to the local bog…  For example, children would walk on the moss, moving towards the local lake, collecting the swamp flora on the way. The teacher would walk together with them, showing the similarity of this kind of flora with the one that grows in tundra, telling the children about the thickening of the lake water and the changes in the earth surface. Children would love it so much that they hated to leave the place, feeling as if traveling to another country.” (Popova, 1925).  

Popova’s students would also perform some scenes from the Russian past or the lives of North American Indians for the local peasants. Those performances were breathtaking for the students. They got so much involved with role-playing that some time later students would walk around, half naked, decorated with all sorts of beads, earrings, and bracelets made of shells. In the woods, they would perform scenes of sacrificing to the gods, learn how to make fire from friction, how to produce kitchenware from clay and build cabins. Such role-play would last for two months being alternated with other activities.” (Popova, 1925).

As soon as the weather turned cold, “School of Life” would move back to Moscow. But the students’ summer memories remained so strong that they served as the source for different learning discussions, research, written compositions and even for free creative literature activities. (Popova, 1925).

In Moscow, Popova initiated the creation of a new type of a school that later in history was called “a full-day school”. The students would stay there from 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM. In the second part of the day they were involved in different extracurricular activities such as clubs, workshops, and free choice activities as well (Popova, 1926).

Popova’s graduates were no doubt proud of their school. As an example, we can mention that they prepared a collective volume entitled “How we live and work in our “School of Life”, with the students being members of the editorial board and Popova acting as the editor. The book was published in 1925 (Popova, ed., 1925). The proceeds from the book allowed the students to take a Volga river cruise in 1926.

But… this happy cooperation of children and teachers did not last long – in 1927, the school was officially closed together with many other experimental schools.

…Popova entered the last and the most difficult part of her life journey. It feels that she tried her best to predict the future but the tragic drama of the Soviet reality of the 1930s-1940s would always find her again.

After the school closure, Nadezhda turned her attention to developing and preparing for publication a number of teaching manuals and a textbook in geography based on the local knowledge and studies, and that seemed to give her some sense in life (Popova, 1931; 1933; 1935; 1938). But soon after in 1937, the department of exemplary schools in the Research Institute of elementary schools where she happened to work was closed (together with the institute itself).

Tired and worn out to run for something new and from the new turmoil, Popova decided to return to the past and reflect on what had been accomplished by that time. The period from 1944 to 1948 was marked by her work at the Institute of Theory and History of Education (Academy of the Educational Studies, Russian Federation) where she put together a few based on the extensive amount of sources original manuscripts:  “From the history of agricultural labor at the elementary school”, “Essays from theory and practice of innovative pedagogy (1900-1917)”, and “Experimental exemplary schools of the Russian Federation”. In those manuscripts Popova wrote about the burning desire of many Russian teachers to create a new labor school that would be built on the principles of free children’s development and stimulation of their labor activities.

In the spirit of her life “fate”, there is probably no need to add that those manuscripts were never published at that time, and Popova was again laid off in 1949, after which she never had any official job position and passed away in 1964.

…Committed to her high principles, Popova was among those Russian educational pioneers who could never become conformists and who could never accept different principles imposed on them. Such people cannot be transformed, they could only be dispersed and become GULAG’s dust; but no one could ever make them change their educational and personal principles!


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  • Menshikova, E. A. (1990). Popova’s “School of Life”. Меньшикова Е.А. «Школа жизни» Поповой // Начальная школа. – 1990. – № 2.
  • Popova, N.I. (1933). Geography in Elementary Grades. Попова Н.И. География в начальной школе. М., 1933 (в соавторстве).
  • Popova, N.I. (1931). How Our World Lives and Changes. Попова Н.И. Как живет и изменяется наша земля. М., 1931.
  • Popova, N.I. (1917). On the History of the All-Russian Teachers’ Union. Попова Н.И. К истории Всероссийского учительского союза. М.,1917.
  • Popova, N.I. Ed. (1925). How We Live and Work in Our “School of Life”. Попова Н.И. (ред.) Как мы живем и работаем в нашей «Школе жизни». М., 1925.
  • Popova, N.I. (1926). A Projects’ Method and “School of Life”. Попова Н.И. Метод проектов и школа жизни. М., 1926.
  • Popova, N.I. (1938). Instructions for Elementary School Teachers. Попова Н.И. Методическое пособие для учителей начальной школы (Раздел «География»).  М., 1938.
  • Popova, N.I. (1929). Labor School Methods. Попова Н.И. Методы трудовой школы. М., 1929.
  • Popova, N.I. (1928). From Our Local Region to the Wider World. Попова Н.И. От нашего края в широкий мир. М., 1928 (в соавторстве).
  • Popova, N.I. (1935). Geography Textbook for Grades 3-4. Попова Н.И. Учебник географии для 3-4 классов.  М., 1935.
  • Popova, N.I. (1925). “School of Life”. Попова Н.И. «Школа жизни». М., 1925.
  • Four Years of Teaching in Elementary Grades. (1919). Четыре года преподавания в начальной школе. М., 1919.

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