Volume: 7, Issue: 3


Vital Pedagogy of Leonid Zankov
Богуславский М.В. [about]

KEYWORDS: experimental didactics, a didactic system of elementary education, grades-free instruction, didactic principles, teaching and development.

ABSTRACT: A renowned Russian educator Leonid V. Zankov, who has introduced multiple innovations in elementary education, is hardly known to Western academics and practitioners. The paper attempts to fill in this knowledge gap by briefly presenting all the major Zankov’s ideas, concepts, and didactic principles together with providing explanations of his numerous successes and failures.

According to Alexander G. Asmolov, “Zankov’s pedagogy is a pedagogy of interesting challenges and, while interesting challenges are life challenges, following Zankov means following vital didactics” [1].

The formation of a major humanistic system of personality development in Russian education is closely connected with the life of its founder, an outstanding scholar, psychologist and educator – Leonid Vladimirovich Zankov (1901-1977).

Leonid Zankov was born on 10 (23) April 1901 in Warsaw, in the family of a Russian military officer. He graduated from a Moscow gymnasium in 1916, and almost immediately started his teaching career in a rural school in Tula province. In 1919 Zankov switched to a career of first, a homeroom teacher and then, head of a juvenile agricultural correctional facility in Tambov province. He was only 18 (!) at that time. So from 1920 to 1922 still a very young educator worked as Head of Ostrovnaya juvenile correctional facility in Moscow province from which he was sent back to Moscow to study social sciences at the Moscow State University [2].

It was in Moscow where he had a life-changing meeting with the prominent psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, the meeting that entirely changed and defined Zankov’s professional life. Together with his mentor (who was just 26) Zankov took part in experimental psychological studies focused on memory research. A few years later, in 1925, after his graduation from the Moscow State University, he enrolled in a postgraduate program at the University’s Institute of Psychology where, again supervised by Vygotsky, Zankov continued his memory research together with studies of the psyche and development of children with disabilities.

1930s – early 40s is the period of his major research of the so-called at the time defective children. The studies were done first at the Experimental Institute of Defectology and later on, at the Research Institute of Specialized Schools and Orphanages run by the RSFSR People's Commissariat of Public Education and, finally, at the State Institute of Psychology.

It was at that time that Leonid Zankov laid the foundations of his psychological and education theories that later shaped his further research. He received interesting results investigating general relationships of education and psychology, and especially, a problem of dependence of a child’s psyche on education, and on individual abilities.

It was also the time when Zankov developed his “research style” based on experimental activities and factual data. He grew into a habit to obtain knowledge from real life experience, and the need to build his theoretical concepts on the analysis of credible scientific facts [2, pp.3-5].

In 1944 Leonid Zankov was appointed Head, Defectology Research Institute of the RSFSR Academy of Education. In 1954 he was elected a corresponding member and later, an active member of the RSFSR Academy of Education (renamed into the USSR Academy of Education in 1968). In 1951 Zankov began to work at the one of the Academy research institutes – Education Theory and History Research Institute and switched to the more general field of education which he enriched possessing a tremendous amount of knowledge about child psychology and development, and research methods in psychology and education.

Since 1955 and until his death Zankov’s research was closely connected with the Experimental Didactics Laboratory (later renamed into Elementary and Middle School Students’ Instruction and Development Laboratory and still later on, into a School Students’ Instruction and Development Laboratory). Being Lev Vygotsky’s student and follower, and an expert in experimental methods, Zankov was determined to make a significant integration of psychology and education. His research laboratory always included experts in various fields: didactics, methodology, psychology, physiology and defectology (a Russian term for the field of special education). This kind of research integration allowed his academic staff to provide an in-depth study of children’s learning processes, identify and use students’ individual abilities [2, p. 6].

The foundations of his highly efficient didactic system of elementary education were built in 1957. Headed by Zankov, a small creative team, consisting only of three researchers, launched a research project to study the problems of instruction and development. The strategic goal was to implement in practice Vygotsky’s classical principle that "well-organized learning can and should stay ahead of the development of an individual student.” There was a clear need for a theoretical and experimental proof of Vygotsky’s statement that instruction might either contribute to the intellectual development of the child or hamper it.

Leonid Zankov set forth the following goals and objectives for his research team: to find out the nature of interrelationships between the instruction process and elementary students’ general development; to identify most efficient ways and conditions of students’ development which would bring about comprehensive cognitive skills vital for learning, and to perform the development of higher mental functions via school instruction. One of the major tasks in the ongoing experiment was to create a set of methods and techniques to ensure a multisided study of the child [4].

For the first time in history an experiment embraced the whole teaching process, and not just some of its parts. Zankov’s research was cross-disciplinary, integrative and holistic, and conducted at the intersection of sciences which are involved with child studies: education, psychology, physiology, and defectology [3].

It was necessary to provide students with a wide and holistic world picture by means of science, literature, arts, and cognitive learning. For that reason, a child was studied from multiple angles while instruction was designed to provide conditions for logical, rational, intuitive, and personal development. All that required a new system of elementary school instruction and, consequently, new textbooks and methods’ manuals aimed not only at knowledge and skills’ acquisition but also at a proper individualized development of elementary school students in their educational activities [2].

The first part of the experiment took place in one of the first grades of School #172, located in the heart of Moscow – on Chekhov Street. There was a window between the classroom and the lab, so that the researchers could observe every class without disturbing the students [3, с. 23]. It was a traditional laboratory experiment that led to a wonderful result – it laid foundations of a productive didactic system.

The laboratory was working on the system of assessment methods to evaluate success of the students’ learning and development. They followed the principle: “chewing [repetition] is the enemy of development” with the idea that monotypic drills could only hamper students’ development.

During the experiment the researchers tested a grades-free method that allowed to create a comfortable class atmosphere, especially for children who were still not properly ready for school. Difficulties of children with learning challenges and achievements of bright students were not compared with a traditional average student’s norm, but rather with the amount of difference each student had achieved in contrast to his/her initial stage. Consequently, the role of a grade (including excellent grades as means of learning motivation) was diminished. As a result, each class witnessed a growing cooperation among children, who were now happy for the achievements of their peers [4, с. 97–98].

I.A. Tovpinets, one of Zankov’s researchers, admitted that from the first day on they followed Zankov’s principle that children’s school life should be versatile and active, and they should have the freedom to share their opinions, openly express their emotions, feelings and attitudes.

The experimental students’ group had a very eventful life. There were frequent field trips when students visited architectural ensembles in and out of Moscow, hiked, attended exhibitions, sports facilities, and a library. There was a wide choice of optional extracurricular clubs: crafts, drawing, rhythm and dancing, choir, engineering, etc. Leonid Zankov often taught those classes. There were regular matinees, celebrations and children’s birthday parties with tea and sweets.

All those events united children who shared common interests and enjoyed fellowship. That atmosphere of exciting learning and diverse cultural influence shaped moral-spiritual needs of elementary school students. And, more importantly, their faster overall development contributed to a faster pace of mastering a standard program material [2].

During 1962-1965 there happened a serious qualitative growth in this experimental research – it was expanded and reached a regional level: 50 elementary school teachers in 18 schools of Tver and Tula provinces began to implement Zankov’s methods in their professional work in elementary grades [6].

Tovpinets recalls a creative atmosphere of the research laboratory. During an extensive experiment in Tver schools (at that time it was the town of Kalinin) researchers lived in a camp on the Volga river for months. Every morning they left for schools, worked together with teachers of experimental class groups, interviewed students, tested new methods and teachers’ manuals. But in the evening they gathered around a campfire and, accompanied by the rustle of tall pine trees, they had long conversations with their most loved, appreciated and well-educated mentor – Leonid Vladimirovich.

That was a crucial phase for the development of what was latter named as Zankov’s system. That was the time of composing a new set of textbooks for all elementary school subjects, which made it possible to test an entirely new teaching system and define ways of its large-scale implementation.

It was also the time when the core of Zankov’s new didactic system was formed as a cultural and historical innovation which contributed to the most efficient development of each school student. It included the following principles that have already become traditional:

  • •     Teaching in the child’s zone of proximal development provides for an intensive general development;
  • •     The leading role and high level of theoretical knowledge in instruction;
  • •     Fast pace of learning alongside with a constant repetition and exercising in new situations;
  • •     A purposeful and consistent work towards empowering students’ general development;
  • •     The necessity for every student to understand his learning process;
  • •     Incorporating emotions into the instruction process to ensure effective learning and provide encouragement for it;
  • •     Humanizing relationships among teachers and students at school.

Any single class within Zankov’s system had a flexible structure. Classes were given in all different forms such as discussions based on what students had read or seen, or fine arts, music or labor. Didactic games and intensive independent learning were supported as well as team quests based on observation, comparison and grouping, identifying patterns, discoveries and independent reasoning. The system encouraged teachers to place more emphasis on developing children’s skills of thinking, observing, and acting [5].

All the aforementioned principles became part of a broader context of a humanistic, child-oriented, culture- and nature-appropriate education: integration of imitation and creativity, personality development free from any artificial barriers; approaching students as individuals and personalities, finally, placing emphasis on developing students’ imagination.

During that phase there developed an image of the so-called “Zankov’s student” – a goal-oriented, diligent, active and emotional person who is willing to study and is able to obtain knowledge both independently and in in a group work. It is worth mentioning here that the same set of intellectual and personal qualities could be applied to the image of a la Zankov teacher [6].

The years of 1966-1968 were crucial for the Zankov’s didactic system as it was developing into a larger system of education. At that time Zankov and his team were conducting a large-scale experiment involving 1,200 teachers from different regions of the country. There was no selection of teachers or students; the experiment took place in both – rural and urban, homogeneous and multiethnic schools. All the above provided for the system’s scientific and practical durability. Thus, there developed a new system of elementary school education that was extremely efficient for the process of elementary school students’ general development.

At the same time there was a further improvement of kit textbooks and manuals for teachers signifying the transition to the establishment of educational and methodical book complex. 1963-67 witnessed publication of books describing methodology and teaching methods of the new type of instruction, first experimental textbooks for elementary grades, a newly designed assessment system of instruction efficiency in terms of its influence on cognition and students’ general development [6].

However, as it often happens, when something reaches its highest point, it often finds itself in a very complicated situation, or in a crisis. This is exactly what happened with Zankov’s system. Those crisis factors were primarily of external nature and can be explained by the fact that the Soviet system of education did not allow any alternative approaches to its general education. It was not allowed to have something together with; it was always instead of [7].

Initially, Ministry of Public Education was interested in Zankov’s system only because it planned to replace the entire traditional system of elementary school instruction. The plan was radical and allowed to provide Zankov’s large-scale experiment with a significant financial support. However, the researcher himself was not sure that his system was ready for such a radical move and on top of this, the majority of elementary schoolteachers had not completed professional development based on his system.

The result was tragic. In 1969 only some elements from Zankov’s system were introduced into the traditional system of elementary education, such as three-year elementary school academic program (instead of an original four-year program), grades-free instruction for the first three months of schooling in the first grade, and a higher level of theoretical content. The consequences were grave: while using traditional methods of instruction, mainstream elementary schoolteachers had to introduce, explain and practice much more complicated curriculum and during much shorter period of time. As a result, students were significantly overloaded while both teachers and parents expressed their well-grounded dissatisfaction. That was the time when the song was born and quickly became popular: “They keep overloading us with learning staff, so that the first school grade feels like a college”.

All this undermined the reputation of Zankov’s system, and finally, the Ministry of Public Education turned its back to it [6].

Further research activity of Zankov’s team lost its momentum and, though training workshops were still held and teachers kept using Zankov’s methods, there was an obvious decrease of professional and public interest in it.

The absence of interest and disappointment in Zankov’s system became obvious when on his 70th anniversary Leonid Vladimirovich did not receive his long promised (and expected) title of a  Hero of Socialist Labor [6].

In 1972-1976, when a large-scale implementation of the new system was out of the question, Zankov and his team concentrated on summarizing the results of the development of methodological and educational system of elementary school instruction, which found its realization in a serious publication project. Zankov held out hope that the publication of his Instruction and Development (1975), given it profound nature, would have a serious positive effect. However, it did not happen and nominated for the national award, the book was not granted it either. In a way, this can be explained by the intrigues of Zankov’s influential competitors who were bitterly criticized in this monograph.

Instead of expected compliments the researchers received hard blows. After Leonid Zankov’s death on November 27, 1977, the USSR Academy of Education announced the termination of the experiment together with the closure of the Instruction and Development Laboratory and elementary schools all over the country where teachers were following Zankov’s ideas [6].

1991 witnessed some changes in the situation when at the conference devoted to the 90th Zankov’s anniversary his educational system received a new life. In 1993 Russian Ministry of Education launched a new federal research center named after Zankov. Among the key researchers the Center employed Zankov’s close students and followers who continued the research to identify conditions necessary for children’s individual development.

The period from 1992 to 1995 resulted in a revised set of Zankov’s teaching materials and the revival of a large-scale activity of elementary school teachers within Zankov’s system which was again seen as innovative. In 1996 the system gained a nationwide status and was officially accepted as one of the three officially recognized variants of Russian elementary school education [7].


  1. Asmolov A.G. Teorija Zankova i sovremennoe obrazovanie. [Zankov’s theory and contemporary education]. Retrieved  October 7, 2015 from http://www.zankov.ru/print/article=1644
  2. Zankov L.V. Izbrannye pedagogicheskie trudy [Selected works in education]. – 3d revised edition. – Moscow: Dom Pedagogiki, 1999. – 608 p.
  3. Zankov L.V. O predmete i metodah didakticheskih issledovanij [On the subject and methods of research in didactics]. Moscow: APN RSFSR Publishing House, 1962.
  4. Zankov L.V. O nachal'nom obuchenii // Zankov L.V. Izbrannye pedagogicheskie trudy [On elementary school // Selected works in education] Moscow: Dom Pedagogiki, 1999.
  5. Zankov L.V. Obuchenie i razvitie [Education and development]. – Moscow: Pedagogika, 1975.
  6. Boguslavsky M.V. Dostizhenija i uroki sistemy Zankova // Praktika obrazovanija [Achievements and lessons of Zankov’s system // Practice of education]. -2008, #3. - pp.31-32.
  7. Boguslavsky M.V. Jubilej sistemy L.V. Zankova: dostizhenija i uroki // Zankovskie pedagogicheskie chtenija - 2008 v Kabardino – Balkarii: razvivajushhee obuchenie v praktike pedagogov respubliki [Anniversary of L.V. Zankov’s system: achievements and lessons // Zankov’s 2008 education readings in Kabardino-Balkaria: developmental education in local teacher’s practice]. – Samara: Uchebnaya Literatura Publishers: Fyodorov Publishing House, 2008. Pp. 39-43.

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