All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.
“On a cold winter morning the bell would ring. Children would run out into the village street. There was no lagging on the way, no urge to play the truant. Each child was eager to get there first. The pupils carried nothing in their hands, no homework books or exercises. They had not been obliged to remember any lesson. They brought only themselves, their receptive natures, and the certainty that it would be as jolly in school that day as it had been the day before.”
A Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists, his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina represent in their scope, breadth and vivid depiction of 19th-century Russian life and attitudes, the peak of realist fiction. His work has had profound impact on pivotal figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Known best for his writing, he has also made significant contributions to educational practices through his research and writings about teaching and on how children learn, making him an educational reformer.
Leo Tolstoy is not as well known for his contributions to education as he is for his novels. His fascination with human behaviour also revealed itself in a desire to understand how to best teach peasant children. His first attempt to found a school for peasants at his home estate of Yasnaya Polyana in 1859 was successful, but also revealed to him how much more he wanted to know about teaching. About six months after starting the school, Tolstoy left on a journey throughout Europe in order to learn more and wished to remedy by substituting public education based on entirely original pedagogical methods.
Tolstoy’s Educational Research
Tolstoy took a multifaceted approach to studying pedagogy. One approach was through his travels and observations. During the years of 1860 and 1861, he traveled throughout Europe, visited schools, observed classes, and spoke with many educators and philosophers of his time, including Dickens, Proudhon, Lelewel, and Herzen. He recorded his observations and thoughts in his journal.
Another approach was through reading. Tolstoy read extensively and would include his thoughts and opinions about the texts in his journal writings.
A third approach was direct research. The mid- to late-1800s brought many new ideas to psychological research, and these fascinated Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s primary research focus was the student as a forming being. He would analyze the psychological and sociological aspects of a student in response to different teaching methods. Tolstoy’s research provided insights into how early learners think, primarily how cognitive thinking at early stages is pictorial, and teaching methods that take a holistic and humanistic approach to education.
Tolstoy’s Educational Writings
Leo Tolstoy wrote his observations and understandings about education in his journals, but his articles about education are where his early contributions were made. In February of 1862, he published the first edition of his literary magazine, Yasnaya Polyana, which included 12 extensive articles that he wrote about his research and understandings of education plus contributions from teachers and students of his school.
In his article “On National Education” Tolstoy defined education as “a human activity based on desire for equality and a constant tendency or urge to advance in knowledge.” Education, he asserted, was history and therefore had no final aim. Its only method was experience; its only criterion, freedom.
Though Tolstoy was frequently was attacked for his views, Tolstoy’s views about education eventually became the foundation for Russian public education and his research the basis for many educational reform movements throughout the world in the twentieth century.
Tolstoy’s Educational Practices
Tolstoy attempted to realize in practice even the more extreme aspects of his educational philosophy. Since he believed that the functioning of a school must be adapted to the conditions of the pupils, he conceded that his own village school might well be the worst possible model for that elsewhere. Attendance was non-compulsory and free to all. Classes ordinarily ran from eight o’clock to noon and then from three o’clock to six, but, as Tolstoy proudly wrote a friend, the students often continued an hour or more beyond closing time, “because it is impossible to send the children away – they beg for more.”
In his school, in the morning, elementary and advanced reading were taught, composition, grammar, history, Russian history, drawing, music, mathematics, natural sciences, and religion were taught; in the afternoon there were experiments in physical sciences and lessons in singing, and reading. No consistent order was followed; however, lessons were lengthened or omitted according to the degree of interest manifested by the students. On Sundays the teachers met to talk over the work and lay out plans for the following week. But there was no obligation to adhere to any plan, and each teacher was placed entirely upon his/her own.
Originality was the guiding spirit. Freedom ruled, but never to the extent of disorder or anarchy. When Tolstoy purposely left the room in the middle of a lesson to test the behaviour of his students, they did not break into an uproar as he had observed was the case in similar circumstances in classrooms he visited abroad. When he left, the students were enjoying complete freedom, and hence they behaved as though he were still in the room. They corrected or praised each other’s work, and some-times they grew entirely quiet. Such results, he explained, were natural in a school where the pupils were not obliged to attend, to remain, or to pay attention.
Tolstoy insisted that only in the absence of force and compulsion could natural relations be maintained between teacher and pupils. The teacher defined the limits of freedom in the classroom by his knowledge and capacity to manage. And the pupils, Tolstoy wrote, should be treated as reasoning and reasonable beings; only then would they find out that order was essential and that self-government was necessary to preserve it. If pupils were really interested in what was being taught, he declared, disorder would rarely occur, and when it did, the interested students would compel the disorderly ones to pay attention, quite uncommon in our schools today. Are we to blame?
The teacher according to Tolstoy
The successful functioning of a school demanded unusual ability on the part of the teacher. Tolstoy admitted this, and justly claimed for himself a certain pedagogic tact. Always in his mind was the pupil’s convenience in learning and not the teacher’s in teaching. He argued that there was no best method in teaching a subject; the best method was that which the teacher happened to know best. That method was good which when introduced did not necessitate an increase of discipline, and that which required greater severity was bad. The method should develop out of the demand of a given problem in teaching, and it should please the pupils instead of the teacher. In short, teaching, according to Tolstoy, could not be described as a method; it was a talent, an art. Finality and perfection were never achieved in it; development and perfecting continued endlessly.
Analysis of the instruction used
In this free atmosphere of student-dominated learning, certain traditional subjects were resisted in a manner that led Tolstoy to doubt their ultimate usefulness and to question the desirability of teaching them to youngsters. Grammar was such a subject. Although his emphasis in instruction favoured analysis, the kind involved in grammar put the students to sleep. To write correctly and to correct mistakes made by others gave his pupils pleasure, but this was only true when the process was unrelated to grammar. After much experimentation with teaching the subject, he concluded in an article in Yasnaya Polyana that “grammar comes of itself as a mental and not unprofitable gymnastic exercise, and language – to write with skill and to read and understand – also comes of itself.”
In the pages of his educational magazine, Tolstoy provides vivid accounts, filled with all the charm of his realistic art, of daily life at the school. On a cold winter morning the bell would ring. Children would run out into the village street. There was no lagging on the way, no urge to play the truant. Each child was eager to get there first. The pupils carried nothing in their hands, no homework books or exercises. They had not been obliged to remember any lesson. They brought only themselves, their receptive natures, and the certainty that it would be as jolly in school that day as it had been the day before.
At the end of a lesson Tolstoy would announce that it was time to eat and play, and, challenging them to race him out-doors, he would leap downstairs, three or four steps at a time, followed by a pack of screaming laughing children. Then he would face them in the snow and they would clamber over his back, desperately striving to pull him down. He was more like an older brother to them and they responded to his efforts with devotion and tireless interest.
The gift of education
Tolstoy’s writings also envisage him meditating on the age-old question of the moral and practical utility of educating the masses. The cultured, he wrote, would remonstrate: Why give these poor peasant children the knowledge that will make them dissatisfied with their class and their lot in life? But such a peasant boy, concluded Tolstoy, addressing the upper class, “needs what your life often generations un-oppressed by labor has brought to you. You had the leisure to search, to think, to suffer then give him that for which you suffered; this is what he needs.
In one respect it may be said that Tolstoy’s absorbing educational experiment fulfilled the purpose of his school at Yasnaya Polyana, contributing much towards the development of his school at the same time reaching out to the peasant children. But, at the same time is there something for us to learn from his educational experiments and practices? Does reading Tolstoy’s highly liberal approach to teaching and education somewhere helps us understand why our students in class today display disinterest, don’t listen to their teachers or respect them? Is there something we as teachers are forgetting to do or are overdoing? These are some questions for us to contemplate on.