Science Education in the Soviet Union

By Sergey Chernyshev and Alexander Kusenko
The following article does not presume to be a complete
description of the Soviet education system, but it will show
some features of Russian educationfrom the student's point
of view rather than the teacher's.

S oviet education is based on a state-run program and
is supported by the government. It has a united general
management and centralized financial system for the en­
tire Soviet education program; each republic has its own
Department of Education, which is subordinated to the
Moscow Ministry. Education in the Soviet Union is free
to all citizens from elementary school to university level,
where students are even supplied a stipend. There is never
any tuition fee; the government supports all schools and
universities.
The System

Usually children are educated in kindergarten until
they are about five years of age. Then they begin to study
in the secondary school, which corresponds to the combi­
nation of American elementary and high schools. The
school chosen for the child is usually close to home, with
young students walking to school in the morning and com­
ing home in the afternoon. Often they have lunch in the
school dining room. Classes are held six days a week.
First-year students have only four 45-minute lessons daily.
Later, the number of lessons increases to six or seven per
day.
Classes are in session for 200 days per year. The school
year consists of four quarters, with classes beginning Sep­
tember 1 and ending May 25. There are long vacations in

summer and three short breaks during the year: one week
in the fall, two in winter, and another week in the spring.
There are also several government holidays during the year
when students have no classes.
During the early years (until age nine), students have
the same teachers for all subjects except athletics, music,
and dancing; these are taught by specialists. All the rest of
the subjects are taught in the same room. Children study
reading, writing, counting, crafts, drawing, and a few other
subjects. During the third and fourth years, the number of
lessons in mathematics and physics increases.
At the age of ten, the school format changes sharply.
Subjects become compartmentalized, with special class­
rooms for each subject and different teachers for different
subjects. Students of this age study the Russian language,
literature, mathematics, ancient history, natural history,
and so on. Russian and math are taught every day; other
subjects are given two to three times a week. One of the
teachers is a supervisor over all the classes, which have 20
to 40 students in each.
For students 11 years of age, natural history is divided
into two separate subjects: geography and zoology. Chil­
dren study the history of ancient ages and begin to study a
foreign language (usually English; rarely French or Ger­
man).
Physics and chemistry are introduced at the age of 12,
laying the groundwork for later detailed study. Also, alge­
bra and geometry are taught to this age group as two
separate subjects. History classes deal with the history of
the Soviet Union. The following year's physics course is a
simple and clear introduction to electricity. Students of

Sergey Chernyshev, who comes from Tashkent in the Soviet Union, is a student from

Moscow University admitted to study in the State University of New York/Moscow
University exchange program during the 1989-90 academic year.

He has studied at

Moscow University for four years and is presently taking graduate-level courses in quan­
tum field theory and mathematics at SUNY Stony Brook Both authors have had some
experience teaching physics to Russian high-school students.

270

THE PHYSICS TEACHER

MAY 1990

Science Education in the Soviet Union

about 14 years of age study mechanics too. This course
includes Newton's laws, kinematics, dynamics, and simple
mechanics (levers, pulleys, etc.).
The following year, students go on to study electricity
on a more complicated level and molecular physics as well.
The physics course in the fmal year of secondary school
includes the basis of optics, oscillations, and the introduc­
tion of nuclear physics and relativity.
It is assumed that fmal-year students (seniors) have a
notion of derivatives from their mathematics courses. It
does not mean that all pupils understand calculus well and
can use it; however, they are familiar with the notion of
derivatives and can calculate them for some simple cases.
While studying oscillations during the last year at school,
students are introduced to differential equations of the
second order and "guess" the solution (with the. teacher's
help). It is easy to checkthatthis is the actual solution, and
students only use solutions of this form.
If the student wants, he or she may study in a technical
college rather than finishing secondary school. This type
of professionaVtechnical school supplies the student with
a trade.
Students graduate from secondary school at about 17
and at that time have the opportunity to study in any
university or institute, providingthey can pass the required
entrance exams. The level required depends on the kind
of college. All students have a chance to try these exams.
A person who fails can enter the university later, but for
boys over 18 failure automatically leads to obligatory ser­
vice in the army for two years. (Girls can serve in the army
if they want to, but usually they don't. ) After the military,
a person can enter a university or go to a special training
department that is set up for those who have served in the
army or who have two years of work experience after
graduating from school. This kind of department helps
students review school subjects in order to pass the univer­
sity entrance exams. People who have served in the army
have some privileges and can enter with lower grades.

There are also night schools and correspondence
school extensions to the universities and institutes for
people who are working. Some universities and institutes
have military courses that prepare students to become
officers. After such training, students either don't serve in
the army at all or serve as officers. The rest of the univer­
sities have no military preparation, and men who graduate
serve in the army as soldiers for one-and-a-half years.
Program and Texts

All schools in the Soviet Union have the same program.
All schools have to use the same textbooks, which are
prepared by the main Department of Education. They are
issued as separate books for each one- to two-year period.
This makes the books not too heavy to tote, which is
important because students attending ordinary schools
(which are not boarding) must walk every day to classes
carrying their books. One author or one group of authors
writes all the books for a particular course and each is a
continuation of the one before. In addition, there are
separate books with collections of problems. In judging
the difference between Russian and American textbooks,
we have found that the Soviet books do not give such
detailed explanations, supported by as many pictures, as
corresponding American books. As for the contents, they
are close to the American textbooks, although the way of
teaching the same topics may be a little different.
Many textbooks for in-depth study of different subjects
are also published. Teachers and students commonly use
such translated American books as Feynman's Lectures in
Physics, Swartz's Usual Physics of Unusual Phenomena
(Phenomenal Physics), and Orear's Physics.
Special Schools

The ordinary school program deals just with the com­
mon textbook issued for all the schools. The only excep­
tion is the specialty schools in each geographic region. A
few subjects, for instance physics and mathematics, pre-

Alexander Kusenko isfrom Simferopol in the Crimea. He is also a student from Moscow

University admitted to study in the State University of New York/Moscow University
exchange program, and, like Sergey, is presently taking graduate-level courses in quantum
field theory and mathematics at SUNY Stony Brook Alexnnder has had a part for several
years in the formulation of problem sets for the international students' Tournament of
Young Physicists competition.

MAY1990

THE PHYSICS TEACHER

271

Science Education in the Soviet Union

also have many ways to study subjects
they like "out of school, " after regular
school hours or at night. Such an activity
is considered to be extremely important
for a child's education. Such study is
voluntary and free. This enterprise may
be based on the personal initiative of the
teachers, or it may be supported by the
government. Usually, every school has
additional classes for interested stu­
dents. Each city, town, or small region
in the USSR has a special school, or
schools, for the in-depth study of differ­
ent subjects, such as physics and mathe­
matics (usually both together) or other
ones. All over the country, special or­
ganizations, usually called "Pioneer Pal­
aces, " are formed. There is a big variety
of circles or clubs for different sciences,
arts, crafts, music, journalism, and other
Fig. 1. EvgeniyYunosov, originator of the Tournament ofYoung Physicists, with some
interests. The level of such activities
of the 1989 finalists.
varies in different areas.
There are also music schools where
dominate in such schools. For example, there is a boarding
students
can
study
music
in the afternoon, as well as music
school attached to Moscow State University in which
colleges
where
pupils
study
music in addition to the ordi­
mathematics and physics programs are much more com­
nary
school
subjects.
Students
graduating from such col­
plicated than in ordinary schools. A lot of cities and towns
leges
are
prepared
to
enter
the
conservatory.
have these special schools with extensive study of specific
The sports schools have almost a similar structure.
subjects.
Students
may either study sportsmanship after their man­
Although the entrance exams are open for everybody in
datory
school
courses, or they may join one of the special
regard to topics, students of special boarding schools are
or
boarding
schools
where additional lessons in athletics
usually better prepared for the more difficult levels of
and
various
kinds
of
sports
are given.
questions. Students graduating from the special boarding
schools with a high level of study in physics and mathemat­
Special Opportunities
ics stand out during the first year at university. They
Some special types of education have developed in
already know calculus better than other students. They
certain
areas. For example, about 30 years ago the Small
have also studied some advanced topics in physics. The
Academy
of Sciences (SAS) was formed in Sirnferopol in
university program is the same for everyone, however, and
Crimea.
It
unites students between the ages of 12 and 17
during the first two or three years, the differentiation
who
are
interested
in a variety of scientific or journalistic
between the two groups disappears.
fields. The structure of the SAS is similar to the Academy
of Science of the USSR, including its system of member­
Science Teachers
ship and elections. The most active participants become
The secondary schoolteacher is usually a person who
"
full members of SAS" after a general vote by Academy
has graduated from the Teachers' Training Institute or a
members
(they are all young people). SAS consists of
university in which pedagogy and psychology are studied,
different
sections
such as physics, mathematics, chemistry,
as well as science. Teachers are prepared to teach one
computer
science,
journalism, and others. Twice a year
subject and sometimes two, although this is rare (for in­
the
general
session
of SAS takes place. This is a time for
stance, a physics teacher may sometimes teach astron­
students
to
present
their results, to take part in special
omy). The level of a teacher's preparation is considered
competitions,
and
to
vote for the most deserving full mem­
to be low in comparison with a scientist's, although the
bers
of
SAS.
It
should
be mentioned that this action, as
program of the Teachers' Training Institute is close to the
well
as
the
whole
of
SAS's
work, is sponsored by the
universities'. Sometimes universities in small cities or
government.
Young
people
like SAS because of the
towns also prepare schoolteachers.
Academy's image. This is why a lot of similar organizations
have followed the SAS of Crimea and reproduced its
Supplemental Studies
structure.
As mentioned, study of the required school program is
obligatory for all children of appropriate age, yet students
272

THE PHYSICS TEACHER

MAY1990

Science Education in the Soviet Union

Every problem is the theme of a small research project; the
Perhaps the most interesting part of SAS is the summer
organizing committee is established at Moscow University,
camp. The camp is situated on the coast of the Black Sea,
but students can use the help of their older friends and
not far from Yalta. It accepts around 150 to 200 partici­
teachers. After early rounds, the committee invites the
pants, both male and female. There are classes for two to
four hours a day, each section at assigned times. Also, a
best teams to take part in a fmal competition in Moscow
or another predetermined place. (The Tournament takes
lot of scientists, often from Moscow, visit the camp to give
lectures. The speakers usually talk about something new
place in Prague this spring.) The Olympiads are similar to
in a "big" science. In-depth study of elemen­
a timed, fast-paced sports competition; the
tary subjects takes place as well.
Tournament is more like an Alpine climb,
Toward the end of summer, students
since the problems, being more compli­
cated, require more time and perhaps the
present the theses that they have devised
with the help of advisors. Life in this camp
"collaboration" research with teachers.
is very interesting and merry because of the
Activities of this kind lead to a special­
great number of plays and other perfor­
ization and a visible differentiation between
mances prepared and put on by the stu­
students' levels of preparation. A few win­
dents.
ners of the fmal round of the Olympiads or
These activities are examples of the sec­
Tournament of Young Physicists can enter
ondary-school student's "out-of-school"
any university they want, without having to
study. Another opportunity available for
take the entrance exams.
high-school students is to improve their
knowledge of a chosen field by taking a Fig. 2. Participant's badge for Conclusion
correspondence course (while continuing the 1989 international Tourna­
When considering a comparison of edu­
their regular program of studies) from a ment of Young Physicists.
cation conditions between towns and cities
special school attached to one of the univer­
of the USSR, there is a small "brain drain"
sities or institutes. Moscow University, for
because of the special boarding schools.
example, supports a correspondence school for mathe­
The entrance exams at Moscow University, one of the best
matics and physics. Such a school supplies the student
centers of Soviet education, show that the average prepa­
with literature and checks homework by mail every month.
ration level of an ordinary city secondary school is not
This type of education is also free of charge, although one
necessarily higher than a town's school. Results of the
Olympiads support such a conclusion, but the best board­
must pass the entrance examinations. Students graduate
ing schools are usually attached to universities in big cities.
from this school with a diploma, which, along with the
university entrance exams, will determine their admittance
Education for Soviet children is free and the program
into the university or institute of their choice.
set. There are, however, many supplementary and special
Competitions for secondary students, called "Olympi­
opportunities for the students who make extra effort as
ads, " are considered to be very important for a student's
they move through secondary school. Work experience
and military service are taken into consideration when a
education. These are regular, well-prepared events that
take place through the entire country. Participants deal
student is evaluated for university admittance. Extra ef­
with problems at different levels of complexity (but all
forts are rewarded with some privileges (such as not having
under the pressure of finishing within allotted times),
to take exams), some challenges (well-recognized compe­
which are suggested by the school, region, {epublic, and
titions), and for those who pursue university studies, a
USSR rounds. There are separate Olympiads in mathe­
diploma at the end of five years. Three more years of
research work brings the equivalent of a Ph.D.+
matics, physics, chemistry, and some other subjects.
Some years ago, a new type of competition appeared at
Moscow University. This competition is not based on
individual merit, but on team effort. It is called the Tour­
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nament of YoungPhysicists (Figs.l and 2). Usually a team
represents one school, but it is not only for Soviet schools;
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round of correspondence. The problems are published in
the Soviet magazine Qvant and will be sent upon request.
.

MAY1 990

TilE PHYSICS TEACHER

273

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