The Educational Philosophy of V.A. Sukhomlinsky

Vasily Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinsky was born in 1918 and died in 1970. If he was still alive, he would be a couple of years younger than my father is now. He was a school teacher like all of us. He spent his whole life working in schools in a country area in the Southern Ukraine. For the last twenty three years of his life he was principal of the school in Pavlysh, a town with a population of about 3000. Soviet schools combined primary and secondary classes in a single ten year school, which children attended from ages seven to seventeen. The Pavlysh school had about 500 pupils.

One of the things which attracted me to Sukhomlinsky’s work was that it seemed very much in harmony with the approach developed by Vijay and the teachers at the School of Total Education. Sukhomlinsky placed great emphasis on moral education as the core of a holistic educational philosophy.

Health as the Basis for Development

He placed great emphasis on health as the basis for all development and did everything in his power to see that his pupils enjoyed good health. Medical examinations were organised two years before children started school, to enable early identification of any health problems, and so that measures to rectify these could be taken well before children started school. Lessons were timetabled in a very similar way to that which is adopted at the school in Warwick, with the most intellectually demanding lessons programmed early in the day, and artistic and practical activities held in the afternoons.

“I am not afraid of repeating again and again”; he wrote “concern for health is the educator’s most important task. Children’s spiritual life, their outlook, their intellectual development, the soundness of their knowledge, their faith in themselves, all depend on their joy in life and their energy. If I were to measure all my cares and concerns for children during their first four years of study, a good half of them would be about health.”; (Some of these comments apply equally well to the well-being of teachers!)

While he was teaching there was a move to reduce the years of primary schooling from four to three. Sukhomlinsky wrote: “The child is a living creature, his brain is a most delicate and tender organ, which must be treated with care and concern. It is possible to give primary education in three years, but only on the condition that there is a constant concern for the children’s health, and for the normal development of the child’s organism. The basis for effective intellectual work is not to be found in its tempo and intensity, but in the due attention being given to its organisation, in carrying out multi-faceted physical, intellectual and aesthetic education.”;

Aesthetic Development

He gave a lot of emphasis to children’s aesthetic development, to developing an appreciation of beauty in nature, in music, in art, in literature, in human relationships. At his school, children spent a great deal of time in the open air — gardening, walking, working in the fields and orchards. They were encouraged to take responsibility for their environment — cleaning their classrooms, planting flowers and trees in the school grounds, looking after animals, caring for friends and family. Over a period of twenty years the children transformed an area of 40 hectares around the school, converting infertile clay soil into lush meadows and flowering orchards. Each child, when they commenced school, planted fruit trees for their mother and father, for family members, and tended them until they bore fruit, which would be ceremoniously presented to their family when it ripened.

Sukhomlinsky thought it was very important for teachers to work closely with parents, and held twice monthly seminars for parents from the time their children were preschoolers until they completed secondary school. He devised a program of lectures covering many issues which arose for parents during their children’s development. Moved by the increasing incidence of marital breakdown in society, he developed classes for senior pupils to attempt to prepare them for marriage and family life. You could almost say he attempted to develop a system of total education.

I became aware of the similarities with Total Education when I read Sukhomlinsky’s works. What immediately attracted me to his work in the first instance was the tone of his writing, which is very difficult to convey in translation. Sukhomlinsky wrote about 30 books and about 500 articles. He wrote mostly between the hours of 4.00 am and 8.00 am, the only free time in his busy school day. He wrote on holidays and in hospital beds, with a sense of urgency. His most enduring books were written during the last three years of his life, when he knew he did not have long to live. One of his admirers wrote that it was as if his love for children poured out through his pen on to the page. The reader feels it, and also feels the strength of his convictions, which had been arrived at after many years experience.

Each One Must Shine

I have called my book about Sukhomlinsky “Each One Must Shine”;, and I would like to explore that image in a few quotations from his work. Sukhomlinsky deeply believed that every human being could shine, that every person had an enduring contribution to make to their fellow human beings. In the passage from which I took my title he wrote: “I am firmly convinced that the human personality is inexhaustible; each may become a creator, leaving behind a trace upon the earth … There should not be any nobodies — specks of dust cast upon the wind. Each one must shine, just as billions upon billions of galaxies shine in the heavens.”;

Writing about children at his school he wrote: “In the flowering of abilities, talents and gifts, in the fact that each one feels a poet in some endeavour, we see a preparation for a morally pure family life. When the fire of creativity is kindled in a person, its light illuminates from within the face, eyes and movements, and the beauty of the external features is animated and ennobled by an inner beauty.”; This is what we all want for our own children, for the pupils we teach. But how is that spark of creativity to be kindled? Sukhomlinsky makes it very clear that we first have to kindle that spark within ourselves. “Education in the broad sense is the constant spiritual enrichment and renewal both of those who are educated and of those who educate …”; or again “Our work addresses subtle aspects of the spiritual life of the developing personality — the intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. One may influence these spheres only through like action, through intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness.”; So luckily for us, that true happiness through creativity which we want for our children we must also seek for ourselves.

Happiness Through Creativity

Happy children need happy adults to educate them. Vijay used to say sometimes: “I wish you would be selfish in the right way.”; What is in our own deepest interest is in the children’s deepest interest. So I think it is important that we share our talents with each other, and that we have yoga classes and painting workshops and singing workshops and drama workshops and whatever other creative pursuits that are organised for the community. And this is not something extra added on to the school program, but the life blood of an educational community. In a creative community it is easier for children to uncover their unique talents.

At Sukhomlinsky’s school there were dozens of clubs offering extracurricular activities after school. A key feature of these clubs was the way younger children worked alongside older children and learnt from them. Sukhomlinsky wrote: “The first thing that catches the eye of a child who enters our school in grade one is the array of interesting things that all, without exception, are busy with. Each pupil has a favourite workplace, a favourite hobby, and an older friend whose work serves as a model. The overwhelming majority of pupils are not only learning something, mastering something, but passing on their acquired skills and knowledge to their friends. A person is being truly educated only when they pass their knowledge, experience and mastery on to someone else. One only begins to sense one’s creative powers and abilities when one enters into moral relations with another person, becomes concerned about increasing their spiritual wealth. This is how a vocation is born and how self-education occurs. In the work process moral relations between personalities arise from the moment when one begins to see in another their own virtues, when the other person becomes as a mirror to them. It is on these moral relationships in the collective that vocational self-education is built.”;

The work clubs which operated after normal classes, then, were an integral part of the educational experience at Pavlysh, having a great influence on the general atmosphere of the school and on children’s interest in and success at their studies. They also provided a key avenue for pastoral care. Sukhomlinsky thought that a person’s character was determined by their conception of happiness. Our conception of happiness grows from seeds sown in childhood. It seems true, that whether as children or as adults, we are attracted to happy people. We want to share that happiness, and so we are more likely to learn from happy people and to try to emulate them. Children also learn much more easily when they are happy.

In 1951, when he had been principal at Pavlysh for some three or four years, Sukhomlinsky dreamt of a “school of joy”;. In order to realise his dream he adopted an unusual strategy. He went round to visit the parents of children who were due to start school in a year’s time, and asked them to send their children to school a year early. He overcame their reservations, promising that he would not cut their childhood short with formal schooling. At that time children in the Soviet Union began school at the age of seven, so Sukhomlinsky was asking parents to send him their six-year-olds. This gave him the freedom to operate his own program, as he was was working outside the rigid curriculum framework laid down for grades 1 to 10. Sukhomlinsky was an artistically gifted person. As a youth he had poetry published in local newspapers and he loved to draw. Like many young people in his area he knew how to fashion a folk pipe from the slim branch of an elder tree and make music on it. All his artistic talent found expression in his teaching.

Learning Amidst the Beauty of Nature

I will read some passages from my book which describe his work with this group of young children, for whom he remained a teacher till the end of their schooling. “At the first lesson the children had with him, Sukhomlinsky asked the children to remove their shoes (they were not used to wearing shoes at that time of year) and follow him to a bower covered with grape vines. As they sat in the shade and watched the the sun’s rays filtering through the leaves, Sukhomlinsky (prompted by the children) composed a fairy story into which he wove the children’s own observations of the natural beauty around them. It was a story of giant blacksmiths toiling each day to forge a new crown for the sun, the sparks from their blows showering down in rays of light. The children suggested new twists to his tale, and as he spoke he drew an illustration to match the words. It was his way of heightening the children’s awareness of their surroundings and their sense of joy in them, of stimulating their imaginations and of establishing his relationship with them as a joyful one. He finished the lesson by giving each child two bunches of grapes — one to eat themselves and one to give to their mothers. It was his plan for each child, when they were strong enough, to plant their own grape vine and tend it. We can see here key elements in Sukhomlinsky’s approach: the selection of beautiful natural surroundings in which to conduct lessons, the composition of stories (by both teacher and pupils) about those surroundings, attention to children’s diet and health, and concern that children should learn to bring joy to family and friends.”;

Sukhomlinsky did not have a detailed plan of activities for the year. He saw himself as simply facilitating children’s discovery of the world and creative response to it: “The life of our school [for six-year-olds] developed from an idea which inspired me: a child is by its nature a keen researcher, an explorer of the world. So let there open before it a wonderful world in living colours, in bright and thrilling sounds, in fairy tale and play, in its own creativity, in beauty which inspires the heart, in the urge to do good to others. Through fairy tale, fantasy, play, through the unique creativity of children, is the true way to a child’s heart.”;

Sukhomlinsky frequently includes in the text of his books fairy tales and poems composed by his pupils, as well as some composed by himself. The children’s first attempts were generally responses to his own stories, but before long they were composing stories in response to each other. Stories helped children to form notions of good and evil, and allowed them to give expression to their hopes and fears, as well as encouraging observation and appreciation of nature. The composition of stories took place orally and collectively, and provided an opportunity for Sukhomlinsky to observe the thought processes of each child: “The fairy tale is, figuratively speaking, a fresh wind which fans the fire of a child’s thought and speech. Children not only love to hear fairy stories. They create them. Looking out at the world through the grape vine, I knew that I would tell them a story, but did not imagine exactly which. My flight of fantasy was triggered by Katia’s words: ‘the sun is scattering little sparks’ … What truthful, precise, artistically expressive images children create. How striking and colourful their language is!”;

Nature: the Source of Living Thought

Sukhomlinsky’s approach to the teaching of early literacy skills was also very creative. (And as I read this passage remember that Sukhomlinsky was describing what he did in the ’fifties.) Sukhomlinsky maintained that reading and writing should not be taught until children’s interest in words had been heightened through emotional experiences mediated by the senses: “I strove to ensure that for a child a word was not merely the designation of an object or phenomenon, but carried within it an emotional colouring — its own fragrance, its own subtle shades. It was important … that the beauty of the word, and the beauty of that little part of the world which the word reflected, should awaken interest towards those drawings which convey the music of the sounds of human speech, towards letters. Until a child senses the fragrance of a word, until he sees its subtle shades, one should not begin instruction in literacy, and if a teacher does, he condemns the child to hard labour. (The child will in the end overcome the difficulty, but at what cost!)”;

Such an approach was partly due, no doubt, to Sukhomlinsky following his natural inclination to organise pleasurable activities for children outdoors, as he had been doing since he was a teenager. It was also a response to observation of the difficulties encountered with more traditional, “book-based”; approaches to teaching literacy: “For many a year I had thought: what a difficult, exhausting, uninteresting business reading and writing become during a child’s first days of school life, how many failures children meet on the thorny path to knowledge — and all because study turns into a purely bookish affair. I saw how children struggled during the lesson to differentiate the letters, how the letters danced before their eyes, melting into a pattern which was impossible to decipher. And at the same time I saw how easily children memorise letters and make words with them, when the activity is lit by some interest, is connected with a game, and — most importantly — when no-one demands: you must definitely remember this, if you don’t know it — it will be the worse for you.”;

By utilising to the full the spell which nature was able to cast over his young charges, he was tapping into what he called “the emotional well-springs of thought”;. He referred to nature as “the source of living thought”;, and to his excursions with the children as “journeys to the well-springs of words”;. The following passage gives some idea of how this approach worked in practice: “We went on ‘journeys’ to the sources of words with albums and pencils. Here is one of our first ‘journeys’. My aim was to show the children the beauty and the subtle nuances of the word meadow. [In Ukrainian this is a three-letter word which may be transliterated as ‘LUH’ or ‘LUG’.] We seated ourselves under a weeping willow which leant over a pond. In the distance a meadow, lit up by the sun, showed green. I said to the children: ‘Look at the beauty in front of us. Above the grass butterflies are flying, bees are buzzing. In the distance is a herd of cattle that look like toys. It seems as if the meadow is a light green river and the trees are its dark green banks. The herd is bathing in the river. Look how many beautiful flowers early autumn has sprinkled around. And as we listen to the music of the meadow can you hear the soft buzzing of the flies and the song of a grasshopper?’ I draw the meadow in my album. I draw the cows, and the geese, scattered about like white fluff, and a barely perceptible puff of smoke, and a white cloud on the horizon. The children are spellbound by the beauty of the quiet morning and they are also drawing. I write underneath the drawing ‘LUH’. For the majority of children, letters are drawings. And each drawing reminds them of something. Of what? Of a blade of grass. Bend the blade over and you have an ‘L’. Put two blades together and you have a new drawing, an ‘U’. The children write the word ‘LUH’ below their drawings. Then we read the word. Sensitivity to the music of nature helps the children to sense the meaning of the word. The outline of each letter is memorised. The children impart to each letter a living sound, and each letter is easily memorised. The drawing of the word is perceived as a whole. The word is read, and this reading is not the result of lengthy exercises in phonic analysis and synthesis, but a conscious reproduction of a phonic, musical image, which corresponds to the visual image of the word which has just been drawn by the children. When there is such a unity of visual and auditory perception, infused with a wealth of emotional nuances, which have been imparted to the word, the letter and the small word are memorised simultaneously. Dear reader, this is not a discovery of some new method for teaching literacy. It is the practical realisation of that which has been proven by science: that it is easier to memorise that which one is not obliged to memorise and that the emotional colouring of perceived images plays a crucial role in memorisation.”;

It was through many such “journeys”; over a period of some eight months that Sukhomlinsky’s charges learnt the fundamentals of reading and writing: “The days and weeks passed and we continually made new ‘journeys’ to the sources of living words … On each occasion a picture was drawn in an album entitled ‘Our native tongue’ by the child in whom the word awakened the most striking images, feelings and recollections. Nobody remained indifferent to the beauty of their native language … About eight months after we began our work the children knew all the letters, wrote words and read.”;

Qualities Required in a Teacher

He did have reservations, however, about how easy it would be to duplicate his experience: “One must issue a word of caution here about attempts to mechanically duplicate someone else’s experience. Teaching reading and writing by this method is a creative process, and creativity cannot be produced with a template. To borrow something new one must be creative. There are many ways in which a teacher can be creative.”;

Sukhomlinsky considered that the most important precondition for a teacher’s creativity was the ability to enter into the inner world of a child, or as another Soviet teacher put it, to relive one’s childhood in the child. Sukhomlinsky wrote: “I am firmly convinced that there are qualities of soul without which a person cannot become a genuine educator, and amongst these the ability to enter into the inner world of a child takes pride of place.”;

It was the teacher’s awareness of the inner world of each child which determined the character of the teacher-pupil relationship, and dictated the means for educating children, individually and collectively. Without that awareness, and the intimacy which was born of it, teachers might find their relationship with pupils degenerating into one of open hostility. It was for this reason that Sukhomlinsky felt it so important for teachers to spend time with their pupils outside class, and placed such emphasis on the many extracurricular clubs and activities at the school.

Sukhomlinsky’s teaching style was related to his personality and depended on a range of personal qualities and artistic skills which he had developed throughout his life. Each of the teachers at his school had particular talents, skills and interests, which determined the methods they used. What they all shared in common was an attempt to understand each individual child and to bring out the best in them. Sukhomlinsky wrote an essay on the importance of teachers’ love for their pupils, entitled “How to Love Children”;. In it he writes: “… love for a child in our profession is the flesh and blood of the educator as a force, capable of influencing the inner world of another person. A teacher without love for the child is like a singer without a voice, a musician with no ear, an artist without a sense of colour. One cannot understand a child without loving him.”;

Sukhomlinsky suggests that one aspect of the psychology of love is an awareness of the uniqueness of each child: “When the little six-year-olds start being educated by me, a year before they commence their schooling, I am struck by the dissimilarities in the children’s perception of the world. I look into the black, the deep blue, the light blue and the grey eyes, and it seems that each child has just opened their own little window on the world and is looking out, enchanted, at the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, at a flower or a bird. And each little window is unique, with its own peculiarities. One child apprehends the world through the music of nature — listens attentively to the song of the birds and the buzzing of the bumble-bee, to the whispering grass and the rustle of the leaves. Another discovers the world through its colours and shades. One experiences phenomena as a single whole, another concentrates on the details … The more one discovers these subtleties in children’s perception of the world, the more one loves each child.”;

Sukhomlinsky found that the contemplation of natural beauty, which figures so much in his teaching methods, was an effective way of developing a rapport with children whose experience of life had caused them to close their hearts to people. When the teacher was able to respond to beauty with child-like enthusiasm, bonds of friendship were formed with the pupils. When the teacher experienced the same feelings of wonder as the pupils, he was able to enter into their world and developed love for them: “To love children means to love childhood, and for childhood optimism is the same as the play of colours is for a rainbow: if there is no optimism, there is no childhood … Optimism is a magic coloured lens, through which the surrounding world appears to the child as a great miracle. The child not only sees and understands, he evaluates emotionally, he loves, is enthused, wonders, hates, seeks to come to the defence of good against evil. We must not take this magic lens away from a child. We must not turn him into a cold, calculating rationalist … In children themselves, in their optimistic perception of the world, is the source of my love for them.”

See Also:

  1. Wikipedia entry on Sukholinsky.
  2. Alan Cockerill’s biographical website about Sukhomlinsky and his educational ideas. See www.sukhomlinsky.net.
  3. “In Search of Sukhomlinksy” a blog written by Alan Cockerill about his return to the Ukraine in 2009 to do further research on Sukhomlinsky. See insearchofsukhomlinsky.blogspot.com.

About the Author

Alan Cockerill received his Ph.D. for a study of Sukhomlinsky at the University of Queensland, where he lectured in Russian from 1994 to 1996. He has presented papers on Sukhomlinsky at educational conferences in Australia and is the author of “Each One Must Shine”, the first major book to present Sukhomlinsky’s educational legacy to an English-speaking audience.

This article is based on a talk presented at the SOTE Teachers’ Seminar, held at The Centre For Healthy Living, Taringa, Queensland, on Friday 28 April 2000. (Published on web site: September 2001)