Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Anton Makarenko publishes Pedagogicheskaya Poem, a fictionalized story of the Gorky colony

This year, Anton Semenovitch Makarenko (1888-1939) published “Pedagogicheskaya Poem”, a book that would become very popular during the rest of the 20th century. In fact, there was probably no teacher in the USSR who had not read this book at some point while being a student. Probably the book was so popular because it was written as a novel but it was not a fiction: it was based on a true story. In the book, Makarenko describes a highly successful pedagogical experiment the he created and coordinated. The characters in the book are real people. Although under different names, they are Makarenko’s pupils, and the events described in those pages happened in reality.

In 1920, A.S. Makarenko accepted an offer to head a colony for homeless orphans and juvenile criminals near Poltava, in the Ukraine. In those years of post-civil war, Soviet Russia there were thousands of displaced children who had lost their parents and homes and lived on the street. They used every means to find food and money, including pickpocketing, stealing, and begging. It was common for them to live in groups and have strong leaders who would take care of the group’s possessions and protect the members of the group, very much like adult criminal groups do. The Soviet Republic set a goal of eliminating this social ill and opened orphanages and colonies for such children.

To be a director of an institution like this was not an easy task, even for such an experienced teacher as Makarenko, who had been teaching since the age of 17. The first months were very difficult. He was desperately searching for appropriate methods, reflecting on the lessons provided by both the pedagogical literature and his own experience. The colony received an abandoned estate situated nearby. The estate had spacious buildings, barns, stables, and a big piece of land. The “colonists”, as they called themselves, renovated the buildings and opened the blacksmith’s shop and woodworking business. They even started earning money from the peasants who ordered some work to be done by the colonists. The first positive changes in his pupils’ attitudes and behaviours can be attributed more to the collective work of teachers and pupils in workshops and on the farm than to the moral preaching of pedagogues.

Makarenko’s talent helped him find the way to turn the former criminals and vagabonds to his side. He identified informal leaders and strong personalities, and gave them the status of group leaders, or “commanders”, who were supposed to carry out orders and do the work that was assigned to their group. The military terminology they used was proposed by the colonists themselves under the influence of the romanticism of the partisan war that had just finished. So the colonists had “otryads” or “platoons” which were based on the workshops they were assigned to: shoemaking, blacksmithing, farm work, etc. All the “commanders” gathered regularly for meetings and made decisions for the whole colony.

The result was remarkable. Three years later the colony (named after Maxim Gorky, a revolutionary poet) was recognized as an exemplary educational institution. Later on, Makarenko was offered to become the director of another colony, and he accepted. Together with 120 of his pupils he moved to the other colony, which already had 280 children. Very soon the two groups merged and became united, they opened a school and workshops where children could try and learn different crafts. This colony also became very successful, but the official Soviet pedagogy of the time did not approve of Makarenko’s methods, admitting at the same time that the “collective” was wonderful. In 1928 Makarenko had to quit his job in Gorky’s colony and move to another similar institution, commune named after Dzerzhinsky, until 1935.

The book “Pedagogicheskaya Poem”, written in 1934, contains both an account of Marakenko’s work in the Gorky’s colony, his reflections on the pedagogical process and methods he used, and a discussion of the bases of his pedagogical theory. A key concept in Makarenko’s approach is “collective”, meaning an organized group of children that must have a common goal. A collective is a way to include children into the society, and so the ideas of discipline, duty, honour, harmony of personal and collective interests logically and naturally come out of it. A collective is not a crowd, but a social organism. It is capable of self-governance. Through the experience of being part of a collective, children obtain management skills and learn to accept the decisions and orders of the majority. Makarenko argues that ollectives nurture energetic and active citizens who have moral grounds for their actions and can demand that others behave according to these moral grounds. The teacher’s task is to lead the collective tactfully and wisely. A school can be a united collective.

Primary collectives (like the already mentioned “otryads”) can have children of the same age or of different ages, resembling a family. The collective is ruled by a “commander” who can be appointed (if the collective is still weak) or elected democratically at a general meeting. A commander is usually a very good student, a leading worker in a workshop, or an energetic personality. These leaders are usually successful in requesting participation from fellow students for different activities.  Their responsibilities include monitoring the cleanliness of the rooms, carrying out the daily routine, organizing help with homework, and involving the members of the “otryad” in different extra-curriculum activities. They also solve conflicts if they arise. The whole colony (later a commune named after Dzerzhinsky) had a self-governing body, the council of commanders, and the general meeting was the ultimate self-governing institution. Self-governance was also seen as a practical solution to the very busy life the students had: they attended a full-day secondary school, worked at the factory daily for 4 hours, had sports trainings, and never had any cleaning service but everything was gleaming. All this was possible through an efficient organization in different committees.

Makarenko’s theory about collectives has Marxist roots. He believed that it is possible to influence a personality by means of influencing the whole collective. He called this the principle of parallel action, as in the motto “all for one and one for all”. This principle is complemented by the principle of individual action, that is, a direct interaction of a teacher and a student.One of the most important aspects of Makarenko’s theory about a collective was the law of progress. If a collective has reached a goal and does not set some new ones, there is no future for the group and its development stops. One of the teacher’s most important tasks is to carefully set the goals for the collective while using the system of perspective lines that can be described as a system of short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for the whole group or school. These goals, or “tomorrow’s joys, are very important life stimuli. The future must be planned and strived at. Without goals, observes Makarenko, the collective faces stagnation.

Immediate, short-term goals (like a trip to a museum or organizing a small party) are very important for small children and for collectives on early stages of development. Not all goals should necessarily imply pleasure: if a teacher suggests that the school might build a skating rink, this means that the children will have to work to reach this goal. They will need to build benches and lighting for everybody, as well as maintain the ice on the rink. While working together they will feel joy, and the whole group will become tightly knit. Examples of farther goals are national holidays or big events at school, like school trips or the start and the end of the school year. These goals will work only if children are preparing something for these events, like food, contests, reports or crafts. There can be two or three such days in a year.  Makarenko’s students organized school trips during summer holidays. They earned money for the trips, designed and planned the routes, and distributed responsibilities for every child. Thus, the trips required active participation in preparatory work from all children. Makarenko believed that collectives could foster a variety of things, including the preservation of traditions, positive attitudes, the feelings of being protected inside a group, and children’s need to play. He also stressed the importance of cleanliness and aesthetics.

Another central concept in Makarenko’s theory was labour education. He believed that an appropriate education was impossible without it. He argued that labour dispositions should be learnt, as the desire to work is not inborn. While doing their assignments, children should be taught to plan the work, respect the timelines, carefully use tools and equipment, and produce items of high quality. To avoid narrow specialization, children should try different kinds of work, complete secondary education, and acquire trade qualifications as well as organization and management skills for industrial production. He also made recommendations for labour education in the family. He believed that even young children should have their own chores to do and be responsible for them. They could water flowers, lay the table for meals, do the cleaning at home, grow certain fruit or vegetables on the backyard.

Some of the ideas proposed by Makarenko in “Pedagogicheskaya Poem” were more original than others, but they should be considered in the context of the time and place in which they were produced. Moreover, these were not abstract proposals made by Makarenko in the isolation of an office, but as a result of concrete, practical experiences in which success was often preceded by trial and error. The book “Pedagogicheskaya Poem” was originally published in Russian in 1935, and soon thereafter was translated to several other languages and published abroad, first in England, and later in Holland, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Japan and in many other countries.

All in all, Anton Makarenko made important contributions to youth education, and his work was internationally recognized. His three main publications (“Pedagogicheskaya Poem”, “A Book for Parents” and “Flags on the Towers”) were reprinted in the USSR more than 250 times and translated into many languages. One may agree more or less with different aspects of his educational philosophy, but one cannot deny that through his educational practice he was successful in changing the lives of many young people for the better. Indeed, the best test of his educational theories can be found in his students. Many of more than 3000 former colonists grew up to become famous engineers, teachers, military medics, artists, actors, lawyers and journalists.


Prepared by Elena Kuzmich and Daniel Schugurensky

Toronto, 2009


How to cite a moment

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

© 1996-2003 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on February 26, 2010