War and Peace and Anna Karenina are famously penned by world renowned writer Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. While everyone knows of his literary contributions to society, many remain unaware of his theories of educational pedagogy and his attempt to reform education in mid-nineteenth century Russia. “Tolstoy is widely known and adored as a novelist, but less so as a philosopher and preacher. Tolstoy the teacher is even more obscured by time, even though he created a new methodology of teaching literacy and basic knowledge” (Basinsky, 2013). In 1859, Tolstoy opened an innovative school on his family’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana (Clear Glades). At its core was an educational credo that encouraged children to explore their own interests through means that were beneficial for themselves while not forcing them to conform to a rigid curriculum (Basinsky, 2013). Interestingly, almost fifty years later, Maria Montessori’s theories and work would express a similar philosophy. While Montessori conducted her work independently from Tolstoy, one must consider the implications the Yasnaya Polyana Schools, or Tolstoy Schools as they would come to be known, would have in the future of Montessori schools in Russia. Afterall, it was Tolstoy’s own daughter, Tatiana, a product of her father’s school, who visited Montessori’s Casa De Bambini in 1910 where she witnessed the “embodiment of her father’s ideas” (Hilturen, 2013).
Tolstoy’s vision of a new type of education stemmed from his own experiences as a student. Having been educated mainly by private tutors through his childhood, Tolstoy’s schooling could hardly be considered anything but bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, he became disillusioned by the stifled system, eventually dropping out of Kazan University. Souder writes, “Tolstoy stated, ‘My work on [Catherine the Great's] Instructions and [Montesquieu's] Espirit des lois opened up for me a new field of independent mental endeavors whereas the university with its demands...hindered me’” (2010). While travelling across Europe to research educational methods prior to opening his school, “Tolstoy was disturbed by the educational systems that he viewed… He abhorred the compulsory nature of schools and the intense amount of regimentation in nearly every facet of the West European scholastic system” (Souder, 2010). Instead, Tolstoy’s vision of education was steadfast in promoting individual freedom in both educational growth and development of personality. In fact, Tolstoy’s schools grew to be, “associated with the traditions of natural and free education, and the applied ideas of nature-based, non-violent, and humanistic pedagogy” (Boguslavsky, 2010).
From these influences and his own didactic intuition, Tolstoy’s educational philosophy would anticipate the progressive twentieth century student-centered educational theories of Dewey, Nyesiyama, Steiner, and Montessori (Scheuerman, 2010). Montessori educators will find wisdom and truth within Tolstoy’s instinctual pursuits in providing opportunities for autodidactic learning while supporting the spiritual nature of the child. It brings to light Montessori’s own thoughts on education, which she highlighted in the preface of From Childhood to Adolescence:
My vision for the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification to secondary school to University, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual” (Montessori,1973).
Certainly, Montessori’s vision also reflects the educational ideals set forth by Tolstoy in his Yasnaya Polyana schools almost fifty years prior.
Tolstoy also maintained that access to education should be a right for all members of society, rather than an endeavor reserved only for the privileged or elite. The Yasnaya Polyana School, offered free of charge, was not just for his own children, but for all children of the estate’s peasants. Later, the school expanded and even grew to include children of surrounding towns. A free education for all was a radical idea given that popular thought, as revealed by Catherine II, was that “too much education for the chern’ (plebes) was dangerous for the social order…” (Eklof, 1996). As Tolstoy solidified his own opinions of education, he made clear his thoughts on public education:
I've been busy with a school for boys and girls...progress...has been quite unexpected. [The state-run academies] are useful but in the same way as dinner at the English Club would be useful if it were all eaten up by the steward and the cook. These things are produced by all 70,000,000 Russians, but are used by several thousand...The most vital need of the Russian people is Public education...[This] hasn't begun, and never will it begin as long as the government is in charge of it (Souder, 2010).
Tolstoy with the peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana.
Photo retrieved from http://humweb.ucsc.edu/bnickell/tolstoy/celebrity.html
Tolstoy’s aspirations to offer a free, quality, public education to any one desiring it was in striking similarity to the historical beginnings of the Montessori movement. In fact, the Casa de Bambini, “was created for children living in the slums of Rome as part of an attempt to improve conditions for the working class and counter the effects of poverty” (Hernandez, 2015). Even now, Montessori’s wisdom of the impact of personalized learning for social change is a phenomenon that is currently growing in the national spotlight through the formation of public Montessori charter schools and organizations dedicated to promoting public Montessori education. Sara Conter, founder of ‘Montessori For All’ further supports this notion in her view on equality in education, “We truly believe equity requires children from different backgrounds to be educated together” (Hernandez, 2015). Undoubtedly, Tolstoy would have favored today’s movement of public Montessori charters that strive to become “drivers of innovation and social justice in public education” (Hernandez, 2015).
Tolstoy’s intuitive Montessori approach at the Yasnaya Polyana School can also be sensed through the methods of instruction and curriculum offerings. A notable sign adorned the threshold of the classroom reading, ‘Enter and Leave Freely’ (Simmons, 1968). Tolstoy believed freedom and originality were necessary to promote learning and progress in education. This type of learning, based on student interest, was at the core of Tolstoy’s educational ideologies and can be identified in a description of a typical Yasnaya Polyana school day:
During the morning, elementary and advanced reading were taught, composition, penmanship, grammar, sacred history, Russian history, drawing, music, mathematics, natural sciences, and religion; in the afternoon there were experiments in physical sciences and lessons in singing, reading, and composition. No consistent order was followed, however, and lessons were lengthened or omitted according to the degree of interest manifested by the students (Simmons, 1968).
Montessori practice mirrors this principle not only in supporting children’s development through ‘sensitive periods’ in learning, but also in the right of students to participate in, decline, or quietly observe lessons. Lillard (2007) states, “The Montessori materials and basic lessons ensure a core of learning across curriculum areas, but each child’s imagination is invested in the particular avenues of learning that the child pursues beyond that core” (p. 31). Surely, Tolstoy’s educational movement displayed instincts with Montessori principles regarding student interest and involvement as catalysts in learning.
Tolstoy also believed in the ‘freedom within limits’ method of classroom instruction. He understood that learning could only occur when clear limits, established by the teacher using “his knowledge and capacity to manage” had been recognized (Simmons, 1968). Only then would children, approached as responsible and respectable beings, discover the necessity of order and begin to govern themselves. Montessori educators will recognize this as a component in process of normalization that occurs in our classrooms. Tolstoy’s vision of freedom in education coincide with Montessori’s ideas:
When we speak of freedom in education we mean freedom for the creative energy which is the urge of life toward the development of the individual… It has a guiding principle, a very fine, but unconscious directive, the aim of which is to develop a normal person. When we speak of free children we are thinking of this energy which must be free in order to construct these children well (Montessori in Lillard, 2007, p. 106-107).
The notion of teacher preparation is understood by Montessori educators to be of paramount importance in establishing authentic learning environments for our students. Tolstoy, motivated by his quest to provide a holistic education for the masses, also believed the teacher’s role and their own attitudes to be influential in children’s scholastic enterprises. He knew from his own experiences at his School that, “children’s minds possess life experiences from which valid connections could be made to daily lessons, and that their imaginations and moral sensibilities can fully contribute to self-directed…endeavors” (Scheuerman, 2010). The role of the adult, therefore, was to be that of a guide who supports learning rather than that of an authoritarian. Moreover, Tolstoy believed that compulsory learning stifled student enthusiasm and that the best pedagogical practices should follow student interest. He simplified this thought by frankly stating, “Find something which the students will be glad to learn” and that learning should “please the pupils, instead of the teacher” (Scheurerman, 2010). Interestingly, these conclusions represent insightful precursors to Montessori’s later revelations in education.
Tolstoy, igniting interest through storytelling.
Photo retrieved from http://thekompass.rbth.co.uk
Regrettably, Tolstoy’s attempts in reforming the educational system in Russia were never supported by the government. Nonetheless, we can be inspired by his progressive vision and marvel at his intuition that came to be validated by science through Montessori’s later research. In fact, one can conclude that Tolstoy and his Yasnaya Polyana School played foundational roles in establishing the worldwide Montessori movement. Following the release of The Montessori Method, translated into Russian, and a personal visit to Rome to see the Montessori schools, Tolstoy’s daughter Tatiana, returned to Russia in full support of the new approach. After her glowing “report in a Moscow educational journal, classes were begun in Vilna… with materials obtained from America following support from the physicist V.V. Lermontov. [In fact, a] classroom was set up in the palace at St. Petersburg for the children of the Tsar and courtiers” (O’Donnell, 2007 p. 24). Tatiana Tolstoy’s knowledge and full support of the Montessori method was undoubtedly influenced by her own pedagogical upbringing, which philosophically resembled Montessori’s approach. Certainly, Tatiana’s support was instrumental in bringing Montessori education to Russia, helping to raise international awareness of the method. Maria Montessori herself would have wholeheartedly supported Lev Tolstoy’s intuition that “if education is good, then the need for it will manifest itself like hunger” (Tolstoy in Simmons, 1968).
Basinsky, Pavel. 2013. How Tolstoy wanted to reform Russian education. Russia Beyond the Headlines. Retrieved from http://rbth.co.uk/literature/2013/03/20/how_tolstoy_wanted_to_reform_russian_education_24069.html
Bogulslavsky, Mikhail. 2010. Leo Tolstoy. Russian-American Educational Forum: An Online Journal, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.rus-ameeduforum.com/content/en/?task=art&article=1000725&iid=6
Eklof, Ben. 1986. Russian peasant schools: officialdom, village culture, and popular pedagogy. Berkeley: University of California Press. 19-24.
Hernandez, Eric. 2015. Montessori for all: personalized learning for the people. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/n/2015-02-19-montessori-for-all-personalized-learning-for-the-people
Hilturen, E.A. (2013). Biography of Maria Montessori (Power Point Slides, trans). Association of Montessori Teachers of Russia. Retrieved from http://www.montessori.ru/montessori/
Lillard, A.S. (2007). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Montessori, M. (1973). From childhood to adolescence: including Erdkinder and The function of the university. Schocken books.
O’Donnell, Marion. (2007). Maria Montessori. London, England: Bloomsbury Academic.
Scheurman, Richard D. 2010. Leo Tolstoy and the yasnaya polyana pedagogical institute. Russian-American Educational Forum: An Online Journal, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.rus-ameeduforum.com/content/en/?task=art&article=1000724&iid=6
Simmons, Ernest J. (1968). Writings on education. In Introduction to Tolstoy’s writings (3). Retrieved from http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/smmnsej/tolstoy/chap4.htm
Souder, Eric M. 2010. The pupil of the people: Lev Nickolaevich Tolstoy’s peasant schools at yasnaya polyana. Vestnik: The School of Russian and Asian Studies. Retrieved from http://www.sras.org/tolstoy_peasant_schools_at_yasnaya_polyana