©2011 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Anton Semenovych Makarenko

Maria Breyman


edited 1/7/19


Anton Makarenko was born on March 13th, 1888 in Belopolie, Russia, in the family of a construction worker. He worked as a teacher and became famous when he agreed to take care of orphans in the1920s. These were the years that followed the October Revolution. A bloody civil war had ensued leaving thousands of children orphaned and homeless.

The Soviet government established colonies to house these children. They were unhappy places and many children ended up running away. Then from 1926 till 1928, Makarenko headed a children’s labor colony named after a famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky (Институт Международных Програм Рудн).

Makarenko established several “children committees” in the colony assigning a specific responsibility to each committee. In line with the Soviet working-class propaganda and policies, he taught children how to grow crops, sew clothes, clean the colony territory, play musical instruments, and cook food in addition to many other work activities. In his opinion, he had to teach children not only how to complete all those tasks, but also how to embrace labor and see a higher purpose in it (Filonov, 1994, pg. 4).

As part of his method, Makarenko worked to develop children’s character and morality. This was significantly more difficult than teaching academic skills, but he felt that it was a major duty of any educator. He did not want children to have a “slave mentality,” but he did want them to develop such character traits as selflessness, justice, collectivism, and ambition (Filonov, 1994). Most children that came to the colony had gone through nerve-wrecking and life-changing experiences, and therefore were highly resistant to change. He found it important to teach those kids how to cross out all the turmoil of their past and start life anew. In fact he perceived the ability to start over as a vital life skill and taught his students how to do so through a variety of techniques described in part 5 below (Носаль,1999)

Makarenko’s colony produced remarkably better results than other similar institutions and Soviet propaganda exploited his success. It described his actions as “the new word in pedagogy,” and depicted him as proving the Communist claim that they could “create a new breed of individual.” In time Makarenko became regarded as an innovator in education throughout the world world (Институт Международных Програм Рудн).

Actually, his success was more a result of his unique personality than his application of Soviet doctrine. After Makarenko died, no one else could achieve what he had. In addition the educational system created by Makarenko went far beyond the original communist way of teaching, as well as beyond any other pedagogical theory (Best People of Russia). It was quite different from the socialist system that communists envisioned for the colony, but rather an entrepreneurial establishment, a model that Soviets later disapproved of.

Although he had to follow strict censorship rules, Makarenko was able to put his work into print. Maxim Gorky, the most notable and politically influential Soviet writer at the time, agreed to help Makarenko with his work. Even though he considered Makarenko a poor writer, he saw the value of his work as an educator, and therefore wholeheartedly supported the publications ions (Институт Международных Програм Рудн). .

Makarenko’s system became very popular in the West after World War II, and was practiced as a way to motivate workers in large companies. When Soviet officials, however, noticed a hint of capitalist movement in his work, they started to slowly get rid of Makarenko and limit access to his work.

Makarenko’s died in April of 1939, shortly after he was rejected by the government as a teacher upon the basis of his alleged anti-Soviet practices (Институт Международных Програм Рудн).

Theory of Value
What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Makarenko strongly believed that the goal of a true educator was to raise worthy citizens. Therefore, he concentrated on teaching his students the skills that he thought would benefit society (Schugurensky, Kuzmich, 2010). This orientation agrees with Dewey’s progessive philosophy. Makarenko emphasized that the purpose of education was to make children’s transition into the real world easier. He also thought that education should be “goal-oriented” and these goals had to match societal needs.

Theory of Knowledge
What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

According to Makarenko, knowledge is the product of experience and practice. Belief is an opinion that is formed on the personal level. It is biased, not always correct, and is subject to change. Knowledge is gained through observation of others and the world. It is a combination of many opinions held by different people who reach consensus. This is why Makarenko always encouraged students to share their opinions. He had no problem with students making mistakes, because through becoming aware of them they gained true knowledge. The problem was encountered when they refused to acquire that knowledge and defended their mistaken options or actions as truth. In such cases, Makarenko exposed kids to real life situations so that they can see flaws in their opinions, fix the mistakes, and gain true knowledge (Moos, 1961).

Makarenko accepted mistakes, but did not tolerate lies. A mistake is not intentional. It is a part of growing up and an essential attribute of self-discovery. A lie is a deliberate deceit. When students lied to him, he would always try to evoke a feeling of guilt in them in front of the whole colony, which would afterwards be followed by a punishment. He claimed that he did this only to his “friends,” because he believed in them. If that did not work, he would expel them from the colony so that they do not corrupt other members. He subscribed to an “economy of pain,” where the suffering of one person is justified by larger benefits to other people. Rather than exposing many students to lying and ruining their easily influenced characters, he would chose to eliminate the cause of the problem (Педагогическая Поэма, 1955)

Theory of Human Nature
What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Makarenko's was, in a Marxist sense, a humanistic psychology. He thought that every child was potentially good and can achieve a lot if pointed in the right direction. He recognized instinctive drives in people like in other animals, but he also knew that people are capable of becoming aware of their drives and mistakes and learning from them. He gave each transgressing child an opportunity to confess and make up for their missteps, because for him being human meant having flaws and learning to deal with or correct them. He maintained that each individual had great potential for growth; but externalities can prevent that that potential from being realized. This, thought Makarenko, could have a devastating impact. Some think that is why Makarenko died soon after Soviet officials removed him from his position. (Moos, 1961).

Makarenko believed in the freedom of choice. To give children such freedom, he would always include at least one option that would definitely not be picked by the child. This method proved to be very successful (Moos, 1961).

According to Maslow, if basic needs are not fulfilled, people will not even think about fulfilling more advanced needs. It was that reasoning that led Makarenko to reject food deprivation as punishment. He would not leave children without dinner, as others often suggested, He would always feed children before having any serious conversation with them. He also made sure that other basic needs were fulfilled and that children felt safe by ensuring that older ones were watching over the younger ones.

He showed affection for the children, emphasizing that the colony was their family. He made them feel worthy by assigning duties to them and praising them for successfully completing the tasks. He was convinced that to truly love and respect a person one must set high expectations. But only when the basic needs, the need for safety, the need for love, and the need for self-esteem are fulfilled, could he expect his youngsters to aim for self-actualization (Maslow, 1943).

For many youngsters Makarenko’s methods were successful. As a matter of fact, many of his students ended up attending universities and getting meaningful jobs upon leaving the colony.

Theory of Learning
What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?

Makarenko emphasized observational learning and in modeling behavior. In contrast to the modern laws of privacy, accepted in the Western world, where grades are confidential and all such issues are discussed one on one, Makarenko made everything public. He felt that perceiving oneself as an essential part of the whole, rather than as a separate isolated component, would give the student a sense of personal accountability (Schugurensky, Kuzmich, 2010). All achievements were mentioned publicly, as well as all mistakes. When one of the kids stole a bag of candy that was purchased for an event, Makarenko made the student admit it in front of the whole colony. Then he told the colony that they are the ones to decide what should happen to that student. He felt that this taught students not to abuse power, and it taught the youngster the consequences for his actions (Педагогическая Поэма, 1955).

Makarenko limited theory and concentrated on the practical application of knowledge. Even with such subjects as history or literature, after reading a certain piece or learning a fact, he would ask students how they could apply that in their colony. Those were not hypothetical questions. He actually took student’s suggestions into consideration and then came up with ways to apply them. Students did not simply read books on how to grow crops or how to build a fence. They actually did it under Makarenko’s guidance. Therefore, learning for them was not simply an act of memorizing some terms and action sequences, but it was by performing actions that they learned. This ensured that those skills would be encoded into their long-term memory.

Makarenko did not administer written tests; he gave life tests where each child could complete assignments to his or her full potential and be praised by the whole colony for doing a good job. This sense of pride, Makarenko believed, was the best tool for learning (Litvinov, 1955, vol. 1). .

Theory of Transmission
Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Makarenko’s principles, though based on teachings of Lenin, Marx, and Engels, seemed to be foreign to people at the time. Education in Russia has always been very traditional and teacher-oriented rather than student-oriented. It follows the factory model. Makarenko believed in being demanding. And although he did not have a specific set of rules when he started the colony, his one clear rule was strict discipline. Nevertheless, he felt that this has to be coupled with a greater amount of respect for the learner in order for knowledge to really be transmitted. He developed other rules along the way as he encountered problems (Filonov, 1994, pg. 2).

A key aspect of teaching that Makarenko recognized was the ability to recognize the importance of emotions. He noticed that teachers and psychologists who were filled with knowledge and spoke in highly-educated, impassive language to children were perceived as inhuman encyclopedias: filled with information that was extraneous to the realities of everyday life. The children that Makarenko worked with were orphans and he recognized that before knowledge could be imparted they had to feel cared for and their emotional state had to be stabilized (Носаль, 1999). Moreover, these kids did not recognize any authority because they had been given too much freedom when they were let out on the streets.

In the very beginning, Makarenko tried to gain their respect with demanding behavior, strictness, and discipline, but he failed, because students simply laughed at him. Once when he told them that they would not be fed until they cut wood for the fireplace, they just made fun of him in response. Suddenly, Makarenko lost control of himself, screamed at one of those students and hit him. He stormed out of the room to talk to the teachers about that incident and thought that his career was over. Child abuse was not as big of a deal in Russia as it is in America, because corporal punishment was legal and common. What he feared was losing any opportunity to build bond with those kids. A few minutes later, that group of kids came in and said that they are ready to cut wood. This situation puzzled him for a very long time, because the seven mutineers could have easily beaten him up. Eventually, he came to the conclusion, that they saw a human in him with the same feelings as they had and, therefore, they were able to connect. That connection became a core of his educational system (Педагогическая Поэма, 1955).

Makarenko’s institution had a controlling board. And one of the members of that board was a psychologist who concentrated too much on finding disorders in the children. He kept on pointing out ADHD with signs of aggressiveness, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc. Makarenko saw these symptoms as consequences of the traumatic experiences that these orphaned kids had gone through. He took this circumstance into consideration, and did not think that anyone should be involved in the teaching process if they did not put time into getting to know every child and every situation.

With respect to methods, Makarenko relied heavily in intrinsic motivation. Although he did get the government to provide proper housing, clothing, and candy for the kids, he did not concentrate on material goods. He placed his main emphasis on the kids’ impact on their country, long-term gratification, and potential for deeply rooted happiness. He made them feel proud of what they did and made them feel needed. (Носаль, 1999). However, he also felt that it was essential to set short-term goals so that children could see the results of their work and be motivated to continue (Schugurensky, Kuzmich, 2010).

Makarenko felt that even though extrinsic motivation is important, it makes people selfish. But he did feel that punishment is essential for learning. He did not see such punishment as establishment of dominance, but rather as a way to give the child a feel for situations that he or she would encounter in real life. He claimed that he only punished kids whom he cared about and that ensured that his students did not get mad at him for that (Moos, 1961).

Religion was one thing that Makarenko excluded from the curriculum. In the Soviet Union religion was not practiced and atheism was the only accepted form of attitude towards religion (Litvinov, 1955, vol. 1). Makarenko adhered to that position.

Theory of Society
What is Society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Makarenko felt that society, the collective as it was called, was of the utmost importance. He rejected the idea that society was a crushing mechanism that necessarily strips everyone of their individual identity. However, he also did not believe in blindly following the higher authorities that controlled that society. And even though he believed that collectivism is a major component of a healthy society, he also saw self-governance as an essential part of a collectivism. He thought everyone should have a say. He also recognized and praised the individualism in every student and knew each one’s strengths and weaknesses. These departures from the party line eventually cost him his job (Schugurensky, Kuzmich, 2010).

Makarenko maintained that the only people who should have a say in the educational process are the teachers and the kids. He did wholeheartedly accept help from the government, followed their rules and regulations, and dealt with monthly inspections. However, he was impatient with authorities, who had no idea what he was really dealing with, tried to establish their own teaching methodology (Педагогическая Поэма, 1955).

Theory of Opportunity
Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

One thing that made Makarenko distinct was his belief in equal opportunity. He saw potential in every child and believed that if they were approached the right way they all could learn. He only had a few children that he gave up on for the sake of saving others from their bad influence, but he spent a long time trying out different approaches before he felt pressured to do so. He knew that every child is a member of society and every child will play a role, good or bad, in the country’s future (Litvinov, 1955, vol. 1). He was a strong follower of Lenin’s ideals, one of which was children’s education. Therefore, he constantly promoted education to colony inmates and taught them that it is their responsibility as worthy members of society.

Makarenko maintained that everyone must be educated and he did not discriminate between children based on gender and provided education for both girls and boys of all ages up until they legally became adults. Since the Soviet Union was a mixture of different cultures, he also acepted every variety of ethnic group into the colony.

The only children that Makarenko gave up on were the ones that continuously did not learn from their mistakes. He would explain their flaws, punish them for their actions, have emotionally intense conversations and give them time to change, and if that did not work, he would offer them to leave the colony, so that they did not spread their negative influence. Some of those mistakes were stealing and fighting. Makarenko did not want to teach children whom he could never trust (Litvinov, 1955, vol. 2).

Theory of Consensus
Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Makarenko’s colony did not have many disagreements between students. He established a system that resembled a town hall meeting with elements of a temple. Everybody agreed on the basic aspects of morality and good character. But Makarenko always let students decide what was best from them.

Considering the fact that the colony grew up to 400 students, opinions varied. Students often tried to turn to Makarenko and ask him what his opinion was on the subject, but he wanted to teach them to think for themselves, so he let the older students lead those debates. Each child had the right to self-expression. These debates were highly organized, especially since there were no microphones at that time, and everyone listened respectfully to each other until the group reached consensus. They youngsters all came from different walks of life, therefore, the perspectives on most situations varied. But because they all shared a common goal, consensus was always reached (Litvinov, 1955, vol. 1).

There was a situation when Makarenko’s already established colony was given an option of moving to a bigger place, where a different colony lived. The problem was that in the other colony the children were dirty, oppositional-defiant, aggressive, and presented a threat for the already “tamed” children of Makarenko’s colony. Still, that was an opportunity for them to spread their good influence and to improve the life of those abandoned orphans.

Makarenko simply told his colony about the opportunity to move to a bigger place and become a bigger colony by joining those kids. A huge debate followed when some kids were afraid of bad influence. Others did not want to leave the settled place. Then one of the teachers shared a different perspective on the situation: they could do something good for their country and help other kids. Some of the children supported that view and developed it further. Eventually, after multiple opinions were shared a consensus was reached without Makarenko’s involvement. All problematic situations were solved exactly the same way (Педагогическая Поэма, 1955).

The only situation in which Makarenko could not reach consensus concerned the previously mentioned situation with the psychologist from the board of education. Makarenko felt that each situation had to be looked at separately and that judging children or teachers without considering circumstances was wrong. The psychologist believed that everything follows the laws of psychology (Педагогическая Поэма, 1955).


Makarenko’s ideas were translated into many languages and shared throughout the world. At the point in time when he was teaching, his ideas were rather radical. He did not take traditional approaches to education that the Soviet government was used to. At first they were supportive, because government officials could see the impact that Makarenko was making. However, soon the authorities got worried that those free-thinking individuals that Makarenko was raising would become a threat to the government.

The Soviet government did not support individualism – individuals are difficult to control. Therefore, when they noticed that Makarenko’s seemingly collective society is straying towards individualism they became worried (Filonov, 1994, pg. 6). Also, his colony raised its own crops, made its own goods, and sold them to nearby villages. These were speculative activities as defined by the Soviet criminal code and were illegal in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Board of Education started seeing more and more issues with Makarenko’s methods and emphasis on democratic methods and eventually removed him from his position. Makarenko, who put his heart and soul into his job, died soon after being fired. His views, however, affected hundreds of Soviet orphans and gave them ground for growing up into successful adults. Even though some of Makarenko’s methods are now criticized for overemphasizing the importance of the collective, the time period and the political regime in which he taught should be taken into consideration (Filonov, 1994).


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Носаль, А. (1999) «Проблемы воспитания и развития личности в практико-теоретической деятельности А.С.Макаренко (психологическое время личности)». Retrieved March 27, 2011, from http://psyche.ru/en/catalog/is1/element.php?ID=1274

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