Australian education observed by Aleksandr Leonidovich Yashchenko

Australia, 1903

Note: Photographs of Indigenous persons who have passed away appear in this entry.

In 1903, the Russian scientist, Aleksandr Leonidovich Yashchenko visited Australia, two years after federation. Yashchenko was an accomplished scholar whose education and graduate training included zoology, anthropology and geography. He taught at prestigious colleges in St Petersburg. His visit to Australia was a research commission on behalf of the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences. His brief included the development of museums, botanical gardens, universities, zoos—and schools. He had a respectful interest in Aboriginal peoples that was often unusual for the period.

Yashchenko was somewhat dependent on his informants for his understandings of what occurred in Australian educational institutions and for what they chose to show him, but he was quite capable of independent and insightful observations. He arrived in Fremantle in early July 1903, armed with introductions that facilitated visits to a range of Australian institutions. He travelled more widely than Sidney and Beatrice Webb during their visit five years earlier. South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland were states of the new Commonwealth of Australia that he visited. He came with few prejudices, and made excursions into rural and outback regions as well as more substantial towns and cities. Acting on behalf of the Academy of Sciences, his observations needed to be accurate and well-informed.

Unlike the Webbs, Yaschenko was interested in pedagogy. When he visited schools, he observed lessons and noted that rote learning continued its domination of much of the teaching and learning he witnessed. His comments on this aspect of pedagogy are prescient; he reinforces the ideas gaining currency that a “New Education” was required if Australian schools were to be improved.

A portrait of Yaschenko, date unknown. Source: Nizhny Novgorod Biographical Encyclopedia, 2020-2023

A portrait of Yashchenko, date unknown. Source: Nizhny Novgorod Biographical Encyclopedia, 2020-2023


The University of Adelaide

David Stirling, Professor of Zoology, showed Yashchenko the lecture rooms for zoology, chemistry, and anatomy, as well as laboratories and a professional library. The chemistry laboratory “contained about 20 ventilating exhaust hoods but no hydrogen sulphide room”. In the anatomy theatre he observed students and professor examining a skeleton.

A room set apart for female students drew his attention. “Australian universities have students of both sexes”. This was worthy of note, given the discriminations in much of the of the British Empire and elsewhere. The University of Adelaide had been the first of the Australian universities to implement this reform. Yashchenko observed portraits of three women who had graduated as medical doctors. Yashchenko would take an active interest and positive interest in the education of women when he arrived home in Russia.

He was taken to visit Elder Hall (built in 1900) where music was taught and concerts and graduation ceremonies were conducted. He thought the hall was reminiscent of an Anglican church, particularly with its organ on the stage.

The Advanced School for Girls
Teachers at the Advanced School for Girls in 1900. Source: B25677/4 State Library of South Australia.

Teachers at the Advanced School for Girls in 1900. Madeline Rees George is in the front row, second from the left Source: B25677/4 State Library of South Australia.

Here, Yaschenko met the headmistress, Madeline Rees George. She arranged for a geography lesson to be conducted for his benefit. Textbooks were distributed to the students.

Discipline was definitely in evidence, although it could not be said that the girls were behaving with a great deal of seriousness. Many stretched out a little and raised their hands in what seemed an unintended sign that they knew the answer to the question posed. The teacher was not in the slightest bit embarrassed by my presence and was very spirited in her conduct of the lesson, being fully in control of her method, subject and class. (Tilley ed., p. 42.)

Yashchenko noted the question-answer character of the lesson, along the lines:

  • Q: How can the NSW coast be described?
  • A: A coastal slope.
  • Q: What lies behind this plain?

and so on. The students who answered had memorised their answers. Students did not stand to deliver their answers. At the end of the lesson, they were able to repeat the lesson content from memory. Despite the student prowess involved: “I was left with the impression that in this exercise they were governed not so much by interest as by discipline”.

Yashchenko was interested in teaching styles. He wanted to see more genuine engagement by students with their learning.

Such a teaching method [memorisation of textbooks and teachers’ lessons] probably yields good results but only in the sense of trusting in a teacher’s word and in the contents of a text-book, without any analysis and reflection on the subject of study.

This was something half-way between senseless learning by heart and acquisition of useful information … the lesson finished without any homework being set … . (p. 44)

The Pupil Teacher School

Here Yashchenko observed no geography lessons, but he saw a hundred students occupied in writing in a large lecture hall. High on the rostrum a lecturer paced with a book in hand.

A government school

[Probably the Grote Street School, formerly the “Model” School.]

Yashchenko was unimpressed by the sight of two classes being conducted in the one space. He asked how this could occur without problems. He was told one class would have a lesson involving writing while the other would have an oral lesson. Some of the classes he saw appear to have been with pupil teachers, others with elementary pupils.

A class of 90 was given a lesson, or rather lecture, on French geography by a visibly uncomfortable teacher. “Again I heard questions and answers emanating only from those who cared to raise their hands”. It was a strange lesson, jumping around from French to whole world geography and then to South Africa. Yashchenko was interested in the teacher’s discussion “about the English desire to consolidate their influence from Egypt to the Cape and about German possessions to be found along that route”. (Australians had an interest in South Africa. They had participated in the Boer War only ending in the previous year, 1902.)

The head of the school took over, and with much animation, set about asking students about Russia in Yashchenko’s honour. The questions, Yashchenko thought, were detailed beyond what was probably required outside Russia, but a common theme was emerging in Yashchenko’s observations. It was all about memorisation by students and teachers. One student, called to the front, on a map located Siberia in Tibet, causing the teacher much distress.

But the latter did not so much as guess that I attached little importance to such a slip, since it was something far more significant in this system of teaching [rote learning] that really discomforted me. (p. 49)

Yashchenko saw a well disciplined class of infants who knew their alphabet. In another class he observed a history lesson with older children—unsurprisingly it was English history. The school head asked the teacher to perform the by now very familiar operation of question and answer. Yashchenko was interested that classes were coeducational.

As he left the school, Yashchenko saw a display of firearms. He was told that a former minister of public education had introduced Pestalozzi and Froebel’s systems of education. “The guns were useful for practice” he was informed. (This was probably a humorous remark given the educators named would have been horrified by guns being used to enforce student learning!)

Prince Alfred College

At this Methodist boys’ college, Yashchenko remarked on the fine large building and lawns. Classroom activity was not dissimilar to what he had seen elsewhere. In one class he witnessed map drawing (of South America). In another map drawing class the subject was railway networks in England.

Although the students had been requested to stand when we left any classroom, during the break they showed no deference to the headmaster as we passed by: they jumped between desks whistled, made a din. In short, they behaved naturally. (p. 57.)

There were small collections of objects for natural science teaching, “and the occasional Australian Aboriginal weapon hung on the walls”. He saw a skeleton (incomplete) of a female Aborigine. The chemistry laboratory lacked cleanliness. He noted a well-used gymnasium.

Killalpaninna (South Australia): Bethesda Lutheran Mission School

West of Lake Eyre, in the lands of the Dieri people in South Australia’s outback, Yashchenko visited a Lutheran mission, spending several days there. Towards the end of his visit, he visited the mission school.

The Killalpaninna community, 1903, with Yashchenko standing left of centre. Source: State Library of South Australia, B11723

The Killalpaninna community, 1903, with Yashchenko standing left of centre outside the church. Source: State Library of South Australia, B11723. Note: SLSA catalogue identifies this photograph differently but clear evidence in Tilley ed., 2001, suggests 1903 and Yashchenko.

The school and school building was segregated. It had two rooms, one used for the white students, the other Aboriginal. In this second room were

time-worn desks and benches. To the left of the tall desk, there was an open shelf with dividers for books, exercise-books and so on. To the right, there was a blackboard on a stand. (p. 124.)

The students comprised adults as well as children, males to the left, females to the right. After the reading of a prayer in English, the teacher, Henry Hillier began the lesson with dictation, walking up and down and watching what the students wrote. He did not explain the positioning of letters and continued dictating distinctly but without comment. While this occurred, junior students sounded out words, letter by letter. When the dictation was completed, Hillier, using a red pencil, underlined mistakes, noting the number of mistakes per student.

A recitation of corrected words began. The two groups engaged in loudly sounding different sets of words. “All the students were evidently used to this type of instruction and these shouts disturbed no-one.” During dictation to the juniors, Hillier wrote everything on the board, arranging words according to their similarity of sound. Then there was testing in spelling and word meanings, followed by reading out loud, each pupil taking a turn. Though students were attentive, Yashchenko gained the impression that they found this work an inescapable chore.

Arithmetic followed, the writing of numbers up to 1,000 at the teacher’s dictation. Basic mathematical operations except division were practised. One 12-year old boy was very good at long multiplication. The long lesson, an hour and a half, was conducted solely in English.

It seems that Yashchenko was happier with the pedagogy he witnessed here than with what he had seen in Adelaide. It was less about the display of memorised learning and more about active teaching and learning.


Working Men’s College (founded 1887)

At this predecessor college to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Yashchenko was shown students working in a chemistry laboratory. All the equipment he saw had come from Germany. The students paid fees, working towards completing a diploma after three years’ study. Applicants to the diploma courses came from the general public as well as school-leavers. Young women were accepted into the college as students.

Yashchenko was shown workshops for carpentry and metalwork (ironmongering, smithing and metallurgical). The objects made were not for sale, to avoid competition with outsiders who worked for a living. There were coach-building, printing, painting and sign-painting, and moulding sections. His visit concluded with an observation of a physics lecturer demonstrating the operation of a magnet, and experimenting in gas-lighting. At least one staff member was aware of a Russian scientist’s important work in chemistry. Yashchenko seems to have found it all satisfactory, making no critical comments.

Teacher Training College

Frank Tate, newly appointed Director of Education, met Yashchenko, and showed him a range of materials for organising teachers and teaching in public schools. At the training college, he met John Smyth, the principal. He was taken to a lecture on “leaves, stomata, chlorophyll, the movement of sap, the shapes of leaves and their relation to the life of plants” (p. 175). The class was coeducational. From there they visited the college’s museum where he found a fair representation of exhibits concerning the natural sciences and geography. A collection of materials included globes and models used to assist instruction.

Tate told me that the trend in favour of natural science had begun only comparatively recently … and that endeavours were being made to speed up the training of good teachers … . (p. 176)

Interest in nature study was part of the curriculum reform associated with the New Education, of which Frank Tate was a leading exponent in Victoria. From there they observed student teachers practising their blackboard drawing.

Yashchenko was told that fifty of the seventy students were boarders at the college, each student receiving a government subsidy of forty pounds. Men and women boarders were separated. Men played lawn tennis and other sports. The main college meal was described—it was adequate, though the rising cost of living made food rather basic.

A government primary school

[Note: Which school Yashchenko visited is unidentified. A clue may be that a James Finlay Gibson was a highly regarded head teacher at Fitzroy Public School in 1903.]

The head teacher, Gibson by name, took Yashchenko to a classroom taught by a “lady teacher” who according to Yashchenko, resembled a housekeeper, enhanced by the pinafore she wore. She performed the now very familiar questioning of students’ knowledge. “One felt that things were proceeding entirely by rote …” (p. 177). Only those pupils who appeared to know the answers were called on to speak. Girls sat on the left, boys on the right. The lesson was problematic: too many geographical place-names, a map too small for children to see properly. As he had seen elsewhere, classes shared the same space: in this case, three of them divided only by light curtains which could be drawn back for combined activity such as singing.

A drawing lesson was highly disciplined. Everything was performed on command, but the resulting images were good. One teacher impressed Yashchenko with her use of lumps of clay, asking pupils to transform the shapes from cubes to cylinders and so on. He found this was an original and effective approach.

Yashchenko believed that backward pupils were subject to occasional beatings.

In a writing lesson, girls managed their slates well while boys had some difficulty. In a reading lesson, pupils took turns to read out loud. Yashchenko noted that if mistakes were made, the teacher failed to correct them. Yashchenko thought the male teachers he observed were over-rigid and not terribly well educated. The women were very young. He wrote “that all the pupils, apart from the youngest, were completely uninhibited”.

I had the constant impression of a mass of children, taught and being taught, in uncomfortable conditions … by a method of coaching and training. Both Smyth and Tate agreed with me on this, but, they said, nothing could be done as there was no room and no money. (p. 178)


Two high schools

[Probably Sydney Boys’ and Sydney Girls’ high schools]

At the boys’ school Yashchenko saw an elementary physiology lesson. The teacher trainee was supervised by colleagues and the school principal and had a written teaching plan. A papier-mâché model assisted the lesson. In the same room, writing and mathematics lessons also proceeded. He saw a lively economic geography lesson, using newspaper reports and newspaper cuttings and was impressed with the level of student engagement. At one point, a “member of the class gave me an account of his imaginary travels including where and what his steamship had loaded and unloaded en route” (p. 184). Less engaging was a visit to a hall that held four classes, mathematics being taught to three, and geography the fourth. “Pupils under punishment stood behind the boards” (p. 184).

A geology lesson was observed at the girls’ school. It concerned volcanoes and vulcanism. The teacher drew diagrams of strata, proceeding to teach via questioning and lecturing.

She referred to traces of vulcanism in Sydney and to crystallization in conditions of slow cooling and then demonstrated the site of crystallization; she also displayed individual crystals. The discussion and lecturing (mainly the latter) were very animated. (p. 185)

A rather less animated lesson on minerals mined in Australia followed. The teacher, like the geology teacher, was “quite without inhibition” (p. 185).

In both schools, the pupils extended their arms, shaking their palms (presumably in the hope of answering teachers’ questions). Both Boys’ and Girls’ school principals expressed discontent with classroom over-crowding but said pupils had grown used to it. Some lessons were conducted on a veranda in the open air.

Yarrabah Mission School (northern Queensland)

Towards the end of his journey, Yashchenko visited northern Queensland. As was consistent with his focus on Indigenous Australia, he visited the Yarrabah mission near Cairns.

Here he saw a needlework class with 25 women and girls sitting on a veranda sewing. Later he visited the school, where lessons were in progress. An Aboriginal female teacher was teaching small children how to write numbers. Some of the children were naked, and looked younger than their age, about six years.

Mrs Reeves, sister of Pastor Gribble, was teaching boys and girls (separately) dictation. On the classroom walls were a portrait of King Edward VII and biblical scenes. In a singing lesson, children sang something to the tune of Yankee Doodle. They were enjoying the experience.

Inside the Yarrabah school room some years earlier than Yashchenko's visit (1893). Source: State Library of Queensland.

Inside the Yarrabah school room in 1893, ten years earlier than Yashchenko’s visit. The teacher here was the father of Edward Gribble who met the visitor on his arrival in 1903. Source: State Library of Queensland.

Later there was a demonstration of more singing, a “native band”, and girls performing gymnastic exercises followed by a corroboree performance. The event concluded with the national anthem.

Yashchenko made no judgement about the schooling he saw here. (Recent scholarship on Yarrabah’s history has been highly critical.)


Woolloongabba Boys’ School

Fernando Papi was an Italian migrant who developed a successful career in government schools. Yashchenko visited his school, a wooden building with a large room containing three simultaneous classes. Classes were also being taught on the verandas. While an algebra lesson occurred elsewhere, Yashchenko saw a lesson on the possum, assisted by three possum fur skins. The questions and answers were about appearance, habitat and life. “The teacher wrote his conclusions on a prepared stencil on the blackboard.” A pupil showed Yashchenko his live pet possum.

Yashchenko thought the students were as lively as European students would have been had they been learning about foxes or wolves. Other Queensland animals were part of the lesson. A teacher, apparently discomforted by being observed, conducted a lesson on Queensland geography. It ran along familiar lines: questions and answers with reference to maps. In their eagerness to answer questions pupils snapped their fingers as well as raising their hands.

Miss Burdorff’s private school
The Burdorff school's new teaching rooms opened in 1901. Source: Brisbane Courier, 5 October.

The Burdorff school’s new teaching rooms opened in 1901. Source: Brisbane Courier, 5 October.

Bertha Burdorff (spelled Berdoff in Yashchenko’s diary) taught first at Brisbane Grammar School. She then studied in Germany, and on her return opened her own private high school for girls. Its fine reputation included praise for its use of modern teaching methods. From 1899 it had been granted the honour of receiving government-funded scholars. The school lasted some twenty years (Goodman, p. 120).

Yashchenko visited the Burdorff school as his last educational visit in Australia. He found a large hall housing several classes in session as well as single class classrooms. The pupils were well dressed. As elsewhere he witnessed a geography lesson, on Asia this time, with the “simple enumeration and questions and answers of the same type” (Tilley ed., p. 227). Rivers were the main focus, aided by the use of a map. There were mispronunciations of some of the names. Yashchenko was invited to talk to the class about his travels. During his time in Australia the similarities or not of the Murray and Volga rivers had become something of a theme, so he addressed this question. A succeeding lesson, with a teacher with an impossibly faint voice, concerned Holland and Belgium. The girls were not all that knowledgeable, but they were not shy about Yashchenko’s presence. Unlike the situation he had met in many of the government schools, each class had twenty-five students or fewer.

The significance of Yashchenko’s journey in 1903

Schools and other educational institutions form but a part of Yashchenko’s diary, but his assessments of what he saw in schools and universities are candid and informative. His critical view of the teaching and learning he witnessed provide evidence for the pressure building towards reform, the “New Education”. Rote learning and memorisation, and the parroting back of learned answers was not good enough for Yashchenko and an increasing number of Australian educators. Although he never explicitly outlined his view of what good pedagogy was, the praise he gave to animated teachers, lively children, the use of models and other artefacts in teaching give an indication of his views. He admired Australian school children and youth, even with the depressingly ordinary pedagogy they were subject to. They seemed free, not ground down—although his comment on the “beating” of less clever students at a Melbourne school is concerning!

Yashchenko was clearly disturbed by the teaching rooms he usually observed. The attempt to conduct several classes simultaneously in the one space struck him as a serious problem. It occurred in each of the cities he visited. It may be that some of these large schoolrooms were remainders from the time before simultaneous or class instruction. There is also evidence that some teachers and school heads supported the arrangement, because the head teachers could supervise the pupil and new teachers, and the children,  while teaching their own class.

His diary also gives us rare glimpses of schools, teachers, directors of education and school principals that are difficult to find elsewhere. His perceptions as an outsider are always valuable and there is a refreshing lack of interest in Australia as British, part of the Empire. Nor is there prejudice against Australians as mere colonials. His view of what was occurring in the Aboriginal missions he visited is mainly descriptive, but he was respectful and grateful for the experiences he had with the Aboriginal people whom he met.

Note 1:

On his return to Russia, Yashchenko moved to Sergach, in the Nizhny Novgorod region. There he taught in colleges and high schools. He ran afoul of the secret police and in 1937 he was arrested for “counter-revolutionary activities”, and was executed in Gorky in 1938. Most of his library and research was destroyed by NKVD officers. His daughter was able to save the manuscript of his Australian diary and probably the Killalpaninna photograph. The diary was translated into English and published in 2001 by Peter Tilley. See below in references for publication details.

Note 2:

I am grateful to Peter Tilley, Carole Hooper, Keith Moore and Keith Foulcher for assistance in identifying schools and teachers visited by Yashchenko and for other advice.