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Paradise lost? Education in Aotearoa and Estonia

by Steve Saville

This blog is a response to an excellent article from ‘The Guardian’ that Claire Amos linked via the DisruptEd facebook page. The full article can be read here.

Before I start my response though I would like to acknowledge and thank Claire and the entire DisrupEd community. Over the last four or five years this group has provided a forum where teachers can share their thoughts, fears and excitement. Readings, questions, stories, provocations have all been shared in a safe learning space. It has been ‘by teachers and for teachers’. 

Now more than ever we need this forum. If you are not regularly checking in on DisruptEd then, may I suggest, you add it to your daily or weekly routine.

Now back to this particular article titled,

 “ Free lunches, brain breaks and happy teachers:why Estonia has the best schools in Europe”. 

As I read this article I swung from being inspired to feeling utterly depressed. The main reason I felt joy was because what was reported to be happening in Estonia just made sense and depressed because nearly all of it has been attempted by numerous Kiwi Schools often with little support or, is currently under threat in the schools where approaches similar to those detailed in this article have been implemented. Seriously under threat. 

What I want to do is to go through some of the major factors identified as reasons why Estonia is ‘nailing’ it, educationally speaking (according to the article) and how this relates to our own experiences down here in Aotearoa.

Factor 1. Estonia has what the article terms ‘voluntary’ classes in diverse cross curricular subjects classes like Science Fiction or Robotics. Cross curricula, integrated learning experiences that harness student interest in authentic contexts rather than delivering learning as fragmented stand alone disciplines. Does his sound familiar to many of us? Does this sound like the integrated studies that form a part of so many of our secondary school programmes now? I even remember a Year 11 course actually called Science Fiction at a certain school in Canterbury, a course that allowed students to gain their Science and English NCEA credits via an integrated and comparative course.

Factor 2. Estonia has universal free lunches. Well we were getting pretty close to this - until recently. What I have long believed, and saw evidence of in Finland, was that universal school lunches not only provide sustenance and equity but they also satisfy a vitally important social need, that is the role that sharing food has on creating community. Think of the Marae setting and the traditional European Sunday roast, every culture inherently understands the importance of using food to bring people together and create community. Schools are no different. The social benefits of students sitting down and sharing food and time together as well as tidying up afterwards are real. We were not there but we were heading in the right direction. It was possible, it was achievable and it was worth the cost. It's called manaakitanga, it's called whanaungatanga.

Factor 3. In Estonia, the article claims that schools are autonomous, teachers are well trained and respected as professionals. Believe it or not the communities we serve still believe in us and our schools. Our parents are not the ones politicizing education (well maybe a few of them). It does feel of late though that those of us who work in vocations designed to improve the lives of others (heath, police, education) are under some sort of attack.  Yes, Estonia (like the rest of the world it seems) also has a teacher shortage so there is something we share that neither of us can really feel happy about.

Factor 4. Estonia has few formative exam type assessments, far fewer than we have. They are still high stakes forms of assessment though. How many educators have put forward cases here for less assessment in all of our schools. Some have been brave/sensible enough to prioritize this within their schools, and yet, we seem to be heading back to widespread national standardized testing as a way of measuring student progress. It seems Estonia values teaching, learning and doing over just assessing, and yet the article seems to claim that the value of these exams is still seen as being highly important and highly valued.

Factor 5. They have integrated technology into learning in a way that it is normalised as a tool. Again this has been done very successfully in many schools here but we seem to lurch from seeing technology and digital competence as being the answer to all of our problems to seeing it as the biggest contributor to poor student engagement. We need to get over our fear and look at technology use that will benefit and empower our learners not just as a convenient political point scorer. Having said that, I think evidence will eventually show that a cell phone ban in classes is actually beneficial to student focus.

Factor 6.The article mentions that restorative practice, wellbeing and student choice are all prioritized and work to enhance student agency, empowerment and accountability. Now, as a sector, we are also very aware of all of this and we do well in this area but often we achieve  with little ongoing funding or coherent training and therefore sustainability is compromised. When you look at the most recent Happiness index we see the reasons why a holistic approach to our students is vital. We are ranked as the 11th happiest nation in the world but our older generation are ridiculously cheerful [6th in the world] that puts us oldies up there with the permanently happy Scandanvians, but our under 30 year olds are 26th in the world. There is a yawning happiness gap in this country, we see it in our schools and we need to be supported if we are to be effective in addressing it. We have the will, the people and the knowledge we need the long term support.

Factor 7. Flexibility in many areas is very obvious in schools in Estonia and it is seen as beneficial. It manifests itself in many ways, student choice of subject, flexible class sizes [to be able to meet the needs of students], flexible spaces [including those outside of the classroom’. Those of us who have taught in flexible environments, where the timetable can flex to the needs of the students and the environment is seen as one large flexible learning space, know how, when used well, this flexibility can create learning experiences that a small restricted box of a classroom and a rigid timetable struggles to.

Factor 8.  Don't get me started on this one. Creativity is valued, not only in the arts, but as a way of using knowledge to innovate or to utilize in authentic situations, Life skills are valued, skills  like knitting and food preparation. I remember fondly the joy of seeing students learn to knit for the community, learn to sew a button on their shirts, learn about how to prepare healthy food etc. Opportunities like these ,and others,  are where a young person develops community spirit and an enhanced sense of social connection and purpose.. Many of us realize this but it seems like a battle right now. Yes we do have to get the foundational skills sorted and they do need improving but the purpose of foundationals skills is to empower a learner to go deeper, to question, to seek to innovate and solve. Learning the times tables or the basic rules of grammar is not the end, it is the start. It is what we build meaningful learning on. We need to ensure though, that once the foundations are strong, we have a definite plan of how to challenge the learner to use these basic skills to assist real learning. 

Opportunities for creativity in every learning area allows for authentic contexts to be acknowledged just as  it allows for natural connections to be made between learning areas. 

All of the above leads me to one summary comment.

All that Estonia values and sees as working for them in education, all that Estonia celebrates that sets them apart and allows them to be seen as highly successful, all of this we have or we had. All they have, we have implemented in our schools, but often it has been on an individual school basis, often underfunded, often left to people like those who follow DisruptEd to trial blaze. 

I can't be the only school leader who remembers being visited by delegations of Estonian educators several years ago, maybe they saw what we were developing and actually saw the value in it.

Look around this Guardian post on the DisriptEd page and you will see what I mean. Nelson Girls post a hilarious and very creative video on the use of technology in schools, Calire Amos posts details of their flexible timetable, Maurie Abraham talks about courageous leadership. It is all here folks, it desperately needs protecting and nurturing or it will be lost.

We have had all of this flexibility, we have worked towards more formative and less summative assessment, we have explored creativity etc. all of it we have had. Right now it feels like all of it is being challenged though. 


Well that brings in the final factor.

Factor 9.  I quote Kristina Kallas the Minister of Education in Estonia. The strength in Estonia’s education system is because “it’s built from the bottom-up, not run by (central government), and it never was. The education system is older than the state.”

I think I'll leave that there, it needs no comment

I will finish with two visuals, one from an Estonian school and one from a  New Zealand school. We have all we need here, we have the ideas, the vision and the people. What we need is to be trusted and resourced so that we can do the job.

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