circular estonia

innovation in education and governance

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A school I’m working with…

Just a short post about a school I am working with. It’s one of the new state grammar schools being created as part of a reform programme. By 2020 half of all the grammar schools in Estonia should be directly run by the Ministry of Education to ensure a certain quality level. It is also in an effort to organise the school system. This particular school got in touch with us and wanted to become a “pilot school” to test and develop the new approaches to teaching, learning and creating a school culture fit for the 21st Century according to the new educational strategy. They were keen to have the university’s involvement.

They opened their doors for the first time in September 2015 but the university started working with them already in February 2015. Back then the school was writing their curriculum (a basic document all schools are required to have) and trying engage with prospective teachers in the curriculum development efforts – we had a workshop together and meetings in smaller teams to brainstorm what the school should be like. We looked at different curriculums from other schools and activities that the school could implement. I ended up coordinating the university’s team of researchers, a team of mentors working with teachers (helping with professional development), and now a team of university students who are going to develop a course to teach learning skills – everyone is doing this on top of their daily work or studies but we are all excited to have the opportunity to learn and create together!

Some key observations about this school (bearing in mind this is based on just a few encounters):

  • It has a very enthusiastic and highly committed leadership team!
  • Everything starts with a vision and a set of core values – the whole team has to buy into these & that’s why I love how the school has made it a priority to engage everyone and to communicate the vision and values constantly. I can also see how important the preparatory team building was: the time we spent discussing the learner profile, values and the vision!
  • The school has about 50% native Russian and 50% native Estonian speakers. There are both challenges and opportunities this brings to teaching as well as social cohesion.
  • The school is very outward-looking and hoping to engage with local community and businesses; some of their focus areas entrepreneurship, design and East-West cultural and economic ties.
  • It tries to implement a more ‘university-style’ system with more freedom and autonomy given to students than in a regular grammar school, classes are 75 minutes long, many courses are taught in concentration/ more intensively over a shorter period of time, rather than every subject being spread across 3 years; teachers are encouraged to integrate their subjects and work collaboratively and creatively, to think critically about what and why they are teaching, the learner is at the centre of every activity etc.
  • I love their interest-based tutor group system – I see this as a space where the real learning and socialisation takes place.
  • It seems that the ideas the leadership tries to implement and the wider context of the school development bring along some very unique challenges which we will properly reflect on at a later date as it just requires time to see  what works or doesn’t work, and why.

In August the school organised a camp that was open to all new students. I haven’t heard of many other schools doing this! It was a lot of fun and a great way for everyone to get to know one another in a non-formal, non-academic setting, although there was some ‘academics’ involved when the teachers introduced their subject at a fair-type event one day… Their task was to “sell” their classes to students by making them as interesting and engaging as possible. The maths teacher managed to engage students for more than a few hours after the event had finished!

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One of the interest-based tutor group meetings. I visited two groups and loved hearing and seeing what was going on. The tutor groups provide a really unique way of relating between students and teachers – it is a space for reflection, feedback, new ideas, organising events and just being you… The ‘interest’ in a certain subject or topic is what unites the students, not age, what courses they take or anything else.

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T-shirts with a school slogan – Future’s Architect. An example of how you can communicate the school’s vision and values. I heard the teachers and school leaders referring to the common values and school’s vision on a number of times when communicating with students and solving any ‘behavioural’ issues.

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Collaborative Learning – the Estonian Way

Hello again!

It has been a while! After my life took a sudden turn and I decided to not move to the Middle East, I found myself back in my home country without a specific plan of what needed to happen next. But for the past almost 3 months I’ve been incredibly blessed, and busy. Blessed to be working together with some of the most inspiring people in the field of education, starting my research and given an opportunity to develop learning programmes that I could potentially implement from the start of next year. I’m not going to talk about the pressure that’s putting me under but currently the excitement (and most likely sheer craziness and naiveté) is keeping me going. I want to try it out. What have I got to lose?

I was lucky to be directed to take a course on education for sustainable development (ESD) run by Tallinn University and a global education course run by an NGO called Mondo. To top it all off – I have found an incredibly passionate group of people who started off an initiative called Loovharidus (‘creative education’ in English), been attending a few seminars and conferences, and found that the ground has been prepared in Estonia for what I have longed to see happen for a while – a change of culture in education and collaborative practice.

There are many examples to be mentioned, but I just want to say that all these developments have provided a ray of hope that things are really moving forward, for the better. I can sense the excitement in people I’ve come across, a level of empowerement amidst the frustration. To quote a participant from a recent event: “I’m so excited, I have not attended such a great ‘training’ event in a while. Only by being here I can see change happening in people and things moving forward. For the first time I’m really hopeful.”

Now, there would be so much to say about each initiative I mentioned. Initially I was hoping to blog more frequently and in depth so I am very much struggling to decide on what to prioritise and cover in this post. But I believe that one of the absolute key elements that underlies all others is collaboration and collaborative learning.

Collaboration/cooperation – the key to success!?

This has also been one of the key topics for the Loovharidus group and to quote from the national educational strategy, section 1.4: “Cooperation in all its diverse forms is the key to success in the education system: it is very important to have cooperation with teachers and educational institutions, the school and parents, but also between the school and the local government and the local private sector. Integrating extracurricular education with formal education and teaching outside of the school environment (in companies, youth centres, nature and environment centres, museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions) enriches the learning process.”  But what it is about collaboration? Why is it so important?

Well, for starters, we might argue that collaboration is the very essence of being human. We are born into a relationship with ourselves and others. In order to have a successful and fulfilling life, we need to work together, and the quality of that most likely determines whether you reach the expectations and goals you have set, or even meet your basic needs. From a strategic geopolitical point of view we need “to be proactive and creative, so that we can cope in today’s rapidly changing world,” as the strategy states in its opening paragraph. Another element of cooperation is effective conflict resolution, which is also a topic we touched on at the latest Loovharidus seminar.

However, as it has occurred in several discussions with educators from preschool level up to academics and parents, effective collaboration (and conflict resolution) is something that is often lacking in schools. Albeit, one must admit there are some absolutely fantastic initatives happening in this area and the goal of the Loovharidus group is to share the ‘good practice’ and help those brave ones who are willing to put in the effort to create a better culture of collaboration through some experimentation and, you guessed right – collaboration. Collaboration across ALL levels of the system – students, teachers, leadership, community, government and so on.

I’d hereby like to briefly summarize the case studies from the latest Loovharidus seminar in Tallinn on 29th Nov 2014.

1. “Collaboration in school – deep knowledge of self (self awareness) and others” by Ilona Must, principal of Pärnu Vabakool (the only free school in the Baltics)

Like other free schools as well as most Waldorf schools, Pärnu Vabakool is owned by parents. It is heavily influenced by the philosophy of active learning and Gaia education, making collaboration central to its activities.

The school implements various strategies to reach the desired goals of preparing the students to meet 21st Century challenges, and to be a happy and engaging school for everyone.


At the core of effective collaboration, according to Ms. Must, is collective governance, common vision and values, shared challenges, experiences and priorities set for each year.


When it comes to the learning and teaching methodologies, as well as the school atmosphere, their philosophy is ‘learning by doing’ and they are very excited to be working with the Danes on introducing enhanced cooperative learning (CL) methods in their school this year.


  • The curriculum plans (õppekava – eesti k.) are presented to children in the “I-tense” and in a way a child would easily understand;
  • The day starts with a large gathering of all students, singing and sharing news;
  • Events and activities where the entire school is involved, e.g. planting trees;
  • International projects – study trips abroad etc. (they have a very good fundraising officer!)
  • Weekly newsletter for parents;
  • Regular meetings with all teachers and leadership;
  • Project-based learning; project days (- they have developed project-based learning  materials, I saw one – it was GREAT!)

The school fees are currently 54 eur a month, and the shcool receives additional support from the local government and the state who pay teachers’ salaries. This is a school I’m very much hoping to visit soon to learn more about all their activities and feel the atmosphere!

2. Tartu community schools initiative “TULUKE” / Tartu Kogukonnakoolide algatus by Kristel Ress

Another project for which the idea came from parents. The aims of the project are to enhance communication within and between the schools and the parents, to create a trusting relationship, an exciting and varied learning environment that is tied more tightly to real life, and all of this resulting in happier children and parents.

The programme has just started, and perhaps not surpiringly for Estonia, the preferred method to bring people together to talk, think and come up with solutions to problems were “Mõttetalgud”. In other words, an open space for discussion/communication. There would be a lot to say about methodology and I have limited information on what their approach was but I love the fact that they are also using video/media!

Check this out:

The bottom line is – people need to come together and collaborate in order to solve issues and reach the desired outcomes. This is one of these exciting initiatives, initially between 4 schools but I am sure very soon involving many other, that has the potential to kick-start something bigger, so my hope is that the creativity and goodwill to try out various ideas and keep engaging people will keep flowing.

3. “Collaboration and creativity in Tallinn Meelespea Kindergarten” by Kristina Märks

This presentation was perhaps the second biggest surprise for me during the day and I have only the positive to say about what this kindergarten (!) is doing.

4. “The key to success is within us” by Pert Lomp (a parent) and Maarja Kurgpõld (class teacher) from Peetri Kool

A wonderful example of a school collaborating with parents and developing a new programme and approach to teaching and learning. Their flagship project is called “Tegija minu sees” (The leader in me).

5. “It’s exciting together” by two Estonian and Literature teachers from Rapla Ühisgümnaasium

Another surprise! Two subject teachers who have took the matters of collaborative learning into their own hands and are leading the way in their school.


This blog will be continued soon and I will hopefully elaborate on the above-mentioned examples. I was just so excited to get something up and start the reflective process. =) – how can I not put a smiley here?