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.