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At the European School Heads Association’s (ESHA) Biennial Conference


Welcome to Estonia! I am very proud that this conference is taking place here in Tallinn this year. It’s interesting that while preparing for this presentation today I was asked to tell you why Estonia ranks so highly in PISA scores. Of course, in the end, nobody knows, but I think we need to delve into the history of Estonian education to answer that question.

In the decades following the end of serfdom, Estonians began fundraising for a school for Estonian children that would take them beyond primary education to the secondary level. Just imagine! These people had spent centuries in serfdom.

They gained their freedom; they became owners of their land. Yet they were not simply satisfied with the fact that they could now care for their land and their farms and have their children working for their own families. They realised that they wanted to give their children something more – a better education.

It is very important to note that girls also attended these Estonian schools. This in itself is quite remarkable, because at that time, we were taught by German pastors and people who were not even Estonians, and not even in the Estonian language.

Yet, this was not questioned in our country. Everyone realised that, first and foremost, we needed educated people. Secondly, we also needed to educate our girls, because a smart nation is built by smart mothers. For some reason, Estonia has always known this.

Of course, there was great discussion about to how high should girls aspire. At the beginning of the 20th century, before the Estonian Republic was declared in 1918, some professors (who, in fact, taught at the University of Tartu, which was founded by the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf in the 17th century) had to face outcry for allowing female students to attend law classes. Yet the Estonian women, having never felt that they did not deserve a higher education, fought back.

The first female student sorority in the country was established in 1920, two years after Estonia was declared a state. By then, there were already enough female students to start one. Over the following 20 years, this number rose to five female sororities at the University of Tartu. Five by 1940.

Yet, the beginning was not easy. My grandmother, for example, always told me that she belonged to the first sorority, Filiae Patriae (Daughters of the Homeland), and that when the sisters first founded it, they had to carry a long whip with them because fraternity members tended to question, quite aggressively, their right to participate in academic life. But they never gave up. The Republic of Estonia has always promoted equality in education for girls and boys alike.

This little lesson from history shows why Estonia ranks so high in PISA test scores. We have always known that everyone has a fundamental right to education. Everyone needs education, and even though positive change may occur in society (say, for example, you get your own farm or have the opportunity to take care of your own land), this is not enough. I mentioned my grandmother, who went to university. She was the 12th child of a peasant family, the 8th daughter. And yet, she went to university. This is something we have realised: that education for the younger children in a family, in particular for those who didn’t have a significant heritage, is something that would take our nation forward.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we are exactly where everyone else is. As with any other educational system in the developed world, the Estonian school system has prepared the optimal curriculum for our school-aged children. And like everyone else, we have missed important elements of change because we simply could not see them coming. We have noticed that the technological cycle has been getting shorter and shorter.

When we compare the present to the 20th century, which is when we designed our school system as we now know it, two things – the horse cart and petroleum lamp – have become obsolete. Other technologies have developed, become more efficient and effective, and thrived. In the past, the technological cycle was long enough to prepare our children, and even our grandchildren, for school without major changes.

In the 20th century, we thought we could carry on into the future in the same way. But today, we see that the technological cycle is extremely short. The mobile phones in our pockets will be deemed primitive in five to ten years’ time. Many things that we thought would be here for a long time are now totally redundant.

We need to think about how best to prepare our children for this radical shift in our society. One thing is the shortening of the technological cycle, the other is globalism. Our children are going to live and work globally, and they need to be prepared for it.

We don’t think about these things when we send our kids to school. I recently asked my fourth-grade nine-year-old, ‘Kaspar, how is English class going?’

The same fourth-grade textbook is used in every school and it gives beginner lessons with constructions like, ‘I don’t like the black dog; I prefer the white dog.’

‘How many kids in your class really learn English from this book? Or find it interesting and stimulating?’ I asked Kaspar. He thought and said, ‘Maybe one.’

I asked: ‘You speak English fluently because you’ve lived in another country, but how are the others?’ He said that everybody speaks fluently because they all have their own favourite YouTubers and most of them speak English; it’s as simple as that.

‘Can anybody write in English, too?’

‘No. We can’t write and learning to write is boring because the texts are all about stuff like, ‘My dog is brown. What colour is your dog?’’

So, a whole class of kids using our well-thought-out curriculum in a perfectly good school (because all schools in Estonia are very good) are all bored in that class.

I asked: ‘What do you need to know about English?’

Kaspar said: ‘Well, of course I need to learn to write, but it would be much more interesting if the texts weren’t so boring. And some of my classmates don’t realise that some English words aren’t nice to use.’

You see, we need to teach them what is rude in the English language, not the English language itself. We also need to stimulate the knowledge they already have. To inspire them to achieve higher levels.

English is probably the clearest example, but not the only one. Children find it interesting to solve maths problems. There are also Estonian-language web sites that allow you to solve maths problems, take tests, and learn in this way. Many children do this.

Where does this leave us? Our children are going to school with a knowledge base that no longer corresponds to their age. Things are very different.

And levels can vary greatly between kids, because some are simply interested in maths and others in English. I’ve also found out that astronomy is something kids are very interested in learning about on the Internet.

So, what do we do with these kids in school? If we carry on as if nothing has happened and nothing has changed, I think we will run into deep trouble. Because already here in Estonia, and I believe elsewhere as well, there is a problem that boys don’t particularly want to study because they find school boring. Girls somehow have better tolerance for classes that are not so stimulating, but this is not a reason to give them such unstimulating classes. I think we need to quickly forget that when you’re seven, you go to first grade; when you’re eight, you go to second grade, etc.

We need a feedback-based school programme; one that focuses much more on the individual and is much more directly related to children’s interests and their level of study. How can this be achieved? Well, I am making this plea again to all the Estonians among you, but maybe other countries will be quicker than us and will take the leap ahead. Please, we need a school programme at primary and secondary levels that resembles a computer game. We need it on a computer, and we need it in a format in which children can test their knowledge and find stimulating programmes that propel them forward.

Yes, they would roughly still need to know the same things they’ll painfully and boringly learn by the 12th grade; all students will. Nevertheless, they should be able to do this not by sitting in class and being taught, but rather by sitting in class and taking part in a supervised learning process. Each according to their own level. I think this is the only way we can provide a stimulating school experience for our children, and this without parents and teachers alike going crazy trying to preserve a calm school environment.

For right now, what I can tell my son is simply this: ‘Yes, I know it is boring and I understand your pain, but I can’t do anything about it.’ Again, please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean to disrespect our teachers in any way by highlighting this fact.

Quite the contrary. I’m calling upon our decision makers, among them also our teachers, school directors, and employees of the Ministry of Education – let’s give our teachers the tools to allow our children to experience a feedback-based learning system in which they can develop. Independently, happily, sitting still with their classmates, but learning completely different things. The same would apply to language teaching, too. Our students will be globetrotting citizens. They will need proficiency in several languages, but one school can provide the instruction of only three, maybe four languages, if it is a specialised school. Again, we have wonderful tools nowadays that can help kids with internet-based learning, and which provide for a far greater number of languages than any school in Estonia or elsewhere currently provides. Language-learning programmes based on immersion and direct contact with the language have shown their worth. Students, be they Estonian or French or Finnish, can all use the same programmes for studying. Yet, teachers urgently need these tools, because otherwise, our kids will completely lose interest in school.

We have tried. And some still believe that we need to limit children’s access to new technologies. I believe that would be a very wrong move, because these technologies will be among us and around our children in far more advanced forms than they are right now.

In fact, what they need to learn is how to manage the artificial intelligence among and around us. I’ll give you the example of our generation of pretty smart people who, however, do not understand what it means to have a robot among us. As well as their inaccurate expectations of robots. During Estonia’s EU Council Presidency, we had a package delivery robot handing out chocolates to people in the council room. People saw it and thought it was rather cute and wanted to take pictures with it. Do you think they did the right thing – step up in front of the robot and take a picture? No, they talked to it: ‘Come here!’ Like they would to a dog. You see, our animistic instinct overrides our brain. And these were very smart people!

We have more and more of these kinds of algorithms and physical manifestations of narrow AI. A robot is adept at performing a particular task but is incompatible with humans in all other ways.

Our children must know how to navigate this world. We cannot give them the exact technical skills, of course, but the least we can do is to stop blaming technology or technological development on the fact that our kids are not interested in going to school in the traditional sense.

We need to embrace this technology. We need to show that this helps them attain a better education, and to stimulate them to attain this education. It will also prepare them for realising that they must start interacting with machines – machines that will be very smart in certain ways and extremely non-adaptive socially. This will help to avoid an animistic instinct so that they will not try to talk to a robot that is not meant to be spoken to. If we keep telling them constantly that an iPad is a very bad thing, then they won’t gain such a natural understanding. In fact, quite the contrary.

We need to bring more and more little robots to schools. I have seen tiny insect-like robots in a first-grade class in Estonia that can be programmed to follow a trail of green, red, or yellow dots. This is exactly how it should be done. Every child has a right to this kind of world. And you know what? We are probably still teaching them things that are old-fashioned. We have always done some aspects right, and we will continue to get certain aspects right in the future.

When technology takes over the boring jobs, there is one area in which we, as people, always excel. And this will be our job for the future.

I believe that quite soon, at least 80% of the workforce will be employed in the business of being a compassionate human being. Machines can do everything else, but we excel in being compassionate human beings. Teaching our children that no matter what technological level we apply at school or they will have to face when they grow up, being a compassionate human being, being an honest member of society, being an assertive person, and ensuring they are able to stand up for themselves and for their friends while respecting the rights of other people – these are the things we have always gotten right and will continue to get right.

Yes, we will utilise all of the current interesting technologies and will feel a need for some of the new technologies that are just emerging as we design our new school structure based on feedback and independent learning.

I believe my grandchildren, who are now two and four years old, respectively, will face one of two situations when they grow up. One is where a happy humankind uses wonderful technologies that are also environmentally friendly.

This is a world in which they will need all those skills we have been talking about and, above all else, will have the ability to be compassionate human beings who respect everyone’s rights and stand up for their own.

The alternative might be much worse. It is one in which they will be dealing with the horrific problems of climate change. It will still be with the help of technology, but it will be in a situation where the world among them and around them is not as friendly as we would have hoped. In the event of that, the ability to step into another’s shoes and empathise, take another person’s viewpoint into account, and remain a compassionate human being in a dangerous world will be even more crucial.

With these thoughts, I entrust the future of my children and grandchildren into your hands globally, because I know our future children will work and live globally more than ever before. I wish you much success here in Tallinn.