Teach Like a Montessori Champion

Montessori independence poster

In 1907, Maria Montessori was asked to set up a daycare centre in San Lorenzo, a district in Rome. The centre was located in a housing project in a slum area. 60 children, aged three to seven, joined the centre, while their illiterate parents were working. Montessori described her pupils:

Tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; their faces were expressionless, with bewildered eyes as though they had never seen anything in their lives. They were indeed poor, abandoned children who had grown up … with nothing to stimulate their minds. (Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, p. 129.)

More than 100 years later, many educators working in disadvantaged communities might recognise such a description. However, today’s solution looks very different to what Montessori came up with. Most academically successful schools in low income communities nowadays rely on direct instruction, where every detail in the learning environment is controlled by the teacher. One such approach is described in Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. This book has been an invaluable source of guidance for thousands of educators around the world.

However, having worked with teachers in low income communities across England, the United States, many communities in India, Peru and elsewhere, a few questions were bothering me. I was thinking about the six year old student that struggles to pay attention and keeps disrupting others in the classroom every day. If this boy is regularly told off by the teacher, asked to sit separately in the corner or outside in the corridor, how is this affecting him? Why is he behaving this way? His teachers do not want to exclude him, but feel they have no other option. They have to think about all students in the class and support everyone’s learning. So what to do about it?

And then think about the rest of the students in the classroom tightly controlled by the teacher. What happens when the teacher leaves? How would the students behave? If life is based on choice, then students need to learn to make their own choices. Are they learning to make choices independently?

Questions such as these sparked an interest in me to look for alternative solutions. It took me many years to begin understanding the basic ideas of Montessori education – because her approach is so different. I would like to share some of these ideas I have explored on this journey. Please don’t misunderstand me: I do not consider myself an expert in Montessori education. However, I thought it would be worthwhile to contribute to a conversation about teaching and learning in low income communities. Based on my understanding, I do think that Montessori has something unique to contribute to the challenges we have been discussing for many years.

To understand Montessori’s contribution to our current challenges, it is helpful to begin with a very brief historical account.

Maria Montessori with a childMaria Montessori was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School. She began working with children in mental health hospitals. A special school was set up for them in 1898 and Montessori became its director. She used many teaching materials developed by Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, two leaders in the field of special education at the time, whose approach she had studied in London and Paris.

A few years later, Montessori took her students to be tested in exams alongside children that attended mainstream schools. Everyone was shocked that Montessori’s students with special needs were able to read and write just as well as the other children!

In the daycare centre in San Lorenzo, Montessori was able to observe how ‘normal’ children would respond to the learning materials she had used with children that had special needs. The response was amazing. Children showed an incredible degree of concentration when working with the materials. Afterwards, they seemed rested, satisfied and happy. Initially Montessori had no plans to teach reading and writing to such small children, most of them aged four or five. However, the illiterate parents begged her and she gave children some sandpaper letters. They showed great enthusiasm. Some of them began sounding out the letters and putting together words. Soon, they had learned to write. It took them about six months to begin reading words. They began reading with a real explosion of energy. All of this was unexpected to Montessori. However, she set up three more schools in the next two years and observed similar results there.

Nowadays, Montessori schools are usually viewed as an expensive alternative available to families that can afford private schools. Anne Frank, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, P. Diddy, Prince William and Prince Harry all learned in Montessori schools. However, being aware of the roots of Montessori education can help us understand how this unique approach might be relevant today, as we’re trying to serve all children from diverse communities.

Montessori The Science Behind the GeniusAngeline Lillard, one of the pre-eminent Montessori scholars of our time, characterises the basic principles of Montessori education. Largely relying on Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, I would like to summarise each idea, say a few words about how it works and why. (The first chapter from the book can be downloaded here.)

When the basic principles work together, the result is beautiful. The teacher can teach students either individually or in small groups (usually of two to five students). At the same time, other students learn independently. This can be observed in this short video, recorded at Cornerstone Montessori School which serves a community of multicultural and economically diverse families. More than half of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school is located in St. Paul, Minnesota: https://youtu.be/S0HlI7dmOzU.

The first key idea of Montessori education is multi-age classrooms: children learn together typically in three year groups. 3-6 year old students learn in one classroom, 6-9 year olds in the next and 9-12 year olds in yet another classroom. This multi-age grouping is important for a few different reasons. Children learn through observation and imitation. When they see other children, and especially slightly older children, work with materials, this will be an important source of learning for them. Montessori recommended having about 30 children in one classroom; one of the reasons: this ensures there is enough stimulation through observation. Learning by observation is an accepted idea today, but it was initially proven in the early 1960s by the psychologist Albert Bandura. Children were shown films of an adult hitting a “Bobo” doll (see caption below, picture source: Wikipedia).


Researchers observed that shortly afterwards, children were likely to behave toward the doll as the adult had. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

When one child learns from another, this is valuable to both: including the one doing the teaching. In one experiment, college students were divided into three groups. In the first group, students were read a passage and were then tested. In the second group, they were told that they would have to teach the same ideas to other students, but in fact they did not have to. The third group were taught the idea and asked to actually teach the content to other students. Not surprisingly, the students who prepared to teach and did actually teach it did best when they were tested for understanding. The second group that prepared to teach it but did not were second best. Those who just read the passage performed worse than the other two groups. (Annis, 1983, cited in Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius).

Here is a short video showing children of different ages learning together: https://vimeo.com/78630288#t=782s

The second key idea is that Montessori classrooms include a special set of educational materials. The materials have been carefully designed and tested. Montessori observed how children engaged with the materials. Some of the materials appeared much more interesting and useful to children than others; Montessori discarded or redesigned materials that were not engaging for children. She paid close attention to making materials simple and engaging.

Pink towerTake the Pink Tower, for example. The only thing that changes is the length of the side of each cube. This draws the child’s attention to the variable that changes. Many of the materials are also self-corrective. The child will notice when he has made a mistake, such as placing a smaller cube underneath a larger cube in the Pink Tower.

The cylinders help the child to learn visual discrimination of size. The cylinders progress in height and diameter from small to large. When the child picks up each cylinder, she is also preparing herself to learn to write, and to hold the pencil in her hand.

Theorem of Pythagoras

Many of the materials combine a concrete or sensorial aspect with an abstract idea. For example, the sensorial material to learn the Pythagoras’ theorem is quite fascinating. The child can visually see that the square of the hypotenuse (the opposite side of the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

In primary school (or elementary, in the US), the curriculum is structured around Five Great Lessons. The themes include: the Story of Universe, the Coming of Life, the Coming of Humans, the Story of Writing and the Story of Number. These lessons provide coherence to the curriculum and help children organise ideas they learn about. A similar principle is used in the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

The third basic principle in Montessori education is student chosen work in long time blocks. This is probably the one idea that was most difficult for me to begin to understand.

I could not understand why children should choose their learning activities instead of teachers. The first reason has to do with motivation. In one study by Iyengar and Lepper, 7- to 9-year-olds were asked to solve anagrams. One group could choose what they made anagrams of: they were given categories such as animals, foods, parties; six categories in total. A second group was told that the category had been chosen by the experimented. A third group was informed that their mothers had made the choice. What had in fact happened was that all children solved anagrams representing the group that the free-choice group had made. Children in the group that had chosen the category solved twice as many anagrams as children in the other two groups. Another interesting finding was this. After the anagram task, children had some time to play freely. Children in the first group that were able to choose the category spent much more time freely choosing to solve anagrams compared to children in the other two groups. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

Another reason for allowing children to choose their own work is provided by the research of Richard De Charms. He distinguished between “origin” and “pawn” classrooms. In an origin classroom, the students appear to have some say about what is going on. Teachers in such classrooms are like “authoritative” parents. They are warm and accepting, but they also require children to follow clear and consistent rules. In “pawn” classrooms, children are controlled by the teacher. Again, if we use the parenting analogy, this teacher uses an “authoritarian” parenting style. De Charms found out that in “origin” classrooms children are much more internally motivated and feel a greater sense of personal responsibility. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

This sort of research is aligned with what Maria Montessori observed when she developed her teaching model. She saw that children were thrilled to work with the same learning materials over and over again. Sometimes children aged three to four would spend half an hour working with the same material. Older children could spend a couple of hours working on the same materials, or even a couple of days.

However, to say that the child chooses freely each learning task is not entirely accurate. There are many specific rules that need to be followed. Children need to choose among the material that is in the classroom, and among the materials that they have been taught how to use. Also, they are required to be constructive and responsible. What happens when children misbehave?

Do not apply the rule of non-interference when the children are still the prey of all their different naughtinesses. Don’t let them climb on the windows, the furniture, etc. You must interfere at this stage. At this stage the teacher must be a policeman. The policeman has to defend the honest citizens against the disturbers. (Montessori, 1989, p. 16)

If a child misbehaves, one of the things the teacher might do is to restrict her choice. She might have to stay by the side of the teacher for the entire morning, without the right to choose what she wants to work on.

Another key point is this: the teacher’s role in guiding students’ choices is vital. If a student has not chosen to work on mathematics (or any other subject) for a while, the teacher would talk to her about it. The role of the Montessori teacher is to observe and inspire an interest. For example, here is a video of a weekly meeting that the teacher has with the student to discuss the work she has done: https://vimeo.com/78726178#t=336s

The fourth basic principle of Montessori education is collaboration. Children aged three to six tend to work side by side, without really working together. However, children aged six and older want to work together with others. Here is a video with some examples of collaborative work: https://vimeo.com/78630288#t=8s

Current educational research supports the observations that Montessori made 100 years ago. The Nature of Learning is a recent book that summarises the basic conclusions about effective learning environments. One of the conclusions is that learning is a social activity. “Effective learning is not purely a ‘solo’ activity but essentially a ‘distributed’ one: individual knowledge construction occurs throughout processes of interaction, negotiation and cooperation.” (Dumont, Istance, Benavides (eds), The Nature of Learning, p. 15.) Neuroscience also shows that the human brain is primed for interaction. Self-study and personal discovery are valuable, but learning mainly depends on interacting with others.

There is, of course, also a more sceptical view of collaborative work. I recently came across a funny picture on social media about group projects. It had a pie chart and responses to the question: What I learn from group projects? The answers were: how to work with other people – a tiny slice of the pie chart; the information – a little bit; how to do entire projects on my own – a lot; how much I hate people – a lot. Although this pie chart was just made up by someone as a joke, there is probably some truth in it. If children are not taught how to work together, they don’t know how to do it. This skill does not appear miraculously. It has to be modelled, practised and analysed: for example, how they can divide up tasks in a way that is helpful and sensible. Without explicit instruction, children are likely to struggle with truly collaborative learning tasks.

The fifth principle of Montessori education is the absence of grades and tests. This is a complex topic, especially in today’s environment, where schools are held accountable through standardised tests as well as external evaluations. Self-assessment and formative assessment by the teacher play an important role in the Montessori classroom. How this works exactly is a bit complicated, and I am unable to explain the ideas briefly.

One might wonder whether students that have learned in Montessori schools without any grades and tests struggle once they join a traditional secondary school later on, where they would be certainly tested and examined. A study by Dohrmann and colleagues explore the high school outcomes for students that came from public Montessori elementary schools. This was conducted in Milwaukee Public Schools from 1997 to 2001. One group of students had participated in public Montessori schools from preschool through 5th grade. They were matched with a comparison group on the basis of gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and high school attended. The Montessori group had significantly higher scores in Mathematics and science. No significant differences were found in English, social studies and grade point average. A recently published longitudinal study by Angeline Lillard which concluded that Montessori pre-schools elevate and equalise child outcomes can be found here; various other research summaries of Montessori education are here.

The final basic principle of Montessori education is individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills. This is where I come back to the question that had been bothering me: how to support the six year old boy who is struggling to sit down, track the teacher, and learn at the same pace as the rest of the class?

This principle is well aligned with decades of educational research. The Nature of Learning, cited above, describes one of the key features of effective learning environments as this: the learning environment needs to be acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it, including their prior knowledge. This idea is quite obvious. Every teacher has probably experienced that when students are asked to do something that is far too difficult for them, they are likely to struggle and give up. If students are asked to do something that is far too easy for them, they are likely to be bored and might also give up. So every learning task, in an ideal learning environment, is appropriately challenging for students.

I am not naïve to think that this happens all the time in a Montessori school. It would be fascinating to study whether students freely choose learning activities that are appropriately challenging to them. However, the Montessori environment makes it possible to take individual differences in prior knowledge into account. Students can choose, with their teacher’s guidance, different learning tasks, and work on these individually or in small groups.

To summarise, Montessori education is characterised by the following six principles:

  1. Multi-age classrooms
  2. A special set of educational materials
  3. Student chosen work in long time blocks
  4. Collaboration
  5. The absence of grades and tests
  6. Individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills

I believe Montessori education provides an inspiring vision for the future of learning. There is evidence that this approach would work with children from diverse backgrounds, including from low-income communities. This makes me think that more high quality Montessori schools are needed. More research is needed too, in order to evaluate how these principles work in practice (e.g. do students in fact choose appropriately challenging tasks).

I would like to finish with three recommendations. First, Angeline Lillard’s book Montessori: The science behind the Genius is a great place to start exploring the philosophy and practice, and how this is supported by decades of research on teaching and learning. Montessoriguide.org is a video resource where you can see what this practice looks like. Finally, Wildflower Schools are an ecosystem of decentralised Montessori micro-schools that support children, teachers and parents (a picture from Wild Rose school in Cambridge is below). The Wildflower Foundation is led by Matt Kramer, the former co-CEO of Teach For America.

Montessori Cambridge

I am working with a group of friends and colleagues to set up the first Wildflower Schools in London. Please reach out to me if you want to join this effort.

So what do you think: could Montessori education be a different answer to supporting student learning and independence, including in low income communities?


Kuidas aidata lapsel tema peamist ülesannet täita?

Avatud Kooli avaaktus3Avatud Kooli avaaktus 1. septembril.

Uue kooli loomisega kaasneb üks oluline küsimus: kuidas toetada parimal moel iga lapse arengut ja õppimist? Mida saavad selle heaks teha õpetajad ja mida lapsevanemad?

Kindlasti on kahtlejaid, kelle arvates need küsimused ei ole üldse kuigi olulised. Me oleme ju kõik suureks kasvanud, olles õppinud väga erinevates koolides ja kasvanud peredes, kus vanematel on erinevad kasvatusmeetodid ja tõekspidamised. Kes on loomu poolest tark ja hakkaja, saab elus igal juhul hakkama, võib ju mõelda. Kuid teisalt: kas pole nii, et igaüks meist võiks olla veel palju targem, loovam, julgem või tasakaalukam, kui meie vanemad ja õpetajad oleksid osanud meie arengut paremini toetada. Kõiki oskuseid ja isikuomadusi, mida on võimalik soodustada, on ka võimalik pärssida.

Kuidas siis kirjeldada arengukeskkonda, mis tiivustab lapse arengut ja ei pärsi seda? Selline keskkond aitab lapsel täita tema kõige olulisemat ülesannet. See ei ole õpikuteadmiste omandamine või töövihiku täitmine või eksamiteks valmistumine – kuigi needki tegevused pole ebaolulised.

Lapse peamine ülesanne on iseenda loomine. Laps ja täiskasvanu on selles mõttes väga erinevad. Laps ei ole väike täiskasvanu. Täiskasvanu eesmärk on midagi ära teha, kuhugi jõuda. Kui ta on kirjanik, siis võib ta eesmärk olla kirjutada valmis uus raamat. Kui ta on raamatumüüja, siis müüa inimestele rohkem raamatuid. Seevastu lapse peamine ülesanne on ennast luua ja saada järjest rohkem iseseisvaks, seda nii füüsilises, vaimses, sotsiaalses kui ka majanduslikus mõttes.

Lapse areng on keerukas protsess, millel on palju erinevaid tahke. Tänapäeval oskame mõtlemise arengut, aga ka moraalset ja füüsilist arengut ning emotsionaalsete ja sotsiaalsete oskuste arengut paremini kirjeldada kui 100 aastat tagasi. Sellegipoolest on siin endiselt palju mõistatuslikku.

Siinkohal keskendun ma ühele teemale – lapse arenguvajadustele erinevates eluetappides.

20. sajandi üks väljapaistvamaid kasvatusteadlasi, Dr. Maria Montessori, kirjeldab lapse sisemisi impulsse ning vajadusi erinevatel perioodidel.* Kuni kuueaastastel lapsel on huvi ja vajadus kuulata rikkalikku ja korrektset keelt enda ümber. Ta omandab ilma pingutuseta väga palju sõnu, mida ta kuuleb; ta omandab keele struktuuri, seda endale teadvustamata. Lapsel on vajadus liikuda, oma motoorikat arendada, ümbritsevat keskkonda aktiivselt uurida. Tal on vajadus korra ning kindlate rutiinide järgi. Ta ärritub, kui vanemad tema korravajadust ei arvesta: näiteks, kui tool, mis on alati ühes kohas, on tõstetud kuskile mujale.

Umbes kuueaastasena jõuab laps uude arengufaasi. Selles vanuses tekib tal lõputult “Miks?” küsimusi enda, teiste inimeste ja maailma kohta. Tal on lõputult energiat, et uurida ja avastada, kuidas asjad maailmas toimivad ja millised on seosed erinevate teemade vahel. Tema fantaasia hakkab lendama. Teda hakkavad huvitama moraali ja õiglusega seotud küsimused. Kui väiksemana meeldis talle õppida ja tegutseda rohkem omaette, siis algkooliealisele lapsele meeldib õppida teistega koos. Eriti meeldivad tegevused, mis ühtviisi arendavad mõtlemist ja jätavad samas palju ruumi fantaasiale ning loomingulisusele.

See, mis pakub lapsele huvi, ei pruugi huvitada täiskasvanut (ja vastupidi). Ka lapse probleemid on erinevad täiskasvanu omadest. Oluline on lapse huvidele, vajadustele ja probleemidele tähelepanu pöörata, ilma neid naeruvääristamata. Täiskasvanu ei pruugi mäletada, mis tunne on mitte osata kingapaelu kinni panna või nina nuusata. Vanemal ei pruugi meeles olla see, kui ta tahtis lapsena pargis putukaid uurida, aga pidi koos oma vanematega edasi kiirustama. Täiskasvanu on võib-olla unustanud, kui ta küsis oma vanematelt lõputult küsimusi, aga neil ei olnud aega vastata.

Miks on maailmas nii palju erinevaid keeli? Miks disonasuruseid enam olemas ei ole? Vahel ei ole aega, et kõigile küsimustele vastata – ja mõnikord ei teagi häid vastuseid. Tänapäeva elutempot ja –korraldust arvestades on keeruline täiskasvanu ja lapse vajadusi võrdselt arvesse võtta. Vahel peabki laps täiskasvanuga kaasa kiirustama. Aga seejuures ei tohi unustada, et laps on sama tähtis inimene nagu täiskasvanu. Ta ei ole täiskasvanu oma. Tal on oma elu. Tal on oma vajadused. Tal on teistsugused probleemid. Täiskasvanule võivad need tunduda tühised, aga lapsele on need olulised. Täiskasvanu ülesanne on anda endast parim, et lapse vajadused oleks tagatud. Lapsel on vaja tunda, et ta on kaitstud, hoitud ja armastatud. Tal on vaja keskenduda, uurida ja katsetada, kartmata eksida. Tal on vaja küsida küsimusi ja maailma enda jaoks kuidagi seletada.

Loomulik arengukeskkond ei tähenda seda, et lapse vabadus on piiramatu. Selged väärtused, kindlad käitumisnormid ja lihtsad reeglid on lapsele olulised. Selle raames saab laps õppida otsuseid ja valikuid tegema. Näiteks kui teine laps vaatab põnevat pildiraamatut ja sa tahad seda ise ka vaadata, siis sa pead ootama. Esialgu võib see olla ebameeldiv, aga peagi saab laps aru, kuidas seesama reegel töötab varsti tema kasuks. Kui mõnel järgmisel päeval on tema käes mõni põnev materjal, siis peavad teised lapsed ootama, nad ei saa seda lihtsalt ära krabada.

Avatud Koolis püüame luua sellist keskkonda, kuhu laps tuleb hea meelega ja õhinal. Ta tunneb tihti siirast rõõmu, kui ta on hakkama saanud sellega, mis alles hiljuti oli ülejõukäiv. Olgu selleks kingapaelade sidumine, oma mõtete väljendamine kirjutades, suure seltskonna ees esinemine, või midagi muud.

Laps tegeleb oma peamise ülesande, iseenda loomisega, kogu aeg. Seetõttu on iseenesestmõistetav, et lapse arengukeskkonna kujundamine ei ole ainult kooli ja õpetajate vastutus. Me teeme seda koos peredega. See on meie ühine pingutus, et laps saaks iseseisvaks, õpiks tundma iseennast, mõistma teisi inimesi ja maailma.

*Angeline Stoll Lillard “Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius”

Reimagining our schools?

Recent PISA results raise the question: do all children have the opportunity to attain a good education in Estonia? If our academic results are already strong in international comparison, is there any need to change?

“We may have the best results in the world, but we need to keep improving quickly. China now has three times as many university graduates as it did ten years ago. The average salary in China, however, is still three times less than here in Singapore. How do we survive unless we keep improving our education faster than everyone else in the region?”

Views like this were quite common among headteachers and education policy makers when I visited Singapore a couple of years ago. The small country, despite achieving the best results in the world, keeps pushing forward. Very inspiring, I thought.

Students in my home country Estonia have now achieved amazingly good results in the latest round of the international PISA tests. When measuring science knowledge and skills, our 15-year-old students are doing really well. Only Singapore and Japan had better scores. How should these results be interpreted? Is it possible to identify the reasons for this performance? And what about the future: is our school system already good enough or should we change something?

First, a summary of the results

PISA tests get a lot of attention and some people believe this is the yardstick for measuring the effectiveness of school systems. The tests are indeed rigorous assessment of reading, mathematics and science skills. Other observers, however, seem to think there is nothing we can learn from PISA. They suggest PISA ignores too many important things: the ability for students to think independently, to communicate effectively with different people, to understand, express and manage emotions, etc.

These are, of course, two extreme positions. Between “representing the whole truth” and “being completely useless”, many other more nuanced explanations are possible.

First, let us look at our results. Eight out of ten 15-year-olds in Estonia have achieved basic literacy, numeracy and science skills, i.e. Level 2 or above in all three subjects. This means most young people in Estonia can read a simple newspaper article or job advert and understand key information. They can use their mathematical knowledge to interpret and solve simple problems. They can understand simple scientific information and draw conclusions. (Whether this benchmark – Level 2 in PISA tests – is actually too low for us, requires a separate conversation.)

Our students perform better than most rich OECD member countries, where on average seven out of ten students reach the same benchmark. If we zoom out and look at all countries around the world, then fewer than four out of ten children master very basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

Estonia’s school system is also more equitable than in most other countries. In most countries, whether you are born to a rich or a poor family, has a big effect on your life chances and educational outcomes. Across OECD, students from wealthier backgrounds are roughly 2 years ahead of their peers with disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, in terms of their knowledge and skills (40 points in PISA is roughly equal to one year of learning). In Estonia, this gap is about 1.5 years. Notably, the poorest students in Estonia perform better than the average student in rich OECD countries.

The achievement gap between rural and urban schools in Estonia is small. Girls read better than boys but the gap is narrowing. There is still a considerable gap between schools where students are taught in Estonian, compared to schools where they are taught in Russian. This gap is roughly equivalent to one year of learning.

We can also look at the share of top performers. One in seven students in Estonia is able to solve more complex scientific or mathematical problems (i.e. level 5 or above in science, level 5 or above in mathematics). One in nine is able to fully understand and critically evaluate somewhat complex texts (i.e. level 5 or above in reading). Students in Estonia are doing better than their peers across the OECD, where one in twelve is able to solve somewhat complex scientific problems.

Estonia’s overall ranking has improved over time, because our average performance has slightly increased, while the results of many other countries have declined. Between 2006 and 2015, our science and mathematics scores have improved slightly (science 531 to 534, mathematics 515 to 520), while reading scores have improved more from 501 to 519. The countries that outperformed Estonia in science in 2006 have all seen their performance decline ever since (Finland by 33 points, Hong Kong by 19 points, Canada by 7 points).

How to interpret these results?

PISA results don’t tell the entire story about the quality of the school system, but they provide us with useful information. Basic skills in literacy, numeracy and scientific thinking are needed for people to meaningfully participate in today’s societies. How can you be an active citizen without the ability to understand basic texts in newspapers or social media? How can you make good decisions about your family’s budget without basic mathematical skills? Students in Estonia perform better than most other 15-year-olds in rich countries (and far better than the average student around the world), and this is a good sign.

Some people in Estonia question whether these results have come at a price. They think many students in our schools are unhappy and not engaged in learning. There is some truth to this. According to the most recent data that has been published, 7 out of 10 students in Estonia reported they feel happy at school. Only three countries (South Korea, Czech Republic and Slovak Republic) had a smaller proportion of students that said they feel happy at school. However, these results need to be interpreted with caution. The results in Estonia are almost indistinguishable from our nearest neighbours (Finland, Latvia and Poland). However, schools in Finland are considered (relatively) stress free. Students face little pressure to achieve well in exams. Teachers seem quite relaxed. This raises the possibility that cultural factors are the reason why students in Finland and Estonia feel less happy than in most other countries. Or perhaps it is because of our cold and dark winters?

Others would argue that a good education goes beyond basic literacy, numeracy and scientific thinking. A good education is also about supporting the cognitive, emotional, social, physical and moral development of the child or the young person. The challenge is this: most schools tend to focus on what is measured in exams. Headteachers, teachers and parents are interested in exam results because they want children to have good opportunities in life. But most exams mainly assess cognitive development. Other important things get deprioritised. Social and emotional skills are important in themselves; and furthermore, they enable better learning. Are students able to express their emotions, or manage their anger? What happens when they encounter difficulties – do persist or give up? Can they get along with other people, who may be similar or different compared to them? Are they physically fit? All these things are important, but they often get less attention because they are not directly measured in exams and tests.

There are obvious choices that can be made in schools – whether to focus more on reading, mathematics and science, or other things such as creativity, genuine problem solving, social and emotional development. (I think this is actually a false choice: both traditional academic skills are important, but so are these other important skills and qualities.) It is possible that over the past decade, students in Estonia got better at reading and science, whereas students in Finland developed their creativity and ability to solve genuine, real-life problems (at the expense of science and mathematics). We don’t know because there is no robust data on this, as far as I am aware.

(As a side note: these other qualities, sometimes called noncognitive or personal qualities, are difficult to measure. This is probably the main reason why they are not measured in PISA or in national tests. Questionnaires and performance tasks can be used to assess qualities like ‘resilience’, but most existing measurement tools have serious limitations. These limitations have been well summarised in a recent article by Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager. For example: the terms used in a questionnaire may be interpreted differently by teachers and students, when compared to how researchers interpret them; also people responding to questionnaires may be giving answers that they think are socially desirable.)

One final point needs to be made, when trying to figure out what PISA results really mean. Few students in Estonia and in other countries master complex problem solving and critical thinking. (As was noted above, one in seven students in Estonia can use mathematical and scientific skills to solve more complex problems.) This result is better than in most other countries, but it is far from good enough. This is an important point because societies and labour markets are changing. A growing number of jobs are being automated by technology. A recent study by Citibank and the University of Oxford concluded that 35% of all jobs in the UK are at risk of automation. In China, this figure is 77%. Just one example: in England, there are nearly 250,000 taxis and private hire vehicles. The probability that this job will be automated is 89%. The jobs that remain require much more complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. The prospect of more unemployment and greater poverty is a simple reason why we need to reimagine what happens in schools. We will come back to this in the final section of the article.

The reasons behind strong PISA results

Regardless of the limitations of PISA tests, they are valid and they do provide useful information about the knowledge and skills of students. So what are the reasons why Estonia’s students have done so well in these tests?

It is commonly held that the quality of the school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. We do have good teachers in Estonia. Compared to international averages, more of our teachers have completed a teacher education or training programme (94 in Estonia vs 91 percent elsewhere), they have slightly more teaching experience (22 vs 16 years), and in the past 12 months, more of them have participated in continuing professional development programmes (82 vs 71 percent). In average working hours, there is not much difference (36 vs 38 hours).

Given that all of these differences are fairly small, we need a deeper understanding of how our teachers have been trained, how they actually teach and how students learn. Let us look at a few different aspects of teaching and learning.

In Estonian classrooms, there is a better learning environment than in many other countries. 84 percent of time is spent on actual teaching and learning (vs 79 percent internationally). The proportion of time spent on keeping order in the classroom and doing administrative tasks is quite small. So even though teachers in Estonia might not feel this way, they are, in a way, more respected by students than in many other countries.

Schools and teachers have more autonomy in Estonia, compared to most other countries. Teachers can make decisions on the curriculum and how to deliver it. School principals can hire and dismiss teaching staff. This feature is regarded as an important enabler of good teaching, and is mentioned in OECD’s recent analysis of Estonia’s education policy. However, it is difficult to judge how much this policy feature has a direct effect on learning outcomes.

On actual teaching and learning: although teachers in Estonia have progressive beliefs, then most teaching practice is fairly traditional. Progressive beliefs are characterised by the fact that 94 percent of teachers in Estonia say they role is to facilitate students’ own inquiry. 89 percent say thinking and reasoning are more important than specific curriculum content. (For comparison: international averages are 94 and 84 percent.) The actual teaching practice is quite traditional. Teachers explain ideas and discuss questions frequently, but rarely do they ask students to work on projects that require at least one week to complete (15 percent report doing it frequently, according to the TALIS survey in 2013).

The table below summarises how science is usually taught in lower secondary schools in Estonia, Finland, Singapore and the UK. (The figures are based on students’ surveys that were conducted as part of PISA 2015.)

teaching-practices2Teacher-directed instruction involves the teacher explaining and demonstrating ideas, discussing questions, providing feedback. Enquiry-based instruction involves doing experiments, interpreting these results and drawing conclusions. Data from all countries that participated in PISA tests suggest that more teacher-directed instruction is associated with better science performance; and more enquiry-based learning is associated with worse performance. However, as we can see from the results of Singapore – the highest performing school system – their teachers do more direct teaching, but they also facilitate more enquiry, at least when compared to what is happening in Estonian schools. So it depends on how student enquiry is facilitated and how teachers provide direct instruction. Both aspects of teaching and learning are important and need to be done well.

It is difficult to draw the conclusion that stronger performance in PISA tests is caused by specific teaching practices or education policies. As Deng and Gopinathan have argued, Singapore’s success should be understood in the broader context of its educational history, family context, parental involvement and private tuition. Similarly in Estonia, the fact that education has been highly valued in our culture for a long time, creates a positive context for schools and teachers. 90 percent of Estonia’s population were literate already by the beginning of the 20th century, whereas around the world literacy rates were estimated to be around 20 percent at the time. Families in Estonia have placed a high value on education, parents (especially mothers) are able to support their children better — all these factors contribute to our educational success.

The future

Eight out of ten students in Estonia have mastered good basic skills by the age of 15. This result is worse than Singapore, better than most other rich countries, and far better than most countries around the world. Does it mean that our school system is already good enough, or is there something that needs to be changed?

Even though we are doing better than most other countries, it is also obvious that very few students currently master the skills and personal qualities that are needed in tomorrow’s world.

What are these skills? Numerous studies by World Economic Forum, McKinsey and others have surveyed employers and different experts to identify the most important skills in 2020: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, etc. The current reality is bleak. Across OECD, just 8 percent of all students can solve complex problems using their scientific knowledge and thinking (14 percent in Estonia, 24 percent in Singapore). Many of these skills and qualities listed are neither taught nor measured.

The answer to this challenge is not easy or obvious. It is not enough to list these skills (like complex problem solving) in education policy documents or national curricula, and expect that they will be taught. Teachers need high quality support in figuring out how to teach these skills through their subjects. Good training programmes and good teaching/learning materials are required. It is unrealistic to expect that teachers will create these materials in addition to also teaching 20 lessons per week, marking homework, etc. This requires a significant investment of time and money by the government and by schools.

Even if teachers had the skills, and even if they had the materials, they also need time. Right now, there is pressure to cover a lot of content in the national curricula. Teachers feel pressure to cover content because of exams, and because of parental expectations. Well-educated and motivated parents want their children to succeed. They care about exams and they may worry that spending time on other things (like creativity or emotional intelligence) may harm exam results.

This is why a broader conversation is needed on reimagining schools. Once we realise that most jobs across the OECD are at risk of automation (data here and here), we should ask: how are we learning complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence? This is an urgent question not just because jobs are changing. Solving many other local and global challenges is impossible without these skills.

So how are we learning these most important skills and personal qualities?

In memoriam Mart Taevere


Reede õhtul lahkus meie hulgast mu isa Mart Taevere. 

Ta oli kümnete telesaadete ja dokumentaalfilmide autor, toimetaja ning režissöör. Tema elutööks oli inimeste lugude jutustamine ning seeläbi meie ühiskonna valupunktide mõtestamine. Tema jaoks oli iga inimese elu väärtuslik ja ta suhtus igaühesse inimlikult – olgu intervjueeritavaks president Lennart Meri või Pääskülas prügimäe serval elav kodutu. Ta püüdis uurida keerulisi ja ebamugavaid küsimusi – nagu näiteks narkomaania põhjused ning võimalikud lahendused. Ühes filmiarvustuses kirjeldati teda kui teravat, poleemilist, julgelt küsimusi tõstatavat intervjueerijat ning üldistusvõimelist sotsioloogi.

Mina jään igatsema eelkõige tema huumorimeelt, meie ühiseid saunaõhtuid suvilas ja suvepuhkusi Peipsi ääres.

Isa suri raske haiguse tagajärjel. Teda jäävad leinama abikaasa, lapsed, sugulased ja sõbrad. Ärasaatmine toimub laupäeval, 26. novembril kell 14.00 Rahumäe kalmistu kabelis.

Mart Taevere, 27. mai 1951 – 18. november 2016

  • Lõpetanud Tallinna 10. Keskkooli aastal 1969 ja Tartu Riikliku Ülikooli aastal 1978.
  • Tallinnfilmi kroonikatoimetaja ja režissöör aastatel 1978-1989.
  • Vabakutseline aastatel 1989-1993.
  • ETV toimetaja, režissöör ja saatejuht 1993-2005.
  • Vabakutseline aastatel 2005-2016.

Mõned tema filmid ja saated.

Eesti lood: Putukas ja Mõmmi (2007)

Film elust ja elamisest ühes Eesti üsna tavalises peres üsna tavalise aleviku serval. Ühe katuse all elavad 90-aastaseks saav ema Ireene, pensionieelikust perepoeg Elmu ja tema elukaaslane Maimu. Mida on teinud elu nendega ja mida on teinud nemad oma eluga? Kuidas elada, kui unistused upuvad alkoholi? Mis põhjusel, mis on tagajärg ja kes on süüdi? Elmu teab. Režissöör Mart Taevere, produtsent Mati Sepping. Tootja Estinfilm.

Vaata ERRi arhiivis.

Eesti lood: Unistaja (2004)

Film Viljar Anskost, kelle põhitööks on ravida haigeid ja kes ise nimetab ennast “ravikindlustamata isikute kliinilise vastuvõtu arstiks”. Ehk lühidalt –vaestearstiks. Millest aga unistab seda ennastsalgavat tööd tegev mees? Režissöör Mart Taevere, produtsent Jaan Kolberg. Tootja Studio Tristan.

Vaata ERRi arhiivis.

Teateid tegelikkusest: President Lennart Meri (1999)

Saade president Lennart Meri sünnipäevaks, tema ja ta tuttavate mõtted. Saate tegid: Mart Taevere, Anne Sverdlik, Meelis Kadastik, Jüri Vood, Henn Liiva, Jaak Nurm, Peeter Tobi, Rauno Kanne, Andres Lepasar.

Vaata ERRi arhiivis.

Sinine ja must ja valge (1991)

Meie sinimustvalge ajaloost sajandi tormituultes. Eesti rahvuslipu ajaloost räägivad Vabadussõja veteran Paul Porre, talupidaja Kusta Veskila, ehitusinsener Tõnis Jõgiaas, teadur Georg-Ilmar Madisson, veterinaar Paul Tagel, ajaloolane Artur Taska ja kirjanik Jaan Kross. Režissöör Mart Taevere, operaator Vallo Kepp, helirežissöör Jüri Sandre, helilooja Igor Garšnek.

Vaata ERRi arhiivis.

Dokfilmid “Ükskord algab aega” (1988), “Kaalukas panus” (1990), “Sinine ja must ja valge” (1991), “Artur Taska” 1991, “Risto” (1998, koos I. Kanguriga), “Tuul kõnnib seljataga” (1999), “Me ise ennast” (2001), “Valge tee” (2003), “Unistaja” (2004), “Teistmoodi tihane” (2004), “Putukas ja Mõmmi” (2007).

Saatesarjad “Teateid tegelikkusest” (ETV 1993-1999), “Avatud toimik” (ETV 1999-2004).

Kogu filmograafia.

Artikkel Eesti Päevalehes: Mart Taevere õigluse jahil (2003).

Looking for wisdom and empathy


Political events in 2016 have been screaming at us: WAKE UP!! Britons slammed the door in the face of their EU neighbours. Americans threw a rock (in the shape of Donald Trump) to smash the windows of the political establishment. Dissatisfaction with politics as usual is evident around the world. 

What to do about it?

On one side of the political divide, people are feeling hopeless and shocked: how is it possible that someone like Trump won? On the other side, people have been feeling hopeless for a long time: Obama promised change, but so many communities are still facing poverty and racial tensions. Where is the change that was promised? How can the government be trusted? A similar scenario is played out in many countries besides the United States.

Many political leaders have failed to live up to expectations – or even listen to the concerns of ordinary people. In the US, this is what has made voters angry and turn to Trump. But the promises of Trump and other anti-politicians are exaggerated and hollow. They promise change but can they really make change happen?

As we have seen with Obama and will probably see with Trump, one person can (at best) inspire change, but making change happen takes time and is difficult. First, there are always pressures that favour status quo and undermine all change efforts. Second, today’s societies are complex and change makers are needed at all levels: in national and local governments, in businesses, non-profits, social enterprises and voluntary organisations, in the media, etc. Third, people are easily drawn to simple solutions, which are compelling but often misguided or inadequate. 

Here are three examples to illustrate the point of complex problems and simplistic solutions that don’t work.

The loss of manufacturing jobs

Complex problem: Many Trump voters live in communities that are suffering because manufacturing jobs have disappeared. 20 million Americans worked in manufacturing in 1977. Today, this figure is 12 million. Some of the jobs have been lost to other countries (e.g. China), some have been lost because of technological advances. Over the same time period, many new jobs have been created, especially in the services sector. During the Obama presidency, more than 9 million new jobs were created. However, these were often jobs in other locations and required different skill-sets.

Simple solution: Abolishing free trade agreements and putting up tariffs, as Trump has suggested.

Likely outcome: The impact of free trade has been extensively researched. Tariffs will likely harm US consumers who are currently buying cheaper goods from China and elsewhere, such as clothes and phones. Longer term, the industries that are being protected will suffer because there is less pressure for them to innovate.

Better solution: Improving education and re-training people, so that they can work in health care, leisure and hospitality, retail, construction and other areas where jobs will be growing. Supporting the relocation of families to areas with more jobs and not enough qualified people.

Here are two graphs to illustrate the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US and the likely growth of jobs in other sectors.



(Source: McKinsey)

Improving education

Complex problem: There is dissatisfaction with the quality of education systems around the world. In the United States, 82% of students graduated with a regular high school diploma four years after they started 9th grade. The achievement gap is huge: children in extreme poverty are half as likely to graduate from high school, and one tenth as likely to graduate from college as students from the most affluent communities.

Simple solution: A myriad of education policies shape the school system in different states in the US (read more here and here). Arguably, the main driver that influences behaviour in schools is accountability. Schools and teachers are being held accountable for the academic achievement of their students and this data is shared publicly.

Likely outcome: Test scores may go up over time, but this does not mean that the quality of learning has changed. Test scores can be improved by teaching to the test, by expelling lower-performing students, etc. However, teachers do not necessarily have better skills to teach in ways that improves student learning.

Better solution: Invest in the quality of all teachers. Prioritise the sort of professional development that is known to improve student learning outcomes: it needs to be long-term (at least 15 hours, but preferably 50 hours, over 6 months), practical (related to the content of what is being taught), evidence-based, externally supported by experts, etc.

What kind of teachers’ professional development helps learners?


(Source: Prof Rob Coe.)

Supporting farmers

This example is from a very different context, but it also highlights how complex problems cannot be solved with simplistic solutions.

Complex problem: Millions of poor people in many African countries live in rural areas and work as smallholder farmers. They don’t have a stable income, they often experience poverty and suffer from malnutrition.

Simple solution: Give them food aid.

Likely outcome: This will provide short-term relief to farmers and their families, but is unlikely to help them get out of poverty longer term. It does little to improve the resilience of farmers to survive during periods of drought. (On the other hand, this solution may benefit agriculture producers in countries where ‘food aid’ is produced. For example: between 1991 and 2009, US has provided $3.2bn of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. 94% of this, worth $3bn, has been in the form of food aid. In 2008, 99% of food aid came from within the USA. Furthermore: because of transport and packaging, it cost $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid from the US to Ethiopia. Source: Oxfam.)

Better solution: (1) Supporting farmers with credit, so that they can buy high quality seeds and fertilizers. (2) Deliver seeds and fertilizers to local villages, because distances are vast and transportation is often underdeveloped. (3) Train the farmers so that they can maximise the yields from their farm. (4) Create access to markets, for example, through a network of local village markets, where farmers can sell their produce and earn an income. One Acre Fund has already served more than 300,000 families with this solution. The income of the families has gone up by more than 50%. 

Are we doomed?

Each of these problems discussed above requires a thoughtful solution. Soundbites don’t bring manufacturing jobs back; simplistic policies are not enough to make a difference to learning outcomes. Wisdom is needed. By wisdom I mean the ability to understand issues, use knowledge and solve genuine, complex problems.

At this point, I can imagine despair. “People are not educated enough to come up with these wise solutions and put them into practice. If they were, we would have seen more progress.”

According to the latest international surveys, roughly one in twelve young people can read, understand and critically evaluate a somewhat complex text. One in eight can use their mathematical knowledge to solve real-life problems. One in nine can creatively solve somewhat complex problems. These are average figures for the wealthy members of the OECD, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc (PISA, 2012). In poorer countries such as Brazil or Malaysia, roughly one in hundred students can read critically and solve somewhat complex problems.

So are we doomed?

Perhaps not.

Imagine a conversation about the quality of education 200 years ago. At that time, 12% of world population was literate, according to estimates. (In Great Britain, that figure was around 50% and in a few countries like the Netherlands, around 85% of people were literate. But in the world as a whole, one in eight was literate.) Today, 85% of the world population is literate. Who would have believed it 200 years ago?


(Source: Our World in Data.)

Or take another example. In 1950, about half of all primary school aged children around the world were actually in school. Today, this figure is 91%. (Source.) Would you have believed it in 1950 that this was going to be possible?

So while I am sad and worried about the state of the world, I am also optimistic. Unbelievable advances are possible over the course of our lifetime, if we harness the resources and talents that are available. The question is: do we want to do it? Do we want to work together with people who may have different views, perhaps also different values? That is where empathy comes in. Empathy means understanding the feelings and perspectives of other people. This is the foundation of good communication, teamwork and leadership.


Like many others, I have also recently reflected on the need to engage with, and listen to, people who have different views. Not argue to change someone’s mind, but listen and engage. I am reminded of Daniel Dennett’s comments on how to argue intelligently. Dennett suggests these four steps which help compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Imagine what political debates and social media conversations would be like if these steps were followed? Or how the 24 hour news media could be a force for good if they tried to understand people with diverse views, instead of promoting their own ideology?

We are not doomed. In many schools around the world, children are already learning how to disagree respectfully and how to understand people with different points of view. In social and emotional learning programmes, children learn to identify and express their emotions, to solve problems with their friends and family members, to manage their emotions and calm down. Second Step is one such programme, backed by robust research. One of the skills children practise is how to calm down: by using their personal stop signal, by naming the feeling (thereby beginning to control the emotion) and by breathing deeply, counting or using positive self-talk. Children learn that they need to calm down before beginning to solve an emotional problem with their friend or family member!

When speaking about this kind of work, some of my friends have said: “I wish I had learned these skills when I was younger!” Indeed, imagine what would happen in families, schools and workplaces when more people learn to understand each others’ perspectives. When we learn to listen to each other.

(At this point, I am not going to comment on the immigration debate, or the rise of race and religious hate crime. Both of these topics are highly relevant to what I have discussed above, but they probably need a separate post.)


One day, all people can fulfil their potential and become positive contributors to the world. To achieve this dream, we need more wisdom and greater empathy.

This is my personal reason why I work to support the development of wisdom and empathy, problem solving and teamwork among their students. This is why we are creating learning resources and supporting the professional development of teachers

Incredible progress has already been made over the past 50, 100, 200 years. Let us try to speed up as we move towards that better world.

Take action now

Avatud kool ühendab uut ja vana

See artikkel ilmus Sirbis, 04.09.2015.

Praegu alustavad kooliteed lapsed, kelle vanemad käisid koolis enamasti 1990. aastatel. Meie kunagised õpetajad said oma väljaõppe 1980ndatel või isegi varem. Mõeldes oma kogemusele, milline on hea õpetamine, siis see jääb mitmekümne aasta taha. Lapsed, kes on praegu kuue-seitsme aastased, alustavad iseseisvat elu 10–15 aasta pärast. Seega peaksimegi küsima: mil määral meie isiklik kogemus heast koolist sobib tänapäeva maailma? Milline kool aitab õpilasel olla tark, õnnelik ja edukas – praegu 1. klassis ja tulevikus iseseisvalt elades?

Pingutamine ei välista koolirõõmu

Minu sõbraga juhtus paar aastat tagasi selline lugu. Pärastlõunane aeg, heliseb telefon. Helistab tema tütar, esimese klassi laps. Ta on kooli ees ja nutab hüsteeriliselt. Ema juba teab, mis on asja põhjus, sest tütrel on olnud pidev koolistress. Juba esimeses klassis. Mida sellest arvata?

Paljud meist on oma nahal kooli­stressi kogenud. Ma sain kümnendas klassis kirjandusõpetajalt kõvasti pragada, kuna mul ei olnud mingi peatükk „Kalevipojast“ pähe õpitud. Vabandus, et ma olin kolm kuud koolist puudunud, sest olin vahetusõpilasena välismaal, ei läinud arvesse. „Taevere, kaks.“

Tagantjärele mõtlevad paljud mu koolikaaslased, et „vähemalt saime hea hariduse“. Aga kas koolistress on hea hariduse paratamatu osa? Mingil määral jah. Lühiajaline stress sunnib ennast kokku võtma, ennast ületama. See on vajalik. Vaja on õppida pingutama. Mõnikord on vaja pingutada ja ka ebaõnne kogeda – ning ennast seejärel uuesti kokku võtta, vaeva näha ja edukas olla.

Pikaajaline stress vähendab vaimset võimekust. Teadlased on seda teemat piisavalt uurinud: stress pärsib mälu ja segab aju täidesaatvate funktsioonide toimimist, sealhulgas suutlikkust oma tegevust plaanida, vigu avastada ja parandada, püsiv olla. Pikaajaline stress nõrgendab immuunsüsteemi, inimene võib jääda sagedamini haigeks ja magada halvemini, mis omakorda mõjub negatiivselt vaimsele võimekusele.

Nii mõnigi alternatiivkool rõhutab, et nende koolis on laps õnnelik ja see on kõige tähtsam. See on vajalik, aga mitte piisav. Sama oluline on see, kuidas toetada lapse õppimist, tema teadmiste, oskuste ning hoiakute arengut. Kuidas see peaks toimuma?

Aineõppe ja projektide ühendamine

Traditsiooniline kool on olnud ainekeskne ja võiks isegi öelda – õpikukeskne. Kuna riikliku õppekava aineteadmiste osa on ülepaisutatud, siis tunneb õpetaja, et ta peab õpiku läbi kappama.

Kuid peatüki läbimine ei tähenda iseenesest, et õpilased on midagi väärtuslikku õppinud. Ei saa eeldada, et kui õpetaja on õpetanud, siis õpilased on õppinud. Võib juhtuda, et suur osa õpilastest ei ole asjast üldse aru saanud. Seega ei ole õpiku läbilugemine ja töövihikus iga ülesande lahendamine eesmärk omaette. Aga mis siis on õppimise juures kõige olulisem?

Hiljuti McKinsey tehtud üleeuroopaline uuring näitas, et tööturg vajab järjest rohkem inimesi, kes suudavad iseseisvalt mõelda, probleeme lahendada, meeskonnas töötada. Nende oskuste omandamine ei toimu õpetajat vaikselt kuulates ja iseseisvalt kirjalikke ülesandeid lahendades. Koostöö tegemist saab ainult õppida koostööd tehes. Probleemide lahendamist saab õppida tegelikke probleeme, mitte ainult lihtsustatud õpikuprobleeme, lahendades. Klassis peabki olema sumin ja arutelu, õppimine peabki vahepeal toimuma väljaspool klassiruumi, sest reaalne elu ja paljud eksperdid on seal.

7.–8. klassi õpilased võiksid näiteks lahendada sellist probleemi. Arvestades oma huvisid, andeid ja muutuvat maailma (ühiskonda, tööturgu), siis – millist eriala tasub mul tulevikus õppida? Kui ma valin selle valdkonna, siis milline saab olema mu sissetulek? Kuidas koostada oma pere eelarvet? Mida ma peaksin põhikoolis ja gümnaasiumis kõige rohkem õppima, et sellele erialale pääseda? Selline projekt aitab õpilasel lahti mõtestada, mis mõttega ta üldse koolis käib ja õpib. Õpetaja aitab õpilasel mõista, et mitte keegi ei saa olla viieline kõiges. (Praegune hindamissüsteem eeldab, et kui ei oska hästi kirjandit kirjutada või matemaatikaülesandeid lahendada, siis ollakse justkui vähem väärtuslik. Mõistagi ei ole see nii. Kui Arvo Pärt jooksnuks teistest aeglasemalt ümber Snelli tiigi, kas see oleks teinud temast halvema inimese?)

Teine oluline aspekt õppimise juures on meeskonnatöö: kõigil on ühine eesmärk, aga igaühel on oma selge vastutus. Esimestes klassides tuleks seda harjutada koos sõpradega, aga aastate edenedes ka teiste õpilastega, kellega ehk ei ole tingimata kõige lihtsam koos töötada. Mõelda vaid, kui iga õpilane omandab oskuse (ja harjumuse) anda tagasisidet sõbralikul, konkreetsel ja abistaval moel! Kui paljudel meist on juhtunud, et oleme saanud täiskasvanuna mõnelt kolleegilt sõimata, ilma igasuguse konstruktiivse kriitikata …

Projektõppe ja meeskonnatöö rõhutamine ei tähenda, et aineõpe ei oleks oluline. Haridusteadlased on seda teemat uurinud mitukümmend aastat: projektides peaks toimuma teadmiste rakendamine uues olukorras, aga oma osa on ka aineõppel (allikas, allikas). Ainealaste baasoskuste omandamine – esmalt keeled ja matemaatika, seejärel ka teised ained – on hädavajalik samm iseseisva mõtlemise teel. Seega, pigem on küsimus, kuidas aineõpet ja projektõpet omavahel kombineerida. Mõlemad on vajalikud.

Oluline on tasakaal. Kui traditsiooniline kool on liiga õpikukeskne, siis progressiivsed koolid on õpilasekesksed. See taotlus on õige, aga ka sellega ei saa minna äärmusesse. Õpilastele tuleb anda õppetöös valikuid (näiteks, kes antud projektis millise rolli võtab). Samuti ei saa õppimises lähtuda ainult õpilaste huvidest, arvesse tuleb võtta ka muid tegureid, sealhulgas eksaminõudeid. Mõnigi progressiivne kool on teinud sellega oma õpilastele karuteene. Õpilastel on küll koolis huvitav ja meeldiv, aga eksamitulemused on sageli nõrgad ja edasiõppimise võimalused piiratud. Õhin on oluline, aga teadmised ja oskused samuti.

Kõik õpivad

Kalamaja avatud kooli algatusrühmaga püüamegi luua kooli, mis tugineb tänapäeva maailma parimatele teadmistele õppimisest ja õpetamisest, kus projekt­õpe on kombineeritud traditsioonilise aineõppega, kus pingutamine ja koolirõõm käivad käsikäes.

See on kogukonnakool, kus õpivad koos lapsed eesti- ja venekeelsetest, vaesematest ja jõukamatest peredest. Kui kõik lapsed õpivad soravalt suhtlema eesti, vene ja inglise keeles, kui nad õpivad paremini koos elama ja töötama inimestega, kes on neist erinevad, tuleb see ainult kasuks. Loovad ideed sünnivad seal, kus on koos parasjagu sarnased ja samas piisavalt erinevad inimesed.

Kogukonnakool tähendab ka seda, et kõik õpivad. Õppimine ei ole ainult lapse töö. Ka õpetaja õpib ja arendab ennast, uurides uusi teemasid ja katsetades uusi meetodeid. Ka lapsevanem õpib ja toetab lapse õppimist. Esimestes klassides on kõige olulisem pakkuda lapsele huvitavat ja arendavat lugemist ning temaga koos iga päev lugeda, 15–20 minutit päevas. Nagu õpetajal, on ka lapsevanema ülesanne aidata lapsel maailma mõista ning tagada kodus emotsionaalne stabiilsus, mis on kõige olulisem akadeemilist edukust mõjutav faktor. Ajuarengu uurija professor John Medina on kirjutanud: „Kui sa tahad, et su laps pääseks Harvardi ülikooli, siis mine koju ja armasta oma partnerit.“

Maailmas on vähe näiteid koolidest, näiteks School 21 Londonis, kus edukalt kombineeritakse vana ja uue kooli parimaid omadusi. Kui Eesti koolid saavad sellega hakkama, oleks see suurepärane kingitus mitte ainult meie lastele, vaid ka maailmale.

Luxury or necessity? Critical thinking and problem solving should be at the core of learning for all

This article appeared in Unlocking a world of potential, a publication by British Council.

Even in a world where most children are still learning basic skills, critical thinking and problem solving can and should be taught.

In a low-income community in South Delhi, India, students are reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Today’s discussion is about the Potions Master. The teacher encourages students to think independently. ‘I don’t want solutions which the author gave you. I want you to be thinking, to be imagining of a better solution.’ What happens next? It is visible that students are thinking hard; they are trying to come up with different answers. Deeper learning is happening. You can see an inspiring video of this classroom here.

Learning to think critically and solve problems is not easy, but classrooms like this one suggest that all children are capable of it. However, the reality in most schools around the world is quite different. Even if children were capable of critical thinking and problem solving, they are currently not mastering these skills. Only four out of ten primary school students reach a basic level of competence in numeracy, literacy and science. Given this reality, what is the role of critical thinking and problem solving? Can these skills be taught at all?


Percentage of children who reach a basic learning level in reading, writing and arithmetic. Each country is represented by a circle sized in proportion to its population. Click here to see the interactive infographic or here to read The Learning Challenge report.

The meaning of critical thinking and problem solving

Cognitive scientists suggest there are three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving. Critical thinking is a specific way of thinking. This means that reasoning may be uncritical or critical, and the same applies for the other two types of thinking. It is critical if it has three features:

Effective – critical thinking avoids common mistakes such as only seeing one side of an issue, discounting new evidence when it conflicts with your previously held views, reasoning from passion rather than logic, and failing to support statements with evidence.

Novel – critical thinking involves thinking in new ways, not just remembering solutions or situations that are similar enough to guide you.

Self-directed – critical thinking involves thinking independently, in a way that is not overly controlled by anyone else, such as a teacher.

When young people choose what to study, they can think critically by considering multiple perspectives: the opinion of family members, possible job openings, wages and graduation placement rates. A recent international survey suggests that fewer than half of young people have the necessary knowledge about all of these different perspectives.

Effective thinking also involves an open mind: being open to new evidence even if it is in conflict with one’s previously held views. For example, some people think that HIV spreads by sharing baths, towels or cutlery, or using the same toilets or swimming pools. In fact, none of this is true. But discrimination continues in many communities, even if people’s views are based on misinformation and prejudices. How will people react when they are presented with evidence on how HIV really spreads? It is not easy to change one’s mind, especially if the issue is very emotional. That’s why the attitude of having an open mind and being open to new evidence needs to be practised at school, so that it becomes a habit.

Is it important?

Critical thinking and problem solving may sound like terms that a young philosophy student would talk about at university, but actually these are important skills for everyone.

One of the main reasons is an economic one: it is about jobs and livelihoods. Critical thinking enables people to make better decisions and improve their livelihood. This is vital for everyone. For example, 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and are farmers. Being able to think critically about different approaches to water and grassland management may boost productivity and increase income. In some communities, adopting different breeds has grown milk yields by 65 per cent, and better grassland management has doubled the income of herders.

The economic argument has far-reaching implications. Because of technological change and productivity growth, the nature of work is changing in agriculture and many other industries. A growing proportion of jobs now require teams of people working together to solve unique problems, as opposed to routine problems. However, relatively few students learn these skills at school. In most countries, fewer than one in ten (15-year-old) students are able to solve fairly complex problems creatively, according to the PISA tests in 2012. 


Creative problem solving among 15-year-olds

According to management consultants McKinsey & Co, 75 million young people around the world are unemployed and a shortfall of 85 million high and middle-skilled workers is expected by 2020. In a recent international survey, four out of ten employers said a skills shortage is a leading reason for entry-level vacancies. Alongside general work ethic and teamwork skills, problem solving is among the skills that are highly valued among employers – but where the competence of new hirees does not meet expectations.

Critical thinking and problem solving are also important for another reason, which goes far beyond jobs. The purpose of education is also about enabling learners to fulfil their potential and make a positive contribution to the world. Better critical thinking and problem solving would enable both.

Can it be taught?

This brings us to the question: if critical thinking and problem solving are important, can these skills be taught?

General critical thinking programmes have been relatively popular in the past. These have often focused on learning ‘how to think’, but research suggests that this approach usually brings about a modest benefit. Why? Critical thinking is not a general skill; you always think about something. Being able to think critically about historical events does not mean that the same person is able to think critically about the nuances of farming. Both critical thinking strategies and content knowledge are needed.

Therefore, a more promising approach involves integrating critical thinking in to subjects. Critical thinking strategies – such as looking at an issue from multiple perspectives – need to be made explicit by the teacher, and practised extensively by students.

All of the above can only be achieved if we invest in high quality professional learning programmes for teachers. How to model critical thinking, how to ask open questions, and how to provide feedback that enables students to solve non-routine problems. Teachers need new skills and better tools to meet these expectations. Curriculum resources have to be redesigned with critical thinking and problem solving in mind. And finally, the focus of exams needs to shift to evaluate these skills as well.

If students learn how to think critically and solve problems, it would make a big difference to their livelihood and happiness. This is not a question of luxury.