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President of the Republic at the ESHA Biennial Conference in Tallinn

18.10.2018

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 is so highly ranked in PISA. Of course, nobody ultimately knows, but I think we need to delve into the history of Estonian education to answer that question.

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

They gained their freedom; they became owners of their land. Yet they were not satisfied simply with the fact that they now could take care of 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 Estonian language.

However, this was not questioned in our country. Everybody realised that, first and foremost, we needed educated people.

Second, we also needed to educate our girls because a smart nation is built by smart mothers. For some reason, Estonia has always known that. Of course, there was much discussion about how high should girls aspire.

At the beginning of the 20th century, before the Estonian Republic was declared in 1918, some professors – in fact, at Tartu University, which was founded by the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf in the 17th century – had to face outcries that they allowed female students to attend the law classes. But the Estonian women, having never felt that they did not deserve a higher education, fought back. 

The first female student sorority was established in 1920, two years after Estonia was declared a state. By then, there were already enough students to start a female student sorority. In the following 20 years, this number rose to 5 in Tartu University. Five female student sororities by 1940.

The beginning was not easy. For example, my grandmother always told me that she was part of 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 students from the fraternities tended to question quite aggressively their right to participate in academic life. But they never gave up. The Estonian Republic has always promoted equality in education. For girls and for boys.

This little lesson from history tells you why Estonia ranks so high in the PISA tests. We have always known that everybody has a fundamental right to education. Everybody needs education and even though there may be a positive change in society – perhaps you have your own farm or you can 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 that we have realised: that education for younger children in the family, in particular those who don’t have a significant heritage, is something that would take our nation forward. 

At the beginning of the 21st century, we are exactly where everybody else is. As with any other school system in the developed world, the Estonian school system has prepared the optimal curriculum for our children in their school years. And like everybody 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 when we designed our school system as we now know it, two things – the horse cart and petroleum lamp – have become obsolete. Other technologies developed, became 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 continue into the future in the same vein. But today we see that the technological cycle is extremely short. The mobile phones in our pockets will be deemed primitive in 5 to 10 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 a shortening of the technological cycle; the other is globalism. Our kids are going to live and work globally and they need to be prepared for that.

We don’t think about these things when we send our kids to school. I recently asked my 9 year old in fourth grade, “Kaspar, how is English class?”

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 it in English?”

“No. We can’t write and we find learning to write boring because the texts we write deal with stuff like, “My dog is brown; what colour is your dog?”

So the 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?”

He said: “Well, of course I need to learn to write, but it would be much more interesting if the texts were not so boring. And some of my classmates don't realise that some words are not nice to use.”

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 internet sites in the Estonian language where you can solve math 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 is no longer according to their age. Things are very different.

And the levels can be very different between kids, because some are simply interested in maths and some in English. And I've found out that astronomy is also something that kids are very interested in learning on the internet.

So what do we do with these kids in school? If we continue 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 also elsewhere, there is a problem that boys don’t particularly want to study because they find school boring. Girls somehow tend to tolerate better the classes that are not so stimulating, but this is not a reason to give them classes that are not that stimulating. I think we need to quickly forget that if you’re 7, you go to first grade, if you’re 8, you to go to second grade, etc.

We need to get to a feedback-based school programme. It will be much more individual-focused, and much more directly related to children's interests and their college level. How can this be done? Well, I am making this plea again to all Estonians among you, but maybe other countries will be quicker than us and jump in ahead. Please, we need a school programme at primary and secondary levels that is akin to 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 programs that propel them forward.

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

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

Quite the contrary. I'm calling upon our decision makers, among them also our teachers, directors of schools and people working at the Ministry of Education – let’s give our teachers the tools to allow our children experience a feedback-based learning system in which they can develop. Independently, happily, sitting still with their classmates, but learning totally different things. The same would apply to language teaching too. They will be globally travelling citizens. They will need many language skills, but one school can provide 3, maybe 4 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 programs based on language immersion and contact with the language have shown their worth. Students, Estonian kids, or French or Finnish kids can all use the same programs for studying. But the teachers need these tools urgently, because our kids will otherwise lose interest in school. We have tried. And some still believe that we need to limit children's access to new technologies. I believe it is really wrong to do so because these technologies will be among us and around them in far more advanced formats than their current forms.

In fact, what they need to learn is how to manage artificial intelligence among them, around us and among us. I can give you an example of our generation of pretty smart people who do not understand what it means to have a robot among us. And their inaccurate expectations about robots. During the EU Council Presidency, we had a package delivery robot handing out chocolates to people in the council room. People saw it and this robot was rather cute and they wanted to take pictures with it. Do you think they did what is right to do – step 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 too!

We have more and more of these kinds of algorithms and physical manifestations of narrow AI. A robot is smart at performing a particular task, but is more like a profoundly autistic person in all other ways. Our children need to navigate this world. Of course we cannot give them the exact technical skills, 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 to attain a better education, and to stimulate education. It will also prepare them for realising that they will be interacting with machines, machines that will be very smart in certain ways and extremely non-adaptive socially. This would avoid them having this animistic instinct. In effect, so that they would not try to talk to a robot that is not meant to be spoken to. 

If we keep telling them that an iPad is a very bad thing, this natural understanding won’t take place. In fact, quite the contrary.

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

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 percent of the workforce will be working 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 about whatever technological level we apply at school or they 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 got right and continue to get right.

Yes, we utilise all of the current interesting technologies and will miss some of the new technologies that emerge while designing our new school structure, based on feedback and independent learning.

I think my grandchildren, who are now 2 and 4, will face one of two situations when they grow up. One is where happy humankind uses wonderful technologies that are also environmentally friendly.

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

The other situation might be much worse. This is one in which they will be dealing with horrific climate change problems. Still, with the help of technology, but in the situation where the world among them and around them is not as friendly as we would have hoped. Then this 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 important.

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.