Innovation Schools bring together research and practice to tackle academic isolation ({{commentsTotal}})

A few weeks ago we reported that Estonian Network of Innovation Schools was one of the runners-up for a European award for integrating research and practice. Margus Pedaste, the head of the University of Tartu's Pedagogicum that established the Network back in March 2013, kindly agreed to answer our questions and give us a more detailed overview of the network and its aims.

When was the Network of Innovation Schools first proposed and what inspired it?

The Network of Innovation Schools was first proposed when the renewal of the changes into the initial teacher education (ITE) curricula was discussed at the University of Tartu. In cooperation with Tartu Kivilinna School, a research project was started in 2012 to study the opinions of parents, pupils, school management and teachers about the idea of creating a network of innovation schools. One goal of the network was to understand the readiness of the different stakeholders in different schools to take part in a network that puts more emphasis on a different kind of collaboration between schools and university. The new ITE curriculum suggested more trainee teacher practice, and one aim of the network was to offer the best practice base for the trainee teachers by providing a new type of supporters – mentors – for all trainee teachers. The second important influence for creating the network is the belief that schools and university should develop the field of education (educational innovation) together and more joint research and development projects are needed. In collaboration of a research oriented university and practitioners from different types of schools, the quality of the projects as well as applicability of the outcomes is greater.

So in 2013 the contest for the title of innovation schools was announced and the network was created in March 2013. By schools, we mean different kinds of educational organizations: kindergartens, vocational schools, and hobby schools. They all can learn from each other – knowledge sharing is not only a privilege between the university and a particular school.

Being an innovation school is clearly a privilege, only 23 insitutions out of the 110 applicants were chosen, and another 34 named friends of innovation. However, with privilege comes responsibility. Which specific responsibilities did those schools take on when they became part of the innovation schools framework?

The responsibilities could be divided into two. Firstly, the schools should be ready to provide mentors for the trainee teachers. All the trainee teachers at the university have a mentor for their entire study period, so usually during the period of two full years. During the first year the trainee teachers go to the schools every two weeks, so that for a period of one year, the innovation school will be filled with future teachers eager to learn but also ready to contribute, if possible, to teaching, organizing events, and so on. So the schools have to offer an open environment and treat the teacher students almost as young colleagues. Likewise, different teachers should be willing to have students observing their classes; and the support team (such as the psychologist or special education teacher) as well as the management of the school have to find time to meet the students and answer their questions to help connect their practical studies at the university to the everyday reality and practice at schools.

Secondly, the network members have to have the will to be more than just a practice base for trainee teachers. The schools should be interested in developing the Estonian educational field and system through development and research projects. Therefore, the teachers or members of the management or supportive team should invest some time to take part in these kinds of projects. Thirdly, the innovation schools should be ready to test new materials, methods, etc. to see if they “work” and are worth spreading among others or should be developed more before wider usage. At this stage the schools will already be teacher educators for in-service teachers.

All the members can choose on which activities they would like to put the emphasis in each school year and can also choose the activities according to their own interests and development plans. Such flexibility is very important in the network.

The innovation schools not only accommodate trainee teachers but also participate in various other projects and aim to develop and test out new study methods, aids and tools. Could you bring examples of activities and progress in these fields?

During the first year a good example of the collaboration between the schools and university is different trainings that were offered to teachers all over Estonia for free thanks to the Eduko Development Program for Education Sciences and Teacher Training 2008–2015 (financed by the European Social Fund). The trainings were about integrating ICT in the school teaching environment; using tablets in learning and teaching; reflection as a supporter of teachers’ professional development; and child-initiated learning and teaching processes based on the Reggio Emilia approach. For example, thanks to our Russian-speaking schools, we were able to provide the ICT and tablet course also in Russian in different locations in Estonia.

The research project during which the framework of the innovation schools was created – based on the research done among the stakeholders – continued after the development of the network, and the members of the research group are still publishing articles. It is worth pointing out that in addition to the university members for whom writing scientific articles is part of their job, Annika Rebane, a school teacher from Kivilinna School, was invited to participate in an international conference and wrote a scientific article on her research findings. Bringing more teachers to act as researchers is an opportunity for professional development for the teachers themselves, and this practice must continue.

Some of the schools are active in international projects such as Quantum Spinoff, Ark of Inquiry, and Go-Lab; a new course for trainee teachers was developed together with an innovation school; a working group is created to develop methods to include 3D printers and scanners into learning environments; high quality learning videos are made in collaboration with schools.

The innovation schools project is soon celebrating its second birthday. In your opinion, what have been its greatest accomplishments so far?

Schools have always collaborated with the university because trainee teachers always need a practice base, and the university has offered trainings and possibilities for professional development for teachers. But the establishment of this kind of a network is something new, and therefore, the fact that the circle of 57 schools, in particular, is eager to go on, still believes in the idea of the network and is ready to work together is already a great accomplishment itself.

The willingness of the schools to offer mentors and to go along with the renewed practice system of trainee teachers has been amazing and could be seen as a great accomplishment. In the renewed practice system we have put a lot more responsibility on the schools and teachers, and so far this has been an enriching experience for around 200 students and 100 mentor teachers.
One aim of the network is to create a community of people who support and encourage each other. A good example of this is the forum of the network held in May 2014, where all the workshops were conducted by teachers themselves to raise important issues, share best practices, and get to know each other better through this process.

The projects we have started with the schools have also proved that schools are interested in contributing to the development of the Estonian educational system – we should all use this resource even more. More and more of these results will be disseminated abroad, as well. Through this we also contribute to international educational innovation.

Two years is usually not enough to develop a fully functioning system from scratch. What concerns regarding the network and its functioning do you still have to address?

The biggest issues – from the point of view of the university – are probably the human and financial resources. We still see that our human resources are quite overloaded and the potential for collaboration has often not been understood yet. We also see that many people are not used to applying a project-based financing approach. The network does not have its own fat wallet. We have our people and ideas, but in order to fulfill our dreams, we need more enthusiasts who will take the responsibility for applying for project money. We believe that we are stronger in project competitions if several schools and the university join their forces, but we still need more leadership. Hopefully, all the different faculties of the university will realize that the network is a great resource to collaborate with and that collaborating with schools opens new perspectives for all the parties involved.

What, in your opinion, are the key concerns of Estonian education system that the project will be able to help find a solution to?

I believe that the main concern is isolation. Schools and even teachers too often tend to compete with each other instead of collaborating. Competition closes doors and windows. Other teachers and schools do not know what and how someone is doing. Parents cannot see how their children are learning and how perfectly their teacher handles the issues that rise during a school day. If the schools and teachers as well as the university staff live in isolation, it is very difficult to trust and highly value their work. And what follows? Only around thirteen per cent of Estonian teachers believe that their profession is valued in society. If we open the schools and university more to the public, we can start to understand other concerns, like the ones related to methodology. We live in a new era of collaborative learning through digital tools, but too often it is not yet the main approach in schools. If we do not make a change here, the next generation will not learn from us but only from somewhere on the Internet.

Is the model of innovation schools unique in the world? What role does this and Estonia more generally play in the global education framework?

This kind of a network is quite unique. There are of course different networks of schools in other countries as well, but often the networks are formed based on the need to have high quality practice bases or the network is formed from regionally close schools. But this kind of a purposeful collaboration network is quite unique. However, we believe that there are similar initiatives being raised all over the world and that is why we present our ideas at international conferences and forums. Through this we can step out of isolation, and the others will probably see some similarities and make them visible to start international collaboration. In the same way, we were approached by a network in the Netherlands at the international EAPRIL conference in November 2014.

Is the field of teaching innovation something Estonia could excel in internationally? You have already received international recognition, but do you think the model could provide a blueprint for similar projects in other countries?

The project was nominated for the Best Research and Practice Award of European Association for Practitioner Research on Improving Learning, and during a conference in Cyprus at the end of November 2014, the project received some good feedback. However, our aim is not to be the best in something in comparison to others. We are more interested in sharing our ideas and experience. For this purpose, the EAPRIL conference in Cyprus was a perfect event. We found many links in several countries and, according to the discussions, many of them will take our success story to initiate or support changes in their countries. Dissemination and collaboration are of course the main goals of the Network of Innovation Schools.

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