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Dutch look to Estonia for education reform inspiration

Over the years, Dutch and Estonian students have shown similar results in PISA tests. Dutch Undersecretary for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science Sander Dekker visited Estonia this week to see what his country could learn from the Estonian school system.

The Dutch government has undertaken a school reform. Why are you putting money into education at these financially difficult times, when most European countries are doing the opposite?

It's a deliberate decision we have taken as a cabinet. We view it as a long-term investment. If we want to stay competitive and want to be more productive in the future, we have to make sure that our kids are getting the best education that we can offer them. So, that is one of the reasons why at the time when there have been severe budget cuts in several public sectors, we agreed that we should not take money out but put money in – to improve our education. Most of that money goes to teachers – not so much to salaries but to teacher training, facilities and giving them a little more time so they themselves can go to school or peer review and sit down with their colleagues, have discussions about how they can improve their lessons. From OECD studies we know that these measures have the largest effect on the quality of teaching.

The Netherlands is making several changes to its curriculum, introducing ICT and so forth. Tell us more about that.

Actually it's one of the main reasons we're here in Estonia, to learn from your schools how ICT can be integrated into education. We recently started a discussion in the Netherlands about our curriculum. For you it might sound something pretty normal but in the Netherlands the curriculum hasn't been reviewed for over 30 to 40 years. The curriculum in the Netherlands is something very general, especially on primary education level – people are surprised that it fits on two pages. The question that is on the table is that do our kids learn what they need when they leave school in 10-15 years.

One of the main reasons we're here in Estonia is to learn from your schools how ICT can be integrated into education.

That also means that you have to foresee what they need in 10-15 years.

It's impossible to tell exactly how the world is going to look like then. Still, we see some trends. Technology and ICT are getting more and more important. We see that some work that provides a lot of jobs to the majority of our population will be taken over by robots and machines. So the question is how are kids going to get the education for the jobs of the future, even though we don't know precisely what those jobs are going to be. Research, industry and many teachers tell us that it's more and more important how kids are skilled, that besides factual knowledge, which I'm not saying is not important, they know how to learn so that they are flexible, critical thinkers, can cooperate and solve difficult problems. These are more skill-based requirements and I expect those to be the most prominent issues in the new curriculum.

The question is how are kids going to get the education for the jobs of the future, even though we don't know precisely what those jobs are going to be.

Talking about problem solving – we have it in common that our students are not too good in that area. What can be done to change that?

I think you need to do two things. First, you need basic skills to be a good problem solver. Many problems have a mathematical background, so we need to guarantee that these are elements that have a prominent place in our schools.

But being good in maths is never a sufficient criteria for being a good problem solver. Problem solving also requires creativity. It requires that you can work in teams, collaborate. If I look at schools who work on these issues, they use problem-based learning, not only in strict disciplines but cross-cutting themes. They use problems that don't fit into a single course of language, maths or physics, but are more overarching. I think these are new ways of organizing education.

You've now seen Finnish and Estonian education systems. What are the lessons you take home?

It's always good to get inspiration from other countries without necessarily wanting to copy or paste it one on one, because much has to do with tradition and culture. To give you an example, I think both Estonia and the Netherlands are jealous of Finland for its teacher training. The profession of the teacher in Finland is very high and teacher training universities can select the 10 percent of best students. That makes it much easier along the way. If it would be easy to implement it, I would do it right away but this requires long-term investments – it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. But what we are trying to do is rise the par for our teacher training programs, so not focusing on quantity but quality, and making it more interesting for smart students to actually enter teacher training. Making sure that the profession is interesting, not only salary based, but also that you give opportunities for students to develop on the job.

I think both Estonia and the Netherlands are jealous of Finland for its teacher training.

When I talk to students in the Netherlands they think that education is interesting, but they are afraid that when they enter the profession, they will be a teacher for 40 years. So you also have to think about smart ways to come up with new and different career paths – combining education with research, with policy making, with entrepreneurship – and that way making education more interesting, in order to attract better students.

The lesson I take home with me from Estonia is that you're ahead of us in ICT, e-government and e-education, always thinking about how to enrich school programs with it. It's not only about bringing computers into classroom but also making sure that teachers know how to use them; making ICT and computers not a goal in itself but a means for better instruction. We saw some interesting examples of this in the school we visited.

Editor: M. Oll

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