TALLINN - School leaders around the world are asking the same questions: “How can I make learning more accessible and relevant, engage the natural desire of students to learn, and prepare them for a successful future?” In response, Microsoft has created the Partners in Learning Innovative Schools Program. With a focus on system-wide change, this community of schools is seeking to find the answers to this question. The goal of the Innovative Schools Program is to discover, share and scale best practices, develop models and assets that any school or any school system can use to help students achieve their full potential, and create a collaborative community of like-minded school leaders.
Building on the experience of innovative schools and education experts from around the world, Partners in Learning is helping school leaders create a culture of innovation that advances the uses of technology in the learning process and enables children to develop 21st century skills. This approach has been proven to help students prepare for the future and helps communities move toward employment and economic development goals.
Peetri nursery-basic school in Estonia was invited to join the Microsoft innovative schools program, which brings together 54 innovative schools from all over the world. Peetri nursery-basic school, in Rae rural municipality Harju county, is the first school in Estonia that passed a tough international contest to be accepted to the program. It is the newest school in Estonia, as it began its activities on Sept. 1, 2009.The school will soon grow into a nine-grade basic school.
The Microsoft program forms a part of Microsoft’s widespread “Partners in learning” initiative, the objective of which is to increase progress in training, instruct professionals, and access technology to achieve changes in the field of education. There is monthly virtual training and seminars for the participants, study materials and methods are distributed, and training with world leading experts are conducted. Within the program, the teachers of the school can participate in international training and exchange experience in the application of various study methods.
“Within the innovative school program, schools are guided to use new study methods and technologies. The consultants consist of leading specialists in the educational field from throughout the world. Participation in the program provides educational institutions with the opportunity to develop their school with the assistance of international experts. Within the program, there are various practices organized by world specialists that offer the school the opportunity to apply the teaching principles of the 21st century. The active part of the program lasts for one year – with training, study trips, self-assessments. Schools can participate in virtual lectures, use the available material, and communicate with schools that have joined the innovative school commune on the Web,” says Tiina Viiderfeld, co-ordinator of education and support programs at Microsoft Estonia .
“Last year, we organized a contest in Estonia and although Peetri did not become a member of the program at that time, it still stood out and was one of the few schools that was directly invited to join the program this year. Hence, there was no contest this year. A total of 130 schools from all over the world applied; in addition, a few schools were directly invited to join the program,” Viiderfeld explained.
Viiderfeld added that the program is free of charge, including the study trips. “It is possible that small costs will be incurred if the students wish to visit some other schools participating in the program. But the costs related to the main activities of the program are covered by Microsoft.”
Viiderfeld considers that besides training, self-analyses, and setting objectives, an important part in the program is communicating with other schools and learning with them. Schools are divided into groups to make it easier to communicate and exchange views. Participants of the project also include Dutch, Australian and Finnish schools. Each group has its own expert who assists in developing and implementing the school development plans. The group of participants is guided by Bruce Dixon, who is an internationally acknowledged expert in education. In addition, the program pays attention to how information technology could be best applied in the studies.
Kaja Greenbaum, an English language teacher, and Marelle Lepik, a head teacher, are the first teachers to be closely connected to the “Innovative school” program. “We would like to make a good new school with close cooperation between the school and the parents, one that would become a center of the village,” Greenbaum says. As there are no cultural establishments or meeting places in the village of Peetri, the schoolhouse is the place where the villagers could also use the sports hall and host hobby groups in the evenings.
According to the school’s methodologist, Katrin Piiriselg, it is remarkably easier for a completely new school to acquire a novel way of thinking and operation than for educational institutions with long traditions. Lepik was the initiator and the one who made efforts for participating in the project. “The school had to be introduced by video,” Lepik says. “We made it at a time when construction was still under way. Maybe that is what distinguished us from others and caught attention.” The school’s motto: “There is sun in every person” means, in the opinion of the teachers, a creative learning environment that recognizes and acknowledges efforts, study progress, and development of each student” Lepik added.
Luule Niinesalu, the principal of Peetri school, considers that participation in the “Innovative school” program is very important for the school. “I find it both an advantage and honor, which brings about an obligation on us to place great emphasis on the development of the school. We opened the doors of our school a year ago with the knowledge and desire to apply contemporary and innovative study methods. Our objective is to establish a study environment with a creative way of thinking that considers the needs and opportunities of the 21st century, and one in which each child becomes a person with a positive attitude and the ability to cope in a changing world.
In the studies, we use contemporary study methods; we direct pupils to search, discover, and test themselves; we create conditions for the application of information technology in the studies; we apply cooperation between the classes and devote a lot of attention to the formation of self-esteem and self-analysis,” the school principal says.
She adds that the program initiated by Microsoft is targeted at changes with the objective of contributing to modernizing the schools. “We do need changes, but we do things differently than traditional schools right from the start. In my mind, innovation means making good old things in a different way to achieve better results,” Niinesalu noted.
According to her, the program is still in its initial phase. “We can talk about it in more detail after a year. Since now, two virtual trainings have taken place for the participating schools. Mainly, they were busy with preparing for the first meeting in Cape Town in the last week of October, with a three-day seminar and visits to local schools. A world-famous advisor of education reforms and a Doctor at the University of Toronto, Michael Fullan, gave training on the management of change at the seminar. In March, interim conclusions will be made in Moscow and conclusions of the annual development process will be made in Washington in November 2011,” said Niinesalu.
According to Niinesalu, further cooperation will take place with the mentors and other schools to support the development of each specific school. At first, four to five teachers of Peetri nursery-basic school are engaged in the project; within a year, however, the entire staff of the school will be included. “The objective of our school is to become a very good school. A contemporary study-centered educational institution. Everything that supports this is important for us. So far, we have managed well with the development; at the same time, we are interested in learning from international experience and transposing positive things, or adapting them to the conditions of Estonia. Participation in this program supports achieving the set objectives,” Niinesalu says. Primarily, she hopes to find support and experience from other countries that would confirm that the path of the teachers of Peetri school is right.
Niinesalu also said that many Estonian schools do not make any effort to participate in any international programs. “We have set high objectives for ourselves and we are striving towards fulfilling these,” the headmaster says. “We hope to find followers and cooperation partners from various countries. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel, when others have already done it. So far, we have closely cooperated with Finnish schools, and Estonian schools have a lot to learn in the years to come.”
For the second year, Peetri nursery-basic school has participated in a program organized by the city of Helsinki, “Helsinki’s single pedagogical development of basic schools.” As the title suggests, it includes cooperation with the Finns in the pedagogical development of their basic school.
Last year, the school principal became acquainted with the Italian education system, schools and learning. “Going to Italy was interesting, especially as I met the principles of 12 European Union countries. What I heard in our conversations was very interesting and definitely extended our horizons. In relation to what concerns schools in the region of Torino, I must say that we have more to learn from Finland. The educational traditions and principles of the big South European countries remain slightly distant for us,” Niinesalu admits.
Microsoft launched the program in 2008, when the first 12 pilot schools were selected, whose development was supported, and these schools still participate in the program. “To date, it is known that they will be dealing with us intensely within a period of one year. Maybe there will be follow-up programs or the participating schools will begin cooperating on their own,” Niinesalu adds.
For the time being, it is not foreseen that participation in the program will bring about additional costs for the schools, but it should stimulate the school’s management and employees to actively participate in the school’s development.
Niinesalu also promises to share the experience gained with other schools. “Teachers of many other schools have visited our school. They would like to see the new schoolhouse and we have introduced the objectives and principles of our school in our discussions. We will definitely write about our activities in the press. I hope we will have the opportunity to talk about out participation in the “Innovative school” program to many Estonian people who work in schools,” she says.