Education is the cornerstone of societal progress, and its effectiveness hinges on its ability to cater to the diverse needs of learners. In an era marked by technological advancements, the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach to education is gradually giving way to personalized learning experiences. Estonia, a pioneer in digital innovation in education, serves as a compelling example of how customized educational approaches, coupled with technology, can revolutionize learning outcomes.

One of the core aspects of personalized education is customizing teaching to fit each student’s unique learning style, preferences, and pace. In Estonia, we’ve wholeheartedly adopted this personalized approach, particularly at Tartu Jaan Poska Gymnasium. We have committed to a fully student-centred curriculum design, wherein students are empowered to take ownership of their learning journey.

While we curate 8 additional courses to complement the three main exam subjects, we grant students the freedom to select the remainder of their courses. Over their three years at secondary school, students have the autonomy to choose from more than 142 courses, including 10 in-depth and 9 general elective courses. This flexibility allows us to address the varied needs and interests of our students effectively.

For students, this approach not only enables them to explore a variety of subjects but also helps them refine their future aspirations after secondary school. For instance, a student might experiment with both biology and art in their first year, decide art isn’t for them, and in the second year, pivot towards more biology and perhaps some law courses, only to find a newfound interest in law, dedicating their entire third year to it. Conversely, a student with a clear vision of becoming a molecular biologist can focus exclusively on relevant courses from the start.

This dynamic setup also invigorates our teaching staff. Creating electives is a fluid process where all teachers are encouraged to develop new courses that reflect their expertise and passions. While the elective offerings evolve annually, certain popular courses remain constant, ensuring continuity and a robust educational foundation for all students.

Estonia’s educational framework emphasizes competency-based learning, moving away from traditional grading towards assessing students on their mastery of specific skills and competencies. This approach allows educators to better understand each student’s abilities, facilitating more personalized teaching methods. It also promotes a growth mindset by encouraging students to view challenges as opportunities for development rather than setbacks.

In my school, our goal is to pioneer innovative educational practices. We focus on transitioning from traditional test performance to meaningful, in-depth learning. This includes revamped assessments, changes in feedback and testing systems, the increased use of project-based learning, and the integration of various subjects.

We emphasize cultivating students’ internal motivation and accountability for their learning. Our approach centers on enhancing the emotional well-being of both students and teachers through effective self-regulation strategies. A key element of our educational model is the mentorship system introduced five years ago, which underscores personalized guidance. This includes level-based groups in subjects such as mathematics and languages and incorporating almost all extracurricular activities as part of our curriculum.

We provide immediate support within our school, eliminating long waits for assistance. Each teacher also serves as a mentor, ensuring a robust mentorship program that meets the diverse needs of every student. This comprehensive approach helps foster a supportive and enriching learning environment.

The distinction between a regular class teacher and a teacher-mentor in my school lies in the depth of their relationship with students and their understanding of each student as an individual. To nurture these relationships, our mentors undergo continual training and supervision by external professionals in coaching and the science of learning. The essence of mentorship here is rooted in coaching practices—guiding students through challenges rather than just providing answers, while also understanding the neuroscience behind learning.

Moreover, our use of technology enhances the educational experience by facilitating collaborative learning. Students utilize tools like Google Workspace for Education and Microsoft Teams to work on group projects, exchange ideas, and learn from one another. This integration of technology not only boosts social-emotional skills but also fosters a sense of community and belonging within the classroom, enriching students’ educational journeys.

IT solutions are here to stay, and in my school, we leverage them thoughtfully to support students who require more flexibility, such as sportsmen or musicians. These students often travel abroad and benefit from the ability to complete tests, access courses, and communicate with teachers through digital platforms. We accommodate their schedules by offering extended deadlines, but the responsibility to engage and complete tasks rests with the students themselves. Our mentors and student counselors monitor these arrangements, ensuring that students remain proactive in their learning.

Additionally, we hold reflective discussions and planning sessions with these students, which require more effort from our side but streamline the process for them. Personalized schedules are also crucial for students facing health issues or personal crises, providing them with additional time and support to align their educational progress with their recovery and well-being.

Every subject’s plan is individually tailored, involving all teachers in the planning process. While technology is pivotal in offering personalized learning experiences, we maintain a balanced approach combining digital tools with traditional teaching methods.

In conclusion, Estonia’s education system exemplifies the transformative impact of tailored educational strategies and technology-enhanced personalized learning. By adopting learner-centered approaches, utilizing digital tools, and focusing on competency-based assessments, Estonia has fostered a dynamic learning environment that meets the varied needs of its students. As we advance into the 21st century, Estonia’s model inspires educators globally, proving that personalized learning can profoundly change education for future generations.

Mari Roostik is an experienced educational leader from Estonia. Currently serving as the director of Tartu Jaan Poska Gymnasium, she steadfastly advocates for prioritizing students and their aspirations.

What does it mean to lead a school in Estonia? Take a look here:

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