An Estonian island school is designing education

30 October 2023
by Eva Toome


What happens when a school principal is a designer? Saaremaa State Gymnasium offers insights into how design thinking can transform education.

The article by Marian Männi was published first on the Research Estonia webpage.

Saaremaa State Gymnasium opened its doors two years ago. Situated on the largest Estonian island, this shiny new building accommodates over 500 pupils. Studying there is free of charge, and like in the rest of the public schools in Estonia, it’s largely up to the management to develop the school curriculum. But how do they make those decisions? Here’s one example of doing things differently.

The creative minds behind the change

A former designer and The Estonian Academy of Arts student, Ivo Visak became the school’s principal and brought the designerly way of thinking with him. And what better person to support his vision than Merike Rehepapp, education designer and his supervisor at the Academy of Arts? Rehepapp, inspired by her studies in Denmark, was excited to test her ideas in a school setting whilst writing her doctoral dissertation on education design.

Together with her colleague Helen Arov, they created an eight-month education design process to learn how to ask the right questions and to understand what value we create through them.

The journey and the destination

Under their guidance, ten teachers had to develop a three-year mentoring program for the school, intended to support students in their life choices.

Using the “cathedral metaphor,” the teachers discussed: do we build a wall, a building, or an opportunity to confer with god? In school, these three levels of thinking don’t usually intersect because a common understanding of what a school or teacher is doesn’t exist. During the workshop, the teachers took time to discuss what the role of the school is in society. What do we want it to be? What role should it carry? The change happened during discussions.

The result of the workshop was a visual strategy.

It was important not to rush and take a considered and methodical approach to change. Visak and Rehepapp both admit that the workshop sometimes felt like dark medieval times without a light at the end of the tunnel.

Rethinking the questions we ask

Design is a trendy and often overused word, in Visak’s opinion. It makes everything sound slightly cooler, but modern design is much more than drawing porcelain dishes and pretty fabrics. “It’s about solving problems,” Visak said. The designer, Rehepapp added, only facilitates the discussion.

For instance, a public debate is sparked yearly in Estonia about why young people don’t want to become teachers. A real answer is never found, but the questions keep arising. “Maybe we should change the question?” Rehepapp suggests. “Maybe the question should be: based on what experience should young people want to study to become teachers?”

Asking the same question won’t lead you to new answers, she emphasises.

“We look at the world and slowly zoom in. Only then do we have enough courage to look at ourselves, our role and our impact on society. This gives us the freedom to verbalise things we usually wouldn’t,” Rehepapp explained. We discuss the situation and different scenarios. What if nothing changed – where would it lead us? We talk about what brings us toward the desired goal and what holds us back.

“I may have a million good ideas, but I won’t nudge the participants,” Rehepapp explained. “The urgency needs to come from them. If they see that it all depends on them, they will own it.”

Ownership and trust in the process

Once the attendees can see that their experience is accounted for and seen, the trust in the process and each other grows, Rehepapp explains.

The foundation for the designerly way of thinking has to be correct for it to work, and that starts with the leadership, Rehepapp said. It is important to give time to it.

Ultimately, even though the process can be exhausting, it will be a way to set an example to the pupils, too, and design classes could be taken out of the curriculum altogether. “Why teach design at school if the organisation doesn’t follow the same rules?” Rehepapp asks. “The best way to teach is by being an example.”

This island school aims to do just that.


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