A national programme promoting a values-centred approach to education was launched in 2009. Programme activities engage teachers, school leadership, other school personnel and parents in becoming knowledgeable actors, who co-create with students, rich values-based learning environments focused on the holistic development and well-being of each student. Participation in the programme is voluntary.
The programme is led by the University of Tartu’s Centre for Ethics (hereinafter Centre for Ethics). It advises preschools and schools (henceforth schools) and also offers them a series of activities and concrete tools that can be used to co-create and continue to develop values-based learning environments. Key activities and tools are discussed below.
Values drive all aspects of school culture whether that be consciously or unconsciously. As an important first step, the programme helps stakeholders in education to make visible the values driving their school culture.
Based on analysis and discussions, the programme guides schools in articulating and agreeing on values. This is so that all stakeholders can build a common understanding of how values influence communication, relationships, the learning process, teaching methods, assessment and evaluation. With heightened aware- ness and understanding, stakeholders are better placed to co-create supportive, engaging and enriching learning environments that also enable student and teacher well-being.
Schools in this programme tend to revisit their values and agree with their stakeholders on their core values that they can use as key reference points for reflection, planning, and assessment of their efforts to build their learning environments.
Schools can also take inspiration from the national curricula that stress general human and social values. The general human values are honesty, considerateness, reverence for life, justice, human dignity, respect for oneself and others. The general social values are freedom, democracy, respect for mother tongue and culture, patriotism, cultural diversity, tolerance, sustainability of the environment, adherence to law, solidarity, responsibility and gender equality.
The school-based dialogue can now also take inspiration from the latest national strategic plan for Education 2035, which places values at the centre of the strategy and foresees the further development of values-based organisational culture in schools.
The model provides a whole-school approach to values-develop- ment in four areas of school life: school environment, leadership, curriculum and learning, cooperation and relationships. Each area describes ideal elements that schools can use to examine their strengths and weaknesses, gather data and set goals for improvement.
Using the model, schools undertake a self-analysis of how their agreed values drive or do not drive learning and school life. Schools are guided in ensuring the analysis is evidence-based and in recognising the good work already being done. The process encourages all key stakeholders – students, teach- ers, the leadership team, parents and local government officials – to engage in the process. Guidance includes professional development, suggested materials and activities, running best practice days, diverse publications on best practices (see below), and mentoring (crit- ical friends).
Schools can request the support of a critical friend. Critical friends from the Centre for Ethics assist above all school leadership teams in developing a values-based approach to school renewal. Critical friends undertake site visits in order to analyse organ- isational strengths and weaknesses and current values-development activities. They also support leadership teams in creating strategic plans for values-based education. They offer feedback/feedforward based on, among other activities, whole-day observations in and out of classrooms and focus group interviews. They also undertake document analysis (e.g. school curriculum, mission and values, assessment policy and internal rules).
Teachers are primary agents of values development in schools. They are in a direct and ongoing relationship with their students and can sup- port students in understanding their own values, attitudes and how value judgements are made. The professional development programme offers teachers practical knowledge on how to bring values to the heart of teaching and learning. It introduces them to the gen- eral discourse of values-based education, as well as to methods and practical tools for in-school values-development.
Personal reflection on values and the devel- opment of moral reasoning are central to values-based education. Two games have been created with this in mind. The first is
The Values Game for teachers. This supports teach- ers in clarifying their own values, and achieving a deeper understanding of their role and responsibility in relation to values-based education. It encourages dialogue about the role of values in diverse contexts, including how to deal with conflicting values.
The second game intended for students is called Discovering Values. This guides students in discuss- ing values in class. By having students solve values-based dilemmas that they might face in their personal or school life, students are likely to build empathy for others. They also develop increased self-awareness as well as moral reasoning and discussion skills.
The Centre for Ethics publishes guides on developing values-based edu- cation, meta-analyses of research and success stories/best practices from Estonia and abroad. The publications also target parents (e.g. Teaching your Children Values) and the wider public (e.g. In Which Estonia do I Want to Live?).
As of 2021, the Centre for Ethics has worked with schools in 74 out of the country’s 79 municipalities. To date, 89 schools and 105 preschools across Estonia have undertaken self-evaluations and been awarded the good preschool/school quality badge. The Centre has also contributed to the development of the national curriculum, the Estonian Lifelong Learning 2020 and more recently, to the Education 2035, which has distilled part of the national dialogue leading to the development and adoption of the Estonia 2035 national strategy for the nation. That strategic plan and its national targets are all values-based.
Finally, an initiative aimed at engaging school internal and external stakeholders in helping to enrich learning environments is discussed.