“Although it seems that children are born with a “mouse” or “mobile” in their hand, they actually need assistance from adults to cope with digital literacy: privacy, ethics, critical thinking.” – Estonia

Birgy Lorenz is a firm believer in the power of the Internet to revolutionize learning, but she’s also keenly aware that students – especially young students – still need some guidance. Out of that concern came her work in teaching online safety and citizenship, earning her an eLearning Award in 2010. She was also named Teacher of the Year in Estonia for 2011.

Lorenz says, “Every teacher is a leader! Bring out the best in others and in yourself, and you have made a difference. I try to be an example of not keeping knowledge to myself; on the contrary, I share the wealth of know-how with others.” She believes that “community is power,” and has founded communities for Estonian ICT teachers and the M-learning community on Facebook, and she represents Estonian teachers in several forums and discussion groups abroad. As part of her outreach to other teachers, Lorenz is developing e-safety awareness programs and materials so that educators can teach and discuss these critical issues more easily.
Here, Lorenz shares her views on 21st century teaching and on the importance of grassroots efforts in creating meaningful change.  

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

My goal is to empower students to take responsibility for their actions, achieve a learning experience and see the big picture. I am most proud of pupils who have discovered the passion of learning; are creating their future by developing, discussing and managing the “world of tomorrow – today”; and are acting globally.

This approach is changing the mind-set of leadership (management division, no “fat plans”, involvement of teachers and students) in some of the Estonian schools, innovating teaching (flipped classroom, learning excursions, games and activities, cooperation with classes in the school and outside, mobile learning, making learning videos, etc.) and developing new ways of feedback and measuring performance.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

In a smaller way, at my workplace (Pelgulinna Gymnasium), the atmosphere and environment for learning is changed – we have more passion, find more meaning in what we do, discuss and share, and also support and contribute to Estonian and world education. Our school has the most young teachers in Estonia and of our 60 teachers, 15 of them are alumni, so we have become like a community school — which is a wonder in a big city area where everything is re-emerging constantly. As part of the Microsoft Innovative Pathfinder School program in 2011-2012, we have also become a world-class school.

On a large scale (as we have had visitors from all over the world), our teachers and I promote new ways of doing things, discussing changes in education and taking responsibility for being leaders, not victims in that process. I believe in the “butterfly effect” — that small things make big changes. As a result, other people from different schools are taking notes and changing their school climate, leadership, and teaching.
They are more open to dialog on subjects of how we can together help children, regardless of wealth, ethnicity or skin color, to have the best education.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

To drastically improve the school environment mind-set is a big goal for the average teacher. Sometimes it can only happen when the school managers are changed and you have the opportunity to step up. It is easier to create innovative class experiences and start from the grassroots level. In Estonia we have a lot of freedom in what we can do in our classes. For some teachers, I recommend throwing out the books, forgetting the examinations and discovering how the world works, after that, combine multiple areas of knowledge into your subject. You must remember that all the national curriculum programs are comprehensive. When you try to conquer many small things then it is an impossible goal, but there is a way to do it by sharing responsibility, and through teamwork. Encourage students to develop their skills to a higher level. We should be an example of those values ourselves – to keep trying and not be quitters.

Others who are already on this path, I advise you to share your work with the whole world, as this can give you feedback, friends to work with, and new ideas from others. In the education field, knowledge that has been kept secret will not flourish. I would like to refer to the Linus Torvalds saying: “Only wimps use backup: real men just upload their important stuff on the web and let the rest of the world mirror it.” This works also in education.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I think learning should happen where and with the means that students are using in their real life: mobile phones, smartphones, cameras and laptops, tablet PCs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and topics that are closer to their understanding. As an educator I add a solid oundation through workforce software, learning environments, and web tools; interdisciplinary topics like globalization, culture, politics, lifelong learning; and skills like flexibility and tolerance.

The tools we use in class depend on the problem that we are solving, and are always chosen by the students, but at the same time I train them to understand what is and what isn’t suitable or beneficial to use in a given situation. For example, in the assignment “make a math real-life problem video and worksheet for younger students,” we used tools from PowerPoint animations to MovieMaker; paper and pencil to smartphones, etc. For the worksheets we used e-testing, cartoons, situation cards for discussions and more. Then students tested these materials out with younger students (as youth-to-youth teaching training) and then shared the results openly in the school M-learning blog.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

It is sad that some students lack the desire to learn and the reason is that somewhere in the child’s life he or she was discouraged when someone said: “you cannot do this” or “you stink!” The biggest challenge is to make these students demand quality in their education and to be active in that process. There are too many students who just come and listen and then move to another class and do the same. This is not usually a problem in primary, but in secondary or even higher education, for instance, there are lot of people who have just somehow “flown” there and don’t know why they are in that situation, don’t have the confidence and don’t have any more trust in education.

For example, in my classes, we start a school year by building motivation: we discuss why we are here, what are our goals, what we can achieve in this year or more. We watch inspiring videos from all over the world and I put also an emphasis on creating and developing new things or even “hacking the system” if needed. I say that I believe everyone has an inventor inside of them and sometimes when the idea is bizarre then it could be the “best thing that changes the world for the better.” I promise that we will do our best to bring out the shine (or sparks) in each and every one. But I also explain that we must work together and work hard, because not everybody can be an instant YouTube star (or even wants to be).

What is your country doing right to support education?

Currently in Estonia we have very exciting times as our new National Curriculum is being implemented. We got nice results from PISA testing and good feedback on our education. The challenge lies in funding as our country doesn’t have many national resources; we strongly rely on our cleverness, will and competence. In the future I predict that more arents will contribute to their children’s education by buying smartphones, tablet PCs or laptops; and that the Educational Ministry will focus more on developing content and learning environments. Cooperation between the private sector and universities is rising. Teachers have a responsibility to increase their knowledge in using these new tools, be active on a global level and empower every student. The teaching practice is evolving to mentoring and leading and controlling the changes.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

No country’s education sector is over-budgeted. I feel that our government has taken too great a responsibility in providing free education. Even the simplest of resources have to be provided by schools to students and not by parents (pen, paper, extracurricular activities, etc.). The problem is that the government doesn’t have the funds to realize their promised dream. I think decisions today (not enough funds) in that area will influence what kind of citizens there will be 15-30 years from now. Spending money for cultural experiences; training teamwork; to be tolerant and ethical; to use ICT – in skilled and meaningful ways, does not mean money wasted. So in that sense, the educational policy in our country has some improvements to consider, for example, funds can be imported from private sector as well as from the EU.

Secondly, teacher training must change to be more practical; the content of that study should be future-oriented, like training 21st century skills and gadgets that are already out there. Thirdly, more teachers should be involved in shaping the policies in schools, on the local and national level as well as participating in local and international conferences and programs to share our vision and learn from “best practices” of others. In the end, some of the old, stagnant and nonflexible teachers and school leaders must change their attitudes or leave the domain. If you cannot contribute and you are standing in the way of others, then this is not the way of moving forward, at least in my opinion.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

The world is at your fingertips.  To reach people from another continent (or next to you) you use the Net. It does not matter if you are poor or rich, man or woman, old or young. Everyone has the opportunity to share their message. With sharing comes responsibility.
People need help to understand the value of their “message” (even when it is delivered online). Although it seems that children are born with a “mouse” or “mobile” in their hand, they actually need assistance from adults (teachers, parents) to cope with digital literacy (privacy, ethics, critical thinking, etc.).  So today is the best time to be a part of educational innovation.

Globalization allows us to be a part of “the global village,” but at the same time introduce others to our beliefs, culture and values. I trust that it can also reduce wars and hate. People everywhere seek a better life quality.  Technology itself is not bad or good; people will choose how to use it. Currently there is a need to find common ground for discussions, hereinafter how to manage dwindling resources, growing population and quality of education. I expect that by using technical means skillfully we can invite more people to be part of that discussion.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Young teachers usually have the will to change the system and try new things. Start in small steps and when you feel you can handle yourself, take longer leaps. Always in your journey bring out the best in others and thereby grow your skills and knowledge in communicating and teaching. You must not be afraid of making mistakes or wait for others to make your life easier.  The responsibility to improve the educational system is everybody’s task. If you have an idea of what to do or change, try it out.  What is the worst what could happen? You will fail as everybody fails sometimes, but it is only to pull yourself together and try again – it makes a great teacher.

I am glad that in my school we have open dialogue between older and younger teachers. Everyone has the same right to express ideas and execute them. Key to this kind of environment relies on the school leaders. As Michael Fullan said: “Less fat plans, more action! Give your teachers and students a chance!” 

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

In the times of Gutenberg the power of print shifted the people to scholarliness. The Internet age has given us an opportunity to show what has been learned. In prior times, students relied on what the books or teachers were telling the class, now we see more and more students stepping up to say what they are thinking. Education and the Net open doors to operate around the world. To be a part of that synergy is the ultimate feeling for a person.

Trends come and go, but the world will never be the same. Schools and teachers who think: they are the only ones who have the accurate information; children should not be connected; we should ban computers from the school, are fighting for self-preservation — not for the education of the students. The bigger picture is to continue finding ways to implement real life to school life. Teachers in this new situation should be collaborative, strong, independent leaders, not only with students, but also with colleagues, and companies who are interested in shaping the future of education. Only this kind of teacher can proudly stand in front of the students.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

There are not enough tools when you don’t have goals to use them. If you have it you will find a way. The basic need for the future is to connect others and make a group effort, so you need tools to achieve that. In the collection of skills and tools you need access to  resources – Net, computer, mobile phone, Skype/MSN/Facebook or other direct communication or social networks. To communicate you need a common language, maybe it would be an English language, as it is spoken almost everywhere. In the end we need good people around us (in real life but also on the Net).

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About  Birgy Lorenz,
Teacher, ICT Development Manager

Birthplace:  Tallinn,  Estonia
Current residence: Estonia
Education: 3rd year of PhD Information Society Technologies
BA: Art and Technical Drawing Teacher, MA: Multimedia and Learning Systems
Website I check every day: Facebook
Person who inspires me most: Sugata Mitra and “Hole in the Wall” experiment
Favorite childhood memory: climbing the tree or winning others in checkers
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): participating in summer school in Rome (study-work)
When was the last time you laughed? Why? When I watched Whose Line Is It  Anyway? Ryan Stiles flew around like a vulture. I laughed because it is amazing how improvisational one can be:-)
Favorite book: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Favorite music: new wave, synthpop : Depeche Mode, Alphaville
Your favorite quote or motto: “The only limits in your life are those that you set yourself.” – Celestine Chua

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One Response to “Although it seems that children are born with a “mouse” or “mobile” in their hand, they actually need assistance from adults to cope with digital literacy: privacy, ethics, critical thinking.” – Estonia

  1. Hi Ms. Birdy Lorenz,

    I read your article here to see how splendid your futuristic views on computer science could be. And I was also impressed to watch your Youtube Video that shows the way in computer programming education in primary school at http://youtu.be/lshE28GU6uc. Those are precisely awesome to prove you are leading the way in education in computer science in Estonia. So I really would love to interview you to learn more about your country’s computer science education. Would that be possible. I hope I can hear from you soon.

    Kind regards,

    Takayuki Mineshima

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