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Equity made Estonia an educational front runner
Estonia has combined a belief in learning with equal-access technology to create one of world's best education systems.
- Estonia became a top performer in the most recent PISA, a worldwide study of 15-year-old students' capabilities in math, reading, and science.
- PISA data showed that Estonia has done remarkably well in reducing the gap between a student's socioeconomic background and their access to quality education.
- The country's push toward providing equal-access to learning technology is a modern example of the culture's dedication to equity in education.
As I performed my interviews for this article, one fact was made abundantly clear: Estonians aren't ones to engage in lavish praise and pat-on-the-back congratulations. A far more self-critical culture, they find comfort forgoing the small talk, getting to work, and honing in on areas to improve. But one area where Estonians will simply have to grit and bare the praise is in discussing their education system. Smaller than West Virginia and with a population of 1.3 million, this Baltic state has developed one of the world's best education systems as assessed by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.
PISA is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) triennial study that measures the reading, mathematics, and science abilities of 15-year-olds across the world. Talks of PISA tend to focus on educational powerhouses such as Finland, Singapore, and Korea, but those looking closely have been noticing Estonia's ascent throughout the years. It began in 2006, and despite a small dip in 2009, the country's scores continued upward in 2012 and 2015.
By 2018, the most recent PISA study, Estonia became Europe's number one performing country and one of the best in the world. Its students placed fifth in reading, eighth in math, and fourth in science, with mean scores in each that were well above the mean. The only education departments to outperform Estonia's were Singapore and a few of China's distinct economic areas, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Macau.
Such a cohort may make the reason for such scores obvious. Like Singapore and Shanghai, Estonia is both small and relatively affluent; such education departments simply spread out their resources across fewer students. But PISA's data doesn't support this reasoning. While socioeconomic background is an important predictor of academic success, it doesn't play out that more money equals better education. In fact, according to PISA data, Estonia's per student expenditure was 30 percent lower than the OECD average. Conversely, the United States handily outspends many other countries but receives middling PISA scores for its investment.
Then what explains Estonia's ascent? That's an answer that requires untangling a myriad of cultural, social, and historical factors that interconnect in ways difficult to untangle. But one factor stands out. A cultural mindset centered only on excellence in education but the drive to give students equal access to that education.
Estonia's cultural heirloom
A chart showing student performance scores in reading for the 2018 PISA study.
The belief in education's value is ingrained within Estonian culture. As Mailis Reps, the Estonian Minister of Education and Research, told me in an interview, it's an ethos handed down generation to generation, like a cultural heirloom.
"Many generations have had to start from zero all over again. Let it be the war, the regimes, economic reforms, people being deported, people losing their families, or changes to the system," Reps said. "So, education was something that was always given, generation to generation. There's a very strong cultural belief that education is the only thing you cannot take away from a person."
Because education is a constitutional right, Reps informed me, state and local governments ensure that primary education is available to everyone. Lunches, textbooks, transportation, and study materials are provided gratis, with extracurricular activities subsidized so fees remain low. Local municipalities also subsidize pre-primary education. They maintain a social allowance so fees are tied on a parent's financial situation. Parents enduring economic hardships or temporary setbacks can send their little ones to preschool free of charge, while more financial stable families pay a small fee. And even that fee remains small—Reps says it is no more than €91 (about $107).
Under such a comprehensive system, many children start their education careers young, as early as 15 months old. Because pre-primary isn't compulsory, parents have more latitude over how their children attend school: half days, a few days a week, etc. By kindergarten, Estonia has a 91 percent attendance rate. Primary attendance is close to universal.
That system may sound expensive, and like any education system, it takes its share of GDP. But as mentioned, it's not simply a matter of dollars spent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016 the United States spent $13,600 per full-time-equivalent student in elementary and secondary education. The OECD average that same year was $9,800. Estonia spent $7,400.
"In many countries, the school's socioeconomic context influences the kind of education children are acquiring, and the quality of schooling can shape the socioeconomic contexts of schools," Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, writes in his assessment of PISA 2018's data. "The result is that in most countries, differences in education outcomes related to social inequalities are stubbornly persistent, and too much talent remains latent."
But despite relatively modest spending, that's less true in Estonia. According Schleicher's assessment, 20 percent of disadvantaged boys did not attain minimum proficiency in reading in all countries except three. Estonia was one of those three. It stood as one of 14 countries in which disadvantaged students have at least a one-in-five chance of having high-achieving schoolmates, a ratio that corresponds to reduced social segregation. And the country joined Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom in having more than 13 percent of its disadvantaged students demonstrate academic resilience, a metric that measures proficient educational outcomes in the face of adversity.
These data point to a weak relationship between student performance and socioeconomic background, a sign that Estonia has lessened the gap between a student's personal situation and their access to quality education.
A Tiger Leap forward
Fourth-grade students learn computer skills in elementary school.
A crucial example of Estonia's dedication to equity can be seen in how it wove digital technology into the learning fabric. In the last two decades, Silicon Valley has had a commanding influence in how we approach and access education, but for many countries, the push toward always-accessible, always-on education hasn't ameliorated many systemic inequalities.
Consider the United States. The U.S. finances schools through local property taxes or federal grants tied to test scores and attendance rates. This leaves schools in well-to-do districts with a lion share of funding and resources. Such lopsided endowments, as noted a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, "harm students subject to them" and are "fundamentally inconsistent with the American ideal of public education operating as a means to equalize life opportunity." An inconsistency that the Supreme Court has defended as perfectly in keeping with the U.S. Constitution.
This legacy inequality left many low-income neighborhoods facing another disadvantage at the turn of the century: a lack of access to technology. That reality became starkly apparent in the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that as schools closed, "1 in 10 of the poorest children in the U.S. has little or no access to technology" for learning. For children being raised in a household earning less than $25,000 a year, roughly ten percent have no access to the internet or digital learning devices.
Conversely, Estonia has made internet access available to all students. In the late 1990s, after its independence from Russia, Estonia initiated Tiger Leap. The program invested heavily in building and developing infrastructure for the e-revolution. The push moved many social programs online, such as taxes, voting, and health records, and schools were updated for internet access, computer labs, and the then-latest technologies.
Today, Estonia has made digital literacy a key competency required in its educational outcomes. Learning materials, such as textbooks and assessments, must be available for free in a digital format (known as the e-schoolbag). Even schools in remote areas enjoy access to high-speed internet.
That may sound concerning to parents worried that today's technology has reduced learning to the solitude of screens and mental cubicles. But the Estonian government only provides access to the tools and ensures they work. Schools and teachers have broad autonomy in determining when and how to use them. That is, after all, their expertise.
"We have never forced our teachers to use it, but we have celebrated if they do so," Reps said. "This is one of the things that I advocate a lot. Provide them the possibility, build them the infrastructure, the quality needs to be there. Because if you start downloading and it doesn't work, no young person accepts it."
Teachers of young students, for example, may forgo technological solutions in favor of more analog approaches to develop motor and social skills. Meanwhile, secondary education may lean heavier on online assessments to prepare students for a tech-focused workforce.
Unlike Silicon Valley's push into the U.S. education system—a seeming bid to capitalize as much on student's learning time as their free time—Estonia prefers a more Goldilocks strategy. As Gunda Tire, Estonia's PISA National Project Manager, told me in an interview: "If you look at PISA data about education systems that use a lot of technology, if they use it very extensively, they have lower scores. If they don't use it at all, they also have lower scores. The big challenge is to find the balance."
As we've learned during the pandemic, that's a balance that shifts with circumstance, but by distributing the tools and infrastructure broadly, Estonia has been able to keep its footing. Reps estimates that before the COVID-19 shutdowns, approximately 14 percent of schools regularly used the available digital textbooks. Most preferred the physical counterpart.
But because the digital option was available for ever school, they were able to quickly pivot to a 100-percent use rate. Additionally, years of prioritizing computer literacy development helped teachers gain competency in digital learning tools, and a civil social push identified at-need children to equip them with the devices necessary to learn remotely. As Mart Laidmets, Estonia's secretary general of the Ministry of Education and Research, said in a roundtable on the subject, it looked as though the country had "been preparing for such a crisis for 25 years."
What can we learn from Estonia's success?
While Estonia may not spend as much on a dollar-to-dollar basis, the country has created immense valuable in its system by spreading the educational wealth. Part of that achievement stems from removing barriers to primary education and fostering equal-access to learning technology; however, those are simply examples of the principle of equity at work. Others include well-educated teachers, even at the pre-primary level; granting schools broad autonomy to adapt the national curriculum to suit local and cultural needs; and maintaining at-school support centers so students have access to mentors, psychologists, special needs teachers, and anti-bullying resources. The list goes on.
"The success of any system is sort of like a puzzle," Tire said. "You have to have many pieces and fit them in properly, or you won't see the whole picture."
Is there room for improvement? Of course! Just ask any Estonian. Tire told me that recent PISA data showed a discrepancy in the results between the country's Estonian-speaking students and its Russian-speaking ones. They are looking into the reason for that gap and how to raise scores across the board. When asked the same question, Reps pointed to improving the country's vocational-track education, the integration of practical skills into gymnasium, and research into personalized learning.
When asked what other countries could takeaway from Estonia's example, my interviewees were more cautious. As Reps rightly points out, "Education is so culturally and historically tied. It's very difficult to copy something, and I would be careful to tell any country to copy the Estonian model."
She did offer some facets for consideration, though. She recommends that systems never look at a child as a problem to solve. Instead, it should look to ameliorate issues in their background or experiences. Even though education systems can be expensive, they should always be child-friendly and dedicated toward their growth. Digital technology doesn't create equality de facto; it must be accessible to all. And trust your teachers. "They are amazing human beings. They come to teach; they want to give their best; they want to help their pupils."
In my own research into Estonia's education system, its history, and its successes, I would humbly add one more: Foster a culture that values education and assures its available to everyone.
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Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
In February 1959, a group of nine hikers crossed through Russia's Ural Mountains as part of a skiing expedition. The experienced trekkers, all employed at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, were led by Igor Dyatlov. On the evening of February 1, all nine appear to have fled their tents into the Arctic temperatures, for which they were unprepared. None survived.
Six of the members died of hypothermia; three suffered from physical trauma. Some members were missing body parts—a tongue here, a few eyes there, a pair of eyebrows for good measure. According to reports, no hiker appears to have struggled or panicked. They were likely too quickly overtaken by the hostile environment in Western Russia.
All the members were young, mostly in their early twenties; one member, Semyon Zolotaryov, was 38. Good health didn't matter. Given the uncertain circumstances—what made them flee into the bitter cold?—the incident known as Dyatlov Pass has long been the type of Area 51-conspiracy theory that some people love to speculate about. A vicious animal attack? Infrasound-induced panic? Was the Soviet military involved? Maybe it was the katabatic winds that did them in. Local tribesmen might not have liked the intrusion.
Or perhaps it was aliens. Or a Yeti. Have we talked about Yeti aliens yet?
These theories and more have been floated for decades.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.
Finally, a new study, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.
This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain).
As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."
Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.
Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.
Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche:
- The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind
- A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab
- The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent
- Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure
Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.