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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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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.