Muutused hariduselus ja ajalooõpetuse areng Eesti iseseisvuse taastamise eel 1987–91 [Abstract: Changes in educational conditions and the development of teaching in history prior to the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1987–1991]


  • Mare Oja University of Tallinn



History Education, Soviet Period, End of Cold War


Educational conditions reflect society’s cultural traditions and political system, in turn affecting society’s development. The development of the younger generation is guided by way of education, for which reason working out educational policy requires the participation of society’s various interest groups.

This article analyses changes in the teaching of history in the transitional period from the Soviet era to restored independent statehood. The development of subject content, the complicated role of the history teacher, the training of history teachers, and the start of the renewal of textbooks and educational literature are examined. The aim is to ascertain in retrospect the developments that took place prior to the restoration of Estonia’s independence, in other words the first steps that laid the foundation for today’s educational system.

Legislation, documents, publications, and media reports preserved in the archives of the Ministry of Education and Research and the Archival Museum of Estonian Pedagogics were drawn upon in writing this article, along with the recollections of teachers who worked in schools in that complicated period. These recollections were gathered by way of interviews (10) and questionnaires (127). Electronic correspondence has been conducted with key persons who participated in changes in education in order to clarify information, facts, conditions and circumstances.

The discussion in education began with a congress of teachers in 1987, where the excessive regulation of education was criticised, along with school subjects with outdated content, and the curriculum that was in effect for the entire Soviet Union. The resolution of the congress presented the task of building a national and independent Estonian school system. The congress provided an impetus for increasing social activeness. An abundance of associations and unions of teachers and schools emerged in the course of the educational reform of the subsequent years.

After the congress, the Minister of Education, Elsa Gretškina, initiated a series of expert consultations at the Republic-wide Institute for In-service Training of Teachers (VÕT) for reorganising general education. The pedagogical experience of Estonia and other countries was analysed, new curricula were drawn up and evaluated, and new programmes were designed for school subjects. The solution was seen in democratising education: in shaping the distinctive character of schools, taking into account specific local peculiarities, establishing alternative schools, differentiating study, increasing awareness and the relative proportion of humanities subjects and foreign language study, better integrating school subjects, and ethical upbringing. The problems of schools where Russian was the language of instruction were also discussed.

The Ministry of Education announced a competition for school programmes in 1988 to find innovative ideas for carrying out educational reform. The winning programme prescribed compulsory basic education until the end of the 9th grade, and opportunities for specialisation starting in the second year of study in secondary school, that is starting in the 11th grade. Additionally, the programme prescribed a transition to a 12-grade system of study. Schools where Russian was the language of instruction were to operate separately, but were obliged to teach the Estonian language and Estonian literature, history, music and other subjects.

Hitherto devised innovative ideas for developing Estonian education were summed up in the education platform, which is a consensual document that was approved at the end of 1988 at the conference of Estonian educators and in 1989 by the board of the ESSR State Education Committee.

The constant reorganisation of institutions hindered development in educational conditions. The activity of the Education Committee, which had been formed in 1988 and brought together different spheres of educational policy, was terminated at the end of 1989, when the tasks of the committee were once again transferred to the Ministry of Education. The Republic-wide Institute for In-service Training of Teachers, the ESSR Scientific-Methodical Cabinet for Higher and Secondary Education, the ESSR Teaching Methodology Cabinet, the ESSR Preschool Upbringing Methodology Cabinet, and the ESSR Vocational Education Teaching and Methodology Cabinet were all closed down in 1989. The Estonian Centre for the Development of Education was formed in July of 1989 in place of the institutions that were closed down. The Institute for Pedagogical Research was founded on 1 April 1991 as a structural subunit of the Tallinn Pedagogical Institute, and was given the task of developing study programmes for general education schools. The Institute for the Scientific Research of Pedagogy (PTUI) was also closed down as part of the same reorganisation.

The work of history and social studies teachers was considered particularly complicated and responsible in that period. The salary rate of history teachers working in secondary schools was raised in 1988 by 15% over that of teachers of other subjects, since their workload was greater than that of teachers of other subjects – the renewal of teaching materials did not catch up with the changes that were taking place in society and teachers themselves had to draw up pertinent teaching materials in place of Soviet era textbooks. Articles published in the press, newer viewpoints found in the media, published collections of documents, national radio broadcasts, historical literature and school textbooks from before the Second World War, and writings of notable historians, including those that were published in the press throughout the Soviet Union, were used for this purpose.

Teachers had extensive freedom in deciding on the content of their subject matter, since initially there were no definite arrangements in that regard. A history programme group consisting of volunteer enthusiasts took shape at a brainstorming session held after the teachers’ congress. This group started renewing subject matter content and working out a new programme. The PTUI had already launched developmental work. There in the PTUI, Silvia Õispuu coordinated the development of history subject matter content (this work continued until 1993, when this activity became the task of the National Bureau of Schools).

The curriculum for 1988 still remained based on history programmes that were in effect throughout the Soviet Union. The greatest change was the teaching of history as a unified course in world history together with themes from the history of the Estonian SSR. The first new curriculum was approved in the spring of 1989, according to which the academic year was divided up into three trimesters. The school week was already a five-day week by then, which ensured 175 days of study per year. The teaching of history began in the 5th grade and it was taught two hours per week until the end of basic school (grades 5 – 9). Compulsory teaching of history was specified for everyone in the 10th grade in secondary school, so-called basic education for two hours a week. The general and humanities educational branches had to study history three hours a week while the sciences branch only had to study history for two hours a week. Students were left to decide on optional subjects and elective subjects based on their own preferences and on what the school was able to offer. The new conception of teaching history envisaged that students learn to know the past through teaching both in the form of a general overview as well as on the basis of events and phenomena that most characterise the particular era under consideration. The teacher was responsible for choosing how in-depth the treatment of the subject matter would be. The new programmes were implemented in their entirety in the academic year of 1990/1991. At the same time, work continued on improving subject programmes. After ideological treatments were discarded, the aim became to make teaching practice learner-oriented.

The new curriculum was optional for schools where the language of instruction was Russian. Recommendations for working with renewed subject content regarding Estonian themes in particular were conveyed by way of translated materials. These schools mostly continued to work on the basis of the structure and subject content that was in effect in the Soviet Union, teaching only the history of the Soviet Union and general history. Certain themes from Estonian history were considered in parallel with and on the basis of the course on the history of the Soviet Union. The number of lessons teaching the national official language (Estonian) was increased in the academic year of 1989/1990 and a year later, subjects from the Estonian curriculum started being taught, including Estonian history. The national curriculum for Estonian basic education and secondary education was finally unified once and for all in Estonia’s educational system in 1996.

During the Soviet era, the authorities attempted to make the teaching profession attractive by offering long summer breaks, pension insurance, subsidised heating and electricity for teachers in the countryside, and apartments free of charge. This did not compensate the lack of professional freedom – teachers worked under the supervision of inspectors since the Soviet system required history teachers to justify Soviet ideology. The effectiveness of each teacher’s work was assessed on the basis of social activeness and the grades of their students. The content and form of Sovietera teacher training were the object of criticism. They were assessed as not meeting the requirements of the times and the needs of schools. Changes took place in the curricula of teacher training in 1990/1991. Teachers had to reassess and expand their knowledge of history during the transitional period. Participation in social movements such as the cultural heritage preservation movement also shaped their mentality.

The key question was educational literature. The government launched competitions and scholarships in order to speed up the completion of educational literature. A teaching aid for secondary school Estonian history was published in 1989 with the participation of 18 authors. Its aim was set as the presentation of historical facts that are as truthful as possible from the standpoint of the Estonian people. Eesti ajalugu (The History of Estonia) is more of a teacher’s handbook filled with facts that lacks a methodical part, and does not include maps, explanations of terms or illustrations meant for students. The compendious treatment of Estonian history Kodulugu I and II (History of our Homeland) by Mart Laar, Lauri Vahtre and Heiki Valk that was published in the Loomingu Raamatukogu series was also used as a textbook in 1989. It was not possible to publish all planned textbooks during the transitional period. The first round of textbooks with renewed content reached schools by 1994. Since the authors had no prior experience and it was difficult to obtain original material, the authors of the first textbooks were primarily academic historians and the textbooks had a scholarly slant. They were voluminous and filled with facts, and their wording was complicated, which their weak methodical part did not compensate. Here and there the effect of the Soviet era could still be felt in both assessments and the use of terminology. There were also problems with textbook design and their printing quality.

Changes in education did not take place overnight. Both Soviet era tradition that had become ingrained over decades as well as innovative ideas could be encountered simultaneously in the transitional period.

The problem that the teaching of history faced in the period that has been analysed here was the wording of the focus and objectives of teaching the subject, and the balancing of knowledge of history, skills, values and attitudes in the subject syllabus. First of all, Soviet rhetoric and the viewpoint centring on the Soviet Union were abandoned. The so-called blank gaps in Estonian history were restored in the content of teaching history since it was not possible to study the history of the independent Republic of Estonia during the Soviet era or to gain an overview of deportations and the different regimes that occupied Estonia. Subject content initially occupied a central position, yet numerous principles that have remained topical to this day made their way into the subject syllabus, such as the development of critical thinking in students and other such principles. It is noteworthy that programmes for teaching history changed before the restoration of Estonia’s independence, when society, including education, still operated according to Soviet laws. A great deal of work was done over the course of a couple of years. The subsequent development of the teaching of history has been affected by social processes as well as by the didactic development of the teaching of the subject.

The school reform that was implemented in 1987–1989 achieved relative independence from the Soviet Union’s educational institutions, and the opportunity emerged for self-determination on the basis of curricula and the organisation of education.


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Author Biography

Mare Oja, University of Tallinn

Mare Oja is a Lecturer at the School of Humanities, University of Tallinn.





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