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Educational Action Research
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Exploring constructivist social learning
practices in aiding Russian-speaking
teachers to learn Estonian: an action
& Dagmar Kutsar
Faculty of Social Sciences & Education, University of Tartu ,
Tartu , Estonia
Published online: 29 Nov 2012.
To cite this article: Tatjana Kiilo & Dagmar Kutsar (2012) Exploring constructivist social learning
practices in aiding Russian-speaking teachers to learn Estonian: an action research approach,
Educational Action Research, 20:4, 587-604, DOI: 10.1080/09650792.2012.727649
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2012.727649
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Exploring constructivist social learning practices in aiding
Russian-speaking teachers to learn Estonian: an action research
Tatjana Kiilo* and Dagmar Kutsar
Faculty of Social Sciences & Education, University of Tartu, Tartu, Estonia
(Received 4 October 2011; ﬁnal version received 22 May 2012)
Based on appreciative inquiry and threshold concepts from an intercultural
learning perspective, the article makes insights into the constructivist social
learning practice of Estonian language learning amongst Russian-speaking teach-
ers in Estonia. The application of educational action research methodology,
more speciﬁcally that of Bridget Somekh’s eight methodological principles of
inclusive action research, demonstrates the ways in which Estonian language
learning in mentoring dyads can better empower foreign-speaking teachers’
agency compared with traditional language classes.
Keywords: Estonia; action research; appreciative inquiry; thresholds concepts;
intercultural learning; constructivist social learning
Educational researchers have long been concerned to understand how teachers can
best adapt to changes in policy. Very often policy changes happen via edict, and
there are various kinds of efforts made to ensure that appropriate professional devel-
opment is used. Action researchers have argued that action research is a useful
approach since it works with teachers’ extant knowledge, while building new peda-
gogical approaches and understandings. There are a range of examples of action
research as a means of adjusting to policy shifts, and this paper adds to this body
of research. It focuses on a case much less reported in English-language journals –
that of Estonia and the changes brought about in the wake of the collapse of the
In 1991 Estonia regained independent statehood from the collapsing Soviet
Union and declared the Estonian language to be the only ofﬁcial state language, thus
demoting the Russian language from its former, pre-eminent position. After several
important language-political decisions had been taken by the state, the Russian-
speaking teachers in Russian-medium schools, namely those without the required
Estonian language proﬁciency, found themselves in a double-bind situation: on the
one hand, they were formally obliged to provide their pupils with access to the
ofﬁcial language within the school system in Estonia; but on the other hand, they
were not actually able to do this due to several contextual factors and struggles
*Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
Educational Action Research
Vol. 20, No. 4, December 2012, 587–604
ISSN 0965-0792 print/ISSN 1747-5074 online
Ó 2012 Educational Action Research
within their own personal and professional identities. The government’s primary
solution in assisting the Russian-speaking teachers in Estonia was to invest in
language classes – also without any notable success. Arising from this, and having
been inspired by recent research on the complexity of language-in-education issues
(Lin and Martin 2005; Phipps and Guilherme 2004; Guilherme 2002; Hadi-Tabas-
sum 2006), a constructivist social learning theory was operationalised into the design
for intervention by the authors of the present article, as an alternative to traditional
second-language learning classes. As a result, a language learning mentoring
programme was developed and launched in 2008 by a partnership of the Estonian
Integration Foundation, the Open Estonia Foundation, The British Council Estonia,
and Inscape Baltic – the ‘operational actors’. The aim was to bring the Russian-
speaking teachers up to the level required and provide them with new personal and
professional resources, of which they were expected to take ownership.
The two-year programme was carried out in close cooperation with researchers,
following the design of the action research. Action research was chosen as the pri-
mary research methodology because it ‘bridges the divide between theory and prac-
tice […]’ and ‘its aim is to deepen practitioners’ understanding of the complex
situations in which they live and work […]’ (Somekh 1995, 340–1). In designing
the action research we followed Bridget Somekh’s (2006, 12) eight methodological
principles of the inclusive deﬁnition of action research: (1) the integrative nature of
research and action in a series of ﬂexible cycles; (2) the collaborative partnership of
participants and researchers; (3) the development of knowledge and understanding
of a unique kind; (4) a vision of social transformation and aspirations for greater
social justice for all, underlying the design of action research; (5) a high level of
reﬂexivity and sensitivity to the role of the self in mediating the research process;
(6) explanatory engagement with a wide variety of existing knowledge; (7) engen-
dering powerful learning for participants; and (8) placing the inquiry in an under-
standing of broader social contexts.
The present article is aimed at introducing the theoretical framework of the
intervention from a constructivist social language learning perspective and providing
the preliminary ﬁndings from the study. We are interested in highlighting the chal-
lenges of ofﬁcial language learning by the means of the mentoring programme fol-
lowing constructivist social learning principles, and by applying action research as a
Socio-political context of the action research: Russian-speaking teachers in
Estonia is a multi-ethnic society, where in total 417,729 people, or 31.1% of the
population, belong to various ethnic groups other than Estonian (data as of 2010;
Eesti statistika 2011). The majority of non-Estonians speak Russian as their mother
tongue. Out of 545 general education schools, the language of instruction is Russian
in 58 schools and in 28 schools both Estonian and Russian are used (data for the
2010/11 academic year; Estonian Ministry of Education and Research 2011).
Language-in-education issues in Estonia are inﬂuenced by the ethnic politics
implemented during the period of the Soviet occupation. During 1940–1991, as a
result of Soviet policy in major functional domains, Estonian was replaced by
Russian, the corollary to a large inﬂux of mainly Russian-speaking newcomers,
including teachers from the other Soviet Republics of the Soviet Union. Within the
588 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
educational system the Estonian language remained, alongside Russian, a language of
instruction during the period of the Soviet occupation. A network of general education
schools using Russian-medium instruction was created and Russian-medium schools
(located mainly in the Ida-Viru region and the capital, Tallinn) operated in parallel
with Estonian-medium education institutions. The majority of teachers working at
Russian-medium schools were Russian-speaking newcomers. As the status of the
Russian language was quite high and a knowledge of Russian highly valued, Russian-
speaking teachers furthermore did not experience any need to learn Estonian and
remained monolingual (Rannut 2004). The status of Estonian as an ofﬁcial language
was only restored in 1991, after the re-establishment of independence.
Since 1991 several language policy decisions have been taken that are aimed at
the legitimisation of the Estonian language within the educational system. The most
signiﬁcant of these was to implement the transition of Russian-medium general
upper secondary schools into instruction in Estonian (regulated by the Basic School
and Upper Secondary School Act in 1993, with the deadline ﬁxed for 2000; subse-
quently the commencement of the transition period was postponed to the 2007/08
academic year). Since 1995 requirements for proﬁciency in the Estonian language
for teachers have been introduced, and the State Language Ofﬁce and a system of
language inspection were established to test language proﬁciency (both regulated by
the Language Act 1995).
To interpret these decisions following Pierre Bourdieu’s (1982) elaborations on
language as an instrument of symbolic power and action, one of the aims of the
school system in Estonia is to create the conditions necessary for the mediation and
valuation of the ofﬁcial language in society. The municipal schools are perceived as
the main context in which the ofﬁcial language can be acquired by non-Estonian
pupils. A Russian-speaking teacher is expected to provide her/his students with the
necessary access to the correct ofﬁcial language – its grammar, structure and usage –
by means of bilingual or Estonian-medium teaching, thus becoming responsible for
the ‘legitimization’ (after Bourdieu) of the Estonian language. The main measures
provided by the state to increase the Estonian language proﬁciency of foreign-
speaking teachers during the years 2000–2007 were both short-term and long-term
language courses. In 2008 the state’s activities in respect of language-in-education
issues and the situation of Russian-speaking teachers were assessed by Lauristin
et al. (2008). The researchers focused on the contextual factors and stressed that the
linguistic situation of the Russian-speaking teachers had not signiﬁcantly changed:
Notwithstanding extensive language instruction the teachers have had, many of them
have not become high-level bilingual speakers. The Russian speaking teachers in Esto-
nia feel they are incapable of setting examples for students because of their insufﬁcient
command of the Estonian language […]. (Lauristin et al. 2008, 57)
Teaching some subjects in Estonian has had a negative impact on the number of teach-
ers in schools. Teachers having problems in mastering the language and facing a psy-
chological barrier feel humiliated and are forced to quit working in schools. (Lauristin
et al. 2008, 66)
These assessments demonstrate the teachers’ failure in responding to the new
conditions and requirements. Lauristin et al. (2008, 65) have come to the conclu-
sion that the transition to Estonian-medium instruction is interpreted by the
Russian-speaking community as a threat to minority schools and cultural
Educational Action Research 589
institutions, and to the maintenance of the Russian culture and language in
Estonia. Furthermore, the requirements of proﬁciency in the Estonian language for
Russian-speaking teachers are perceived by the Russian-speaking community as
irrelevant not only politically, but also with respect to their everyday linguistic
needs. However, Ülle Rannut’s research has revealed that, ‘attitudes and language
behaviour depend on the share of immigrants in the region concerned, as well as
on the school choice and the need for communication with Estonians’ (Rannut
2005, 181). According to Rannut, over 80% of parents from the Ida-Viru region
did not consider a knowledge of Estonian to be important, and 40% found no fur-
ther need for it. Rannut has proved that a high concentration of Russian-speakers
and the consequent formation of a segregated environment (as in the case of the
Ida-Viru region and to some extent Tallinn) have led to the domination of instru-
mental motivation in learning the Estonian language and, conversely, hindered the
development of integrative motivation.
To summarise what has been previously outlined, the Russian-speaking teachers
are put in a double-bind situation. On the one hand, belonging to the Russian-
speaking community they share a common cultural environment and thus, in a man-
ner similar to the widespread community attitude, they may lack integrative motiva-
tion to learn Estonian and to commence lessons in Estonian. The attitudes of the
Russian-speaking parents and pupils who oppose the Estonian-medium teaching
hardly serve to motivate teachers to make an effort in either learning or teaching in
Estonian. On the other hand, as educational professionals, they are granted by the
state both the authority and the obligation for the legitimisation of the Estonian lan-
guage in Russian-medium schools. Moreover, their professional career depends on
their performance in the ofﬁcial language proﬁciency test and on their efﬁcacy in
executing their power in the domain of language-in-education. These factors in
combination create tensions in the teachers’ professional identity and contribute to
their low performance in language acquisition by means of traditional language
courses provided by the state. Pursuant to this point we can assume that language
courses, if implemented in traditional language learning settings (monolingual learn-
ers’ groups in a monolingual language environment), and based on instrumental
goals of language learning (i.e. preparing teachers to pass the language test as
required by the state), are not effective in providing support to Russian-speaking
teachers in Estonia. This is because they: do not take into account the contextual
factors and cultural background of Russian-speaking teachers (i.e. do not help to
resolve the troublesome personal and professional identity issues of the learners);
do not address the problem of instrumental motivation in learning Estonian and
place the responsibility for learning with the learner (i.e. Estonian language learning
is seen by teachers as an ‘uncomfortable obligation’ imposed by the state); and do
nothing to reduce the social distance between Estonian and Russian teachers’ com-
munities or provide ‘space’ for Russian teachers as learners, with regular communi-
cation with native speakers of Estonian (especially in the Ida-Viru region and
Tallinn, where the majority of Russian-speaking schools are located). There is there-
fore a need to explore further, ‘[…] the complex relationships among language
policies, cultural politics, curriculum, educational practice, and the modes of surveil-
lance of the liberal state’ (Pennycook 2002, 108) in Estonia and develop a practical
solution to the Russian-speaking teachers’ problems.
For this purpose, a two-year mentoring programme for Russian-speaking teach-
ers was developed, starting in 2008. The programme was not meant to be a
590 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
substitute for the traditional second-language classes as such, but rather to explore
ways of overcoming the resistance to language learning conditioned by the contex-
tual factors and of contributing to the performance of Russian-speaking teachers in
language acquisition. The target group of the programme constituted 50 minority-
group teachers working at Russian-medium schools in Estonia and 39 mentors,
together forming the mentoring pairs (dyads). The Russian-speaking teachers’ group
was diverse with regard to initial levels of knowledge of the Estonian language,
types of previous intercultural experiences and competencies in bilingual teaching.
The majority of the teachers had experienced difﬁculties in passing the required
Estonian language proﬁciency test. The mentors were mostly teachers from Esto-
nian-medium schools; few represented other occupations. The participants worked
in their dyads for 13 months and enjoyed plenty of autonomy in deciding on the
language learning individual working plans and the desired outcomes.
Design of the mentoring programme
The mentoring programme was designed within the constructivist social learning
paradigm, according to which a teacher is ‘a facilitator’ guiding students through
the learning process, at the same time being an active, social and creative learner
by herself/himself (after Perkins 2006). Perkins (2006, citing Phillips 1995) claims
that an active learner in social constructivist epistemology explores, debates and
investigates actively new information while constructing new meanings and under-
standings. The role of a ‘social learner’ refers to the co-construction of new knowl-
edge in interaction with others; creativity means that the knowledge is constantly
created and recreated by a learner. According to Perkins (2006, 35), constructivism
in teaching and learning can lead to a deeper understanding and ‘active use of
knowledge’. At the same time, constructivist practices require more time, they are
more cognitively demanding for learners, and in some cases are perceived as decep-
tive or manipulative, when learners ‘adopt a surface approach, motivated by fear of
failure and extrinsic concerns, focused on minimal coping, and accomplished by
memorisation and procedural learning’ (Perkins 2006, 35–6). Constructivist social
language learning practices could be meaningful in preventing and addressing the
risk of the marginalisation and disempowerment of Russian-speaking teachers in
the context of the Estonian educational system, as according to Wertsch (1989) the
practices are sensitive to the cultural background of the learner, develop the motiva-
tion to learn and place the responsibility for learning with the learner.
Action research was chosen as a primary method of idiographic scientiﬁc analy-
sis and evaluation of the mentoring programme, through its essence of ‘allowing
for a social-constructivist approach’ (Burns 2005, 251, cited in Ahmadian and
Tavakoli 2011, 134) and therefore linking the constructivist social learning methods
and practices into a logical process oriented at stimulating a developmental transfor-
mative process and social change.
A cyclical analytical process of action research was followed both at the global
macro level of the two-year mentoring programme design, and at the micro level,
while developing the agendas for research conferences, joint seminars and other
interactive events supporting the process of knowledge and skills generation.
Figure 1 describes the main stages of the integrative approach to action and
research in the mentoring programme.
Educational Action Research 591
Figure 1. Main stages of the integrative approach to action and research in the project.
AI, appreciative inquiry; TC, threshold concepts; IL, intercultural learning. Expert
group comprised operating organisations’ representatives, researchers and representatives of
the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research.
592 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
In stage 1, the problem was analysed by the researchers and representatives of
the operational actors. A group of mentors was formed and was provided with the
necessary training. A detailed conception, including methods for intervention and
an action plan for the whole project, was elaborated and reviewed at the end of this
In stage 2, the mentoring dyads were formed. During the joint seminar the pairs
analysed and discussed the visions, aims, objectives and preliminary action plans
for the whole mentoring period. These action plans were updated periodically
during the programme based on the outcomes of the reﬂection procedures.
Stages 3–5 were structured in a similar way. The actions were primarily imple-
mented by mentors and mentees in pairs following the individual action plans. They
included different forms of interaction within the pairs; for example, cultural and
historical explorations (visits to theatres, museums, etc.), study visits to the mentors’
and mentees’ schools, in-service training and conferences for teachers, discovering
the relevant media channels and teachers’ professional materials in Estonian, obser-
vations in the classrooms, and so forth. The experiences gained through the actions
undertaken in dyads were then brought up for reﬂection at the research conferences,
which served as an input for the planning of the sixth stage of the mentoring
programme – the ﬁnalisation.
At an operational and methodological level the content of the actions found in
the action research was based on the elements of three theoretical and practical
approaches based on constructivist social learning principles: the appreciative
inquiry method (Cooperrider et al. 2003; Preskill and Catsambas 2006; Fry et al.
2002), the threshold concepts theoretical perspective (Meyer and Land 2003, 2005;
Meyer, Land, and Baillie 2010), and the intercultural learning tool (Hofstede 2001;
Bennett 1986, 1993).
Appreciative inquiry is a strength-based method, directing the participants to
explore and value positive past experiences, envision the future, design the
processes and methods that could work well, and execute the proposed design.
Appreciative inquiry as a method of intervention was implemented in the mentoring
programme through dialoguing and interaction – mentors and researchers facilitated
the process of learning during the research conferences through asking questions,
giving positive feedback and creating a supportive environment for the learners.
The appreciative inquiry’s orientation towards social action is in line with Somekh’s
elaboration on the mission of the action researcher to promote social justice and, ‘to
move the change process forward as positively as possible while increasing under-
standing of whatever limitations may arise’ (Somekh 2006, 7); it can also be linked
to Habermas’ theory of communicative action (Grant and Humphries 2006). Despite
an increased number of applications and a large number of academic and practical
publications, appreciative inquiry remains ‘a method with little self-reﬂection or cri-
tique to evaluate the process as an action research method’ (Grant and Humphries
Grant and Humphries suggest that a critical appreciative process integrating the
use of appreciative inquiry and critical theory could deepen the insight into and
recognition of the complexity in human endeavours. Thus the threshold concepts
theory developed by Meyer and Land (2003, 2005) was added as a critical approach
to facilitate the learning process. According to this theory, learning is both affective
and cognitive and it involves identity shifts (‘we are what we know’): ‘A threshold
concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously
Educational Action Research 593
inaccessible way of thinking about something’ (Meyer and Land 2003, 1); it is
transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded and potentially troublesome
(Meyer and Land 2005, 373–7). Timmermans (2010, 10) states that the troublesome
nature of the threshold concepts ‘may be the very quality that reveals their develop-
mental potential’ and the task of an educator is ‘to acknowledge the difﬁcult jour-
ney’ (2010, 11) of a learner. The transformative nature of threshold concepts
suggests that learning also involves the transformation of the learner’s own identity.
According to Timmermans this kind of change in ‘how they know’ makes the
threshold concepts irreversible. The power of threshold concepts is in their integra-
tive potential, and with reference to the analysis of Timmermans the integration is
not only about discovering the epistemological interconnectedness of different
aspects of the subject, but also involves a reconstruction and reintegration of iden-
tity. Boundedness refers to the contextualisation of the threshold concepts, as ‘any
conceptual space will have terminal frontiers, bordering with thresholds into new
conceptual areas’ (Meyer and Land 2003, 6). In our opinion, threshold concepts
theory contributes to the development of a high level of reﬂexivity among research-
ers and participants in the action research process. We share Somekh’s (2006, 7)
views that, ‘… individuals can position themselves politically and strategically
within a social situation and construct themselves as relatively more, rather than
less, powerful’. We argue that the ofﬁcial language learning within the contextual
settings analysed in the previous section is a process involving not only ‘powerful
personal–professional learning’ (2005, 8), but also a reconstruction and reintegration
of foreign-teachers’ personal and professional identities.
While constructivist social learning theory emphasises the role of the learning
environment, intercultural learning tools were introduced into the intervention
design, aimed at contributing to the formation of the appropriate social learning set-
tings. Facilitating intercultural interactions between the participants, supporting the
development of intercultural competences of the participants on both personal and
professional levels, and later on expanding the knowledge to the Estonian and Rus-
sian communities was one of the main tasks of the mentors. Bringing together and
integrating the approaches and tools presented above into action research corre-
sponds to the multidisciplinary approach recommended by Somekh (2006, 8) and
allows testing them in the original contextual settings.
Observations and reﬂections took place regularly in three main modalities: a
research conference at the end of each stage; by means of a structured evaluation
process followed by each mentoring pair at the end of each month – the outcomes
of the reﬂections were documented in dyads as structured self-evaluation reports
submitted monthly to the operational organisations; and reﬂections during the
course of the preparation for the research conferences based on the observations
from the previous research conferences and mentoring pairs’ self-evaluation reports.
The structured self-evaluation reports provided us with a substantial overview about
the aims, objectives, activities, successes, difﬁculties and results in Estonian lan-
guage learning as documented by the mentoring pairs. The participants were also
asked to evaluate the cooperation within their dyads and consider how positive
experience could be transferred while planning their future activities. Altogether
there were 13 open-ended questions in the self-evaluation report form; from these
the Russian-speaking teachers (i.e. the mentees) were expected to give answers per-
sonally to 10 questions. These documents are not uncontroversial as a source of
empirical data, taking into account the limitations resulting from the communication
594 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
model, the formality of the situation of asking questions and other speciﬁc
circumstances, including the language used in the reporting, which was supposed to
be Estonian for both parties.
The researchers’ involvement in the programme took place as a second-level
intervention and included participation in the design of the general framework for
the mentoring process, facilitation of the training and supervision sessions for
mentors (stage 1), and design and facilitation of the research conferences together
with the other partners (stages 2–6). We admit that we had limited access to the
information on everyday actions undertaken by the mentoring pairs. This informa-
tion was made available via participants’ (self-)reﬂections during the research con-
ferences, and the monthly submitted self-evaluation reports. Informed consent to
publish the mentoring pairs’ self-reports was acquired from 10 pairs – reports were
also used as empirical material for the present analysis.
Based on the input–output–outcome conceptual model (Figure 2), an idiographic
method of data analysis was designed, which included the elements of discourse
analysis aimed at, ‘reading of texts and contexts that are warranted by careful atten-
tion to detail and that lend coherence to the discourse being studied’ (Gill 2009,
181), to highlight the preliminary ﬁndings of the action research. We were looking
for the answer to the question: how can constructivist social learning practices
contribute to enhancing the agency of Russian-speaking teachers as professionals?
The focus of the research is on the relation between the ofﬁcial language learn-
ing process (inputs 1 and 2) and the teachers’ personal and professional develop-
ment (output) mediated by constructivist social learning practices. Constructivist
social learning practices are considered in order to explain how language learning
Inquiry (AI); Threshold
Intercultural learning (IL)
INPUT2: Support by
OUTPUT: Personal and
professional growth of teachers
OUTCOME: reflexive teacher
with integrative motivation,
positive identity, and taking
Mentoring practices based
on constructivist social
Language market situation;
reaction from ‘significant
others’; school support
Figure 2. Input–output–outcome relationship model.
Educational Action Research 595
processes relate to the personal and professional development of teachers. If the
mediating factors were to be removed, the relation between input and output could
become weaker or disappear; that is, the language learning process might have no
transformative effect or even lead to the disempowerment of teachers (as in cases
of traditional language learning in the classroom). However, in cases of favourable
contextual factors, the language learning process could result in the professional
and personal development of teachers even if the mediating variables are not intro-
duced (input 2). The mediating factors could compensate for the negative effects of
the contextual factors, and transformative change could lead to changes within the
contextual factors. The outcome of the process as formulated is inspired by con-
structs that characterise the outcomes of personal empowerment, which entails
developing critical consciousness, positive identity, and taking social action (by Carr
2003 and Gutierrez 1995, referred to by Hipolito-Delgado and Lee 2007).
The following data analysis has been carried out on two levels. The ﬁrst level
of the analysis is formed from the participants’ observations and (self-)reﬂections
on variable ‘repertoires’ within the mentoring practices focusing on the needs and
expectations of teachers in ofﬁcial language learning, the factors and methods
supporting language learning, the internal and external sources of resistance, and
the conditions leading to sustainability of transformational change. The second level
of the analysis uncovers critical insights and reﬂections of the researchers, focusing
on the contexts of the ‘repertoires’ identiﬁed during the ﬁrst-level analysis.
Needs and expectations of foreign-speaking teachers in ofﬁcial language learning
Let us start by presenting the main conclusions from the analyses of the self-evalua-
tion reports and open discussions during the research conferences. The participants in
the mentoring programme admitted that learning the ofﬁcial language requires strong
self-regulatory effort based on the following constructs: professional instrumental
motivation, including the need to protect the work position, meet the qualiﬁcation
requirements, and pass the language proﬁciency test; personal integrative motivation,
including encouraging family members’ engagement in learning Estonian, familiarisa-
tion with Estonian culture, conducive feelings when communicating in Estonian, and
experiencing mutually enriching relations in mentoring dyads; and professional inte-
grative motivation, including the opportunity to use Estonian-medium study materials,
develop bilingual teaching, and ﬁnd partners for joint actions. In general, as one of
the participants admitted during the ﬁrst research conference, the ‘process [of lan-
guage learning in mentoring pairs] should be more important than results’; it should
respect the participants’ needs, and be based on dialoguing and communication.
To conclude, in cases of Russian-speaking teachers a distinction between profes-
sional and individual integrative motivation in ofﬁcial language learning can be
made. We would not set integrative motivation against instrumental motivation. In
the contextual settings (structure) for a teacher’s profession in Estonia, both types
of motivation should be addressed in language teaching and learning aiming at
decreasing the importance of professional instrumental motivation and stipulating
the development of integrative motivation. Issues related to professional instrumen-
tal motivation have low potential for the empowerment of teachers’ agency as in
the longer run these could become a source of low self-esteem (i.e. repeated failure
to pass language tests or losing a job) and troublesome personal and professional
596 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
The effects supporting the language learning
According to the participants’ evaluations, the mentoring practices not only signiﬁ-
cantly contributed to the development of Estonian language skills (the participants’
estimations at the end of stage 6), but also facilitated changes in the attitudes of the
participants towards the Estonian language, culture and society in general; shifting
patterns from instrumental language learning motivation to integrative motivation
were observed. Some snapshots are as follows:
[Estonian language learning has changed into a pleasant activity]
[There is a desire to attend perfomances in the Estonian language]
[I have started to read in Estonian with pleasure]
A number of mentoring pairs reported the learners’ emerging readiness to under-
take social actions, as they had begun with small intercultural activities involving
colleagues, pupils and their families, and progressed up to editing the Estonian-
medium Wikipedia and participation in nationwide education policy decision-mak-
ing and implementation processes. A snapshot is:
[Coping independently with writing an Estonian language article gave a very positive
experience […]. I have helped also my colleagues in learning the Estonian language].
One more observation is as follows:
[Previously, before this project, I had a feeling that in Estonia there were two separate
societies (Estonians and Russians) with their problems; after communicating with
Estonians, new feelings and an understanding that we have common problems and
joys occurred, and also a wish to bring Estonians and Russians closer to each other].
According to some self-evaluations, the learners had coped successfully with
their own internal resistance and as a result they witnessed an increase in both
professional and personal self-efﬁcacy. The following is a snapshot from a self-
evaluation report of a Russian-speaking teacher after she had delivered a lesson for
the Estonian-native students:
[I stood in front of the Estonian class and just had to manage […] for me the very
positive aspect was the attitude of the Estonian students towards me as a teacher, they
were very warm and helpful and supported me in every respect].
The change in the perception of the role of a foreign-speaking teacher with respect
to teaching in Estonian was recorded in one of the self-evaluation forms as follows:
[At work one should use more exercise forms, working materials in Estonian in order
to learn by oneself and to make Estonian language learning easier for students, for this
I need more good materials (the CLIL [Content and language integrated learning] text-
book is very good)].
Based on the analyses of the participants in the research conferences, seven
groups of factors were revealed as contributing to the development of critical
Educational Action Research 597
consciousness and readiness to undertake social actions among the language learn-
ers as follows: ﬁrstly, positive dynamics of the mentoring dyads, referred to by the
participants as development of mutual trust, ‘ﬁnding commonalities despite of dif-
ferent language environments’, ‘mutually broadening outlook’, ‘noticing helpful-
ness’, ‘mutual understanding’, involving other family members; and secondly,
noticing and encouraging the improvements in language skills of the learner by the
mentor. They also valued, thirdly, noticing and reﬂecting on changes in learners’
attitudes and ‘emotional mode’ while learning Estonian: ‘emergence of an internal
will [to learn Estonian]’, ‘joy from getting over yourself’, ‘courage to communicate
[in Estonian]’, ‘conﬁdence, trust, will and interest’, ‘positive stress’; and found,
fourthly, (inter)cultural explorations – mutual interest towards the other commu-
nity’s culture – helpful and supportive. A positive change in the language learning
has occurred if, according to the participants’ reﬂections, the learner is ready to,
ﬁfthly, take responsibility for creating an Estonian language environment on a daily
routine basis (watching television, reading newspapers, attending language classes,
using web-based facilities such as blogs, Skype, and taking part in sports or hobby
activities in an Estonian-medium environment); and, furthermore, has an ability to
address, sixthly, her/his professional needs and celebrate positive developments in
the professional domain. The following social actions were speciﬁed in this respect:
participating in Estonian-medium in-service training, implementing bilingual teach-
ing, positive feedback from colleagues and pupils, building up professional net-
works, participating in the elaboration of the school’s development plans and early
reports in Estonian. Lastly, also signiﬁcant was the fact that the programme partici-
pants stressed the importance of the mentoring programme administrative arrange-
ments: community-based approach, addressing each learner’s individual needs,
long-term cooperation in mentor dyads (‘it was from the bottom of mentors’ and
mentees’ hearts’), ‘scholarship for a learner, which motivates and appreciates
mentor’s and learner’s time and efforts’, and so forth.
Some of the mentors purposefully introduced their mentees to controversial top-
ics in Estonian political and social life, and addressed the troublesome issues for
the Russian-speaking community (e.g. the period of the Soviet occupation in
Estonia; the language policy issues). One of the pairs had recorded their visit to the
Museum of Occupation in Tallinn; the reﬂection on this experience from a Russian-
speaking teacher was as follows:
[I have learnt more about Estonian history and we (with my mentor) compared our
recollections from the Soviet times. I have studied in the Russian higher education
institution. […] My vocabulary on the history of Estonia has been signiﬁcantly
enlarged, and this is very important for me as a History teacher].
Participants’ insights into language learning experiences correspond to our own
expectations as the researchers into the effects of constructivist social learning prac-
tices. To sum up, language learning became both an affective and a cognitive expe-
rience, which involved changes in attitudes towards the Estonian language,
Estonian culture and society in general and the emotional standing associated with
Estonian language learning. The appreciative inquiry method helped with noticing
even small successes and building up learners’ conﬁdence and motivation based on
positive experiences. Interpersonal relations with the mentor contributed to placing
responsibility for learning with the learner and developing integrative motivation
598 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
based on ‘conﬁdence, trust, will and interest’. Positive feedback from pupils and
colleagues contributed to the development of professional integrative motivation.
Constant (self-)observations and (self-)reﬂections during language learning
processes are very important and should be focused not only on measurable pro-
gress in grammar, reading or listening skills, but also on the changes in the learner’s
attitudes towards the language learning, and changes in the language environment
of the learner. It is important to observe how improved language skills address and
reconstruct professional and personal needs, including (inter)cultural explorations
and developing a feeling of belonging to the Estonian-medium (professional) com-
munity. We believe that improved Estonian language skills could have an empower-
ing effect in the professional domain, where a knowledge of Estonian broadens the
Russian-speaking teacher’s access to decision-making.
Internal and external sources of resistance to ofﬁcial language learning and
The participants admitted that the main threshold in (social) learning during the pro-
gramme was connected to the lack of understanding of the rationale behind the
Estonian-medium instruction in the Russian-medium schools, including the respec-
tive political decisions and public policy measures; that is, ‘stressful language tests’
(external contextual settings). These factors were articulated in the ‘fear of losing a
job, which disturbed and paralyzed motivation and the will to learn’. Deﬁcient lan-
guage environments in schools and at the community level were also discussed sev-
eral times during the research conferences and in mentoring dyads. External
contextual settings served as the bases for individual resistance to ofﬁcial language
learning and initiation of bilingual teaching. Some snapshots illustrating the
individual resistance patterns are as follows:
[Lack of energy and motivation].
[Feeling tired of work and school].
[Fear of making a mistake, speak Estonian and taking Estonian language test].
[Fear of misunderstanding pupils’ questions or answers].
[Fear of being unable to express oneself due to limited vocabulary].
[Fear of seeming ridiculous and incompetent].
In mentoring dyads, the following two problematic issues were named: lack of ‘top-
ics of common interest’ and placing responsibility for language learning with the
Participants’ observations and reﬂections conﬁrm our main conclusions on the
double-bind situation of the Russian-speaking teachers in Estonia. It seems to us that
individual resistance (articulated in the form of ‘fear’ and lack of conﬁdence) at least
partly derives from socio-political contextual settings. Non-supportive language envi-
ronments and inconvenient political decisions in the domain of language-in-educa-
tion result in low self-efﬁcacy in learning Estonian and introducing bilingual
Educational Action Research 599
instruction. In general, teachers believe that their pupils have a better command of
Estonian than they do and therefore they are ‘facing a psychological barrier’
(Lauristin et al. 2008, 66) when speaking Estonian to pupils and/or delivering
lessons in Estonian. Instrumental motivation (‘obligation’) to learn Estonian and pass
the Estonian proﬁciency tests is ‘paralyzing’ professional integrative motivation.
The social constructivist approach to language learning has proved to be effec-
tive in stipulating the development of integrative motivation. Questions of the valid-
ity of the change arise as follows: will the integrative motivation remain stabilised
or even develop further after the end of the program and the mentoring relation-
ships? Is the transformation of professional and personal identity irreversible and
‘immune’ to the inﬂuence of the contextual settings? Will the change lead to the
empowerment of teachers’ effectiveness in the longer run?
Conditions leading to sustainability of change achieved during the mentoring
Changes in career perspectives, a successful transition to Estonian-medium instruc-
tion and participation in Estonian-medium in-service training were all documented
in the self-evaluation reports and mentioned during the research conferences as
positive outcomes. The following three groups of conditions leading to sustainabil-
ity of changes were identiﬁed by the participants in the course of the research con-
ferences. Firstly, the possible changes in the institutional settings: a day off from
work every week for language learners, language clubs to compensate for deﬁ-
ciency of the language environment, availability of psychological help for learners,
promotion and dissemination of the mentoring programme and its results, and one
mentor in each Russian-medium school to provide individual support to teachers.
Secondly, the possible changes on the school level: to facilitate changes in teachers’
attitudes and ways of thinking, change the school system of teachers’ in-service
training, create a system of knowledge management, establish cooperation between
Russian-speaking and Estonian teachers, networking and initiating integrative pro-
jects. Thirdly, the activities at an individual level: cooperation with Estonian subject
teachers, observation of Estonian-medium lessons, searching for possibilities to use
actively the Estonian language in the professional domain and reducing workloads
at school to reserve time for language learning.
Pursuant to the participants’ reﬂections, our recommendation to the decision-
makers is to address the following four elements in the design of the next phase of
the intervention: involvement of the teachers’ schools as learning organisations to
guarantee the sustainability of change and dissemination of the results at the teach-
ers’ community level; involvement of participants’ ‘signiﬁcant others’ (i.e. using the
resources of social networking); promotion of structured follow-up activities (i.e.
counselling, follow-up meetings, language clubs available for Russian-speaking
teachers after the programme ends); and creation of more opportunities to participate
in political decision-making at local, regional and state levels by providing the nec-
essary training and involving decision-makers in the programme activities.
Discussion and critical reﬂection
Brian Morgan (2004, 80–2) has elaborated on the identity formation of foreign-
speaker teachers and on how the experience of bilingual teaching inﬂuences both
600 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
their professional and personal identity within the systems of ‘power/knowledge’.
Morgan argues that teaching, learning and identity formation are tied up with power
relations (2004, 83, citing Cummins 2000, 2001). The domain of language and
power in education is characterised by the interconnectedness of policies, practices,
institutional discourses, and so forth. Encounters between different actors within
educational systems are never neutral and uncover the potential of disempowerment
or empowerment of both minority educators and culturally diverse students. Morgan
mentions the risk of marginalisation and disempowerment of teachers in bilingual
educational systems. Action research implemented with Russian-speaking teachers
in Estonia has also revealed a number of contextual factors in the domain of lan-
guage-in-education contributing to low self-efﬁcacy, a troubled identity and the dis-
empowerment of Russian-speaking educators. Low self-efﬁcacy is embodied in a
lack of energy and motivation to learn the Estonian language and commence the
Estonian-medium instruction pursuant to the political decision. Russian-speaking
teachers can experience a constant fear of failing in the required Estonian language
proﬁciency tests and losing their jobs, and the fear of seeming incompetent and
ridiculous while teaching in Estonian.
Action research explored the constructivist social learning practices necessary to
help Russian-speaking teachers in their learning Estonian, aimed at addressing the
risk of disempowerment of the teachers’ agency. The results of the 13-month men-
toring process are promising. The constructivist approach helped to develop motiva-
tion based on integrative needs, and the responsibility for learning was placed with
the learner in his or her own right, thus also stipulating taking social actions.
Despite positive results we still have some critical issues to rise to in respect of
power relations in the language-in-education domain. According to Giddens (1984,
14–16), power relations are of a dual nature and reﬂect both the structure (alloca-
tion of power; power that derives from the hierarchy and organisation of the social
domain) and the capacity of individuals to inﬂuence the structure (i.e. changing the
hierarchy, institutions, rules, regulations, etc.). Therefore structure and agency
are complementary, and individuals or collectivities are perfectly capable, and pos-
sess the power to change the social structures they are embedded in. Will the re-
positioning of the agents between language and power take place according to
increasing proﬁciency in the ofﬁcial language? Will an improved knowledge of the
Estonian language result in the increased capacity of Russian-speaking teachers to
bring social change to their schools, communities and educational system as a
whole? A constructivist approach to ofﬁcial language learning shifts the motivation
pattern from instrumental to integrative and makes it easier for learners to ﬁnd inner
resources and overcome resistance to learning. Constructivist approach focuses on
the learner as an individual and fosters his/her competitiveness within the existing
opportunity structure and power relations, but does it ‘unlock [the] agency of indi-
viduals’ (Somekh 2006, 21) and empower the participants in action research or just
serve the purposes of social control and domination? We share the concerns of
Somekh (2006, 23) that collaboration in action research and in mentoring pairs,
‘should not aim to “empower” the teachers by introducing them into new
understandings of our world’, but rather be based on mutual engagement and
‘commitment to doing things together’ (Somekh 2006, 24).
The participants of the research conferences have strongly emphasised mutually
enriching interpersonal relations in mentoring dyads. This was the issue the partici-
pants valued most of all throughout the whole programme. It seems to us that the
Educational Action Research 601
ofﬁcial language has become a tool (and a purpose) in the construction of a ‘produc-
tive community of practice’ (Somekh 2006, 24). The mentoring programme as a sub-
ject for action research has attached a new, positive meaning to the Estonian language
and to language learning as an ‘act of doing’. It was not only the progress in language
learning, but also collaboration within the action research around the ofﬁcial language
learning that served as an impetus for the personal and professional growth of the
teachers and empowerment of the teachers’ agency. Language learning was a mediat-
ing process for putting together social actions, including (inter)cultural explorations.
In our opinion, interpersonal relations constituted a ‘powerful’ layer in the mentoring
programme, and its potential was reinforced by the constructivist social learning
approach and the respective micro-level structural settings of the programme.
The second issue we are concerned about is the essence of new knowledge and
skills generated in the action research and the sustainability of the change – would
the ‘productive community of change’ preserve and develop further its potential?
Pursuant to our observations during the research conferences, the actionable knowl-
edge generated during the research included both the ‘“intellectual” and “emotional
mode”’ (Elliott 2004, 21–3, cited in Somekh 2006, 29). The ‘emotional mode’
served as a foundation for further exploration by means of social language learning.
We expect that the actionable knowledge acquired by Russian-speaking educators
will be transferred through teaching practices and social actions (being embedded in
the teachers’ everyday professional activities) to the broader minority teachers’ and
pupils’ communities. We also believe that the ‘emotional mode’ of the actionable
knowledge will also be mediated to bilingual classrooms, bringing on transforma-
tional change to Russian-speaking schools.
The local conclusion to be drawn based on the educational action research is that a
Russian-speaking teacher in Estonia would beneﬁt greatly from a constructivist
social ofﬁcial language learning approach. Within the contextual settings analysed in
the article, a constructivist social learning mentoring programme based on apprecia-
tive inquiry, threshold concepts and intercultural learning has proved to be effective.
This conclusion is based on the objective factors documented by the teachers and
their mentors – that is, their career progress, the passing of Estonian language exam-
inations successfully, the commencement of delivering their subjects in Estonian,
teachers beginning to write articles in Estonian and participating in Estonian-medium
in-service training – but it is also based on examining the methods by which the
teachers have established a positive self-identity and managed to overcome any inter-
nal resistance and develop a positive attitude towards Estonian language learning.
More generally, the case supports the advocacy by action researchers of the via-
bility of action research as a means of professional development, and it shows par-
ticularly its value in situations where policy shifts are aligned to changes in
national identity as well as pedagogy.
The action research was based on the two-year mentoring programme co-ﬁnanced from
the European Social Fund: Mentori toel individuaalse keeleõppe projekt (‘Keeleõppe
arendamine 2007–2010’ tegevuse 5.7. ‘Vene õppekeelega haridusasutuste pedagoogide ja
juhtide eesti keele õpe’) [Project on individual language learning with the assistance of
602 T. Kiilo and D. Kutsar
mentors (‘Development of language learning 2007–2010’ Action 5.7. ‘Estonian language
learning for teachers and administrators of the education institutions, with Russian as the
language of instruction’)].
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