12 MARCH 2015

Peeter Mehisto

Peeter Mehisto is a visiting research associate at the Institute of Education, University College London. He has worked internationally with a wide variety of stakeholders to guide the development of bilingual and trilingual programmes. Peeter has researched factors contributing to successful bilingual programme development, as well as potential barriers to their implementation and taught at primary, secondary and university levels. He has extensive experience working with teachers in the classroom to support the implementation of best practice in bilingual programmes and has won several awards for his work including his publications. His previous book published by Cambridge University Press is entitled Excellence in Bilingual Education: A Guide for School Principals.

Could you tell us a little about your background?

Early in my career, I worked as a teacher and as the head of a language department in a Canadian collegiate. Later, I worked for government in Estonia, first in foreign affairs and then in education. I developed a strong interest in how people lead and manage the implementation of aspirational policies. I helped bring stakeholders together to create a legislative translation centre. The centre helped Estonia meet one major prerequisite to accession to the European Union – the translation of Estonian legislation into English and EU legislation into Estonian. Working with stakeholders, I also helped spearhead other change initiatives such as the development of a bilingual Estonian language immersion programme. I returned to university on two occasions – once to obtain an MA in strategic management with a focus on bilingual education, and next to obtain a PhD in navigating the management and pedagogical complexities of bilingual education. My work continues to focus on supporting stakeholders in building robust bi/trilingual education programmes and systems, be that at the school, regional or national levels.     

Why did you become interested in education research?

As a practitioner, my bilingual education colleagues and I sought out knowledge arising from research in order to underpin the changes we were planning. We felt accountable to students, parents and government and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that the programme we were implementing was applying best practices. We wanted to co-construct tried and tested bilingual learning environments. We wanted to be on solid ground.

Bilingual education is complex. It requires deeper order thinking. One needs to understand context and a myriad of other factors that can influence programmes. One needs to engage and learn with stakeholders, understand, articulate and organise related complexities in a manner that stakeholders can process with relative ease. It was the desire to develop a broader and deeper understanding of bi/trilingual education and my own capacity to think critically and analyse other people’s research that fostered my interest in conducting research. I focus on understanding as an integral whole the pedagogical and management complexities of bi/trilingual education.    

What do you find most interesting about working on international projects?

When people invite in an outsider, it is often because they wish to have a fresh perspective on their practices. It is a privilege to able to delve into how diverse schools and education systems are developing bi/trilingual programmes. Importantly, many of these education officials or school communities are open to learning and change. It is particularly rewarding to able to contribute to that learning and resulting change processes even in a small way. International work is also always an exceptional opportunity to learn from others.   

What tips would you give to educators and policy makers involved in bilingual education programmes?

Become familiar with research on the benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education so discussions and decision-making can be grounded in knowledge as opposed to assumptions.  

Engage stakeholders (any group, organisation or individual that is affected by or can affect your programme).  Place research knowledge and stakeholder learning including student learning and wellbeing at the centre of discussions. Let that knowledge, learning and principle lead you. Be frank about the challenges. Learn from those who have already experienced bi/trilingual education. Believe in, listen to and value your students, their parents, their teachers, and school and government officials. Agree on everyone’s role and recognise everyone’s contribution. 

What prompted your collaboration with Fred Genesee?

It was prompted by Fred Genesee’s reputation as a renowned researcher in bilingual education. Some 17 years ago when Estonian stakeholders were exploring the possibility of developing a bilingual programme, we sought Fred’s advice. Fred had conducted seminal research into bilingual and trilingual education.  

He helped us understand what we could expect from programmes and what we might need to invest in them. He didn’t exaggerate. He was frank about the challenges. He continued to work with us over the years. He guided our researchers and met with politicians who sought to learn about bilingual education.   

I have worked with Fred in Estonia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Spain. International work can be intense. Fred approaches the work calmly. He recognises and acknowledges best practices. He is also capable of being frank, and doing this in a constructive manner: the initial steps to solving any problem and to making the most of any development opportunity are seeing them and naming them in a manner that is respectful of those involved. Importantly, when exploring options and proposing solutions Fred’s thinking is concise, precise and systematic. These are particularly important qualities especially if one is writing and editing a book on building bilingual education systems.

Why is this book important?

The book is unique is several ways. It is rich in detail. This includes those forces, mechanisms and counterweights that often influence bi/trilingual programmes and systems. Moreover, despite painting a complex picture, the complexities are organised in tables which facilitate their cognitive processing and future use.

The book includes Case Studies from five continents. This helps the reader see how diverse contexts can influence programmes in different and possibly unexpected ways. Some of these Case Studies draw heavily on research while others describe in detail how programmes were developed. The book also includes Voices From the Field – these are personal accounts from people who have worked or are working in bilingual education. They offer solid advice. Finally, the book offers Tools that have been or are being used to build, manage and lead successful bi/trilingual education programmes and systems.

Bilingual Education Systems is edited and co-authored by Peeter Mehisto and Fred Genesee and also contains chapters by: Diane J. Tedick, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, Jamie Leite, Raquel Cook, Yolanda Ruiz de Zarobe, Gwyn Lewis, Rick de Graaff, Onno van Wilgenburg, Fatima Badry, Antoinette Camilleri Grima, Anne-Marie de Mejía, and Kathleen Heugh. In addition, the book includes views from the field from current and former government officials, from programme managers, parents, and a trustee and head teacher.

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