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Visiting Scholar from Estonia Conducts Research on Early Childhood Education

Article about visiting scholar Aino Ugaste from Estonia

by Joe Savrock (January 2008)
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Aino Ugaste, associate professor of early childhood education  at Tallinn University in Estonia, spent a month during the fall semester at Penn State as a visiting scholar. She worked with James E. Johnson, professor-in-charge of Early Childhood Education (ECE).

Ugaste’s expertise is the Vygotskian social development theory. While earning a Ph.D. in educational science from Research Institute of Early Childhood Education of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (in Moscow) in 1987, she studied with disciples of Lev Vygotsky, who theorized that social interaction plays a key role in the development of cognition. Ugaste earned a second doctorate of educational science in 2005 from Finland’s University of Jyväskylä.

“Aino’s interests in democratic values come from Estonia's liberation from Soviet rule in recent history,” said Johnson. “Her mother spent five years in Siberia, as they were Finnish and lived in Russia, on the Finnish border. Stalin’s policy prescribed the deportation of other nationalities—for example Jews, Czechs, and Finnish—from their home to remote Siberia. Her mother and her two sisters were lucky to survive Siberia and returned to Estonia.”

During her recent visit to Penn State, Ugaste collaborated with the ECE program on the teaching and research of democratic values with respect to play and creativity. In November, she traveled with Johnson and several ECE graduate students to Chicago to attend the National Association for the Education of Young Children Annual Conference. She delivered an address entitled “The International Perspective on Estonian Early Childhood Education Teacher Education.”

“While visiting America, I learned that there is a great interest in the issues of the development of early childhood education,” said Ugaste. “It was interesting to learn about the rearing and education of children of different cultures and those with special needs. My meetings and talks with people connected to early childhood education indicated that, although there are thousands of kilometers between the States and Estonia, we all still worry about common problems—the cooperation between the kindergarten and family, early childhood curriculum, the personality of the early childhood education teacher, and work motivation.”

Ugaste has studied changes in preschool teachers’ values and attitudes before and after the fall of the Soviet Union and has found trends toward greater beliefs in progressive education and a more open society. “I am familiar with the issues of early childhood education in the former Soviet Union,” she said, “and with the issues of education in Scandinavia and Western Europe. The visit to America gave me valuable new knowledge and experience on the development features of the early childhood education in the open democratic society.”

With Johnson, Ugaste plans to add an international dimension in a research project titled “Democratic Values and Social Play Study.” The main goal of the USA–Estonian research is to investigate democratic and educational values in the society and the development of social play in young children.

Johnson has been invited to present at Tallinn University in April for that institution’s 40th anniversary of its ECE department.