Dissertation Abstracts

Teachers’ Agency through the Morphogenetic Lens: The Case of Russian-Medium Schools in Estonia

Author: Liudmila Zaichenko, luciazai@tlu.ee
Department: School of Educational Sciences
University: Tallinn University, Estonia
Supervisor: Prof. Krista Loogma; Associate Prof. Meril Umarik
Year of completion: 2024
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: social morphogenesis , neo-institutionalism , Estonia , minority teachers
Areas of Research: Social Transformations and Sociology of Development , Education , Racism, Nationalism and Ethnic Relations


Estonia's post-Soviet transformation since 1991 has been marked by remarkable success in various domains, including education, where it achieved top rankings among OECD member states and the EU in PISA results in 2018. However, this transformation involved both an outward shift towards international institutions and an inward journey to redefine its collective identity, with a focus on addressing the national cultural trauma associated with the Russian-speaking community in Estonia, constituting 26% of the population.

This doctoral dissertation delves into the microcosm of Estonia's parallel education system, specifically Russian-medium schools, as they are linked to the country's Soviet past. While Estonia has redefined its education system over the past three decades in alignment with its national values, Russian-medium schools still coexist alongside Estonian-medium ones, often seen as perpetuating Soviet-era pedagogies, lower PISA results, and disadvantaged career prospects for graduates. This study aims to unravel the agency of teachers in these Russian-medium schools, exploring what they transform, why they do it, and the situational logics that shape their agency.

The research employs a qualitative methodology, combining symbolic interactionism, Archer's middle-range theory of reflexivity, and the grand theory of social morphogenesis. Archer's framework distinguishes between "morphogenesis" (transformation) and "morphostasis" (reproduction) as outcomes generated through situational logics shaped by agents. When consensus among these agents is lacking, the system destabilizes.

The dissertation investigates the following research questions:
- What ideational factors influence teachers' agency in Russian-medium schools in Estonia?
- How do teachers perceive structural and cultural mechanisms shaping their work-related agency?
- What microprojects arise from these perceptions?
- What precisely do these teachers transform in their work-related practices?
- What concerns and interpretations drive teachers' projects and practices towards morphogenetic or morphostatic modes?

The study suggests that the ideational environment, rooted in neo-institutionalism, hampers teachers' agency. This environment, marked by historical memory filters, associates teachers with the past, limiting their transformative potential and leading to routine solutions. Teachers in Russian-medium schools define structural and cultural constraints and resources on regulative, normative, and ideational levels. While they find purpose in serving their community and disadvantaged students, they face inhibiting practices such as teaching in Estonian, policy decisions favoring Estonian instruction, and limited professional development in Russian.

The study identifies several clusters of teachers who transform for pedagogy, culture, community, or personal development. These modes intersect and depend on prevailing values. Teachers' transformative projects align with their value commitments, which can challenge dominant discourses but may not foster socio-cultural cohesion.

This dissertation contributes to the fields of symbolic interactionism, constructivist institutionalism, and critical realism, applying these theories to study the intricate relationships between groups with conflicting trajectories, ideologies, values, and memory regimes. It offers a fresh perspective on understanding the dynamics of diverse groups in a complex socio-cultural landscape.