Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Developments in Sweden

I haven't been writing about all the strange changes in education policy that are taking place in Sweden because the audience of this blog is mostly from the US and, frankly, I just assumed y'all don't give a damn.
But yesterday something happened which is just too weird for me not to comment on it.  A debate article calling for more direct instruction was published in our largest newspaper, DN.
The author? Our secretary of education Jan Björklund.

A little bit of history: 
Contrary to popular belief, Sweden is not very centrally controlled, and education has, since the early nineties, been controlled and paid by individual cities. We have, also since the mid-nineties, a large number of charter schools which operate under laws more lax than perhaps anywhere else in the world. The government occasionally updates the main law of education ("skollagen") and published standards and grading criteria for each course, but since the early nineties government has actively avoided regulating or even advising teachers on how to teach, and even what to teach. Now, however, everything is changing.
I'd say it all started  when Alliansen, our right-wing coalition (our right is still USA left) entered power with the explicit goal of getting rid of the wishy-washy education ideals that the left-wing had established over an (almost uninterrupted) reign of many decades. These wishy-washy ("flummiga") left-wing policies (transmitted to teachers not through laws, but rather through teacher training institutions) had long been emphasizing the individual freedom and responsibility of the students, the importance of social goals in schools, intrinsic motivation, and an avoidance of grades and (in the most extreme instances) homework. In Sweden, children still do not receive grades until 8th grade. For teachers, all this translated into trying to get students to lead their own learning while at the same time creating learning opportunities individualized for each student.

These kind of education policies have fallen into disrepute in part because of convincing research reports that teachers have been unable to implement individualized teaching the way left-wing policy makers have envisioned. Instead, teachers have approached the ideals of student responsibility and individualization with the kind of laissez-faire leadership which is actually the absence of leadership. Students have been assigned project-based group-work with very little structure, or just told to do individual work in the textbook. As a result weak students, left to their own devices, became even weaker. For this and other reasons (charter schools causing the inflation of grades, as an example) Sweden's results in PISA and TIMSS decreased substantially.

So when the right-wing coalition said they wanted to move in a very different direction, emphasizing structure, clear standards, and discipline, many teachers, parents and concerned old-timers felt that finally politicians were talking sense about education. It's likely that this convinced many voters to vote for the right-wing coalition for the first time in their lives. Recently, however, there is an increased awareness that while it certainly appears that Björklund is very sensible in these matters, this is only relative to the utterly unrealistic idealism that the left-wing coalition has been advocating for years. In fact, Björklund, maybe because of his military background (he was never a teacher), is looking for simple and rigid old-school solutions which may solve some problems, but are likely to cause others.

Some reforms which are taking place this year:

  • Grades (letters from F to A)  from 6th grade. 
  • More specific national course plans for all national courses. Schools will no longer be required to produce their own interpretations of national course plans. 
  • New grading system (our third in twenty years), in which it is more difficult to achieve the higher grades. It will be written in prose, however, and it is a challenge and a mystery to most teachers how to use this system for actual grading. 
  • Students in vocational high school programs will no longer be eligible for university education, although the schools will be obliged to offer students additional courses  for eligibility should the students wish so. 
  • Teachers will be required to obtain  a teacher "licence". This is just a word and a document, it does not require any more training or proof of competence than has been required up to now. Yet the unions and the government are sure that this piece of extra bureaucracy will magically increase the status of the teaching profession ("after all, doctors are licensed practitioners, and they have high status and salary"). I think this is a stunning case of correlation mistaken for causation, and I cannot for the life of me recall why, a year ago, I thought this was a brilliant idea. 
And finally, yesterday, Björklund writes that teachers must reclaim the position of authority in the classroom. 
He announces that the government will soon pass a law which states that students have the right to receive continuous and active support from the teacher through structured teaching. This could of course mean many different things, but Björklund explicitly states that the teacher should address the whole class as one group ("undervisning i helgrupp"). He also suggests that the teacher should maintain an active dialog with each student and together investigate different questions and problems. He does not seem to be aware these two suggestions are mutually exclusive; one reason why teachers often divide students into groups is because it is impossible to give each student in a large group sufficient attention and feedback. 

I am, however, not unhappy with this most recent development. For too long has direct instruction had a bad rep, and for too long have teachers struggled to teach every students according to that student's individual needs (and then felt guilty over not being able to meet such an overly ambitious ideal). Good direct instruction has it's place in teaching, as one instrument among many others. In general, what I hope Swedish teachers will take away from all this is that teaching is leading learners in learning, and that even though leading can mean very different things depending on whether one is lecturing or organizing group-work, it is the responsibility of the teacher to maintain control of the learning opportunities presented in class to all students.

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