Swedish lessons – a warning

The story goes that Sweden was once a bastion of educational excellence. In the 1990s, it embarked upon a series of reforms which included the formation of ‘free schools’ – state funded independent schools, some of which were allowed to run at a profit. This neoliberal fragmentation of a once world-leading system led to a decline in standards and plummeting performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Except that this might not be the whole story. Even Sally Weale of the Guardian points to the fact that discipline is a major issue for Swedish schools and that, “Conservatives… say students have been given too much influence in the classroom, undermining the authority of teachers.” Who are these ‘conservatives’ and what is their case?

It appears that one of them is an academic embedded deep within the Swedish educational establishment. He is Jonas Linderoth, Professor of Education at the University of Gothenburg. He is clear where much of the blame lies – it lies with him and his colleagues and he would like to say sorry.*

He believes that since at least the 1990s, teacher educators, trades unions, academics and politicians have all held to a consensus that undermined the role of the teacher. Standing at the front of the class and explaining things became associated with abuse of power and iron discipline. Instead, teachers were encouraged to foster independent learning: classroom work would be based on a student’s natural motivation and boundaries between different subjects would be removed.

Teachers who were against this new approach and who wanted to teach in a more traditional way were demonised and yet Linderoth now believes that these were the teachers who did most to promote equity because they provided more support for the weakest students and those with the least cultural capital. Linderoth recalls with shame an early presentation that he gave where he claimed to have learnt more English through his interest in music than through school; a presentation accompanied – of course – by Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall”. He now acknowledges that without excellent teachers – teachers you didn’t negotiate with – he might not have gone on to higher education.

I find it interesting that such similar arguments are playing out across the world. We can probably all recognise the demonisation of traditional methods – think “drill and kill” or equating testing to some form of abuse – and the unexamined assumption that student-centered, inquiry methods are superior almost by definition.

And this raises important questions for advocates of Free Schools or their U.S. equivalent, Charter Schools. I am still not convinced by this project. These schools are being sold as a way of freeing teachers from bureaucrats in order to enable them to try different approaches. Yet this didn’t happen in Sweden; the child-centered consensus prevailed. Presumably this was because people with a child-centered philosophy still held enormous power in the system through their roles in teacher education and accreditation. They held it in a python-like grip. There is no point in setting-up a more independent kind of state school if inspectors can close the ones they disapprove of or deregister the teachers who work in them.

This is why we should always be cautious about founding new bureaucracies such as the College of Teaching in England. Ask yourself: who are these people and why do they want this power?

*I have used a mix of Google Translate and Swedish speaking contacts to attempt to understand Linderoth’s argument. If I have lost any nuances as I paraphrase his writing then the fault is entirely mine

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13 Comments on “Swedish lessons – a warning”

  1. I couldn’t find any mention of discipline or behaviour in the links where you’ve mentioned it. I’m not particularly sceptical of that factor as a teacher myself who’s forced to use many of these methods but more OECD evidence would be grand.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    How Does Teacher Atonement Play Out?

    Diane Ravitch was asked a number of times to retract or apologize or atone for the many positions she championed during her long career as education historian and chronicler, and then totally reversed. But, I believe she never did said “Sorry”. For example she did support charter schools, and now doesn’t.

    Bill Honig, a California school superintendent, left that job upon being disciplined (misdemeanors) and did hundreds of hours of community service — taught reading and math to 5th graders for two years, volunteered at teachers’ colleges and improved vocational education for middle school students.

    This is a field — wrong-headedness or poor modelling in education — that needs more gathering of cases so that a literature can be assembled as more cases appear.

    Not only should educators be held accountable for harm they do and have done, but also there is the biblical enjoinder — Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1) — signalling that teachers should be held to even higher account than others.

    Now we have a Swedish professor admitting his role in the hysteria that plays out to this day of the child-centered fad from the 1990s in schools systems across the globe. What’s going to happen to Linderoth? Will he be brutally squelched or will this snowball with more confessions? Consider: The harm was done not only to teachers from misguided teacher training (remember Daisy Christodoulou’s experience of betrayal by her “training”) but to the generations of students in their charge from the 1990s to today (25 years!).

    • Tempe says:

      Yes, I feel it’s the students who really deserve some mention. It’s awful to think how many lives were possibly ruined by these terrible ideas.

  3. David says:

    Hi Greg,

    Have you been able to reach out to Dr. Linderoth to see what he thinks of this?

    Here in the US, we have a real problem with charters vs. public vs vouchers. On the negative side of charters, a recent report looking at how money was spent of the 173 charter schools in Pennsyvania found that admin expenditures were double for charters, while top executives were paid far more than in the public system. See here: https://www.psba.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Charter-School-RtK-08172016.pdf and here: http://articles.philly.com/2016-08-20/news/75073201_1_charter-schools-traditional-public-schools-expenditures

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    What Is The Form Rehabilitation Of The “Demonized” Will Take?

    This confession from Jonas Linderoth is momentous!

    Surely we can hope that other educators will stand with him in support of calling out this “dumbing-down”. What is happening in America right now testifies to the harm done to several generations of citizens and students of that same teacher-training process Linderoth denounces.

    Yes, a public apology in all these affected jurisdictions would go a long way to restoring evidence-based standard practices in teaching. Especially now that we have cognitive science to help replace discredited practices, these public expressions of dissatisfaction will go a long way to improve standards.

    About rehabilitation of those teachers who did not buy-in to the latest fads, these apologies will certainly be helpful. I remember the story of Jeanne Chall. Here is the quote from Marilyn Jager Adams in a foreword to one of Chall’s books:

    “ . . . reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues . . . Sadly, however, as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it. Chall was treated most shabbily . . . “

    Best wishes go out to Jonas Linderoth in Sweden in his brave stance. Hope he has a thick skin!

    http://www.thelocal.se/20160825/sweden-teachers-apologize-professor-jonas-linderoth

  5. Mike says:

    Urgh…”Another Brick in the Wall”.

    I’ve always said that the main man responsible for the harebrained rush from teacher authority over the past forty years is not Vygotsky, Freire, Dewey or any of the other usual suspects. It’s Roger bloody Waters. A massive hit single with a vapid but incredibly seductive message, released at a period of intense self-doubt across the western world. And the rest is history.

  6. Tunya Audain says:

    Who Is Mr BIG In Education Destruction?

    Yes, Vygotsky, Freire and Dewey played their part in turning schools away from teacher and knowledge authority to child-centered discovery approaches. Don’t forget Piaget and Rousseau. Now Mike says the main man was Roger Waters who helped release the prophetic “Brick in the Wall” lament!

    Tumbling academic school scores result.

    I’ve always thought Mr BIG was Edward Bellamy who wrote the utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward in 1888. The book gained worldwide circulation and inspired many efforts at state central planning. In schools children were carefully monitored for their emerging talents then assigned to equal-pay work in the vast Industrial Army.

    Translations of this American novel soon appeared in Danish, Swedish, German, Dutch, French. If you check the used books lists you will see many inexpensive issues were produced for school reading assignments over the last decades. Perhaps we should see a revival of this novel for the sake of discussion as to its practical applications to social and economic affairs in this day and age.

    Jonas Linderoth points to the malady as originating in teacher colleges. This is where we should focus our examination on causes and logic behind the shift in educational practices. Are we really preparing the young for the 21st Century as claimed? Which vision is that?

  7. Bart says:

    I don’t competition for students in the neoliberal environment can be excused of it’s role in encouraging ‘innovative’ teaching. Any quick read of private school brochures, including some very exclusive ones, will gladly highlight how innovative they are.

  8. […] they will only ever be of niche value; a cottage-industry for the sharp-elbowed. If we examine the case of Sweden, we might conclude that Free Schools became dominated by the same monolithic student-centred […]

  9. […] poor ones. I know that’s meant to be the point – the market should do the sorting. But what of Sweden? Its autonomous schools all chased each other down the same rabbit […]


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