The toxic ideological cocktail that poisoned Swedish schools

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Kindly helpers have pointed me towards a new working paper from Magnus Henrekson and Johan Wennström. Henrekson is a professor of economics and heads the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Sweden. Wennström is a journalist, former government adviser and PhD student. They are concerned with the state of Swedish education.

I have written about Swedish education before. No doubt, there has been a decline in standards, but it can be hard to figure out why. My knowledge of the system has been largely based on third person accounts, speculation and a newspaper article by a Swedish professor that I had translated using Google (and which now appears to be paywalled).

With their paper, Henrekson and Wennström have provided much needed detail and they have been kind enough to publish it in English. It is a compelling read.

Previously, there have been two arguments about Sweden. The first is that any decline in standards is entirely due to a set of neoliberal reforms that saw the introduction of parent choice and school vouchers. However, it seems equally legitimate to point, as I have done, to the highly progressivist view of education espoused in Sweden and wonder whether this is the main cause.

Henrekson and Wennström contend that the problem is a toxic mix of both market reforms and educational philosophy. Rather than identifying this philosophy as the tradition of educational progressivism, they see it as an enactment of the more recent ideologies of social constructivism and postmodernism. This makes a lot of sense given the remarkably explicit questioning of the nature of truth that is present in many of the official documents they draw upon. Both progressivism and social constructivism have near identical implications for education and so the distinction hardly matters, yet it does raise in my mind an interesting question about the impact of progressivism in Sweden prior to the second world war.

A point the authors make that particularly resonated with me is about the delay between a change in governing philosophy and effects in the classroom. This delay became apparent when I researched the history of the phonics debate for The Truth About Teaching. Referring to the teaching of reading in the U.S., I wrote:

“Teachers generally work alone with groups of students and so it can be hard to determine exactly what approach is typical. It seems likely that teachers hold on to practices that they have found to be successful, long after experts have starting advocating for an alternative; an effect that will always confound attempts to be definitive about how reading is being taught at any given time. What is clear is that by the middle of the of the 20th century, expert consensus had coalesced around a whole-word approach to reading.”

However, once the grizzled old teachers die-off and there is nobody left who remembers the old ways, the revolution can really get going.

Similarly, after outlining the documentary evidence from Swedish education bills stretching back many years that shows official disdain for a knowledge rich curriculum, subject disciplines and teacher authority, Henrekson and Wennström ask why Swedish education managed to remain strong for as long as it did.

“Against this background, one might wonder why a deterioration of knowledge among Swedish pupils cannot be detected before the 1990s… We argue that the main reason is that more senior teachers upheld a traditional teaching culture.”

We do not yet know what effect the levers that were pulled in the early 2000s in the UK, US and Australia will have on education into the future.

There are also strong resonances in the paper with the situation in England where until quite recently, Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, used to enforce progressivist teaching methods:

“The Swedish Schools Inspectorate regularly expresses its disapproval of schools that teach in a traditional way and according to a classical view of knowledge.”

Sweden, however, takes this to the next level. Progressivism/constructivism opposes the idea of fixed bodies of knowledge, preferring a more nebulous concept of skill development. This logic leads to schools developing their own grading systems that are highly subjective and fluid and yet no less important for students and their futures. It is notable that, whilst Sweden has slipped down international rankings, there had been rampant grade inflation of these school-assigned grades. Why would there not be? A competitive market creates the incentive for schools to give students and their parents what they want.

Where else do we see this weird mixture of free markets and educational progressivism? The authors contend that the U.S. could be heading down a similar path. It is certainly the direction I sense that many involved in edtech, personalised learning and the like would wish to take us, so there is plenty to think about.

Henrekson and Wennström have produced an excellent and enlightening paper. I urge you to read it.

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10 thoughts on “The toxic ideological cocktail that poisoned Swedish schools

  1. Interesting parallels with NZ’s system since the introduction of NCEA in 2002. Similar motivations, I think, and also similar reliance on teacher grading, similar grade inflation, and similar declines against international measures.

    1. And in NZ we have the added issue of culturally responsive pedagogies, and their close alignment with social constructivist theories which are the preferred method for closing the achievement gap.

  2. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This is indeed a very relevant paper that adds to the insights I once shared from Per Kornhall: https://theeconomyofmeaning.com/2016/04/24/this-talk-by-per-kornhall-at-researched-about-education-in-sweden-is-a-mustsee/

    This excerpt from the conclusion of the paper is also quite damning:

    The sharp rise in absenteeism, ADHD diagnoses, depression, and anxiety among Swedish pupils is not unexpected in a learning environment that continuously overloads the pupils’ working memory, as they have to piece together information on their own. Supporting evidence for the view that the postmodern, social-constructivist paradigm has contributed to the increase in psychiatric disorders among Swedish adolescents comes from Québec.
    Haeck, Lefebvre, and Merrigan (2014) found that hyperactivity, anxiety, and physical aggression increased among Québecois pupils relative to pupils in the rest of Canada following a school reform in Québec in the early 2000s that was similar to the Swedish reforms.

    1. Hello Pedro, I’ve searched for the passage you have stated here about Quebec’s rise in hyperactivity and anxiety, etc., following their school reforms in the early 2000s, but I’m unable to find the study from whence it came. I read this study https://lirias2repo.kuleuven.be/bitstream/id/162764/;jsessionid=63243451A141A297792AFAF17198F2E9, but did not find this passage in the conclusion. If you could kindly link to the study you have referenced, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

  3. Great post. So many ways of looking at this. From a living systems perspective, schools respond badly to political reformation and other disturbances. Politicians rarely manage anything well and Sweden is a classic example of ideology dominating common sense and creating a wicked mess.

  4. Your earlier piece on Phonics and the time it takes for older teachers to “age out of the system” reminded me of our daughter’s kindergarten year. We had just moved to California and went to the Meet the Teacher night. The nice older lady who would be teaching Kindergarten class gave a talk to parents about how children would be doing some early learning in reading, and that the school uses a Whole Language program of instruction, so children will learn to pick up on “contextual clues” etc etc.

    We were just learning at the time about Whole Language, which was the rage in those years (mid 1990s), and tried to keep an open mind. My wife being a Junior High School teacher was aware of the issues and was halfway through a book on whole language. But something was puzzling about the materials that was coming home …

    During the first parent/teacher meeting a few weeks into the year we went in and said to the teacher “It’s funny, we’re sure you said the kids would be learning Whole Language, but the stuff we see her bringing home looks like phonics to us. The teacher took us aside and confessed “Don’t blow my cover! I TELL everyone they’re learning Whole Language and it keeps the admin people happy because they can’t tell the difference. I actually teach phonics because it’s the only thing that works with kids this age.

    I have to say that our daughter’s Grade 1 teacher was a very nice young lady (and a talented teacher) who did strictly follow Whole Language, and our child thrived in both years. However after Grade 1 she did have an awful time with spelling for a few years.

  5. It’s uncanny… or not. The same can be applied to France, pretty much word for word. Focus on skill development rather than knowledge, global reading (although the new government has stated that only the syllabic method has any merit, but wil they be able to implement it, given the power of the French pedagogists?), grade inflation…

    Of course, thtis doesn’t applu to private schools, especially not to those where the powerful and mighty send their children – and I’m not even exaggerating.

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