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.