Education in Sweden: constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy

Education in Sweden: constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy

Aside from the poor behaviour discussed in my previous post, what actually happens in a Swedish classroom?  Here’s one new teacher’s first day:

Exhausted after four hours introduction.  One student was taken away with a (female) guardian to be fingerprinted by the Migration Agency, another didn’t know how many siblings he had (counted as far as fifteen, not clear whether he himself was included).  NO ONE in Class 7D knew what a craftsman was, and one wondered when we would ‘tell our memories from the summer holidays’ (which I hadn’t planned to do).  All wanted to know where their locker was placed and all except two wanted an ice cream then the van came to visit.”

It would be crass to take a trainee’s first day and pretend it reflects the entirety of Swedish classroom practice.  It does offer tantalising hints about the constraints of curriculum and pedagogy in Sweden however, whether in students’ limited knowledge, the focus on their own experience, or the enthusiasm for the ice-cream van.

The constrained curriculum

A trainee teacher, educated abroad, started me thinking more carefully about the curriculum when she suggested it seemed less challenging in Sweden.  She’s right.  An incredible percentage of Swedish fifteen-year olds say they have never heard discussion of polygons:

Andel elever som uppger att de aldrig har hört talas om polygoner

Sweden, Finland, France, Canada, Poland (OECD, via Isak Skogstad (Swedish))

As Isak Skogstad puts it, “high school maths in Swedish schools is upper elementary maths in most other nations”.  PISA shows that some nations focus on applied maths, some on formal maths.  Sweden is an outlier: it seems to focus on neither.

Källa: OECD (2014a), PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I, Revised edition, February 2014)

The OECD note that:

Sweden shows a mean of less than 0.8 on the index of exposure to formal mathematics, meaning that Swedish students almost never encounter such problems in their mathematics lessons, compared to the highest performer in mathematics in PISA 2012, Shanghai-China with a mean of 2.3, which indicates that students encounter such problems in mathematics lessons sometimes or frequently (OECD, 2014, via Isak Skogstad’s post (Swedish)).”

In part this is due to limited time: among the forty-two participating countries in TIMMS, Swedish students receive the least time in maths

Av samtliga 42 länder som deltar i studien har Sveriges åttondeklassare minst matematikundervisning. Källa: TIMSS

Number of hours of maths education received by 8th Grade students: Sweden, Hungary, Norway, Singapore, China, Chile (TIMMS, via Isak Skogstad’s post)

(The government are now increasing the amount of time spent on maths to address this problem).

The retreat of the teacher

Time is one problem, but even within that time, the teacher’s role has been reimagined radically.  Swedish schools have adopted an “extreme constructivist pedagogy”, in Per Kornhall‘s words.  This can best be summarised by discussing a book published by Professor Jonas Linderoth in August, who set out to “apologise for the pedagogical ideas of the Nineties”.  Linderoth’s guilt is visceral, as he describes the anti-knowledge, anti-teaching messages he spread as a young academic:

Today my whole body shudders in shame when I think of the simplistic and populist message I conveyed.”

Linderoth describes the reforms of the Nineties having “changed the story on what a good teacher is” and undermined the existing teaching corps:

The timeless forms of teaching in which those who are able to do something tell others so that they can too came to be associated with abuse of power and iron discipline.  Instead, the good teacher should support students’ independent learning, classroom work should derive from students’ natural motivation, boundaries between subjects should be dissolved and the school’s physical space should be be designed to support students’ own work rather than teachers’ story-telling.”


Linderoth is particularly critical of an official report from 1992, which set out the new kind of teaching:

The key words to describe students’ activities were exploration and discovery.  The teacher’s role was to stimulate, support and guide.  The report hardly mentions the students’ role to listen and understand, or the teachers’ role to tell, explain and instruct.  Bit by bit the teaching profession’s historical identity and status was removed.”

Those who didn’t embrace this new thinking were said to think problematically, “advocate iron discipline and enjoy giving low grades (All quotations taken from Linderoth’s article in Dagens Nyheter (paywall, Swedish))”.

The results of ‘individualisation’

The consequences of expecting students to work individually and discover things for themselves are unsurprising.  They are clearly visible in a 2009 report by Skolverket, the National Agency for Education.  In a slightly ambiguous discussion of ‘Individualisation’ the report noted that teachers were broadly guided from the 1990s to adapt teaching to pupils needs.  Rather than flexible (and student-led) learning, as was hoped, the result was a “shift of responsibility from teacher to pupil”.  One consequence has been that:

home support for schoolwork (where parents’ level of education and cultural capital are central) has gained increased importance for the performance of individual pupils”

In discussing school choice and residential segregation, I mentioned that too much writing about Swedish education stops short having considered policy.  This is a good example: policy is important in understanding why parental background increasingly affects students’ results, but pedagogical changes are the unexamined side of the coin.

“More and more time is given to work”, Skolverket continue, while “instruction for the whole class is allotted less time”.  Skolverket note with disapproval that this means less group work and no increase in student influence on teaching content.  In due course they reach the underlying point however:

It should not be taken as a given that schoolwork in small groups and independent investigation will necessarily benefit learning and understanding of the natural sciences. Many studies indicate the reverse, that special problems arise when pupils are left on their own to seek information or draw conclusions. Pupils need more teacher support in this endeavour than they actually get.”

Skolverket recognise that the retreat of the teacher has not worked:

When working independently and at their own pace, pupils’ own schoolwork will tend to increase, with the result, in practice, that pupils are left more to themselves without a teacher being actively involved. Taken together, this research has shown that the shift towards more individual schoolwork has not enhanced pupils’ knowledge development.”

Skolverket’s point concurs with Linderoth’s argument: teachers explain less and instruct less; classroom time goes to administration, information and instructions.  Students lose out: they are no longer taught (Skolverket, 2010).


Just as Sweden reshaped the school’s position, it reshaped the role of the teacher.  Given limited time, teachers came to focus on discovery learning and independent work.  As the student’s role and status increased, the teacher retreated.  The catastrophic fall in results in Swedish schools is partly political; it’s also partly pedagogical.

In my next post, I’ll try to explain why this has happened.

The full series:
I I lost faith in the Swedish school system
II Collapsing results in Swedish schools
III Are Sweden’s educational reforms down to disastrous policy reforms?
IV Chaotic behaviour in Swedish classrooms
VI: False ideas, weak training, limited support
VII: Comparisons with England, conclusions, suggestions

Most of the first third of this post, discussing the curriculum, derives from Isak Skogstad’s post, ‘Unique Swedish Maths teaching‘ (Swedish).
The second third of the post, discussing progressive pedagogy in Swedish schools, derives from Jonas Linderoth’s Dagens Nyheter article, ‘I apologise for Nineties pedagogical ideas‘ (Swedish).
The final third derives from Skolverket’s 2010 report, ‘What influences educational achievement in Swedish schools?‘.

I should reiterate my caution from the initial post, that all translations are mine, and all errors remain mine.