Education in Sweden: false ideas, weak training, limited support

Education in Sweden: false ideas, weak training, limited support

Are you just going to write about how lazy Swedish teachers are?”
Swedish teacher, to me.

My posts on Swedish education so far have criticised behaviour and pedagogy harshly.  It might seem that I blame teachers.  I don’t.  I agree with Jonas Linderoth, who criticises:

School debaters, pedagogical researchers, officials, unions, teacher educators and politicians…  (Dagens Nyheter (paywall, Swedish)).”

Teachers should be well-informed, teach challenging lessons and maintain good behaviour.  It’s hard to blame them for struggling to do so if they have to overcome false ideas, weak training and limited support.  Swedish teachers labour under all three burdens.

False ideas

Per Kornhall cites research which notes the School Inspectorate criticised high-performing schools in the Nineties for being ‘too knowledge-focused’ (Skolvärlden (Swedish)). What has been promoted instead?  Sverigesradio devoted an episode of ‘Psykobabblarna’ to ‘Kommunikoligi’.

Communes spend great sums on courses in which, for example, leaders do creeping exercises to become better decision-makers.  Even school pupils have crept around the classroom and done cross-motions that allegedly facilitate their learning.”

These leaders got away lightly compared to staff at Värmdö Archipelago School, in which a compulsory ‘kommunikologi’ course included an exercise in telepathy (Svergiesradio, Swedish).

This is not an isolated incident: an array of false ideas are floating around Sweden education.  Isak Skogstad has described the sway held by a series of trends: individualisation, digitalisation, entrepreneurial learning and learning styles, spread by the academy, politicians and school leaders.  My favourite example is Skogstad’s investigation of entrepreneurial learning.  Skolverket, the National Agency for Education, argues that entrepreneurial learning

“promotes ‘competence in decision-making, communication and collaboration’ and ‘stimulates fantasy and creativity’.  I contacted Skolverket to ask what evidence lay behind their claims… The agency referred to a research compilation on entrepreneurial learning.  In this presentation there was nothing which supported Skolverket’s claims, but it says that ‘no study has been so longitudinal that it can safely identify the effectiveness of entrepreneurial approaches in school.”

Meanwhile, he notes, learning styles are promoted by the Schools Inspectorate and the National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools (Axess, Swedish).

Neuromyths and nonsense abound, promoted by those agencies and authorities which should be responsible for providing teachers with an accurate understanding of learning.

Ineffective training

I have not yet heard of anyone in Sweden preparing teachers to actually teach (I would love to see this refuted).  I have argued previously that preparation for teaching must involve practising teaching.  Yet teachers enter the classroom with extensive qualifications in subject knowledge, a good deal of theory of education – and absolutely no practical experience.  One new teacher stated that in several year, there had been neither training nor even discussion of classroom management.  If trainers do not prepare teachers to practise teaching, they are failing to prepare them at all.

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Leadership

Support from school leaders for teachers is weak.  According to TALIS, one third of Swedish teachers report never receiving feedback (against an international average of 12%).  The OECD argues that ‘principals and their employers do not accord sufficient priority to pedagogical leadership’ (OECD, p.8).  Only 44% of principals often work to ensure teachers improve (against a TALIS average of 69% (OECD, p.43).  Teachers receive their feedback from the principal and “report him/her to be poorly equipped for this tasks” (OECD, p.42).  In discussing behaviour, I referred to the union survey which found that over half of teachers do not feel well-supported by their leaders in maintaining a good classroom environment.  To give a simple example:

In the Schools Inspectorate’s school visits during 2010, a total of 62% of compulsory schools were assessed to have deficiencies when it came to principals’ responsibility for school results being regularly evaluated with the aim of improving the work of the school (Swedish Schools Inspectorate, 2011). Two years later (2012), half of all supervised schools received criticism from the Schools Inspectorate for deficiencies in quality management processes. In most cases, this was related to the principal not following up and analysing school results and using them to define measures (OECD, p.45).”

Yet equally, support for school leaders seems weak.  A challenging administrative workload limits their ability to prioritise pedagogical leadership.  Being a principal is relatively unappealing: their average 50 hour work week exceeds the national and public sector averages significantly.  Pay is low, compared to national and international standards, particularly other tertiary-educated professionals.  As there is no career structure (and salary is individually negotiated): moving schools or jobs can be the way to increase salary (OECD, p.44).  Meanwhile, the training they receive begins only once they have become a principal.

Conclusion

The failings of Swedish teachers are not the failings of teachers.  They are the failings of the institutional architecture which trains, develops and supports them – or doesn’t.  Burdened by false ideas, insufficient training and school leaders who are unable to offer the support they need and deserve, it is hard to see how Swedish teachers can easily improve or develop.

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
V: Constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy
VII: Comparisons with England, conclusions, suggestions

Isak Skogstad has summarised many of the false ideas in Swedish schools in his article, ‘Pseudoscience takes over in schools‘ (Axess, Swedish).
The problems of the Swedish school are set out in some detail by a report commissioned from the OECD by the Swedish Government, ‘Improving Schools in Sweden: an OECD perspective‘.