“Schools need to go back to basics”

The Swedish school system already tried to replace the “knowledge” with “instruction”, understood as the bringing up of children. Thanks to this change where the importance of knowledge was underestimated, Sweden’s results in the basic competencies such as reading had deteriorated very much.

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The trend of disregarding knowledge as the foundation of teaching started in Sweden already in the 1940s. On the initiative of the right-wing politician Gösta Bagge, “instruction” (understood as the bringing up of children) was placed before “knowledge” as the main task of the school: “… the ultimate goal of the school must be not the imparting of knowledge but instruction in the broadest and deepest sense of the word.” The school was to take the place of the church in raising children and turning them into well-functioning and well-behaved citizens. In a government inquiry into grading from 1973, Social Democratic Minister of Education Ingvar Carlsson writes: “The current role of grades as the main basis for selection for further education and employment means that the work in schools risks being orientated towards communicating knowledge and skills.” The idea of “communicating knowledge” now had taken on negative connotations, and during the Liberal Party’s Birgit Rhode’s tenure as Minister of Education in 1978, the word “knowledge” disappeared entirely from the curriculum’s main paragraph: “The school’s most important task is to promote the all-round development of each pupil. In doing so, the school shall endeavour to help pupils develop independence, critical thinking, the ability to cooperate and the desire to act.”

The real change, however, occurred in the 1990s. Teaching “ex cathedra” was now more or less prohibited, if not de jure at least de facto. The passing on of knowledge was seen as outdated and authoritarian, an activity which did not help the students think for themselves. This idea was promoted all over the line: from school debaters and educational researchers to trade unions, teacher trainers and politicians. Traditional teaching from the desk became associated with abuse of power and slavish discipline. The good teacher should instead support the student’s independent learning, classroom work should be based on the student’s natural motivation, boundaries between different subjects should be dissolved and the school’s physical space should be designed to support the student’s own work rather than the teacher’s transferring of knowledge.

All of this had its basis in constructivism, the idea that individuals do not acquire knowledge and understanding by passively perceiving it but construct it through experience and social discourse, integrating new information with what they already know. This ideal tends to lead to a student-centred rather than a teacher-centred instruction where students choose their own projects and are supposed to take responsibility for their own learning. This became more or less dogma in Swedish schools and the curriculum from 1994 contains formulations that students should take personal responsibility for their studies and have the right to some influence in school, not just concerning the methods of teaching but also regarding the content. The curriculum focuses to a very limited extent on teaching and is instead dominated by the concept of learning, which shifts the focus from the teachers to the students. 

This has been given as one of the explanations for the decline in performance in Swedish schools. Teaching patterns have changed from teacher-led lessons to a greater use of work in which students themselves are responsible, for example in the form of their “own work” and where the teacher has the role of supervisor. Information from the National Evaluation as well as from international surveys suggests that during the period 1995-2008, whole-class teaching decreased while the amount of individual work, with or without teacher supervision, increased. In mathematics in particular, the amount of independent work is high. Related to this is differentiated teaching, where the teaching is adapted to each student according to his or her ability. It is widely promoted in Swedish schools even if it lacks scientific support. On the contrary, studies have shown that teacher-led lessons with large elements of joint work, such as reading the same text, reading aloud together, doing the same exercises and having joint discussions promote learning to a larger degree.

Even if the causation is difficult to prove, the correlation is striking. In 2001, Swedish students had the best results in reading comprehension in grade 4 (PIRLS, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) of all 30 participating countries. Five years later, Sweden’s results had deteriorated by 12 points, and five years after that by a further 7 points. Results in reading for 15-year-olds show large declines, and the decline between 2009 and 2012 is particularly significant. This downward trend has continued for the last ten years. So now the pendulum is swinging again and is moving back to the other extreme. On the (right-wing) Swedish Government’s website the following is stated:

“Schools need to go back to basics. We need more order in the classroom and more order in the school system. We need to re-establish a strong knowledge-based school with a focus on factual knowledge and skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. We need a safe school with clear expectations. This is good for everyone – and especially for the children who need school the most.”

The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Instead of choosing between teacher-centred or student-centred instruction, a balanced mix between the two has shown to have the greatest effect, where students acquire skills and knowledge through instruction from the teacher, but at the same time develop their own personal preferences, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and evaluative and self-evaluative perspectives. The ideas from the 1978 curriculum, that students should “develop independence, critical thinking, the ability to cooperate and the desire to act” make sense insofar as the students are also taught a foundation of knowledge and a certain skill set necessary to facilitate this. What is crucial, according to recent studies, is that teachers assume the main responsibility for setting learning objectives, planning work areas and selecting teaching materials, as well as setting the pace of work, but doing so based on students’ varying needs. Research also highlights examples of teachers who actively stimulate students to reflect and analyse themselves by asking open questions about their work, who teach students to ask and answer critical questions themselves, and who support and focus discussions and debates.

By Mathias Tistelgren