For anyone even half-paying attention to Sweden’s school debate, this April Fools' felt like Groundhog Day—but it was hardly a laughing matter. For the second time in a matter of months, Swedish 15-year-olds failed to make the grade in an OECD Pisa study. While in December their maths and reading skills came in below average, this time around, Swedish teens “underachieved” with their problem-solving skills.
As the parent of two children who will likely receive the bulk of their primary and secondary education in Sweden, I too find myself concerned over Sweden’s poor Pisa results. However, I’ve so far resisted the temptation to hop onto any particular solution bandwagon, in part because I’ve only got a couple years of experience with the Swedish school system under my belt, and in part because I’m inherently sceptical of policy solutions trotted out during an election year.
But a letter I received from one of my son’s teachers, and read just hours before the April Fools' Pisa results were announced, exemplifies what I sense is at least part of the problem with Sweden’s schools.
The letter, emailed to all the parents in my son’s second grade class, is essentially a cry for help from a teacher who clearly feels she's exhausted all other options.
“Most of the kids in class talk and interrupt when someone else is speaking,” she explains, adding that during a recent lesson the kids “talked to each other and didn’t listen to warnings from me”.
“After countless attempts to calm things down, I decided to wait them out. It is after all their lesson time and their time to learn and if they choose not to listen to instructions or when I or another adult or peer is speaking, they have only themselves to blame.”
The teacher then revealed that this class of eight- and nine-year-olds often turn up to class 15 minutes late and that a culture among the kids of “always blaming each other” has resulted in hurt feelings and tears.
“Is this something we can try to work together to solve?” she begs, adding the last thing she wants it to be a “screaming teacher”.
“My wish is that you parents talk to your children at home about how one should behave,” she writes.
“Feel free to also talk to your child and hear what they think can be done so that lessons are more peaceful. I'll be more than happy to receive suggestions from the students as long as they can be followed.”
As I read the letter, my jaw dropped further with each passing line, while countless questions started popping into my head.
Had the teacher been clear about what boundaries and what the consequences of crossing those boundaries were? What sort of punishment awaited students who talked out of turn? How was talking to my child about events that I didn’t witness going to help the situation? Why were children allowed to show up to class 15 minutes late?
Maybe the teacher was simply inexperienced in how to deal with class of 25 kids. But it concerns me to know that someone who lacks skills fundamental to the teaching profession is allowed in the classroom in the first place.
What worries me even more, however, is that this poor teacher felt so helpless that she resorted to asking us parents for help solving her problems in the classroom – and that no one in the school administration stepped in to help. How can it be that a teacher can’t find the support and guidance she needs from other educators at the school? And how is it that none of her supervisors or school administrators managed to stop her before she made an even bigger fool of herself in front of us parents than she has in front of our kids.
Another parent I know lamented that the letter was “too pathetic to be true” and asked simply, what has the teacher done to demand the kids’ respect? Based on the email and a rather half-hearted talk with my son, the only plausible answer is: nothing.
This incident, as well as others I've experienced and read about in the past year, leave me with the feeling that kids are simply given too much leeway and, frankly, too much responsibility at too young an age. The assumption (mistaken) if you ask me, is that avoiding direct confrontation and punishment helps kids by reducing the risk of hurting their self-esteem. But teachers don't do their students any favours by refusing to set boundaries and enforcing them, even if it means upsetting the kids.
Letting young kids take charge doesn't make them good leaders if they aren't also given parameters within which to exercise that power – or have the understanding that, ultimately, the teachers are in charge.
If teachers are afraid or don’t know how to gain and maintain students' respect, it’s not so strange that students fail to show respect for teachers, and, by extension, the lessons they are trying to teach. And if teachers are so unimaginative or hamstrung when it comes to finding solutions to the problems they face in the classroom, than is it any surprise that Swedish students' problem solving skills aren’t what they should be?
Now some pundits may read this account and conclude that teachers need more training and stricter certification before being allowed in the classroom, while others will argue it shows that schools lack the resources to provide students with a positive learning environment.
Frankly, I’m not sure what the solution is, but I do know that we can’t expect Swedish pupils to improve their problem solving abilities until politicians and educators get going at improving theirs.