Update: Swedish professor apologizes for twenty years of educational ideology.
Here’s the original article written by Jonas Linderoth which he decided, almost 7 years after it was written, to translate (with support from GPT4) due to my tweet about it.
Not only in the Netherlands are people (rightly) concerned about the growing teacher shortage. In Sweden, too, the school year starts with concerned reports about the shortage of teachers. A notable contribution to the start of the school year (2016) came from Jonas Linderoth, Professor of Education at the University of Gothenburg. The core of his piece in Dagens Nyheter: I apologize for what I have done to education over the past twenty years.
[Suggested title:] One reason for the low status of the teaching profession is the educational ideas of the 90s
[The title the copy editor gave it: I apologize for the educational ideas of the 90s]
[Preamble, written by the copy editor] Behind the low status of the teaching profession. The educational ideas of the 90s did not lead to a better school. Despite this, it’s very silent among us educational researchers who have contributed to undermining the teaching profession. Perhaps it would be appropriate for us to make amends. It would be a significant contribution to raising the status of the teaching profession in Sweden, writes Professor Jonas Linderoth.
The start of the term this year has been followed by gloomy reports about the teacher shortage in Swedish schools. Trained teachers are leaving the profession and far too few students are choosing teaching careers. Principals are searching high and low for someone willing to take on a classroom. The situation is very concerning. Within a few years, there will be a shortage of thousands of qualified teachers in Swedish schools. From a political standpoint, the cure is economic control. More flexible, and unequal, salary setting is supposed to raise the status of teachers and attract more people to the profession.
What is completely overlooked in the debate is how the school reforms of the past twenty years (such as municipalization, goal steering, organization in work teams, F-9 schools, the establishment of charter schools, the free school choice, etc.) have fundamentally changed the narrative of who the good teacher is. Strangely enough, the 1990s reforms in Swedish schools were launched — almost systematically — with pedagogical, rather than economic, arguments.
School debaters, educational researchers, officials, unions, teacher trainers, and politicians put forth arguments about the good school of tomorrow. Arguments that undermined the identity of the existing teaching profession. The timeless form of teaching where someone who knows something tells it to someone who doesn’t know became associated with the abuse of power. Instead, a good teacher was someone who supported the student’s independent learning. Classroom work was to be based on the student’s natural motivation. Boundaries between different subjects should be dissolved. Classrooms were to be physically designed to support students’ independent work rather than supporting instruction.
Teachers who did not adopt these pedagogical innovations were said to have problematic epistemologies, advocate blind discipline, and enjoy giving low grades to students. In my own teacher training in the 1990s, teachers who advocated instruction were associated with the fictional, sadistic teacher called “Caligula” in Alf Sjöberg’s film Torment. We students received the message that we were not to become like these teachers. We were to become something else that fundamentally transformed Swedish schools.
In 1993, professor Alison King described the emerging new teacher role in a now-classic article. The teacher would no longer be a wise person standing on a stage but a guide who accompanies on the side (The sage on the stage to a guide on the side). King believed that this changed teacher role led to independent, critically thinking students who could solve problems creatively. Around the same time, mathematics professor Seymour Papert, an influential pioneer of digital learning, claimed that the lecturing teacher often stood in the way of the student’s own curiosity. Instead, the goal of a teacher was to teach in such a way that they could achieve the greatest possible learning with the least possible teaching.
In Sweden, these ideas had been formalized as early as 1992 when the committee tasked with developing a new Swedish curriculum delivered its main report, Skola för bildning (SOU 1992:94). The keywords that described the student’s activity in this report were: investigate and discover. The teacher’s tasks were to stimulate, support, and guide. The report hardly mentions a student role that listens and understands or a teacher role that tells, explains, and instructs. Bit by bit, the historical identity and status of the teaching profession were dismantled.
I myself have unwittingly contributed to weakening the teaching profession in this way. As a new doctoral student, I spoke at Kulturhuset (house of culture) in Stockholm during a conference. Under the theme “Experience for Knowledge,” I told anecdotes such as: “I learned more English through my interest in music than in school.” At the start of my presentation, I showed pictures of happy children playing, while I let Pink Floyd’s classical line “We don’t need no education” roar in the speaker system. Today, I shudder with shame when I think of the simplistic and populist message I conveyed. The truth is that if I hadn’t had fantastic teachers during my high school years, I probably wouldn’t have continued to higher education. Instructive, narrative, and demonstrative teachers were thus a prerequisite for me to spread my anti-teaching message.
Today, we can see the results of the 1990s pedagogical “enlightenment.” Studies such as PISA and TIMSS provide clear evidence that Swedish schools have deteriorated in a way that is unparalleled in international measurements. Researchers Jan-Eric Gustafsson, Sverker Sörlin, and Jonas Vlachos write in their report Policy Ideas for Swedish Schools that there is reason to believe that “teaching methods that largely put students in their own work lead to worse results than teaching where the teacher takes a more active responsibility.” John Hattie, the education professor behind one of the most noted meta-studies on student outcomes in recent years, argues that the teaching method where the teacher becomes a guide — with minimal intervention– is almost in direct opposition to what constitutes successful teaching methods. There is no doubt that the pedagogical ideas of the 1990s did not lead to a better school. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is very little discussion among us educational researchers who have contributed to undermining the teaching profession. Perhaps it would be appropriate for us to examine ourselves and the school debate we have conducted over the past twenty years. Such a critical review of the 1990s ideas about the good teacher would be a significant contribution to raising the status of the teaching profession in Sweden. It could heal wounds between the teachers and the educational researchers conducting teacher training. It could restore the teachers who have managed to resist the pedagogical trends where a guiding teacher role is emphasized. It could mean that teachers once again would be able to proudly view their professional identity in a historical perspective.
For my presentation on the stage of Kulturhuset, I am deeply regretful and would like to apologize to the Swedish teachers. In this, I hope to lead by good example and now eagerly await more colleagues taking responsibility for the pedagogical climate they have contributed to. The authors behind Skola för bildning SOU 1992:94 are welcome to start.
Today, I shudder with shame when I think of the simplistic and populist message I conveyed. The truth is that if I hadn’t had fantastic teachers during my high school years, I probably wouldn’t have continued to higher education.