Where did Swedish schooling go wrong?

Tyler Cowen links to some new research about the Swedish education system.  Both of our children are in this system so it’s a pretty important issue for us and it doesn’t make for happy reading.

The Swedish school system suffers from profound problems with teacher recruitment and retention, knowledge decline,and grade inflation. Absenteeism is high, and psychiatric disorders have risen sharply among Swedish pupils in the last ten years. In this pioneering analysis of the consequences of combining institutionalized social constructivism with extensive marketization of education, we suggest that these problems regarding school quality are to no small extent a result of the Swedish school system’s unlikely combination of a postmodern view of truth and knowledge, the ensuing pedagogy of child-centered discovery, and market principles. Our study adds to the findings from previous attempts to study the effects of social-constructivist pedagogy in non-market contexts and yields the implication that caution is necessary for countries, notably the U.S., that have a tradition of social-constructivist practices in their education systems and are considering implementing or expanding market-based school reforms.

There are a few telling comments (italics mine) from the paper’s authors in just this one paragraph about Swedish society that are quite telling.

1. “Absenteeism is high, and psychiatric disorders have risen sharply among Swedish pupils in the last ten years.”

The authors expand on this in the article claiming that:

Depression and anxiety among children aged 10–17 also increased by more than 100 percent from 2006 to 2016. According to the National Board of Health and Welfare (2017, p. 20), the reasons for this dramatic increase are most likely linked to schooling and the transition from school to adult life.


Depression and anxiety increased 100% in a decade! That would suggest there is a huge issue with both parenting and education that is leaving children stressed, anxious, depressed and not ready for adult life.

2. “A post-modern view of truth and knowledge”

As a result of this systemic embrace of post-modernism the autors say this results in the view that:

Knowledge imparting, or indeed the very claim that something is universally true, may even be seen as indoctrination and oppression.


If that’s the underlying value system of education in the whole nation for a generation then it’s not surprising that in that light those with a religious conviction are going to seen in a very dim light.

The authors then argue that this philosophy has the following consequences: 

Because a postmodern, social-constructivist perspective rejects the existence of objective facts and knowledge, proponents of this perspective also tend to reject ordered thinking and the structure and hierarchy of knowledge within disciplines. 28 In the context of schooling, this translates, among other things, to freedom of choice for students in their learning, nonhierarchical teacherstudent relationships, the mixing or breaking up of disciplines, an emphasis on general skills in contrast to domain-specific knowledge, and curricula that are grounded in everyday experience and culture


3. Child-centered discovery

Another development that can be seen throughout Swedish society is the child at the centre. At the centre of families and of schooling. It’s a product of the radical nature of Swedish individualism. With regards to education the authors state:

Nurture and the development of the child’s personality are considered the primary purposes of schooling. Starting in the early postwar period, official documents including the national curriculum began to call the very existence of objective knowledge into question. This process culminated with the 1994 and 2011 national curricula, which both assert that knowledge is socially constructed, emanating from within the individual, and therefore cannot be transmitted from teacher to pupil through direct instruction. Instead, self-directed learning became the norm not only in theory but also in practice…

The sharp rise in absenteeism, ADHD diagnoses, depression, and anxiety among Swedish pupils is not unexpected in a learning environment that continuously overloads the pupils’ working memory, as they have to piece together information on their own


There’s also a little side note noting the high use of smart-phones and social media amongst Swedish young people and that this may also be contributing to high rates of social anxiety. 

Overall though the equation seems to be: Post-modernism + individualism = declining education and stressed out children

You can read a condensed view of the author’s position here.

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