Sweden is known for its meatballs, IKEA, Volvo cars and Abba, but unlike its neighbour Finland, it is not as well known for its education system. The Irish education system is very much based on what we inherited from the British but there is much that we can learn from our Scandinavian cousins.
Through the Vikings we share in part a common heritage with Sweden, but not a common education system. Theirs is very different to ours. Children in Sweden are not obliged to start school until aged 7. The state heavily subsidises preschool education for all from ages 1 to 6. Preschool is not compulsory but most children attend as the subsidiary system is designed to make it affordable to all. The preschool curriculum focuses on play rather than setting goals and assessing the progress of children.
Outdoor activities happen every day even in freezing weather conditions! Irrespective of the weather, children play outdoors. As they say, there is no such thing as bad weather once you have the right clothes.
What is really emphasized in the Swedish preschool curriculum are; playing together, tolerance, self-confidence, process skills, verbal and nonverbal presentation skills without being afraid of making mistakes, being independent as well as respecting others. There is very little overlap between what is taught in preschool and what is taught in Grade 1 of Compulsory (Primary) School. This means that all children are at the same level starting in Grade 1, learning their letters for the first time, learning to write, learning to add etc.
In Sweden the school curriculum places a great emphasis on students taking responsibility for their own learning. Children self-evaluate their own work. Each grade will have a number of subject teachers, for example 3 teachers shared between 2 classes. Subjects are taught for longer periods than in Ireland with subject teachers working collaboratively to ensure that the curriculum is covered. When not teaching class, the teachers have their own offices where they work on their class planning. Paperwork is kept to a minimum. The ethos being that teachers are professionals and do not need to be micro managed by the State.
There are very few interruptions during the school day; no intercom systems or messengers. School bells are non-existent and children do not have to line up in the school yard before returning to class. Instead, teaching assistants tell them when break is over and they are expected to return to class quickly and quietly. At lunchtime, the students eat in a canteen and the first 10 minutes are in complete silence. This is to ensure that every child eats their lunch.
Schoolbags are hung up on hooks outside the classroom and school supplies such as pencils, biros etc. are provided by the school. Shoes are not worn indoors; most children are in their socks. Students use computers and iPads extensively in class. Wi-Fi, with appropriate firewalls, is available to everyone, all of the time. Smartphones are permitted and students expected to use them as a learning aid.
In the morning, the teacher goes through a visual timetable with their students. This helps children deal with change and to time manage. On their desks, students have a red / green card system. When they are working the card is green, when they need the teacher’s help they turn the card over to red. This simple system incorporates the ethos of the child having responsibility for their own learning.
At the end of each term a meeting a meeting is held between the student, the parents and the teacher. Interestingly the meeting is child led, with the child having evaluated themselves on what they have learned prior to the meeting and deciding what they want to discuss.
English is a very important subject in Sweden, with the result that Swedes have a very good command of the language. Every morning the first 30 minutes in school are spent reading silently. The children decided what they are going to read. In the junior classes, much like the new language curriculum in Ireland, the focus is on oral language and class discussion. Children learn to understand language before moving on to reading and writing it. There is very little isolated language teaching; instead a thematic approach is taken.
The Swedish education system is not perfect. Ireland ranks ahead of them in the OECD PISA lists but there is much that we can learn from them. The child is expected to be responsible for him/herself and many attribute the entrepreneurial spirit found in Sweden to this ethos. Whether or not this is true, I believe that our children would benefit from a similar approach here in Ireland, after all, mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.