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Switching Off: Sweden Says Back-To-Basics Schooling Works on Paper

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Schools minister Lotta Edholm moves students off digital devices and on to books and handwriting, with teachers and experts debating the pros and cons

Since young children went back to school across Sweden recently, many of their teachers have been putting a new emphasis on printed books, quiet reading time and handwriting practice, and devoting less time to tablets, independent online research and keyboarding skills.

The return to more traditional ways of learning is a response to politicians and experts questioning whether Sweden’s hyper-digitalised approach to education, including the introduction of tablets in nursery schools, had led to a decline in basic skills.

Sweden’s minister for schools, Lotta Edholm, who took office 11 months ago as part of a centre-right coalition government, was one of the biggest critics of the all-out embrace of technology.

“Sweden’s students need more textbooks,” Edholm said in March. “Physical books are important for student learning.”

The minister announced in August that the government wanted to reverse the decision by the national agency for education to make digital devices mandatory in preschools. It plans to go further and to completely end digital learning for children under age six, the ministry has told the Associated Press.

Although Sweden’s students score above the European average for reading ability, an international assessment of fourth-grade reading levels, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), highlighted a decline among Sweden’s children between 2016 and 2021.

In 2021, Swedish fourth graders averaged 544 points, a drop from the 555 average in 2016. However, their performance still placed the country in a tie with Taiwan for the seventh-highest overall test score.

In comparison, Singapore – which topped the rankings – improved its PIRLS reading scores from 576 to 587 during the same period, and England’s average reading achievement score fell only slightly, from 559 in 2016 to 558 in 2021.

Some learning deficits may have resulted from the coronavirus pandemic or reflect a growing number of immigrant students who don’t speak Swedish as their first language, but an overuse of screens during school lessons may cause youngsters to fall behind in core subjects, education experts say.

“There’s clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning,” Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, a highly respected medical school focused on research, said in a statement in August on the country’s national digitalisation strategy in education.

“We believe the focus should return to acquiring knowledge through printed textbooks and teacher expertise, rather than acquiring knowledge primarily from freely available digital sources that have not been vetted for accuracy.”

The rapid adoption of digital learning tools also has drawn concern from the UN education and culture agency. In a report published in August, Unesco issued an “urgent call for appropriate use of technology in education”. The report urges countries to speed up internet connections at schools, but at the same time warns that technology in education should be implemented in a way that never replaces in-person, teacher-led instruction and supports the shared objective of quality education for all.

In the Swedish capital, Stockholm, Liveon Palmer, nine, a third grader at Djurgardsskolan elementary school, expressed his approval of spending more school hours offline. “I like writing more in school, like on paper, because it just feels better, you know,” he told the Associated Press.

His teacher, Catarina Branelius, said she was selective about asking students to use tablets during her lessons even before the national-level scrutiny.

“I use tablets in math and we are doing some apps, but I don’t use tablets for writing text,” Branelius said. Students under age 10 “need time and practice and exercise in handwriting … before you introduce them to write on a tablet”.

Online instruction is a hotly debated subject across Europe and other parts of the west. Poland, for instance, just launched a programme to give a government-funded laptop to each student starting in fourth grade in the hope of making the country more technologically competitive.

In the US, the coronavirus pandemic pushed public schools to provide millions of laptops bought with federal pandemic relief money to primary and secondary students. But there is still a digital divide, which is part of the reason why American schools tend to use both print and digital textbooks, said Sean Ryan, president of the US school division at textbook publisher McGraw Hill.

“In places where there is not connectivity at home, educators are loath to lean into digital because they’re thinking about their most vulnerable [students] and making sure they have the same access to education as everyone else,” Ryan said.

Germany, which is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, has been famously slow in moving government programmes and information of all kinds online, including education. The state of digitalisation in schools also varies among its 16 states, which are in charge of their own curricula.

To counter Sweden’s decline in fourth grade reading performance, the Swedish government announced an investment worth kr685m (£50m) in book purchases for schools this year. Another kr500m will be spent annually in 2024 and 2025 to speed up the return of textbooks.

Not all experts are convinced Sweden’s back-to-basics push is exclusively about what’s best for students.

Criticising the effects of technology is “a popular move with conservative politicians”, Neil Selwyn, a professor of education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said. “It’s a neat way of saying or signalling a commitment to traditional values.

“The Swedish government does have a valid point when saying that there is no evidence for technology improving learning, but I think that’s because there is no straightforward evidence of what works with technology,” Selwyn said. “Technology is just one part of a really complex network of factors in education.”

Source : The Guardian

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