Sweden Goes Back to Books

11/01/2023
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    Students read at an elementary school in Stockholm, Sweden. (AP/David Keyton)
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    A teacher helps a student practice her handwriting. (AP/David Keyton)
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    In Sweden, many teachers are putting a new emphasis on printed books, quiet reading hours, and practicing handwriting. (AP/David Keyton)
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    A student reads a book. (AP/David Keyton)
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    A child practices handwriting. (AP/David Keyton)
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Sweden is headed back to basics. Experts say the country’s hyper-digital approach to education may have hampered basic skills. So educators are emphasizing printed books and handwriting practice over laptops and screentime.

Swedish schools operate under the Swedish Education Act. These guidelines emphasize “access to equivalent education” for all. Educators thought computers could help level the playing field, so they introduced tech to young children. Digital devices became mandatory even in Swedish preschools.

Swedish Minister for Schools Lotta Edholm wants to step that back. She criticizes the country’s all-out embrace of technology. She looks to end digital learning for children under age six.

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

Swedish students score above the European average for fourth-grade reading levels. However, one study shows those reading skills are falling.

Some decline may be from missed school during the coronavirus pandemic. Some may reflect a growing number of immigrant students who don’t speak Swedish as their first language. But education experts suggest an overuse of screens during school lessons may be the culprit.

“There’s clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning,” Sweden’s Karolinska Institute says. “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,” states the respected medical school.

To counter reading performance decline, the Swedish government announced millions in printed book purchases for schools this year. The government outlay will continue in 2024 and 2025.

Neil Selwyn is an education professor. He says people love criticizing technology. But he doesn’t think ditching digital completely is the correct answer. He calls tech “just one part of a really complex network of factors in education.”

Believers know God’s glory is the ultimate aim of all learning. For without Him, even reading, writing, and math don’t exist. Technology is a gift from God too. But the gift alone can never be the Redeemer. We can’t educate ourselves out of our sin nature no matter the technique.

In Stockholm, third-grade teacher Catarina Branelius was careful about asking students to use tablets—even before the recent reports. “I use tablets in math and we are doing some apps, but I don’t use tablets for writing text,” she says. Students under age 10 “need time and practice and exercise in handwriting . . . before you introduce them to write on a tablet.”

One of Branelius’ students, nine-year-old Liveon Palmer, wants to spend more school hours offline. “I like writing more in school, like on paper,” he says. “It just feels better, you know.”

Why? Humans are embodied souls. While technology in education can offer avenues for increased student engagement, collaboration, and research, it can’t fully replace the need for tactile, bodily experiences in learning.

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