Sweden Brings Books, Handwriting Back to School

06:05 September 26, 2023

Sweden Brings Books, Handwriting Back to School

As children returned to school in Sweden last month, many of their teachers were putting a new importance on some traditional skills. These included reading printed books, quiet reading time and handwriting practice. Teachers were spending less time with digital devices, online research and typing skills.

The return to traditional ways of learning might be the answer to questions raised by politicians and experts. They have questioned the country's dependence on electronic technology in education. For example, schools in Sweden have introduced tablets in preschools but critics say students are not learning basic skills as well.

Lotta Edholm is the Swedish Minister for Schools. She took office 11 months ago as part of a new center-right government. She was one of the biggest critics of the level of technology in schools.

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

The minister announced last month that the government wants to reverse the decision made by the National Agency for Education to make digital devices required in preschools. The ministry told the Associated Press that it plans to stop digital learning for children under the age of six.

Sweden’s students score above the European average for reading ability. But an international test of fourth grade reading levels, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, showed Sweden's children had lost ground between 2016 and 2021.

Some learning loss might have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. The losses could also be a result of a growing number of immigrant students who do not speak Swedish as their first language. But an overuse of electronic devices during school lessons may cause kids to fall behind, education experts say.

Sweden’s Karolinska Institute is a medical school centered on research.

“There’s clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning,” the institute said in a statement last month. The institute added that schools should instead center on teaching using printed textbooks and teacher knowledge. Information from digital sources may not be accurate, it said.

The expansion of digital learning tools in schools also has drawn concern from the United Nations’ education and culture agency.

In a report published last month, UNESCO issued an “urgent call for appropriate use of technology in education.” The report urged countries to speed up internet connections at schools. But it also warned that technology in education should be used in a way so that it never replaces in-person, teacher-led instruction.

Online instruction is a highly debated subject across Europe and in other parts of the world. Poland, for instance, just launched a program to give a laptop paid for by the government to each student starting in fourth grade.

In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic pushed public schools to provide millions of laptops to students. But there is still a digital divide, which is part of the reason why American schools often use both print and digital textbooks, said Sean Ryan. He is president of the U.S. school division at textbook publisher McGraw Hill.

Educators are less likely to use only digital textbooks because some households lack the technology or internet connection at home, he added.

To answer Sweden's decline in 4th grade reading performance, the Swedish government announced $64.7 million in book purchases for the country’s schools this year. Another $45.3 million will be spent yearly in 2024 and 2025 to speed up the return of textbooks to schools.

Not all experts think Sweden’s move away from digital technology is only about what is best for students.

Criticizing the effects of technology is “a popular move with conservative politicians,” Neil Selwyn said. He is a professor of education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

“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 added. “Technology is just one part of a really complex network of factors in education.”

I’m Dan Novak.

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