More and more college students have great difficulty expressing themselves in writing. It is a result of the teaching profession being devalued and the school system being more interested in assessment than knowledge.
About five years ago, we university teachers started to notice that something was not right with the students. The rather simple writing exercises, with which we started the education before, did not work anymore. We sat and blinked our eyes and tried to understand what the students had written, and the trips to each other’s rooms when we needed to read aloud some piece of craziness – a tender-hearted bit of fun that I think lightens the burden of all teachers’ correction at times – became more frequent but also increasingly more desperate.
What we saw was that more and more students’ writing was becoming ever worse. Sometimes so bad that it was no longer possible to understand what they meant. We corrected, as usual, but became increasingly exhausted when whole pages were filled with corrections. Often, the content disappeared into the background of our efforts to try to get some sort of clarity in the text itself.
Naturally, I started thinking about the reasons for this apparent deterioration. I had the opportunity to share my observations on the radio programme Obs! on P1 in February 2013 and was met by a steady stream of letters and phone calls from teachers, from primary school to university, who had had similar experiences.
Of course, there were still students who wrote reasonably well, but they seemed to have become fewer. Where one previously had a handful who had real difficulties, these students now numbered almost half the group, or more. Those who wrote well, but maybe not crystal clear, had become fewer, and those who had a strong command of the language were now a shrinking minority. To begin with researchers had to find some kind of pattern in the problem. At Malmo University, we have students with varied backgrounds. We could pretty quickly see that the students’ origin as such was not crucial to their ability to write. The problems were equally prevalent among those with ethnic Swedish parents as among those with parents who immigrated from countries outside Europe. However, our students from other Nordic countries – Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Islands – often had a clear and focused language. This led me to conclude that the problem could be found in the Swedish school system, rather than in personal circumstances.
But, before we go any further along this line of reasoning, what actually is the problem? It is a challenge to describe, because it obviously takes different forms. To begin with, many people seem to have a non-existent sense of syntax and the nuance of words. Here is an example: ”This report is interview-based on those who have nature as an interest and those who do not and where the different approaches are taken into account,” wrote one student, and continued: ”Finally, to think in the abstract opponents’ views explicable why the respondents believed as it did.” ”An ancient tradition that is needed is preserved and defended.” ”Our waste is just becoming more and more.” ”The waste can contain toxic substances and has the ability to pollute the air, soil and water through the packets that food comes in.” There is no lack of words, then, but they seem to have lost their significance, are haphazard, and the sentence structure is vague, colloquial.
The choice of words is often strange, abstract: ”subbsessib”, ”securitions”, ”overexplore”, ”ruinings”, ”konfidense” and so on. Sometimes they are anglicisms, but sometimes pure misunderstanding.
Spelling, structure and the understanding of levels of detail and general arguments are weak. Graphically, the text is sometimes strange: each new sentence can start on a new line, headings can slide over the body text, and so on.
The challenge for the teacher is to attack the weaknesses so that students themselves can improve their texts, instead of one sitting and correcting each problem. Just a few weeks ago, I explained to a student that he consistently used the wrong prepositions: ”susceptibility in”, ”responsibility on”, and so on. He was totally unable to comprehend and asked me to explain what prepositions were. Pretty basic grammatical concepts, such as tenses, word order, active and passive verbs, main clauses and subordinate clauses, etc., are often completely unknown to the students – they hear about them for the first time at university. Without an understanding of abstract language, one writes not only messily, but also one lacks the ability to edit and enhance the writing and to read other people’s texts critically. Thus, we cannot rely on students to support each other.
Are, then, all these students less intelligent than my generation? Absolutely not! They are often very talented young people, skilled at taking in material, reflecting and thinking independently – it’s not there that the school has failed. But their knowledge can never come into its own when they cannot express themselves in writing, and we cannot send them out to work when they cannot produce written clarity.
It also happens that we encounter students who suffer from obvious dyslexia, but who made it through primary and secondary school without anyone soundeding the alarm. They have passing grades in Swedish, although they cannot write a short paragraph of understandable text. They struggle with their language and, when we ask them to go and get an evaluation, their problems become apparent. Somewhere the school system has failed in these people’s education, among both the normal writers and among dyslexics.
I am not a teaching researcher, but I observe the results of a school system that fails to impart to young people the basic skill of writing. Probably they also struggle to achieve clarity in their reading – but it is in the written exercises where we find proof of how diffuse and incoherent words are handled. It is important to distinguish between knowledge and skills. Of course, it is always important to have general knowledge, to know about historical processes, key people, geography and more. But these are facts that today can be easily looked up, for example on the internet. The need for extensive rote knowledge is not the same as it was fifty years ago. The skill lies in being able to quickly sift through the material, understand the context, and to reproduce and discuss in one’s own words.
The recent Pisa research shows that Swedish school children perform worse than the European average in reading comprehension, numeracy, and problem-solving. With a universal enrollment since 1842 and a tradition of good results by international comparison, this is obviously a failing grade for the Swedish school system. Unfortunately, the debate has quickly become ideologically polarised.
From the right, it has been argued that ‘fuzzy school’ has gone too far. This criticism is against the pedagogy that was introduced in the 1960s and 70s, and still largely prevails. I’m straining here a little – but the core of this pedagogy is that schools should encourage and stimulate students to learning rather than teach. The idea that one can convey knowledge, for example, by telling and lecturing, is rejected. The view of the individual is very optimistic: one imagines that everyone (children) has within them a desire to develop and grow, to do right. In order not to stifle individuality, the teacher should avoid correcting in a traditional way.
From the left, the criticism is instead against schools’ demanding nature, that they are unable to arouse students’ willingness to learn. But the focus of criticism is on school politics as such, especially the municipalisation of schools (which was conducted by Goran Persson in the 1990s) and the independent school reforms that contributed to high-performing students, and their parents, choosing better schools while the others were left to their fate.
This was an extreme summation of the situation, which is investigated in an informed and knowledgeable way by the school debater Per Kornhall in the book The Child Experiment. Swedish Schools in Free Fall (2013).
I do not have any particular political stance on the issue, but would argue that both sides in a sense are right. There has been, and is, fuzzy schooling. Maybe the problem is not the view of the pupil, which is positive and humanistic, but the view of the teacher, who is no longer allowed to assume the role that I consider to be the essence of the teaching profession: being someone who can do better. Not that this person is a better, superior person in some existential sense, but that they are older, have skills and know things, which the learner, the student, does not. To dissolve this role is to reject something that is absolutely central to human existence: transfer of knowledge and skills. Which, if all goes well, leads to the next generation thinking further, developing democracy, the social structure and our common world.
The idea that each new generation of students ‘can do by itself’, ‘has a willingness to learn’, or ‘knows within itself what is right’, is to abandon this cumulative approach to knowledge and skills. Of course, most children have such a will, but the teacher must still be allowed to have the authority to lead the student on the right track. By authority, I do not mean severity and harsh words, but a respect for the learner based on the idea that everyone is competent, but still needs to be supported in reaching beyond him- or herself. In an article from 1998, ethnologist Jonas Frykman describes this view of education as “transcendent”. It aims to grow, not to remain as it is.
But the left’s more structural critique is also not without its accuracy. It is something we see the consequence of in college. The schools, and above all the high schools of ‘my time’, i.e., the mid-1980s, served as a kind of guarantor for the students when they graduated – they would have some skills and knowledge. The relationship between these schools and students was based on that it was the students’ responsibility to set the bar. The schools had no financial incentive to accept students who could not manage. Two years ago, I received many letters and calls from teachers at the ‘free’ schools who had faced pressure from their school leaders to adapt the requirements of their teaching, so that as many students as possible were approved. Schools have, in the market economy’s name, shifted their role from authority to a kind of travel agency in the world of education. The student is a customer that will be taken to meet the target – grades or diplomas – as painlessly as possible. If the journey becomes too uncomfortable, the passenger can decide to go with another company. Herein is probably the reason why we, at universities, have students who are formally competent but do not have the real skills to cope with a higher education.
My time in high school slips ever further into the mists of memory. The teaching was often old-fashioned. We students were sometimes moderately motivated, even at a high school that was known to be of high quality. We were drifting, truanting sometimes, underperforming. As most were aged between 15 and 19, we were busy discovering our adult identity with political engagement, music, theatre, and sexuality – all this was perhaps more important to us. But two things I still want to emphasise as factors for success: first, we had extremely knowledgeable teachers. They were passionate about their subjects (sometimes in vain, but still). Many were graduates who had chosen to teach in high school instead of investing in research careers. They set a fascinating example with their knowledge of the language, literature, history and science. Because they were so motivated, they never permitted mediocrity, misspelling, or bad wording from our side. The knowledge and skills were taken seriously. The teachers loved their subjects, and spread respect about, not because they were strict and tough, but because we wanted to be as smart and well-read as they were. If we performed badly, we did it again until it was right, and the teachers were clear in their belief that it was they, as professionals in their trade, who knew what was good enough. Thus they contributed to the school’s other major objective: to provide a guarantee that the education was of high quality.
Politicians are currently arguing about how the quality of the Swedish educational system can be raised. Curiously, few initiatives have been directed at these two factors: the role of teachers and schools. Instead, you put huge resources into new detailed evaluation systems. Each learning goal should be defined in detail: ”The student has sufficient, but not in-depth, knowledge of X to get the grade X.” The teachers are drowning in details and must specify exactly how each student performed in each exercise. This technocratic view of knowledge undermines the idea that people want to learn, to try new ideas, to go beyond themselves. Instead of thinking, “what can I learn and talk about on this exciting subject?”, it eshrines a rationality that means students expend minimal effort, often after having calculated exactly what grade they need to have in each subject in order to advance to a particular education.
The students – and later the students when they come to us at university – demand to know just what it takes to get a pass with distinction instead of a normal pass or fail. Often they are focused on the stuff that needs to be reported. Recently, some of our students complained about a teacher who wrote in an exam question: ”Give some examples of X.” The problem was that they wanted to know exactly how many examples would give a certain score on the answer. It’s easy to become annoyed with the students, but they argue only in accordance with a logic that is learned in a system where it is not the knowledge and reasoning that are rewarded, but only quantifiable results.
It takes us time to get rid of this way of thinking. A few weeks ago, I sat with a first semester student who wrote an unusually messy and disjointed work. ”Here, you require a much clearer structure”, I said. ”And you need to tighten up your language – this is in many respects incomprehensible.” The student nodded and said, ”I can partially give you that”. I found it hard not to smile. The student, a highly engaged and thinking young man, seemed to perceive the situation as a negotiation about my evaluation of his work. This student is, of course, worth as much as me, and has the right to expect all due respect. But it is I who am the teacher, and he the student. I do not negotiate my opinion, because it is based in my twenty years of professional experience. If the student had been able to show that I had committed a manifest error, for example, forgot to count points for something he had written, he would have obviously been entitled to a new reading.
Knowledge and skills need, in a modern society, to be accessible to all. We must hold fast to the idea that the vast majority of people can learn to read, write, count and think well. Not everyone can, of course, be brilliant at everything – we all have our different talents. But the core of the education system must still be to accumulate knowledge from generation to generation and pass it on by skilled teachers (i.e., those who teach others) so that the next generation can be even better. If I had to come up with some suggestions about how to seriously solve the problems of the Swedish education system, it would be the following: raise the status of teachers. Not primarily through higher wages (although that may help!), but by returning to the teachers their academic freedom. Teaching is not a profession for bureaucrats and robots, but for well-informed, creative people who can communicate, arouse a thirst for knowledge, get students to want to be like them – only much, much better. And separate the teaching from the grading, at least in high school. Danish high schools have government-employed censors, who ensure that students have sufficient knowledge and skills – both written and verbal – when they graduate. Such a system would effectively mean that the travel agency-approach in secondary schools would disappear, and instead focus can be put on what is crucial for success at school: the relationship between knowledgeable, dedicated and free teachers and students who want to enter the world of knowledge.
Ebba Lisberg Jensen is an associate professor of human ecology at Malmo University.