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Sweden is bringing back more books and handwriting exercises to its tech-intensive schools

STOCKHOLM (AP) — As young children across Sweden returned to school last month, many of their teachers placed a new emphasis on printed books, quiet reading time and handwriting practice, spending less time on tablets, independent online research and keyboarding skills.

The return to more traditional ways of learning is a response to questions from politicians and experts about whether the country’s hyper-digitalized approach to education, including the introduction of tablets in kindergartens, has led to a decline in basic skills.

Swedish Education Minister Lotta Edholm, who took office 11 months ago as part of a new centre-right coalition government, has been one of the biggest critics of the total embrace of technology.

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

The minister announced in a statement last month that the government wants to reverse the decision of the National Agency for Education to make digital devices mandatory in kindergartens. The ministry plans to go even further and completely end digital learning for children under the age of six, the ministry also told The Associated Press.

Although the country’s students score above the European average in reading skills, an international assessment of fourth-grade reading levels, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, has shown a decline among Swedish children between 2016 and 2021.

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

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

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Some learning gaps may be a result of the coronavirus pandemic or reflect a growing number of immigrant students who do not speak Swedish as their first language, but excessive use of screens during school lessons could lead to young people falling behind in core subjects, education experts say . .

“There is clear scientific evidence that digital tools hinder rather than improve student learning,” Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said in a statement last month on the country’s national digitalization strategy in education.

“We believe that the focus should return to acquiring knowledge through printed textbooks and the expertise of teachers, rather than acquiring knowledge mainly from freely available digital sources that have not been checked for accuracy,” said the institute, a highly respected medical school that focuses on research.

The rapid adoption of digital learning tools has also raised concerns at the United Nations Education and Culture Agency.

In a report published last month, UNESCO issued an “urgent call for the appropriate use of technology in education.” The report urges countries to accelerate internet connections in schools, while cautioning that technology in education must be implemented in a way that it never replaces in-person, teacher-led education, supporting the shared goal of quality education for children. all.

In the Swedish capital Stockholm, 9-year-old Liveon Palmer, a third grader at Djurgardsskolan primary 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 AP during a recent visit.

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

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“I use tablets for math and we make some apps, but I don’t use tablets for writing,” Branelius said. Students under the age of 10 “need time and practice and practice in handwriting… before you let them learn to write on a tablet.”

Online education is a hot topic in Europe and other parts of the West. Poland, for example, just launched a program to give every student starting fourth grade a government-funded laptop, in the hopes of making the country more technologically competitive.

In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted public schools to provide millions of laptops purchased with federal pandemic relief money to elementary and middle school students. But there’s still a digital divide, which is part of the reason why U.S. schools tend to use both print and digital textbooks, says Sean Ryan, president of the U.S. schools division at textbook publisher McGraw Hill.

“In places where there is no connectivity at home, teachers are reluctant to focus on digital because they are thinking about their most vulnerable (students) and want to ensure they have the same access to education as everyone else,” says Ryan.

Germany, one of Europe’s richest countries, is notoriously slow to put government programs and all kinds of information online, including education. The state of digitalization in schools also varies among the country’s sixteen states, which are responsible for their own curricula.

Many students can complete their education without any form of digital education, such as coding. Some parents fear that their children will not be able to compete in the labor market with technologically better educated young people from other countries.

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Sascha Lobo, a German writer and consultant who focuses on the Internet, thinks a national effort is needed to educate German students, otherwise the country risks falling behind in the future.

“If we fail to make education digital, to learn how digitalization works, then in twenty years we will no longer be a prosperous country,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF at the end of last year.

To counter the decline in Swedish reading performance in the fourth grade, the Swedish government this year announced an investment worth 685 million kroner (60 million euros or $64.7 million) in the purchase of books for the country’s schools. country. Another 500 million kroner will be spent annually in 2024 and 2025 to speed up the return of textbooks to schools.

Not all experts are convinced that Sweden’s back-to-basics policy is solely about what’s best for students.

Criticizing the effects of technology is “a popular move among conservative politicians,” says Neil Selwyn, professor of education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “It’s a beautiful way to express or signal your commitment to traditional values.”

“The Swedish government has a valid point when it says there is no evidence that technology improves learning, but I think that is because there is no clear evidence of what works with technology,” Selwyn added. “Technology is just one part of a very complex network of factors in education.”


Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed reporting.

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