The slippery slope of PISA

[PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.]

When I wrote my last post, “A new start”, I was thinking along the lines of tackling some of the ‘big’ issues, like America’s permanent chasing of weak countries to wage war on, and how, if at all, we can put a stop to that.  But something came up, as they say, and I’m going to begin my crusade with something much closer to my heart – schools.

Schools in Sweden, where I live, are a mess.  Student misbehaviour in the classroom is pandemic.  If one manages to give the students fifteen minutes of education in a forty five minute lesson, the teacher has done well.  A class consists of between twenty and thirty pupils, roughly half of whom have some psychic disturbance, most often ADHD, whether diagnosed or not.  Autism is common, as is Aspergers.  And there are other psychological problems.  (Incidentally, the question of why there is such a number of students with psychological problems has not been publicly addressed, but that is material for another blog post.)

Added to this, the avalanche of immigration, which has been going on for several years now, has resulted in a situation where a substantial number of students in a classroom have Arabic as their first, and in some cases only, language.  Many of them also have some degree of PTSD.  The solution to this problem is also matter for another blog post.

The higher up the school you get, the worse the problems.  The absentee rate for teachers at the senior school level in primary schools is a national catastrophe.  Imagine trying to control a class of thirty fifteen year olds, pumped up with adolescent hormones, self-trained through six to eight years of disobedience and psychology, and knowing that, in today’s school the student is king and will normally be supported by parents in the event of a conflict.

No wonder that Sweden’s rank in the PISA list is falling, and, believe me, it has not yet reached its nadir.

I must explain here that, in Sweden children begin school at the age of six, in what is called pre-school, which lasts for one year.  Then they have three years of junior school, three of middle school and three of senior school, all these groupings being in the first stage of their education, roughly equivalent to the British primary school and a bit of secondary school.  So at the end of this education they are fifteen years old, and are supposed to be ready for what the British would call sixth form college, also normally three years.

So what are the causes of the catastrophe I have described?

There is a concept being promulgated called, in Swedish, “inkluderande”, in English, roughly “inclusiveness”.  Under this heading its exponents suggest that the pace of the introduction of new material should be geared to the capacity of the least able students, so that they feel "included" in the teaching process.  If you have a number of pupils who are incapable of being given three steps in a process, and must have each step treated separately, then the whole class must be taken through the process step by step.  

To take an example, if the students are studying nouns, they might be told to find all the nouns in a given text, write them in their exercise books and add first the genitive form and then the plural form.  That is four steps.  If there are students who cannot handle an instruction in four steps, the teacher must give all the pupils the first instruction: find all the nouns.  The bright ones have finished with this in a matter of minutes.  The slowest ones will each require the teacher's help, and this will take a much longer time, during which the bright ones are bored out of their minds.  And then they must add the genitive form...

Closely related is the question of integration.  If all pupils, irrespective of their psychological stability, are not distributed evenly throughout all the classes for a given year, they are not being treated equally.  This thinly disguised bullshit is a tool for reducing costs.  If you have sixty pupils, you can put them in two classes and only need two teachers and two classrooms.  It overlooks the fact that, of those sixty pupils, around twenty will have psychological problems of one kind or another and probably as many again have very restricted abilities in the language used for teaching.  The losers are the “normal” students, who have their studies continually interrupted.

All this has been designed by a parliamentary education committee whose members have not seen the inside of a classroom since they were fifteen; by a government body staffed by chair-polishers whose main concern is covering their ass; and happily assisted by psychologists who should not be allowed to practice in a sand box, and who have not realised that there is a substantial difference between a hypothesis designed for an individual patient, and another designed for crowd control.  In the words of a C P Snow character, “If I’d been asked to think of something bloody silly, I couldn’t have though of anything half as bloody silly as this”.

On top of all this, some thirty years ago the education minister of the day had the blinding insight to see that the then national school system, which was functioning tolerably well, could be brought crashing down to uselessness if it was taken out of state hands and left to individual municipalities.  And now, when the results are obvious to anyone not blinded by ideology, it seems that we cannot return it to state control until the above-mentioned education minister is dead.   If I were a praying man, I would pray for his early demise.

Sweden has also fallen into the trap of using digital teaching equipment – computers, iPads or the like, and Chrome books – and digital media, with assignments being sent in electronically using, say, Google Classroom or similar.  As a result many pupils will spend time watching Netflix or HBO until the teacher wanders round the room, whereupon they will, with one or at most two clicks, change over to a more or less empty page on which they have entered one or two notes provided by the teacher during the introduction.

But possibly the biggest problem – and here I will make a lot of enemies – was the decision some time in the 1950’s to totally outlaw corporal punishment.  Now there is a deal of difference between a cuff on the head and grievous bodily harm, a difference which anybody with a gram of intelligence can determine.  Brutality is, and always should be, forbidden, and we do not need a judge to determine where the borderline goes, although we have that option in law.  On the other hand, a cuff around the head, a ruler on the hand, these have been used on children since schools first appeared, and no child has taken harm from them.  More probably the reverse.

But the total elimination of corporal punishment left grown-ups, whether parents or teachers, with no swift punishment of the breach of societal rules, and, over the course of time, no means of stilling disturbance in the classroom or anywhere else.  Indeed the situation has worsened to the extent that, if a student is told to move to another place in order to separate two pupils whose proximity to one another creates disturbance, the result very often is a simple refusal, and a threat to the teacher who moves to enforce his decision by dragging the pupil to his new place that he will be reported for violence.

Furthermore, over a period of time, parents have become so brainwashed by the general acceptance of the negative effects of corporal punishment that they take their children’s side in the event of a teacher being accused of the use of force.

So what is to be done?  I’ll prepare a list, and perhaps try to prioritise it.

  1. Insist that anyone serving on the parliamentary education committee has spent at least a month as a reserve teacher, not one who is assisting a professional teacher, but one who is alone in the classroom for five hours a day, five days a week.
  2. Streaming.  A, B and C classes, as they were a long time ago.  Good pupils in A, average pupils in B and the ones with psychological problems including ADHD in C. If there is a shortage of cash, A and B can be lumped together.  As long as they are not disturbing the class, a good teacher can keep the bright ones stimulated at the same time as educating the average ones.  Class C should ideally have two or more teachers or at least a teacher and two or more teachers’ assistants.
  3. Make it clear to the parents that the teachers are well qualified for their job, far better qualified that the parents themselves.  The parents responsibility in the system is to see that their children sleep well, get up in good time for school, eat a good breakfast, and have everything they will need for the day in their back-packs.
  4. Make it clear to the parents that they are also responsible for teaching their children good manners, to respect their elders, particularly their teachers, and to respect other people’s property, especially school property.  For damage, they will be expected to pay.  Teachers will do their best to support this aspect of the students’ education, but it is not their primary responsibility.
  5. Make it clear to parents that they are expected to come to parents’ evenings.  During the early part of the return to normality put a couple of vice-rectors in schools so that the flood of parents being summoned to the school when their children do not live up to societal norms of good conduct can be handled.  After a couple of years or so, these vice-rectors can be moved to other duties, such as helping the teachers with the incredible amount of paper-shuffling which the education committee of parliament, comprising mostly paper-shufflers, think is necessary,.
  6. Remove digital equipment and media from the classroom.  I’m sure there is a study which confirms my belief that, if you hand-write your notes with pen on paper in notebooks, the information contained therein will fasten better in your mind and will be easily available for revision.  Let the teachers teach.  Do not give pupils an online article, which, like the television news, is aimed at people with a concentration limit of less than three minutes.  The sole exception to this is teacher equipment so that the teacher can access useful material online.
  7. If contrary to point 6 a school decides to experiment with digital input, make sure that the equipment has no connection to the internet.  It should function as a dumb terminal connected to an in-house server. 
  8. Do not allow any psychologists into the school.  If they have to be involved in extreme cases, see to it that this is done somewhere else where they will not be able to spread their theories to other pupils.
  9. On second thoughts, don’t let psychologists have anything at all to do with school life.  Let them practice on their own children.  That’ll keep them out of mischief.
  10. Double the pay of teachers.  In the fifties, teachers were paid roughly the same as civil engineers, and nearly as much as members of parliament.  Teachers have now fallen dreadfully behind.

We have probably lost a generation of pupils, who will only with difficulty be able to recover from the damage done to their education.  But implementing the above suggestions should help to repair the worst excesses of this social experiment with a minimum loss of time.

© James Wilde 2015