This podcast tackles a wide-range of factors about the educational systems of the Nordic countries, focusing primarily on Sweden and comparisons with Finland. On the way, it answers the following questions:
Join the editor of nordics.info, Nicola Witcombe, on her virtual visit around the Nordic countries, this time to Janne Holmén, Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Uppsala University to discover the answer to these questions. Janne is from the Åland Islands and this has influenced his research interests.
This podcast was recorded in February 2021 and is the second in the series: The Nordics Uncovered: Critical Voices from the Region. The third in the series is an interview with Elisabeth Staksrud, Professor in the Department of Education and Media at Oslo University in Norway. She will be talking about childhood in the Nordics and the online lives of children and young people.
Sound credits from freesound.org including school break noise outdoor.wav by Libra222.
Janne Holmén 0:10
Some areas of society are perceived to be in crisis like the school, for example, on these areas or areas where there have been a lot of reforms maybe a bit a bit too often there's been reforms that have not really been left in place to do their work.
Nicola Witcombe 0:24
That was the voice of Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Uppsala University, Janne Holmén, my second guest in this new nordics.info podcast series, The Nordics Uncovered: Critical Voices from the Region. Janne is a useful researcher to talk to when you want to know about the Nordic education system. A historian by trade, he has looked at education in and outside the Nordic countries, and in a range of diverse ways, including at the highest level, from how international and national politics and trends influence the school system, all the way down to how textbooks influence the mental maps of children in different ways.
My name is Nicola Witcombe and I'm the editor of nordics.info and a normal part of my job is to travel to universities and conferences, to meet researchers and to encourage them to spread the word about their research to a wider audience. In these COVID times, I'm virtually visiting 12 researchers based in six different countries, to try to find the answers to big questions like what is the state of the Nordics today? How do researchers investigate Nordic society and concepts? And smaller questions like what leads people to research such a range of weird and wonderful subjects? And how is it done in practice? This podcast was recorded in February 2021.
Well, thanks very much for agreeing to talk to me today, I've been looking forward to speaking to you. Perhaps you could explain briefly what areas you focused on, within research?
Janne Holmén 2:25
Well I am a historian from the beginning. And you can say that all my research projects have been comparative in nature, I have compared different countries different different aspects of maybe in the sector of education, but also in other parts of society compared. Almost all the comparisons have included Sweden and Finland, which is my main focus of research, but also the other Nordic countries. And in one project, I was also in the Mediterranean area, looking at Italy and Morocco. So if you want to find something common it is the attempt to find some kind of principles by doing comparisons between different societies. And the field of education is a good example because it exists in every country, you have schools that are quite similar in most countries. And if you want to see how international trends affect this institution, then you have this institution everywhere, and you can study them everywhere.
Nicola Witcombe 3:26
So perhaps you could say something now about the national level?
Janne Holmén 3:31
In addition, I've also been looking at not only on these international trends, but also in how national circumstances and historical roots in different countries affect how these national international students are implemented. Because you can say there are international trends regarding, in the field of education, further down, there are always a lot of international measurements, and this ranking systems and so on, which are in a way are pushing all countries in in the same direction. But then when you're trying to implement these ideologies nationally, then there are also these kind of historical roots and traditions and political culture and constitutional restrictions and so on that make these reforms turn out very differently. Also, in countries like Sweden or Finland sure, on the surface quite similar.
Nicola Witcombe 4:28
It would be useful to have a concrete example here with respect to Finland and Sweden perhaps.
Janne Holmén 4:36
Well, if you look at what's happened in the school system in Sweden, Finland in the 1990s, for example. You had the same ideologu, actually, that day should go from a centralized could have been quite centralized, both in Sweden and Finland. Although it was more centralized in Sweden, you can say in many ways. And then in the 1990s, you went in a direction of decentralization. In Finland's municipalities and schools to have more or more freedom to decide about their affairs, and many reforms in Sweden rented the same direction, they had the free school system, it was easier to start private schools and you've got this lump sum from the municipality that you could bring into your private schools, also in Sweden. And also the agency controlling the school system in Sweden was abandoned and dismantled, and a smaller agency was introduced in its place. And this is part of an international management trend, you can say that you should go to work, less regulation, more decentralization, it's connected to this new public management thinking which is quite well studied at this point in time. But the one difference between Sweden and Finland was that in Sweden, rapidly, the new system of control was introduced. A lot of testing and just following this new public management ideology, then you should introduce different performance stories and testing and benchmarking and so on, and this was introduced in Sweden. But in Finland, this part of the new public management ideologies was never implemented. So the school was given a lot of freedom and there was not really much follow up on how they were performing. And it turned out to that work perfectly fine in Finland. In Sweden, you have this more of the state tradition, the government should be in controller. So soon to build up a new bureaucracy those even larger than the one they had before.
Nicola Witcombe 6:46
Traditionally, Scandinavian humble when you say that it worked perfectly fine in Finland, hasn't actually in actual fact, worked very well. And Finland, certainly a few years ago, was kind of the toast of the world as being one of the best education systems.
Janne Holmén 7:06
Yes, that's true. And what's a little bit ironic here is that, it's not because anyone has not done any wonderful reforms or anything, really, the politicians have not really done any major reforms of the of comprehensive school since the 1970s. Since then, there's only been smaller changes while in Sweden has been uniforms every time years, more or less. You can say that the teacher profession in Finland has at least until recently been able to do work in MPs. And it has worked fine without much, really, in terms of government control.
Nicola Witcombe 7:49
So can we say that policymakers throughout the world should therefore consider that less regulation and more freedom to teachers is a good thing?
Janne Holmén 8:03
I think it also depends on the context, because there are also advantages in Finland in all these internationals test is that older schools are still performing quite well. There are no big differences between the best and worst schools. I think one important precondition is that the level of the teachers are very good.
Nicola Witcombe 8:21
As far as I understand it, the teacher education system is very good, or that the level of education that teachers have in Finland tends to be a bit higher than elsewhere. Is that correctly understood?
Janne Holmén 8:37
But I think the real reason areas is who is applying to teacher education. If very good students apply to teacher education, it doesn't really matter what the system looks like, they will turn out fine. I suppose even if they go to school directly from upper secondary school and working as teacher, they will still do great work, even without teacher education, because they were including so good students. And one example as I mentioned, I come from Åland which is this Swedish speaking part of Finland. And when I went to school it was always among the worst performing part of Finland. Now that has changed. So now Åland is among the best parts of Finland, in school comparisons, but many of the teachers on Åland, they have been educated in Sweden, where the teacher education system gets a lot of criticism and so on. So I think it's much more important who the students are than what is actually done at the teacher education because if you are talented student and if you go to university environment, you will learn a lot of good things, regardless of how the education actually looks. But what I think is important in Finland is that when the education is a master's level education that will attract a lot of talented students from secondary schools.
Nicola Witcombe 10:08
I know you've studied education systems elsewhere. And you're also currently, for example, looking at the use of diagrams on a global scale. Could you say why the Nordic countries are useful to study when it comes to education?
Janne Holmén 10:23
My main reasons for studying the Nordic countries, and particularly Sweden or Finland, is that I argue that if you want to study some factor and see how it affects society, then it's good to compare two societies that are very similar, like Sweden or Finland. They are very similar in many ways when it comes to administration and, and law and so on. And that makes it easier to discern differences that are brought about by different factors that are not similar in Sweden, or Finland, for example, is a difference in division of power, for example, the idea that you have a division of power in society that's quite strong in Finland, but not in Sweden, there is a different kind of thinking. That also affects the system of education.
Nicola Witcombe 11:20
The division between the court and the government? Or do you mean, in the government, the executive and parliament?
Janne Holmén 11:29
Yes. And also other areas in society, the regional parts, also related to this X tradition with, for example, human rights and so on. In Sweden, distribution has been very weak, because there's been more of this thinking that people are selected, the parliament and the parliament represent the people and everything they decide is right, so to speak, but most other countries in Europe, it's not like this, because the court trend, or in Finland its not an accurate court. it's more of a committee that's in the parliament. They used to say is this legislation the constitution or not, so to speak, very few basic checks and balances in Sweden.
Nicola Witcombe 12:18
That's, that's really interesting. And there's a similar debate in Denmark, and I guess, also the UK where I'm from, that the balance of power sort of clings backwards and forwards between the courts, but is so often trumped by the fact that parliamentarians are democratically elected, as opposed to judges. So I guess it's in the tradition that democracy in Sweden.
Janne Holmén 12:54
Yes, exactly. That's true. Now, recently, I'm also involved in a project about reforms of university governance in Sweden and Finland. And there you can see a very strong difference that universal autonomy is much stronger in Finland, it's also protecting the constitution. While in Sweden, it's not under universal autonomy is quite weak in Sweden.
Nicola Witcombe 13:15
There's been a lot in the global press about Anders Tegnell having power to decide on the COVID approach in Sweden. And he wasn't democratically elected, was he? So in your view, is that something that is an unusual?
Janne Holmén 13:38
You can say that there's another dimension to this problem in Sweden, because in Sweden, you don't really have, you can say that this division of power under checks and balances is kind of conservative, for sure, in society that should protect society from too much political interference. And it really doesn't exist in Sweden. But instead, there has arose another system in Sweden which came at about the same time when they introduced parliamentarism and democracy in Sweden in the early 1900s. There was a principle introduced that ministerial rule was forbidden. That the ministers and departments should not be allowed to directly interfere with how the independent agencies, how they conducted their daily operations. So they can make legislation that regulates how the agencies should operate, the parliament can make this legal regulation, but then they cannot really interfere in how they run their daily affair, once this legislation is in place. So that means that when a crisis arise, then it is the agencies who have to be the force because the parliament, they have very slow measures for actually controlling what's happening.
Nicola Witcombe 15:15
So if you started out as a historian, can you remember what ultimately took you to looking at education, or how education had developed?
Janne Holmén 15:27
My PhD project was about school textbooks in the subject of civics, history and geography, and I was looking on how Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish textbooks portrayed the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. And my main interest was to see how the social climate was changed by the Cold War that in these three different countries, which river neighbors, and in many, many ways very similar, but they have different positions in the Cold War with Norway being a NATO country and Sweden was neutral. Finland was also neutral, but had a special relationships to the Soviet Union with an agreement about Friendship and Mutual Assistance. And I wanted to see does this affect what is written about the Soviet Union and United States in these three countries' textbooks? And how is it changed with time, when the situation in the Cold War changes?
Nicola Witcombe 16:31
Why did you choose textbooks to look at such a large geopolitical phenomenon? Isn't that quite unusual?
Janne Holmén 16:39
Thought that textbooks might be a good way to investigate this because these books have to be read by everyone. It has to be some kind of smallest common denominator in society, what can you agree on about history? So that way, they can be a better measurement of the social climate.
Nicola Witcombe 16:57
Can you remember what textbooks you used at school when looking at the Cold War period?
Janne Holmén 17:07
Yes, I went to school from mid 80s to the mid 90s. And that was a very interesting period in the Cold War, because the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was over. And we were sitting in school with textbooks written about, yeah, about countries that didn't exist anymore, and so on. And they were very outdated. I grew up on the Åland Islands, which belonged to Finland all the way to Swedish speaking radio bit some autonomy. And there you had Finnish textbooks in geography, which portrayed the Soviet Union in quite a favorable manner. But we were reading them in the early 90s, when the Soviet Union had already collapsed and immediately heard all this, it was just a pile of rust, which was going to collapse at any time. So we gave some perspectives on textbooks and how they were coloured by political circumstances, in a way.
Nicola Witcombe 18:05
Could you explain a little bit about the system in relation to textbooks?
Janne Holmén 18:11
Yes, you can say that they're published by commercial publishers. And generally, many of the writers are teachers, that's quite common. Some might be from academia also. But we can say many of the best selling textbooks, they are often written by teachers themselves, you know, what the markets was, so to speak. And if you look at the Nordic countries, in Sweden, Finland and Norway, there was also government approval of textbooks in Sweden and Finland until the early 1990s. And in Norway, 10 years longer. So you needed government approval in order for your textbook to be approved for use in schools.
Nicola Witcombe 18:56
And I'm trying to work out, you know, who it is that are forming the minds of young people. So, could you could you now, tell me a bit about this term historical consciousness? Yeah, what is it? Why is it important, how is it formed?
Janne Holmén 19:18
If you are aware about the connections between the past and the present and the future, and also being aware about the fact that different times have different circumstances and we should not judge other times by our standards, so to speak, because the values and everything has changed over time and will probably continue to change in the future. And this concept is used quite a lot in Scandinavia in history, didacticism. It is also found in the Swedish curriculum, for example, and Swedish students in schools are also supposed to learn it. What I've done in this field, study about mental maps which is really a concept used by geographers, when they are trying to investigate how people have what information they have about different parts of the world and what perception they have about different parts of the world, some kind of map that you have in your head. And historical consciousness is a similar concept, but it's more about the map you have of time, so to speak, what times do know a lot about? What times do you perceive us in favor of the lights? So that's how I used the mental map concept when I did surveys with secondary school students.
Nicola Witcombe 20:42
Is it also a topic for historians in other countries, is it well known?
Janne Holmén 20:48
It became common in the field of history didactics from the late 1960s, and predominantly in the 1970s. And then it spread to the Scandinavian countries from the, from 1980, approximately. But if you go further back in history, for instance philosophy, in the 1900s, and the earliest use of I can find it in Alexander von Humboldt, the Cosmos era, he was a natural scientist, he was writing about everything, but he was a natural scientists, predominantly. But he wrote this great book Cosmos was about, really about everything, and about the perception of everything. And in this book, he also introduced the concept of historical consciousness. And in footnote about, I think it was about Chinese civilization and their consciousness about their history.
Nicola Witcombe 21:46
I struggle with, you know, these questions of where our identity comes from? I mean, are you able to sort of comment on the link between historical consciousness and identity?
Janne Holmén 22:01
Yes, history has often been used for the construction of identities. The closest I have come to this kind of study it is, when I did the study of about islands in the Baltic Sea, then I looked on regional identity on this island, so how it was related to the national identity.
Nicola Witcombe 22:21
And presumably you chose islands because it was kind of like a, like a control group, in a way. It's sort of like a defined area that is sort of manageable a bit like how you compare Finland and Sweden, because they're so similar.
Janne Holmén 22:37
Yes, exactly. This island, they has different geographical locations, and in different periods, they had different political associations, like Åland where I come from, was part of Sweden, and then a part of the Russian Empire and and part of Finland, although there was conflict there. And it is, it's very interesting, for example, on Åland at the end of the First World War, before that everyone was writing about regional history, until approximately 1979-80, they were writing about Finnish nationalistic history. But then, there is, at the end of the, of the First World War is this, this movement on Åland for becoming part of Sweden and leaving Finland, because of all the turmoil with the Russian Revolution, and the civil war in Finland, and so on, Sweden seem to be a more safe harbor, so to speak. And after this, everything changed and they have always been Swedish. And these things can change very rapidly.
Nicola Witcombe 23:58
Could you join up the dots here, then? We've talked about identity, historical consciousness, textbooks, and also, you know, the collapse of the Soviet Union and so on. And those are very diverse things. Could you try and explain how you bring all those together?
Janne Holmén 24:23
What unites them for me is this kind of comparative perspective, I'm trying to see how factors such as history and differently geopolitical positions affect formations of things like identity and perceptions and mental maps and worldviews in a way.
Nicola Witcombe 24:46
And I guess in another context, mental mapping and what you read as a child and so on and so forth, could be called a type of indoctrination. For example, I was speaking to the head of the Center for Education Policy at Aalborg University. And she certainly did not use the word indoctrination, but she was trying to describe the use of schooling to create good citizens of the welfare state.
Janne Holmén 25:22
Yes, you can say that. That's one aspect of the school system, this idea that you should make is to make people should become better persons by going to school, other people think that you should go to school because you should learn knowledge, which is important for you, and other people think you should go to school in order to get networks to go to school with the right people, and then you will be fine or not. That's not what you learn. No. So there are different ideas about what school is and should be. But this idea that you should construct better people and a better society through schooling, it's very strong. It's called progressivism in education. It's very strong in Scandinavia and Sweden.
Nicola Witcombe 26:08
And is it still strong today?
Janne Holmén 26:13
Well, I think it was very dominant until the 1970s-1980s. In Sweden, if you look at political history, you have this very long social democratic group from the 1930s until the 1970s. There was a center-right government from 1976-82. But this government really didn't dare to touch any of those social democratic reforms. So in the field of education, not much changed, really, during this period. And then since the 1990s, there has been this alternation between social democratic and center-right governments. Every time the government has changed, there has been a new teacher education. I've been studying teacher education reforms in Sweden and Finland also, you can see very clearly that every time there is a center-right government, they introduce a new teacher education form, which stresses knowledge and then under specialization in different subjects and when the Social Democrats get back in power, then they turn the clock back to much more of this progressivism and more pedagogy and more if you will, this idea of creating better persons through education, it's not so the de emphasize the Sadek knowledge a little bit in comparison to this, the social mission of the school. So it has been moving forward and back in Sweden, approximately every 10 years, there has been a new shift in government.
Nicola Witcombe 27:59
Could you explain why it's important for you to teach and study in your subject area?
Janne Holmén 28:07
It was very important to have this kind of understanding of where we are coming from and where we are heading in order to be able to plan. That's really the reason why we are why we have this mental maps in our minds about both space and time that both make it possible for us to make predictions about the future. You cannot expect that you can make some kind of perfect, some kind of scientific method for exactly predicting what's going to happen. But the more learning and more information and knowledge and understanding of the world, the present and the past that you acquire, the better prepared you will be for for what is going to happen.
Nicola Witcombe 28:54
As you know, I interviewed Stefan Olafsson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Iceland a couple of weeks ago. And he is very interested in this idea that Sweden initially or in the last century, was sort of the model, everybody looked up to Sweden as a sort of ideal of the Nordic welfare state. And he sees that Sweden has, in some ways come down from that status. He quotes for example, that it's now somewhere in the region of 6-9 in the ranking of OECD countries on some of the issues like poverty and equal income distribution and so on and so forth. So he's interested to hear from Swedish academics, whether you see the significant change in Swedish society and whether it's reflected in the Swedish media?
Janne Holmén 30:06
Yes, that's a very interesting question. That is exactly right. Everyone has been investigating income development and income distribution globally. And in a comparative perspective like Thomas Piketty, for example, he noticed this that Sweden has dropped in this respect that there was some kind of peak inequality in the early 1980s, maybe in the Nordic countries, in particular, in Sweden. And the reason is, of course, is the changes in taxation that capital gains taxes have been removed. And for these knows, 0% inheritance tax in Sweden, for example, and there are many other taxes that are very beneficial for wealthy people. And so it's not really growing gaps are not due to the fact that there is a growing number of poor people, really, its more that rich people are surging ahead, so to speak. And in what way you can see this, it's quite a lot of debate, maybe I will say that the debate in Sweden is more about some kind of courses, or some kind of effects that are related to this general societal development, like the school system, for instance, the schools are very much debated in Sweden, that there is a gap in schools, the quality between different kinds of schools have increased. And that is, in a way, the effect of the fact that different municipalities are now on very different tax basis and possibilities. And it's also in combination with the reforms that have made it easier to start free schools, different profiles and wealthy people, their children gathered in some schools and those who are less well off, are left in the other schools, so to speak. And also, there is quite a lot of debate about areas, suburbs, which are less wealthy and more poor, and have a lot of quite a large proportion of immigrants, and has been quite a lot of violence there in the last year with quite a lot of drug related killings and so on. And these kind of effects of this gap. They are debated quite a lot. But I have not really seen any actual debate, trying to level off the case. No one is really working to bring back the tax levels of the 1970s and 1980s.
Nicola Witcombe 32:50
So would you say that amongst sort of the Swedish population, they're quite aware of these broad changes? But is there an awareness that Sweden is perhaps losing its place at the top a little bit? Or is this still that sort of rather smug sort of feeling that it's one of the best countries in the world?
Janne Holmén 33:19
Both these ideas, they exist in parallel, so often, some areas of society are perceived to be in crisis, like like to school, for example, and like police. And I think these areas or areas where there have been a lot of reforms, maybe a bit too often there's been reforms of the police and under the teachers, that they have not really been left in place to do their work and build up their everyday operations have not been functioning very well. And reforms have been made that have created differences between different parts of the country. And so there is an awareness that some areas are in need of improvement. But I think when it comes to international comparisons with other countries, there's a tendency in Sweden to be defensive and say that is not really possible to compare. And so I think, in the general narrative in Sweden is still that is maybe the best place in the world, still, I would say,
Nicola Witcombe 34:29
What I found particularly interesting, when I was speaking to an academic at Malmö University before Christmas, he was saying the same thing that you're saying that, you know, of course, many different thought processes exist in parallel. So he was talking about the Swedish elite, who tend to be you know, interested in being very politically correct and consider, you know, sort of gender neutral issues, climate change, and so on and so forth. and sort of expect the whole of the population to sort of agree with them. But on the other hand, you've got a lot of people who are vulnerable, and maybe don't have the luxury of having the same principles as the Swedish elite have. I don't know whether you would agree with that?
Janne Holmén 35:21
Well, it's very interesting question that, in a way, I was talking about Thomas Piketty. And in his latest book, I think it's called capital and ideology, he was writing about how how the left also has become an elite movement. That the right is a movement for the economic elite and the left is a movement for the political elite. The left is now a movement for people who through education have advanced society to becoming bureaucrats, or university teacher or politicians or something like that. And there is not really any movement left for people who are left behind. So it's the only elite movement. And that's the room where tje populist parties have been able to expand, because no one is really taking care of the interests of the unemployed working class.
Nicola Witcombe 36:16
And it's interesting that you should say that because in Denmark, there's been quite a lot in the press about Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister, being, well, even Helle Torning Schmidt and people before her, are sort of career politicians, so that the generation before them on the social democrat left, sort of came up a bit more through trade unions and the working class, whereas, you know, Parliament is, or certainly the government is populated by people who, arguably, their work has always been political, they went straight in at that level, as you're saying. So they sort of almost lose the base on which, you know, social democracy was built, which can be can be an issue, as you say, in an interesting perspective on populism, as well. And super well, thanks very much for that response to Stefans question. The next researcher in line is Elisabeth Straksrud, who is Professor of Media and Communication at Oslo University. And I'd ask you now to put a question to her, please.
Janne Holmén 37:42
I understand she has done research regarding childhood and how children use quite different kinds of digital media, and how they navigate it in a way in this media environment. And with my background of my research into that would be interesting if there isn't a research about what kind of worldview they are constructing, or it is, so to speak mental maps children construct by using digital media? An example are computer games, for example, there has been some research about how children can construct maps of this virtual world in their head about all the different levels and in games and aspects of the game. I wonder if there is any studies into how digital media affects the worldviews of children?
Nicola Witcombe 38:38
Brilliant! That's a very interesting question. So Janne, that was a very interesting and broad discussion. And we talked about many different topics. I just like to say thank you for being here today.
Janne Holmén 38:54
Yes, thank you. It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Nicola Witcombe 39:00
To sum up, then Janne gave a broad historical overview of some of the education policy changes in Sweden and Finland over recent decades. Even though the political level seems far removed from everyday life in schools, schooling can be influenced by a broad range of different topics. Some of those we discussed today were international trends, for example, new styles of public management and target setting, how particular countries are partisan in global or regional struggles, and history generally, most starkly illustrated perhaps by Finland's changing relationship with the Soviet Union throughout much of the 20th century. The national political ping pong of reforms depending on which political party is in power, and the ideological changes they want to make, where the Social Democrats want more focus on the social side of schooling, perhaps, and the right wing want more focus on subject based knowledge and preparing children for the workplace. And finally, the possibility of making these changes, depending on national, constitutional and structural institutions and decision making practices. Even though like many academics Janne refused to be drawn to a stark conclusion, saying it depends on the context. He did see the irony, and I certainly do a takeaway from our discussion, that years of reform after political reform is if anything detrimental and that is so despite the best intentions of the reformers. Janne is philosophical about these reforms, highlighting that the reason why finished education is worldclass is largely to do with the quality and skills of the types of people who want to be teachers. This is perhaps a very good point, as what he calls the mental maps of our children lie in their hands. Who would have thought that there could be so much behind a simple lesson or textbook?
Janne Holmén 41:16
And it really doesn't matter where you start, if you dig deep enough, you will eventually end up with some kind of philosophical question.
Nicola Witcombe 41:32
You have been listening to a nordics.info podcast. Thanks go to Janne Holmén and to our very own research, Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World (ReNEW) and our funders NordForsk. If you would like to find out more, please visit nordics.info