After a few days of sightseeing and visits to education and innovation agencies, we finally got the chance to step inside local Swedish schools. The first school we visited was an international English school in Kista, followed by the Anna Whitlock Gymnasium. Finally, we got to meet with some local school leaders at Lin Education.
The International English Schools (IES) in Sweden were developed with the belief that the English language is imperative in order for young people to be able to realise their full potential in the modern world. They recruit most of their teachers from English speaking countries to achieve the best English speaking environment for their schools. Most of the subjects are taught in English. The schools maintain high expectations for everyone, irrespective of their social background. They provide a secure, orderly and safe environment for teaching and learning. This is mainly achieved through ‘tough love’ and discipline. The IES schools use continuous assessment in all grade levels and provide formal feedback to students and parents four times during the school year.
We were given a tour around the school by the students rather than the teachers. I was very impressed by the command of English from one of the students that was leading our group. She spoke clearly and fluently with confidence, respect and maturity that I could not believe she was only in year 7! She answered all our questions politely and explained in detail about the various rooms we passed, subjects taught, activities, and school culture.
IES Kista is considered to be private school but it is also very multicultural with students of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds learning and playing together. The school is located in a rather ‘rough’ neighbourhood with families from relatively low socio-economic backgrounds, and the principal told us about some of the troublesome students they have had to deal with in the past. However, the school environment appeared to be safe, well-maintained and even quite prestigious. The principal and the teachers dress professionally with shirts, ties and jackets and they are easily identified because of the formal dress code, since there are no school uniforms for students. The principal said that he had enforced this particular dress code on his staff to ensure that teachers are seen as having authority and, therefore, should be respected by all students (even though many teachers dislike this dress code!).
The principal (on top of looking like a serious Viking, with his impressive beard) gave us a very impressive presentation about how he has managed to improve the status of the low-ranking school with troubled kids and is now ranking higher with improved student performance and behaviour. I was deeply inspired by a quote he included in his presentation, by Dr. Kevin Maxwell, “Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.” I think many schools, all over the world, are not teaching the students they have, and trying to teach either by using traditional methods or the strategies that worked with the students they used to have. Every child should have equal access and opportunities to learn no matter their circumstances and it is the teachers’ job to make learning equal and accessible to all by catering to their needs rather than trying to make them fit the mould that we want.
The school has started adopting the ‘one device to one student’ policy starting with grade 4 or 5 getting their own personal laptops, and will continue adding new ones in subsequent years. The laptops will follow the students until they leave school and they have the option to purchase it when they graduate.
Since the current principal at Kista was hired just last year, he has had to let go almost 30% of his staff in the first few months because they were not a good fit nor willing to follow his vision for the school. He needed teachers who want to work with the students they have, set high academic expectations for all students regardless of their circumstances, want to work with families with socio-economic problems, want to have an effect on social change and be great at classroom management, and can engage students in their subject and make them want to work and impress. The teachers that are working in the school now are all willing to do everything that is necessary to make the school and the students successful.
It was truly inspiring to see such a passionate principal and educator that wants his students to reach their full potential regardless of their circumstances. I feel somewhat disappointed in myself that I did not have his vision or passion towards education when I was teaching in school. It is quite rare to find educators like this in HK as many schools, especially the private schools, are obsessed with status, elitism and money.
We visited the Anna Whitlocks Gymnasium next, which is located in Kungsholmen, Stockholm. It is a high school (upper secondary) that only just opened in August 2018 but it is already doing an amazing job in providing high quality education in a warm, welcoming and creative atmosphere, and is currently Stockholm’s largest secondary school.
The school is named after the school pioneer and educational reformer, Anna Whitlock, who founded the first co-educational school (over primary level) in Sweden. She introduced student councils, parent days, free choice of subject, and voluntary education in religion for school children. She is also the co-founder and chairperson of the National Association for Women’s Suffrage.
The school building is newly renovated from the old Ämbetshuset, which was used as an office building for the County Administrative Board in Stockholm until 2015. The office building then converted into a school building with enough room for 2600 students. The main structure consists of four wings built around a courtyard, which has colourful concentric circles in the middle. The building maintains a part of the old architecture and structures, mixed with new renovations adapted for teaching. The old windows, doors, stairs are kept with the newly added floors, ceilings and WiFi systems.
They have a teacher dedicated to serve as the Communications Manager as well as being the Head of Student Life. The digital landscape of the school comprises of social media platforms, blogs, YouTube channels, Intranet, surveys, polls, and various innovation and pilot projects are constantly being developed.
We also got to take a tour around the school, this time led by the staff. One of them was a Chinese language teacher who had been living in Sweden for 11 years! I was surprised to learn that there were local Swedish students who were interested in Chinese culture and wanted to learn Chinese! (I need to brush up on my own Chinese!) We visited a few of the classrooms where the students were working individually and in small groups for their final projects. They were given different options and mediums to choose from for their projects. Each student had their own laptop as well. I don’t think I saw any of the teachers standing in the front of the classroom lecturing. Sometimes, I couldn’t even identify who was a teacher when I entered a classroom! They really emphasise on the ‘teacher as a facilitator’ role and self-directed and student-centred learning rather than explicit teaching or teacher-directed activities. They focus on developing skills rather than teaching of content knowledge. Students do all of their own research. The school offers different specialisation programmes for students, such as economics, arts, science, social science, and technology programmes.
After the school tour and listening to the teachers’ presentations, we had lunch in their school cafeteria. Their meals are mostly vegetarian to reduce food waste and it has even encouraged the students to eat healthier and more sustainable meals outside of school as well. Not only is education free in Sweden, lunch served at schools are free too; and the food is actually pretty good – definitely better than the lunches I had to pay for at school in HK!
The last stop of the day was Lin Education. This organisation was founded in 2008 with the vision to provide schools, preschools and municipalities with computers and tablets. They also provide supporting pedagogy to work together with their digital devices. They have offices and staff in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Oslo, Karlstad and Umeå. They have also opened an office in Norway in 2017 and hope to cooperate and learn from different countries and organise more staff development trips. Each year, they organise over 1000 educational initiatives on learning, school development and digitalisation.
The staff at Lin Education organised a meet and greet with other Swedish school leaders and we got to network and share and compare the education systems in Sweden and Hong Kong. Some of the delegates from our HK team also shared what they are doing in their organisation and schools related to STEAM education. Then we broke into small groups to discuss about the challenges, practices and resources we have in each of the subject areas within our school communities. We realised that both Sweden and Hong Kong have similar challenges and there are also some areas we could learn from each other, for example, Swedish schools offer a lot of outdoor learning experiences and have more opportunities to see and observe things in real authentic environments whereas HK students are quite limited and rarely get to experience what they read and see from their textbooks in real, everyday life, especially in the area of science.
After all our discussions and reflections, we wrapped up with a round of Fika and bubbles and got to mingle with everyone!
The thing I was most impressed with at Lin Education was the layout and structure of their office. They have a large open area for group meetings and presentations, colourful furniture and even a kitchen island with a big coffee machine and popcorn maker! They make space in the office for employees and visitors to gather together and socialise with a cup of coffee and delicious pastries and baked goods. The whole atmosphere makes working and collaboration more enjoyable and productive.
End of Part 7
Back to Sweden (Part 6)
Continue to Sweden (Part 8)