Sweden's renewed emphasis on books and handwriting

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Sweden brings more books and handwriting practice back to its tech-heavy schools

Charlene Pele, AP (9/10/23)

Accompanied by 10 photographs showing young children (3rd grade?) practicing handwriting.

As young children went back to school across Sweden last month, many of their teachers were putting a new emphasis on printed books, quiet reading time and handwriting practice and devoting less time to tablets, independent online research and keyboarding skills.

The return to more traditional ways of learning is a response to politicians and experts questioning whether the country's hyper-digitalized approach to education, including the introduction of tablets in nursery schools, had led to a decline in basic skills.

Swedish Minister for Schools Lotta Edholm, who took office 11 months ago as part of a new center-right coalition government, was one of the biggest critics of the all-out embrace of technology.

“Sweden’s students need more textbooks," Edholm said in March. “Physical books are important for student learning.”

The minister announced last month in a statement that the government wants to reverse the decision by the National Agency for Education to make digital devices mandatory in preschools. It plans to go further and to completely end digital learning for children under age 6, the ministry also told The Associated Press.

Although the country's students score above the European average for reading ability, an international assessment of fourth-grade reading levels, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, highlighted a decline among Sweden's children between 2016 and 2021.

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

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

Some learning deficits may have resulted from the coronavirus pandemic or reflect a growing number of immigrant students who don't speak Swedish as their first language, but an overuse of screens during school lessons may cause youngsters to fall behind in core subjects, education experts say.

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

“We believe the focus should return to acquiring knowledge through printed textbooks and teacher expertise, rather than acquiring knowledge primarily from freely available digital sources that have not been vetted for accuracy," said the institute, a highly respected medical school focused on research.

The rapid adoption of digital learning tools also has drawn concern from the United Nations’ education and culture agency.

In a report published last month, UNESCO issued an “urgent call for appropriate use of technology in education.” The report urges countries to speed up internet connections at schools, but at the same time warns that technology in education should be implemented in a way so that it never replaces in-person, teacher-led instruction and supports the shared objective of quality education for all.

In the Swedish capital, Stockholm, 9-year-old Liveon Palmer, a third grader at Djurgardsskolan elementary 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 about asking students to use tablets during her lessons even before the national-level scrutiny.

“I use tablets in math and we are doing some apps, but I don’t use tablets for writing text," Branelius said. Students under age 10 "need time and practice and exercise in handwriting … before you introduce them to write on a tablet.”

Online instruction is a hotly debated subject across Europe and other parts of the West. Poland, for instance, just launched a program to give a government-funded laptop to each student starting in fourth grade in hopes of making the country more technologically competitive.

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

“In places where there is not connectivity at home, educators are loath to lean into digital because they’re thinking about their most vulnerable (students) and making sure they have the same access to education as everyone else,” Ryan said.

Germany, which is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, has been famously slow in moving government programs and information of all kinds online, including education. The state of digitalization in schools also varies among the country's 16 states, which are in charge of their own curricula.

Many students can complete their schooling without any kind of required digital instruction, such as coding. Some parents worry their children may not be able to compete in the job market with technologically better-trained young people from other countries.

Sascha Lobo, a German writer and consultant who focuses on the internet, thinks a national effort is needed to bring German students up to speed or the country will risk falling behind in the future.

“If we don’t manage to make education digital, to learn how digitalization works, then we will no longer be a prosperous country 20 years from now," he said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF late last year.

To counter Sweden's decline in 4th grade reading performance, the Swedish government announced an investment worth 685 million kronor (60 million euros or $64.7 million) in book purchases for the country’s schools this year. Another 500 million kronor will be spent annually in 2024 and 2025 to speed up the return of textbooks to schools.

Not all experts are convinced Sweden’s back-to-basics push is exclusively about what’s best for students.

Criticizing the effects of technology is “a popular move with conservative politicians,” Neil Selwyn, a professor of education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said. “It’s a neat way of saying or signaling a commitment to traditional values.”

“The Swedish government does have a valid point when saying that there is no evidence for technology improving learning, but I think that’s because there is no straightforward evidence of what works with technology,” Selwyn added. “Technology is just one part of a really complex network of factors in education.”


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

The Digital Divide, indeed, and it's not just two monolithic sides.  The handwriting side can be cursive or printed, while the digital side can be more or less AI / LLM.

To master a morphosyllabic script like Chinese, the neuromuscular nature of the task makes the digital-handwriting opposition decisive.  If not handled intelligently, writing skills can swiftly descend into amnesia, as shown in different ways in the works of William C. Hannas and J. Marshall Unger.

It seems that, in Europe, controversy reigns over the right policy to adopt concerning physical vs. digital approaches to learning.  We need to know more about which factors are operative in the relative success or failure of physical and digital media in the acquisition of information, knowledge, and thinking skills.  For example, what factors were at play that enabled Singaporean students to excel in achieving high levels in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  These are vital matters for educational authorities to consider carefully, because a fundamental change in teaching and learning methods for reading and writing can have a profound effect on society for decades and more.


Selected readings

[Thanks to John Rohsenow]


  1. Chester Draws said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 2:30 pm

    These are vital matters for educational authorities to consider carefully, because a fundamental change in teaching and learning methods for reading and writing can have a profound effect on society for decades and more.

    The West has already had that fundamental change, and the results have been poor to terrible. Every time a country has moved from "traditional" methods to "progressive" ones there has been a slide in results.

    I am now expected to teach high school maths to students who do not have a firm grasp of their times tables "because they will have calculators", and are therefore basically innumerate.

  2. Peter Grubtal said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 3:08 pm

    Criticizing the effects of technology is “a popular move with conservative politicians”

    A simplistic analysis perhaps. In Bavaria we have the CSU (rated conservative by the media) pushing for every schoolchild to have a tablet. And contrary to Sascha Lobo we have in – of all places – the computer magazine c't – a renowned professor of Schulpädagogik arguing against.

  3. David L said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 5:08 pm

    I am now expected to teach high school maths to students who do not have a firm grasp of their times tables "because they will have calculators", and are therefore basically innumerate.

    I recited the times table* dutifully and frequently in primary school and I can't think of any way that this activity made it easier to learn trigonometry and calculus later.

    *Our times table went all the way to 12, I assume because I grew up in the age of pounds, shillings and pence. But again, this knowledge was of no value in making change with the old currency, for which we had arcane methods of addition and subtraction.

  4. Chester Draws said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 11:26 pm

    I can't think of any way that this activity made it easier to learn trigonometry and calculus later.

    Perhaps because you haven't taught maths, so don't see the links?

    To reach Calculus you need to be able to factorise. And to learn how to factorise you need to know basic facts. How can you factorise 18x + 27 if you don't know your 9 times tables? So those students with no timestables never get anywhere near calculus, being unable to do elementary algebra (and not through want of trying, but because they don't have sufficient grounding).

    To be good at maths requires that you understand how numbers work. Multiplying leads to division. Division leads to rearranging equations. Rearranging allows you to solve. And so on.

    It would be like trying to teach students to analyse a text when they don't read very well. An issue my English teacher colleagues face daily.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    September 25, 2023 @ 2:28 am

    "I am now expected to teach high school maths to students who do not have a firm grasp of their times tables "because they will have calculators", and are therefore basically innumerate" — it must be forty-plus years since I acted as maths tutor to a young girl of nine. Courtesy of our enlightened educational system, she had a reasonable grasp of group theory but could neither use nor understand long division … And trying to imagine how to do anything involving arithmetic without a sound grasp of the basic multiplication tables just blows my mind.

  6. Peter Grubtal said,

    September 25, 2023 @ 2:37 am

    @David L

    Yes, as Chester Draws implies, the benefits of knowing your tables are pretty subconscious when you get to secondary education. You're using them all the time manipulating figures and equations and assessing them for plausibility.

    Rote learning is decried nowadays, perhaps rightly in many cases, but I seem to remember that we almost enjoyed chanting the tables. Those with an interest in data processing will benefit from the 16x table.

    Can you learn Latin without chanting the verb conjugations?

  7. Oldscl said,

    September 25, 2023 @ 10:05 am

    I am from the older generation. I love old school. I love hand writing, cursive form, memorization and reciting. These are seen as backward, non advanced and have been criticized here for ages. I recited those classic Chinese master pieces by heart, like 蘭亭集序, 出師表,赤壁賦 and some 論語, 老子,莊子. Two long Tang poems 長恨歌 and 琵琶行 can also be recited. It would be a sin to ask the younger generation to do it.

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 26, 2023 @ 12:36 am

    Our middle school teacher didn't teach us long division, on the grounds we'd never need it. Teachers at higher levels were not amused.

    Many of my classmates, though, probably never did need it, as they pursued less math-heavy paths through the educational systems.

  9. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    September 26, 2023 @ 10:54 pm

    There’s a connection between remembering things like piano melodies and literary quotations and muscle memory. Somewhere, years ago, I read about how memorization was helped by physically writing out quotations, and that made me more tolerant of my children’s teachers, who were still having their students copy out spelling words by hand. Musicians learn music and rely on muscle memory to perform. Writing to learn is useful.

    Because innumeracy has a sort of reverse prestige in the U.S., there’s a sad lack of respect for memorizing the times tables. When I worked briefly as a substitute teacher, I found out that every student in the algebra class who was struggling with factoring quadratic equations was also struggling with remembering their times tables, as Chester Draws says. While parents I’ve known will grudgingly accept that spelling drills and vocabulary lessons are needed for reading, they are much less likely to acknowledge that the times tables are part of the basic vocabulary for math.

    There are uses for technology in education. I am very fond of the dictionary feature on my e-reader, despite its limitations. I think it would have been helpful when I was learning and reading in a foreign language to be able to look up a comprehensive definition of the word that was in the foreign language and also in translation. Looking up words in a conventional foreign language dictionary really slows reading down and makes it less pleasurable. I might well have kept or improved my fluency, especially if the dictionary entries had included audible pronunciations.

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