Updated on January 22, 2017
Student Life in Sweden: Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities
After growing up in American schools then teaching in one for five years, I can without a doubt say that being a student in Sweden is MUCH different from being a student in America. Basically, it boils down to one big word: freedom. Simply put, students in Sweden have incredible amounts of rights, freedoms, and opportunities to make their own decisions that students in America do not.
Here is a profound example of this: my students’ weekly schedule.
When I first saw this schedule, many things were foreign to me. First off, all the different colors, each different color correlates to a different subject. As one can see, students in Sweden take a much larger variety of classes. Just like in the US, students take math, science, social studies, and language (Swedish instead of English, obviously). In addition to Swedish, they take English and a second foreign language of their choice (French or Spanish). That’s right, students at my school are actively learning three different languages. Finally, American students have a dabble here and there of a variety of related art subjects, normally one class period a day. In Sweden these classes are much more frequent and varied: all students take textiles/woodcraft (one semester of each), art/music (one semester of each), computer/life skills (one semester of each) lab, home economics, and PE. To break this down, American students typically have exposure to 5 or 6 subjects on any given week, whereas students in Sweden have over 10.
In the States, middle school students begin their day at 8:30 a.m. and are expected to be in their seats, ready to learn. After their first class is over, they have a few minutes to gather their belongings and rush to the next class, where they repeat the process until the school day ends around 4:00 p.m. Every minute of the day is scheduled and there is absolutely zero time for students to decide what they themselves would like to be doing.
These breaks in my Swedish students’ schedule – what are they doing then? Making their own choices, and boy do they have many to pick from.
My school (and, to my understanding, all Swedish schools) provide students with several fun options of places to go during class breaks. The most popular option is the student room. Yes, a room with the sole purpose of giving students a place to be themselves, hang out, develop social skills, and have fun. There are couches and tables to gather with friends, a TV playing YouTube clips or music videos, a pool table, foosball tables, healthy snacks, and various board games. Additionally, there is a team of three staff members (the student care team) who are present to support these students in whatever way is needed and to monitor behavior. Teachers also have scheduled break duty when they are expected to visit these areas and interact with students.
Students also have the option to have freedom outdoors. The school provides students with two football fields, a basketball goal, several ping pong tables, and benches to sit on and chat with friends. When the weather is nice, students love to go outside and blow off some steam with their friends. Though no phones are allowed in my school at anytime (an uncommon rule in Sweden), students are allowed to check their phones outdoors. In addition to the student room and an outdoor area, students who would like a quiet place to read or study can visit the library during free time.
Students have yet another opportunity to make their own decisions a few times a year on special “choice days.” Each school year, anywhere between three and five choice days are set into the schedule to break up the monotony of a normal school day and allow students to decide how they would like to spend their time. Each teacher is expected to come up with a lesson, project, or activity to offer as a option and students then select which activities sound the most interesting to them and take part. Popular choice day activities include: rugby, bracelet making, hiking, and field trips. Do you think anyone would sign up for Dr. Buckley’s history lesson on Hatshepsut: The First Female Pharaoh?
Another difference between my American school and my Swedish school is the student’s role in shaping their own educational experience. Each student has an assigned mentor whom they begin to develop a relationship from the beginning of the school year. For the rest of the year, the student can go to their mentor with any issues that may arise. If the student feels that they are being treated unfairly or that things are not going well at school in any way, they can go to their mentor for individualized support. In addition, the mentor has regular contact with each mentee’s parents and is expected to call once a month to discuss the child’s current participation in school. This regular communication between parents, mentors, and students keeps everyone on the same page and provides great support for each student.
Once a semester, each student and their parents are required by Swedish law to have a Student, Parent, Teacher (SPT) meeting with the child’s mentor. The idea is to have students lead this meeting and examine how things are going at school, both socially and academically. The students then shape their own learning by first coming up with specific goals and then brainstorming for ways in which they can reach them them. The parents and mentor also make commitments on how they will help the child reach the goals. All parties involved fill out a form detailing these goals and sign it as if it were a contract. This is an excellent opportunity that not only allows, but requires, that time be set aside to discuss the unique needs of each student.
To me, this high level of freedom that students have (which is significantly higher in other Swedish schools than it is mine) has some upsides and downsides. On the plus side, students naturally learn how to schedule their time and develop responsibility very quickly. I rarely have students who are late to class or who do not have their materials. The idea is that if students are given this freedom, they will value what they have and continue to cooperate within the system. Though this is the case with the vast majority of students, I do notice that some students take these opportunities and feel entitled to rights but do not give back to the school in a positive way. As is the case with any student, parent involvement and support is crucial to help students understand their place in society (or the school) and contribute in a meaningful way.