The new school year is kicked off again and for the first time, I do it as a teacher. I was both nervous and enthusiastic about it. Do I remember to do everything I need to do? Do I even know what I’m supposed to do? Have the students grown during the summer? How should I decorate my class? What is the beginning of the 5th grade like? The to-do list for the first planning days was endless. But when the students started the school, it felt like everything was back to normal. I got a fresh new start in the environment I already knew. But it’s rapidly changing now. As the Swedish parliamentary elections will be held on Sunday next week, I bet there will be many changes in the Swedish education politics.
Last May when I was given the newest version of the time allocation guideline for the Swedish elementary schools, it was hard to see what it actually means in practice. When I got our schedule for the new academic year, my first thought was: this may be tough. So many hours of Swedish, math, science and social studies, in addition to Finnish, which is the choice of our school (Skolans val*)… Even fewer hours for artistic and practical subjects than before. I was quite shocked when I realized that these subjects (P.E., arts, music and crafts) cover only 12 % of the 5th graders’ weekly schedule. That means 88 % of theoretical subjects! How will the students cope with the long days of studying fact if they don’t get enough time to work with their hands? Obviously, we learn by doing and integrate practical skills in theoretical subjects, too, but is that enough?
Another rather interesting option for this lack of creativeness is the subject called elevsval, ”student’s choice”, a democratic forum provided by Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education. It’s actually not a subject but it has its own block in the schedule. The idea of this class is, apparently, to offer the students a chance to deepen their knowledge in some particular subject of their choice. But isn’t that something they should do in every subject so that they would find their favourite topics and interests? And shouldn’t the teacher give a chance to deepen the knowledge more often than just once a week? I’m still a little confused about elevsval because I think the purpose mentioned on Skolverket’s website is something that I try to do almost every other class after studying the basics of some skill. Furthermore, if I see that a topic is thought-provoking among the students and they would like to know more about it, it’s my pleasure – and duty as well – to give them more information and encourage them to study it deeper. As I do so, the students are given a chance to deepen their knowledge by their own choice, aren’t they? I wonder if the students, especially the younger ones, even know what knowledge to deepen at school without a teacher introducing different topics to them.
”Why is elevsval a teacher’s choice?” (Student, 10)
In essence, the problem is not the idea of elevsval. I think it has a good purpose which should be featured in every subject, in every class if possible. The problem is “the full additional hour” we now have in our schedule since the duration for elevsval was increased from 40min to 60min per week in middle school. After fixing the schedule of my class the best I could, elevsval ended up being the last class on Fridays at 2pm. That got both me and the students thinking: Is that really ”the students’ choice” to be at school until 3pm on Fridays to ”deepen their knowledge” aka studying more? After the first two weeks, it’s deepening their restlessness, that’s for sure…
I would love to give more time to the students to practice their skills in artistic and practical subjects because I believe that’s a good way to enhance self-expression, personal development and confidence. Only if I could give that extra time to deepen the knowledge when it’s actually wanted and needed – for example, by making the 30min music class a bit longer so that everybody could try playing bass or by letting them finish their drawing after the art class for 40min. But I can’t because the practical subjects are taught by subject teachers who have their own schedules and elevsval is my class.
”If we pupils could decide what to do in elevsval, we wouldn’t even have that class.” (Student, 11)
We’ve had a couple of routines in elevsval class. First, going through next week’s topics and homework. Second, watching Lasten uutiset (Finnish news for children by Helsingin Sanomat) and discuss the topics. Sometimes we play games or watch films, sometimes we talk about emotions and social skills. Nothing too heavy but still too much on Friday afternoon. The kids are already looking forward to starting their after-school activities and hobbies, where they usually have a natural chance to focus on their interests and practice life skills.
Next week’s topic will be the elections. I wonder how my students would choose in elevsval if this week the class was about deepening their knowledge in democracy and public participation… Hand voting on staying at school vs. finishing earlier?
”We want to go home earlier on Friday. That’s our choice!” (Student, 11)
*Schools with specialist status in for example arts, sports, language or science, are allowed to subtract minutes from other subjects except for core subjects. The core subjects in Sweden are Swedish or Swedish as a second language, math and English. Therefore, the minutes for the particular subject or subjects are usually taken from practical subjects.
The Swedish Time Allocation Guideline for Elementary Schools: https://www.skolverket.se/undervisning/grundskolan/laroplan-och-kursplaner-for-grundskolan/timplan-for-grundskolan