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Tolerant Swedish Schools Accommodate Religiously Conservative Parents

November 29, 2011

Swedish teachers are conflict averse, and consequently stubborn parents often get their way. Teaching the emergence of life sometimes is like serving a smorgasbord. Religious creationism is presented alongside the theory of evolution. Students get to decide for themselves what to believe, this is shown by research at the University of Gothenburg.

This is one of the conclusions reached in Fredrik Sjögren’s doctoral thesis Negotiated Power. Cultural Value Conflicts in Swedish Compulsory Schools (written in Swedish with a summary in English). Sjögren is a lecturer at University West and earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Gothenburg on 18 November. As part of his thesis he analyzed policy documents from the school system and interviewed lower-secondary teachers. He found that the documents are somewhat contradictive. At the same time as schools are instructed to promote a scientific approach, democratic values and gender equality, students are to form their own opinions and both parents and students are invited to participate in the educational process. This enables teachers to dodge potential conflicts. It allows them to avoid presenting the origin of life as a matter of science and instead say that it is a matter of life stance and opinion, where each individual is free to form his or her own beliefs.

‘Instead of traditional blackboard teaching, the teacher may opt for independent learning in small groups. This allows some students to focus on Darwin while others might prefer the biblical version of how life came about,’ says Sjögren.

In his thesis he writes, freely translated: ‘In a way you can say that students in some classrooms already in their early teenage years get to form not only their own values and morals but also their own scientific theory.’

It has become somewhat of a fix-all solution to many problems to say that it is up to each individual to form an opinion. Students often get to choose their own view of homosexuality.

‘Many teachers aren’t brave enough, don’t have enough energy, don’t want to or are not able to argue with parents who oppose same-sex relations,’ says Sjögren.

Some religious parents do not want their daughters to participate in physical education, since it may lead to physical contact with boys. Many teachers do not take the fight and instead say that it is up to the individual to decide. If they would say that it is a gender equality issue, they would have to confront the parents. The same goes for the widely debated Muslim headscarf. Sjögren says that one reason why gender patterns remain is that gender issues can be avoided by defining them as being up to the individual. And he adds that trouble-making parents are very powerful in Swedish schools.

‘If you’re the type that always causes conflicts, the teachers will most likely keep that in mind when making decisions.’

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