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Language – the key to influence

FEATURE Swedish pupils are amongst the best in the world when it comes to knowledge on democracy and society. But acting in a democratic way is a whole other story.

According to the international survey ICCS 2016 that was published in the autumn 2017, Swedish grade 8 students (14-year-olds) have very good knowledge of democracy and society, and positioned themselves, together with Denmark, Taiwan and Finland, at the top of the survey.

"Hearing that Swedish students have good knowledge of what democracy entails is both gratifying and crucial. Nevertheless, children and young adults need tools and plenty of practice in order to actively be able to participate and become sharp democratic citizens. In this sense, language is key," says Eva Lindgren, senior lecturer at the Department of Language Studies and head of research at Litum – literacy research specialising in educational sciences.

In Swedish schools, democracy is often the topic of discussion. Students frequently study democratic issues, but spend little time practising using language to make a change. They write articles giving rise to a debate, but the focus often lies on learning to read and write," says Eva Lindgren.

"Schools need to be more aware of what writing can achieve, for instance, through socio-political writing where students make arguments for their case and express their views."

By working more hands-on with language to strengthen the individual's abilities, school education can be improved to prepare young people for participation in democratic processes.

"Being able to argue, debate and adapt your language to the receiver, but also to listen, juggle your thoughts and see things from other perspectives – these are democratic abilities," says Carina Hermansson, senior lecturer at the Department of Language Studies and deputy head of research at Litum.

We live in a text-based society where much of our information and communication is conveyed through the written word. When reading others' texts, there's always a sender and a purpose behind the text.

"It's important to take a norm-critical approach to the content and be comfortable with it. That work can start early, preferably already in preschool. When browsing through a book together, the teacher can reflect upon the children's own thoughts about their surroundings, things that seem unfair for instance, and provide tools for how to act," says Carina Hermansson.

Proficiency test

ICCS stands for International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. In the latest study, Sweden participated with approximately 3,500 students from 155 schools together with pupils from 20 other countries. Each country took part with a random selection of schools and each school participated with one or two classes in grade 8. Within ICCS, students' democratic and civic understanding is tested.

 

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Photo: Mostphotos/Simon Bergström

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2018.