Going into my semester in Sweden I was curious as to how classes would be structured compared to the United States. I had heard that academics were more lax in Sweden compared to the U.S., especially in terms of the pressure and expectations that are associated with school. While I was able to gauge some differences between my classes at DIS and Temple, I was eager to be able to meet local Swedish students to see what their experiences were in their schools.
Last week as part of a field study with my Swedish Language and Culture class we took a trip to Blackeberg Gymnasium, a Swedish high school outside of the city center. When we got to the school, we were greeted by the oldest students in the school (the equivalent of a high school senior in the U.S.) who were taking the highest level of English offered at Blackeberg. After a short introduction with their teacher, we got to split up into smaller groups with the students, with whom we talked about topics from dress codes to their opinions on High School Musical.
Because the students were going to graduate in June, I asked them about their plans post-gymnasium. Both of the girls I spoke to said they were planning on taking a gap year, either to work, volunteer, or travel, and both said that taking gap years were pretty common in Sweden. I was surprised to hear this because of how much pressure is put on high school students in the U.S. surrounding college admissions and getting into a prestigious university; gap years, at least at my high school, aren’t talked about nearly as much if at all. As we continued talking about university, they also told me that not only are colleges in Sweden free, students are given a government stipend of around $130 USD each month to aid them in their studies. I was so surprised– getting “paid” to go to college feels like such a foreign concept to me, knowing how pricey colleges are in the U.S.
When I asked the girls about their opinions on schools in the U.S., I was amused to learn that they based most of their impressions from TV shows and movies like Pretty Little Liars, Project X, and of course, High School Musical. Apart from discussing the way American schools are portrayed in the media, the girls also told me about the way their classes are conducted. They told us that even though all students are encouraged to do well, they are not as encouraged to compete with one another like students in the U.S.
I learned that there is a name for the expectation to not compete with one another in Sweden: jante, or jantelagen. Jantelagen, or the law of jante, essentially means that Swedes should all be humble and equal, not try to stand out too much, or take too much credit for their accomplishments. This was interesting to learn about, considering awards are so prominent throughout the U.S. education system, from honor rolls in middle school, valedictorians in high school, and dean’s lists in college. The idea of jante translated over into some of my classes; when we played Kahoots our professors would skip over the parts where you could see the leaderboards so we would focus on the content we were being quizzed on rather than winning the quiz. In my research lab, rather than diving into literature reviews on the first day we did team building exercises about collaborating together in a respectful way, rather than competing to be the smartest person in the group.
I really enjoyed getting to speak with Swedish students that were similar ages to us; some of them even asked us for advice about college and graduating high school. It’s been refreshing to see a different perspective on education, especially because there is so much pressure to excel in academics in the U.S..