Katharina Andersson’s doctoral thesis in pedagogy is based on 900 texts written by 231 boys within the framework of the mandatory national test in Swedish for third graders.
‘The boys turned out to be good at intertextuality, at tailoring their texts to the receiver and at adapting their language to the expectations they faced,’ she says.
The key concepts in her thesis are boys, writing skills and assessments. In her work, she used for example Norwegian professor Kjell Lars Berge’s research on assessment of writing skills. Berge problematises how texts should be assessed and points to the difficulties of designing an assessment that assesses the right things. He also concludes that Norwegian school children are much better at writing narrative texts than discursive texts.
Andersson also uses Finnish professor Ria Heilä-Ylikallio’s research on boys’ writing and their attitudes to reading and writing. Heilä-Ylikallio was also Andersson’s supervisor throughout her work to complete the thesis.
Andersson concludes that all Nordic countries present their national results based on sex and compare boys and girls. Girls always perform better than boys.
Borrowing doesn’t mean lack of imagination
Katharina Andersson works as a teacher trainer at the University of Gävle, Sweden, but presented her doctoral thesis at Åbo Akademi University in Vasa, Finland. She says that writing her thesis in another Nordic country gave her many new insights and thoughts about national identity and language.
Andersson has a degree in elementary education and has often reflected over how boys and girls are always put against each other. For a while she taught a class with only boys, and during this period it became particularly evident that individuals are so much more than just their sex.
‘It became clearer that the kids were in fact a group of individuals, full of differences. Dividing kids by gender alone is so stereotypical,’ she says.
Reading the boys’ texts, Andersson looked for signs that the author understood how to write. She saw that they were good at using the texts they had been given for the task, but also that they were good at implicitly inserting stories from folktales, children’s literature, TV, film, computer games and news. She mentions a boy who wrote his own version of Hansel and Gretel – without Gretel – with great diligence.
Many researchers see borrowing as a sign of lack of imagination, but just think of Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas. Lagerkvist wrote his own version of a Bible story and won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This practice should be thought of as intertextuality when kids do it, too.’
The national tests trick the children
The national tests in Swedish assess children’s skills too narrowly, says Andersson. She is afraid that the emphasis on the boys’ weaknesses can lead to boys giving up writing, and would like to see a stronger focus on reinforcing what the boys are good at.
‘Getting them to dare using their language is important for democracy. Everybody needs to be able to express thoughts and opinions, and boys need to know that they are needed, too. Otherwise society will suffer,’ she says and points to the risk that those who cannot express themselves verbally may instead choose to use their fists.
The themes of the 2009 national tests in Swedish – the focus of Andersson’s analyses – were ‘fear’ for the narrative texts and ‘animal communication’ for the factual texts. When the teachers assess the national tests, they look at the children’s ability to write complete sentences with proper capitalisation and punctuation. They also look at the spelling and whether the texts are structured well with a clear beginning and a clear ending. The teacher counts the number of points scored and then determines whether the child should be assigned a passing grade or not.
‘The children think they need to put a lot of effort into the content of the texts, while in fact they are assessed based on more technical aspects of writing. This way we end up missing many competencies and that’s unfair to the kids,’ she says.
Politicians should ask other questions
Andersson wants to see better test instructions and broader assessments.
‘The assessment criteria should be made clearer to the children, and we should consider more competencies. Positive feedback makes people grow, and it also makes them better able to accept negative feedback.’
The designer of the tests, the Swedish National Agency for Education, is already recommending teachers to mark passages that are written well so that the children can see what they are good at. However, this was uncommon in the texts analysed by Andersson, maybe because the good aspects of the texts were often not subject to direct assessment according to Agency guidelines.
She also wishes that the national tests would be used more as a basis for formative assessments.
‘Today the kids take the tests in the spring semester of third grade, which doesn’t leave much time to reflect on the outcome before the summer.’
Andersson hopes that teachers and teacher candidates will read her thesis and that it will help change their views on how to read and assess a text. She would also like her results to reach the politicians to help them understand that the test results do not convey the whole truth but are rather a reflection of the rather narrow assessment questions asked.
‘Sometimes we need to ask other questions.’