50-year-old aims to foster democracy

The Folk High School Teacher Programme at Linköping University has turned fifty. But its aim of strengthening and developing democracy is just as relevant as when it started – if not more.
“In an increasingly polarised society, the role of the folk high schools is more important than ever”, says Louise Malmström, coordinator of the programme.

The Folk High School Teacher Programme at LiU is the only one of its kind in Sweden. It has turned 50, but because of the pandemic, it has not been possible to have much of a celebration. Charlotte Perhammar

“When the Folk High School Teacher Programme started in 1970, many of those accepted already worked at folk high schools or in adult education. They were used to managing NGOs, but rarely had experience of or expertise in teaching. Many had a disparate background, and there was a need for a longer programme in which the teaching methods centred on the special nature of popular education”, says Louise Malmström, coordinator of the Folk High School Teacher Programme.

Louise MalmströmLouise MalmströmPopular education has a long history in Sweden, and since the first folk high schools were started some 150 years ago, it has played an important part in the development of democracy in the country.

“There was a fear that uneducated people would have more of a say, with calls beginning to be made for universal suffrage. Thus, the aim of the first folk high schools became not only to train, for instance, farmers in agriculture and animal husbandry, but also to equip them for citizenship and decision-making. Increasing the power of common people is a democratic duty that folk high schools still have, and that is more relevant now than ever”, says Louise Malmström.

Motor for a vigorous democracy

In a polarised society, where it’s increasingly difficult to connect with one another, the folk high schools can foster democratic dialogue, she says.

“Debates often become battlegrounds where people try to knock each other down, while the folk high school is a place where you come together and create an understanding for your differences, as well as your similarities.”

Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarFolk high schools make it possible for a diversity of people to learn and develop together with others, all in order to be able to influence their life situation, but also politics, and be able to have a voice in the societal debate.

“We also see in the research that many people who have attended folk high school are also engaged politically. In the Nordic countries, where there are lots of these schools, our decision-making is more representative. We have a greater share of politicians with less formal education than many other countries, where most politicians have studied at elite universities. In other words, folk high schools are a motor for our vibrant democracy.”

A diversity of people

At the 155 folk high schools in Sweden, last year there were 59,000 participants in the longer courses and 50,000 in the shorter courses. The average age is higher than at upper secondary school, and the groups are diverse. Many participants were born abroad; others have some sort of disability or neuropsychiatric problem. And some are slightly damaged by other school systems.

“They haven't done so well in school, or more correctly, the schools haven't done well with them”, says Louise Malmström.

This diversity means that folk high school teachers must be more flexible and be able to work with people of different backgrounds.

“Throughout the programme, the teachers-to-be are trained in meeting people on their own terms and in creating a dialogue-based classroom, by incorporating the participants’ own experiences and perspectives into the teaching. It’s important to be sensitive and to listen, and to create a sense of security in the classroom. How do you approach a person with social anxiety disorder? How do you create safe spaces for people from minorities? Questions like these are discussed in the programme.”

Feeling at home, making their voices heard

Another thing that is typical of folk high schools is the lack of mandatory tests and national curricula, and that there is no grading. Instead, the teaching collegiate gives a joint assessment.

“It’s not about being best at what’s easiest to measure; at folk high schools they also value things like being able to communicate, put yourself in someone else’s position, meet other people and build trust”, says Louise Malmström.

At the same time, she perceives that folk high schools are becoming more like upper secondary schools.

“Many of the teachers at folk high schools are trained upper secondary school teachers. They might have tired of that, and of setting grades, but sometimes they introduce an approach that spreads, and that, with time, can change the culture. But it’s important to keep the folk high schools as a contrast to traditional forms of education”, says Louise Malmström.

For the future, one aim is to increase the number of graduates of the folk high school teacher programme, and that more of those active in folk high schools will be immersed in the folk high school teaching methods.

“The culture and the special teaching methods of the folk high schools provide a second chance for many people who haven’t enjoyed other forms of education. Here there’s a higher proportion of satisfied students, who don’t only gain qualifications that enable them to move forward, they also gain more self-confidence. Personal development and learning are more than education, and here these people feel that they matter, and they get the tools to make their voices heard. I teach at Marieborg’s Folk High School. Once a student there said that she had always felt different, but that here, everyone was different. Many feel at home and find their place at folk high schools.”

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