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5 things I learned in Sweden

Craig Barton

Earlier this month I was delighted to be invited to Stockholm, to promote the Swedish release of my book, and to lead a keynote session to a large group of maths teachers entitled Formative Assessment and Diagnostic Questions.

Here are 5 things I learned on my trip:

1. The Swedish do not like long book titles

When the Swedish rights to my book were acquired by publishers Natur & Kultur, I just assumed they would translate the title word for word. But I was wrong. It turns out that the long titles that seem to be popular with British books do not travel well. The publisher explained how the Swedish audience were confused by the translated title of David Didau’s brilliant
What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?, and ever since they have changed these epic titles into something more palatable.

So, my book has gone from being How I Wish I’d taught Maths to… wait for it… , Hjarnan i matematikundervisningen which I am reliably told means something along the lines of “the brain and mathematics”.

2. The Scandinavians are dark

Speaking of changes, the front cover of my book has also had a bit of a make-over for the Swedish audience. No longer do we have the happy, smiling teacher going through an Example-problem Pair on adding fractions:

Instead we have what appears to be something chained to a chair, hanging upside-down from the ceiling:

I guess that is Scandinavian noir for you.

3. Jo Boaler is very popular in Sweden

My Swedish publishers, Natur & Kultur, also published Jo Boaler’s most recent book, Mathematical Mindsets

Indeed, this is the best-selling maths education book in Sweden.

Now, anyone who has read both mine and Jo’s books will know that we have quite a few different opinions on the most effective ways for students to learn maths.

Speaking to a few Swedish teachers, they explained how they loved Jo’s book and the ideas in there, but then struggled to use them effectively in the classroom. This was definitely something I could relate to, and which I write about at length in my book. In short, I am no longer convinced that less structured activities are suitable for novice learners, and that the development of a growth mindset starts to crumble unless build upon a foundation of success.

I am fascinated/nervous to see the reaction to my book in a place where alternative approaches seem to dominate.

4. The Swedes are very good at Guess the Misconception

In fact, they are annoyingly good. In a group of around 100 teachers, 8 got all four questions that I presented correct. Now, this may not seem that high, but when I play the game with similar sized crowds in the UK, the number is usually 1 or 2.

Being a self-confessed lover of statistics, I am not going to go leaping to any wild conclusions about the Swedes’ misconception-detecting abilities based on such a small sample size. But it was fascinating to listen to the way the audience approached the questions, shared their experiences with their neighbour, and then reached a conclusion.

If you want to try your hand in bettering the Swedes in the game that everyone is talking about, then I have written loads of Guess the Misconception posts. They are great to use in departmental meetings, and with students. Try these ones out:

Angles in a Triangle: Guess the Misconception
Probabilities less than 1: Guess the Misconception
Fractions and Decimals: Guess the Misconception
Table of values: Guess the Misconception

5. Formative assessment is even more important in mixed-attainment settings

Mixed-attainment groupings are for more prevalent in Sweden than they are in the UK, although it was fascinating to hear how a movement towards setting is being driven not by the teachers but by the parents.

Now, as I discussed in my podcast interview with Helen Hindle, and my forthcoming interview with Jeremy Hodgen, I have never taught in a school that has mixed-attainment maths classes, and if I did I think I would really, really struggle.

But one thing struck me — the role of formative assessment is perhaps even more important in a mixed-attainment classroom than one that is setted. In all lessons it is, of course, of great importance to get an accurate sense of students’ understanding of the principle you are teaching, or the prerequisite knowledge for something you are about to teach. As Dylan Wiliam says, we need to start from where the learner is, and now where we want the learner to be. But with the wider gulf of prior knowledge that we would expect to exist in a mixed-attainment class, then this becomes even more vital.

In previous posts I have described how I use diagnostic questions to get this quick and accurate picture of my students’ current understanding, and then how I adapt my teaching accordingly based on their responses. This approach would be needed even more in Sweden’s mixed-attainment classrooms, and I’m pleased to say that their teachers seemed optimistic that they could pull it off.

If this has whetted your appetite for more diagnostic questions, I have good news — there are more than 40,000 of them (including 30,000 for maths), all freely available, together with our brand-new schemes of work for Years 1 to 11. Head over to to find out more!

Written by
Craig Barton
Head of Education

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