Grade one students’ acquisition of foundational number sense in Sweden and England: A comparative analysis of the roots of systemic mathematical underachievement

Project leader

Funding source

Swedish Research Council - Vetenskapsrådet (VR)

Project Details

Start date: 01/01/2016
End date: 31/12/2020
Funding: 9454000 SEK


This project seeks to understand, and then provide support for teachers and parents in improving it, Swedish pupils underachievement on international tests of mathematical competence. In so doing two factors currently hidden in Swedish educational discourses, particularly recent innovations intended to overcome perceived teacher shortcomings, will be examined.

The first is that teachers and their students enact classroom culturally constructed routines in largely unconscious ways. These routines, or traditions of classroom teaching, have developed over time and reflect not only what participants have come to believe about the nature of mathematics and how it should be taught but also the ways in which classroom interactions are enacted and how parents support their children’s learning. These routines are so deeply embedded in the collective psyche that they reflect a way of life that makes each country’s classrooms, and the communities in which they are situated, unique and different from other country’s traditions.

The second is that all grade one children need to acquire a set of basic number competences, which we call foundational number sense (FoNS). FoNS, which is a subset of a general number sense that enables humans to function in the real world, comprises those number competences which all grade one children need to acquire and which, importantly, require instruction. The characteristics of FoNS, which underpin later learning, have been derived from a systematic analysis of more than 200 peer-reviewed research papers. It is known that children with a well-developed FoNS are likely to be successful learners of later mathematics, while children with a poorly developed FoNS remain low achievers throughout school.

In sum, understanding Swedish students’ mathematical underachievement requires an understanding of not only how Swedish teachers, parents and children have been conditioned to behave but also whether these conditioned behaviours are likely to contribute to learning. It also requires an understanding of the ways in which Swedish grade one pupils are supported, by both teachers and parents, in their acquisition of FoNS-related competences.

The aims of this project, which will be addressed in both Sweden and England by means of interviews, questionnaires and observations with teachers, and interviews and questionnaires with parents, are as follows.

1. To investigate how Swedish and English teachers conceptualise and teach foundational number sense (FoNS) to grade one pupils.

2. To investigate the culturally conditioned ways of life enacted in Swedish and English grade one mathematics classrooms. Are these ways of life conducive to children’s learning.

3. To investigate how the ways of life enacted by Swedish and English parents support their children’s learning of mathematics in general and FoNS in particular.

4. To support teachers’ professional development by identifying and categorising FoNS-related best practice in the two countries.

With respect to the comparative dimension, England and Sweden share many cultural similarities that make them suitable for comparison – comparing culturally dissimilar countries for the purpose of a study like this is problematic. Both countries have opened the provision of schools to private companies, both curricula specify broad content goals but avoid specifying teaching strategies. Both have experienced similar patterns of immigration over the last fifty years, with similar proportions of migrants from both within and without the EU, leading to the need for both to manage the educational integration of children with limited competence with the language of instruction. Both are economically successful with largely equivalent GDPs. Both share a protestant culture and the work ethic it inculcates in its inhabitants. Comparing Sweden with a cultural neighbour like England will help expose the unique characteristics of the Swedish educational culture, including how children acquire FoNS, and identify appropriate activities for teachers’ professional development.

Last updated on 2017-07-06 at 13:41