Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman was a kindergarten teacher with a PhD in pedagogics. She dedicated her professional life to changing, highlighting and democratising living conditions and opportunities for all children.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman was born in 1920 into a family living in Stockholm. At the age of one she was sent however as a foster child to Anna Sofia Björkroth in Solna and her husband Kristian Björkroth, a station inspector. After 1926, the family moved to Katrineholm. An important source of inspiration for Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman’s choice of professional career was her 17-year-older foster sister, Britt-Sofie Björkroth. She was a kindergarten teacher, the first official title for preschool teachers, at the Fröbel Institute in Norrköping, and later the director of nursery schools in Norrköping in 1949—1968.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman’s education started in a traditional female sphere when she trained as a children’s nurse at the Fröbel Institute in Norrköping and at the Flensburgska care institute in Malmö at the end of the 1930s. After that, she tried to get accepted by the kindergarten teacher training at the Fröbel Institute in Norrköping, but was advised against it since she was assessed as being too impractical for that type of profession. She then applied to the Socialpedagogiska seminariet in Stockholm, in 1943. She was welcomed there by the principal, Alva Myrdal, who considered that it was more important to ”have something in your head” and to be socially conscious than to be handy.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman married Arne Sekund, a sports instructor, in 1947. They had two children, their daughter Ann-Sofi and their son Mikael. In her second marriage to the social worker Arne Bjurman, in 1965, she had another daughter, Barbro Sofie, who had Downs syndrome, which reinforced Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman’s work of integrating children with disabilities in creches.
Ideas about renewing pedagogical work with younger children were central for Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman in the early 1950s. With the help of funding from the Stiftelsen Hierta-Retzius foundation, she was able in 1950 to make a study trip to the USA where she gained inspiration for new experimental ways of activating children through pedagogical work in creches. During this round trip, she discovered that in preschool contexts in the USA, other interesting theoretical perspectives were their point of departure than at home in Sweden. These deviated strongly from the dominating decree in Sweden, that of the maturational theoretician and psychiatrist Arnold Gesell, that children’s development must not be forced but that their natural maturation should be waited for. Sweden seems to have been behind, in her opinion, since Gesell’s theories did not allow for children’s active role and creativity. The theories of the Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, on the other hand, did emphasise the importance of enriching children’s own activities, which during the 1940s had become the most valid theory in the USA. Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman also visited the Prior Weston Primary School in London in the 1970s, where she was inspired by free forms like sibling groups and the stimulation of children’s interest and curiosity.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman used this inspiration as a starting point for sketching a different kind of preschool pedagogics that she called ”workshop pedagogy”. She worked in 1949–1961 as a consultant for preschools, nursery schools, children’s camps and playgrounds in Sundbyberg municipality and was able in 1952 to start a workshop pedagogy preschool. It was characterised by what she described as ”a robust environment in which children could mess about and practise being independent and not just wait for their teacher’s initiative”. This pedagogy was quite the contrary of obedience pedagogy and implied criticism of the ”home-likeness” and motherliness that had been the backbone thus far of the kindergarten. Home-likeness and motherliness had developed from the warming and good atmosphere from which it had originally been formulated into a hierarchically organised world in which passivity, obedience and subordination were the rule for the children. The democratic ideas of workshop pedagogy, that also included the child’s investigation of the world around, would have great influence on Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman’s continued efforts.
In the 1960s, she was accepted at Stockholm University where she took her Bachelor’s Degree in psychology, pedagogy and sociology in 1966. During the same period, she worked as an assistant to Professor Stina Sandels at the child psychology laboratory in Stockholm.
In 1968, she was appointed as the committee secretary for the survey Barnstugeutredningenen, which in 1968—1975 carried out four investigations on day-care schools and youth recreation centres. Through Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman, the survey was to have as its starting point that women’s emancipation towards a job and an income would not ”affect the children negatively”, as a creche place was often assumed to do, but on the contrary, a day-care school would offer a better, more exciting and democratic existence to children. In the new general all-day day-care school, children would be freed from subordination and obedience and instead allowed democracy and equality at the same time as women would be emancipated from their subordination in the family. With this aim, Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman invented a new pedagogical model that she called dialogue pedagogy. The first suggestion of the Barnstugeutredningenen was accepted almost unanimously by parliament in 1973. By expanding a general day-care school and promoting the growing understanding of children’s right to be heard, respected and allowed participation, Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman’s contributions have come to have great significance for the efforts of society towards attaining equality.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman was regularly engaged by the National Board of Health and Welfare and in various national surveys on children’s conditions and education from the 1960s until the 1990s. Apart from the Barnstugeutredningen, the most important were the so-called Barnanstaltsutredningen in 1962, the Familjeberedningen in 1967, and the Förskola-skola-kommittén in 1983–1985. She was also a member of the Nordic Ministers’ Council’s commission for teaching matters in 1975—1985. In 1978—1983 she was the principal for the infant schoolteachers’ training at the teacher training college in Stockholm.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman tried in various ways to spread her ideas to parents and the general public, challenging the old authoritarian upbringing of children and trying to create understanding for children as playful and creative fellow human beings with the same need for respect, participation and community as adults. Through her cooperation with TRU, the committee for television and radio in education (later Utbildningsradion, UR), she contributed to spreading the ideas of the Barnstugeutredningen. She participated in the further training of day-care staff and in discussions and she wrote articles. When the National Board of Health and Welfare’s play environment council was set up in 1969, Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman was elected to it. Along with the artist Gunilla Lagerbielke, she designed the information materials: handbooks, slides and full-scale exhibitions that had as their point of departure the ideas in the Barnstugeutredningen.
The Barnstugeutredningen was to characterise day-care school pedagogy during the 1970s and 1980s, but it was also animatedly discussed and criticised. Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman was a faithful Social Democrat and she believed in the capacity of the welfare state to create possibilities for equality and the power and cooperation of the community. However, there were still strong opinions emphasising the decisive roles of mothers and homes for children’s normal development, and anxiety about what would happen to children if they spent too much time in an institution — a concept that was unfortunately linked to poor accommodation, poverty and cold. The Social Democratic member of parliament Nancy Eriksson criticised the expansion of day-care schools in her book Bara en hemmafru. She considered it implied the devaluation of the housewife. Others warned that day-care schools could only ever be a matter of storage, somewhere to park the children. From the right wing and religious sources, the survey was criticised for trying to dictate socialist child-rearing steered by the state to destroy the family. Dialogue pedagogy was also criticised by the left wing for spreading an exaggerated belief in American individualism and the idea that class differences could be hugged out of existence. In the 1980s, criticism was about the lack of demands, structure and knowledge communication in dialogue pedagogy. The Barnstugeutredningen was accused of having created chaos. Anna Wahlgren, the controversial author of Barnaboken in 1983, demanded that day-care schools should be scrapped.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman herself was of the opinion that her work and struggle for a new view of children in general had become influential in the community while she often self-critically returned to her lack of success in communicating her ideas in a good way, and that she had not made sufficiently explicit the theoretical and societal framework for her suggestions. Her ideas about dialogue, investigating, participation and democracy when it came to children have returned to the Swedish preschool with full effect since the 1990s. They have also become a sign of the respect that children in Sweden today are able to enjoy.
Gertrud Schyl-Bjurman died in 2019.