Education in the Headlines: India and Finland


Cross-posted at

International education issues do not always hit the headlines or trend on Twitter, but one day a couple of weeks ago, two such stories did.

A striking image from Bihar, India momentarily trended on social media. The photo in question depicted dozens of adult men desperately scaling, by hand, a multistory brick building. The accompanying story explained that inside the building, students were taking their Grade 10 year-end examinations. Outside, parents–mainly fathers, apparently–clambered up the walls to pass answers on to their children. As far I could tell, in the coverage, much ire was directed toward the “cheating” parents and their audacity to break the rules so blatantly in broad daylight. Embarrassed authorities made arrests and promised to crack down and prevent any further scandalous cheating incidents. In one article a father was quoted as saying that “the only way [to] get out of this poverty trap is through education.”

Meanwhile, that same week or shortly thereafter, educational authorities in Finland announced that the country would be replacing subject-based teaching with teaching by “phenomenon.” Instead of organizing schoolwork around traditional subject areas–literature, mathematics, science, etc.–classes would be organized around topics, like “cafeteria services” or the European Union, in order to encourage a cross-disciplinary approach. The Independent‘s coverage of the reforms included words like “small groups,” “collaborative learning,” “playful,” “prepare children for the future,” “safe, happy, relaxed, and inspired.” The redesign of curriculum was meant as an alternative to systems that “push kids through ‘exam factories.'”

The image of Bihar children, sitting inside exactly such an exam factory, placed next to the Finnish children “rushing around corridors” playfully and collaboratively, struck me as a cruel juxtaposition, and the ire toward Indian parents horribly misplaced. Maybe if the education on offer in Bihar’s schools were meaningful, it would not be so easy to scam. Perhaps, if formal schooling in India addressed children’s cultural backgrounds and changing economic realities–as it does in Finland–then parents would not feel the need or compulsion to cheat.

It reminds me of how, in the newer research and literature on educational development and domestic education reform, the term “drop-out” is increasingly being replaced with “push-out.” To say a student “dropped out” suggests that leaving school was an autonomous choice, and a wrongheaded one at that–a student who drops out is labeled “a dropout” and all but handed a dunce cap. To say that a student was “pushed out” poses a different idea and connotation–that the student put forth genuine effort to attend and remain in school, but that the inhospitable, or downright hostile, environment of the formal educational system forced him/her out of the school. The student is not at fault; the school is for undermining students’ learning through unfair, inequitable, or simply inept policies and practices.

In other words: if Black high schoolers in Philadelphia are disproportionately targeted for expulsion and other disciplinary action, and they leave school before graduating, can they be said to have dropped out–or has the school all but told them they are not wanted there? Likewise, if children in Bihar are forced to learn through the medium of Standard Hindi or English–both foreign languages to many learners in Bihar, who at home speak Urdu and other dialects of Hindi–can you blame them for cheating? Or are they resisting linguistic submersion and assimilation?

We could reframe Bihar parents’ cheating in a similar way. Are parents “cheaters”? Or are they engaged, concerned parents who care enough to miss out on a day of wages and risk a criminal record for the sake of their children’s futures–children who have already beaten the odds by attaining a secondary-level education? It may be that I am romanticizing and excusing corrupt behavior, or that what I am saying is a version of cliche “hate the crime, not the criminal”-type thinking. But I believe that in the context of education, this is not cliche but is the type of thinking we desperately need more of. We need less focus on students’ deficits in relation to school and more on their assets and resources; less focus on how students and families are failing to conform to the strictures of schools, more focus on how schools are failing to serve the needs and realities of students and families.

Finland already knows that this is what is important, and it has reformed its schooling in line with that idea; now India, and most of the rest of the world, including the U.S., needs to realize it as well.



2 thoughts on “Education in the Headlines: India and Finland

  1. UM April 15, 2015 / 7:44 pm

    I noticed these two recent news items as well. And I also agree that the comparison is worth commenting on. Two more thoughts come to mind. One is that Finland already is ahead and has the luxury of doing this. What was the education system in Finland like that they got as far ahead of India on most measures of well being as they are. But even if that were factored in I think the contrast of the two news events still is indicative of a problem.
    The second thought is that if the “testing factory” method of education is so obviously ineffective at actually raising living standards, why do so many places adhere to it? Is it imposed from abroad? Is it profitable for a few companies? Is there an entrenched bureaucracy that resists change? Even with all of these and many other probable factors I would think that the examples of better educational systems are out there.


    • C. Puls April 28, 2015 / 6:19 am

      Thanks for your comments. I think I know what you mean by Finland having “the luxury” of doing this. Finland is a smaller, richer, more homogeneous country. But in a sense, India does not have the luxury of NOT improving their curricula and pedagogies–the current ones have already failed so many children, and continue to do so. (And I don’t mean to single out India in this regard–many of these criticisms apply equally to the U.S. and other contexts.) Many states in India have recognized this and piloted much-needed changes, like mother-tongue-based multilingual education, but not for long and not everywhere. Govt resources allocated to education could be used to sustain mediocre educational policies that fail most learners, or they could be used toward something better–the only reason not the latter are ideologies and lack of political will.

      Second, yes there are entrenched interests keeping testing in place, certainly in the US and likely in India as well. New York was one of the first states in the US to mandate standardized testing, back in the late 1800s, and the whole reason for the tests was to decide which schools to allocate funding to. If you bought the exam and administered it to students, you counted as a school and received govt funding. Considering the origins of testing were based on money, it’s not surprising that that’s largely how it remains today.

      But there are also competing ideologies of fairness and equality/equity at work. Believe it or not, many policymakers built up testing factories out of idealism–the ideal that giving everyone the same thing (e.g. the same test) is fair, equal, and promotes meritocracy. One of my friends from India made this very argument to me. Those who argue against the “testing factory” model come from a principled position as well, saying that mass exams may be equal but not equitable, not taking into account different starting points and needs of different groups. Unfortunately, in our market societies there aren’t good mechanisms for having moral debates over conflicts of principal, so the side with the most money and financial momentum behind it–testing factories in case–persist by default.


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