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.


Strategic Formation

“The media is right to go after [Brian] Williams like this. Imagine if you let lies slip into news stories, like a huge pile of them that was disseminated in say the New York Times, and meet the press, and sometimes in the New York Times just so that the administration could go on meet the press and say this… And the crazy thing is, the Bush administration are the ones who planted the fucking story in the New York Times in the first place!” —John Stewart

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Strategic formation is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and a way in which groups, types, genres of texts acquire mass and referential power among themselves (Source). Edward Said introduced the idea of strategic formation in the introduction to Orientalism. Just as everyone who writes about the Orient, he wrote, must be either associated with the West or the East (strategic location), anyone who considers the Orient must create a basis for whatever argument or position they assume (strategic formation). The intellectual basis of their position is composed of referential knowledge that relates to other works (Source).

In other words, by amassing an authoritative body of literature on a subject (such as the Orient) and referencing those works, you can create a self-referential web with the trappings of academic rigor and scientific rationality, but no accountability to acknowledge other viewpoints outside of that textual discourse or to accurately describe reality.

We can see strategic formation majorly at work in the American political landscape, as John Stewart noted in his show last night. We also see it in my field, educational development. A couple months ago I signed up for an online course called “Educate Girls,” sponsored by Teachers Without Borders and now offered as a “free public course” at Johns Hopkins. I was immediately turned off when I saw that every item on the reading list was either authored by the founder of the organization Teachers Without Borders or by one of the major Western international development NGOs. “Educate Girls” was not a course on the educational situation of girls and what’s best to be done–that was a course on what a narrow segment of the world, analyzing the issue through a particular ideological frame and solipsistically turning inward to each other for authority, thought of that issue.

Of course, one could say the same for all of academia.

For more on girls’ education and strategic formation in development, see Frances Vavrus’s Desire and Declinequoted above. For more John Stewart quotes, see the Daily Show.