For some time, the world of education has become aware of the exceptional success of Finland’s boldly innovative education system. The ideas that guided the Finnish government were not new or original. They have been debated, applied, experimented and validated by educational reformers in multiple contexts for more than a century. Finland is the only country to have put them into formal practice on a national scale.
The theoretical foundations were pioneered by philosophers and psychologists, with major contributions from Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. They produced a philosophy of education generally referred to as “constructivism.” Its fundamental premise is that knowledge is holistic, meaning it is constructed non-linearly through the accumulation of varied and interconnected learning experiences. It opposes the standard linear approach practiced everywhere that breaks the process of learning down into the mechanical presentation and assimilation of formally defined facts, rules and principles.
Being Guru sums up the major principles that underlie Finland’s vision for educational efficacy.
- Cooperation trumps competition.
- Teaching is a profession respected in the community.
- Research on learning trumps political reasoning.
- Experimentation and diversity of teaching styles are encouraged.
- Playtime is a valuable and necessary part of the learning experience.
- Homework is banned to avoid distorting the emergence of knowledge.
- High-quality pre-school focuses on the preconditions for active, cooperative learning.
Finland is of course a small country of 5.5 million people on the northern edge of Europe. Recently, reformers in many nations have made desultory attempts at applying Finland’s success story to their own educational environments. The quest has been elusive, for a number of cultural and political reasons. One American commentator explains, for example, that “Finland’s educational system was driven by a culture that supports a strong social contract,” something absent in US culture. An even stronger argument is that the educational systems of other nations, with much larger populations, are so entrenched politically and economically that reforming them is a challenge beyond the capacity of their governments.
Al Jazeera reports an initiative in India with the potential to presage a massive cultural revolution. “Schools offering activity-based learning over textbook-based education,” the article affirms, “are emerging across India.” The article describes a process that represents “a sharp break from the doctrinaire approach that has long dominated Indian education.”
How is it then that India, with the largest student population in the world (an estimated 315 million), appears to be moving towards adopting the Finnish philosophy?
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European education was once organized around the humanistic principle of “the liberal arts.” With the advent of the industrial revolution that transformed European and ultimately the global economy, education moved its focus to the concept of mechanically acquired, compartmentalized knowledge definitively breaking with the more holistic notion of learning conceived as the mastery of multiple arts.
In 1835, Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, an Englishman intent on establishing order in his nation’s colony in South Asia, began his campaign to format the idea of education in India in a way that would be consistent with the goals of the colony’s new masters. England’s imperial industrial economy had evolved into a tool of global domination. It was time for “civilization” to displace India’s culturally-rooted tradition of “gurus and their shishyas” who “lived together helping each other in day-to-day life.”
Over the past two centuries, Indians have learned to accept and replicate an alien education system built by the British. The recent embrace of Finnish educational philosophy may signal a revolution for education but, paradoxically, also a return to at least the spirit of ancient Indian traditions.
All revolutions encounter resistance. Al Jazeera quotes Pia Jormanainen, a founder of the Finnish school now collaborating with the Indians: “We’ve had schools ask us to craft the syllabus for their teachers. That’s fundamentally against our approach.” Bad habits are always difficult to change.
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A body of formalized knowledge presented as the sum of all useful information, specifically designed to impose a restricted view of the world consistent with the goals of a ruling elite
Collaboration as opposed to competition plays out even at the level of the composition of teaching staff for the Indian schools adopting the Finnish approach. “At Finland International School, every class will have two trained teachers — one Finnish, the other Indian — and an assistant. The aim is “to deliver the best of the Finnish model in an Indian context.”
The article emphasizes the obvious fact that, for the moment, the adoption and experimentation of Finnish principles of education is limited to private schools. This has led to concern “that Indian private schools — mostly catering to children from privileged backgrounds — will not be able to ensure equal access to quality education and teaching, a foundational principle of Finland’s public school-based model.” But institutions such as the Jain Heritage School and Nordic High International have not only adopted and successfully applied the Finnish approach, they have been investing in the teacher training required to make the system work and spread. An Indian company, Finland Education Hub provides this definition of its mission: “to create meaningful improvement in India’s school education system by embedding the best educational practices from Finland.”
The real question is whether a significant portion of the population, with no access to expensive private schools, can eventually benefit from the effort now being made. “The education minister of Kerala, arguably home to India’s best government-run schools,” Al Jazeera reports, “announced earlier this month that the state would partner with Finland on teacher training, curriculum reforms and classroom technology.” The population of Kerala is 35 million, seven times larger than Finland’s.
India’s educational needs are massive. Successful educational methods will be the key to India’s future geopolitical positioning, notably with regard to China. Kerala’s experimentation could provide a model for other states in India. The fact that many of the principles of Finnish education resonate with pre-colonial traditions of India provides some hope that India may finally break free from some of the remaining constraints imposed by a stultifying British administrative system that aimed at competitive domination and focused on stifling both personal and collective creativity as well as all forms of spontaneous collaboration (which the British tended to identify with “mutiny” and “revolt”).
In 1835, as a member of Parliament, Lord Macaulay, after a visit to India, set himself the task of restructuring Indian education to bring it up to modern civilized standards. In his famous “Minute” he stated clearly his vision of the role of education as restructured by the British. “We must do our best,” he encouraged Parliament, “to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.”
19th century India inherited a caste system that established rigid hierarchies within Indian society. Macaulay believed that, under the British Empire, India, like England, deserved a class system. The British colonists tended to be respectful of collaborating local elites, routinely mobilizing their authority for their own economic and military ends. Macaulay was proposing the creation of a class of cultural go-betweens, who would populate an administration destined to govern the mass of laborers producing wealth for the empire. This educated elite would have the benefit of understanding the culture of the illiterate masses but personally identify with the superior European culture that sought to educate them and reward them for their docility.
Most reasonable people today would critique this as an unhealthy, inhuman approach to both education and government. But it represented the deepest logic of an economic empire. Nearly 200 years later, it has left deep traces in Indian society, whose wealthier classes even today identify strongly with Western models of education, despite the fact that education in the West has become crassly commercial and superficial.
One might critique the fascination with the Finnish model as just another case of India’s sense of inferiority that pushes it to seek solutions spawned in Europe. But in many ways this is just the opposite. The Finns have no interest in creating an empire, even a merely educational empire. Finland has produced a model of education that boldly contradicts the dominant philosophy and practices of the industrial West. One Finnish professor quoted in Al Jazeera’s article “worries that the commercialisation of his country’s schooling approach ‘can hurt the image of Finnish education.’” They appear to resemble Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Clerk of Oxenford” in the Canterbury Tales, about whom we learn that “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche” (“gladly would he learn and gladly teach”). Learning can after all be fun rather than painful.
The Finnish constructivist approach to education, at its core, has many things in common with the oldest traditions in India. It is holistic and draws its energy from human contact and the spirit of seeking to understand rather than being forcefully taught what others consider it convenient to know. In the West, education has become dominated by the rule of managerial efficiency explicitly promulgated by institutions such as the Gates Foundation that had a powerful influence over US education policy under the presidency of Barack Obama. Its goal, widely accepted by the political elite in the US, is standardized knowledge, standardized testing and homogenized but deeply competitive culture. It is a form of education designed to turn successful students into useful and malleable actors in the capitalist economy. It is Macaulay’s system for India perfected thanks to the discovery and elaboration of the rules of scientific management.
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The remaining question for India is a difficult one for a nation with a huge percentage of the population living in poverty. Can it afford to make the investment in something that truly bridges the best in both Indian and Western culture and may provide the ultimate key to general prosperity?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.