(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

How We Look at Education

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So… I’ve been reading some vastly different things about education and just wanting to connect all that’s rushing through my head.

I was in a private facebook discussion with a friend who pointed me to uncollege, so I shared it on rhizo14 and Scott Johnson wrote a few very quotable things that I got his permission to blog:

“education has allowed itself to be pushed around like it didn’t matter”

– will probably quote this for the rest of my life!

More from Scott, when I asked to use the quote (and later if I could use the below as well):

Go ahead and use that quote Maha, I could be famous. Almost all the “failure of education” focus on the individual, quote famous people who aren’t us and ignore the fact that education is a social activity that we all share in supporting. If things have gone bad then we all need to be ashamed. We’ve let ourselves down, if that makes sense and we’re so sophisticated we can feel cool about walking away from the mess. I read the article and as a self-employed and self-taught person who struggled with school I still think that as a social value school matters more than the “success” of a few self-centered individuals. School is an imperfect expression of a desire for a better society and giving up is just selfish.

And after bringing up Illich:

As for Illich, I appreciate what he has to say but somewhere recently I picked up the notion that school matters and it involves all of us. It’s a problem to be engaged, not walked away from. Plus, his critique is as much about the society our schools reside–hard to walk away from that. I think Freire tries to address the problems as fixable and necessary. I wonder what teachers think about the ability of ALL their students thriving in the world of un-college?

Wise words, Scott. Will always remember them and re-use them. It made me realize why I want to read Illich but am not in as much of a hurry to do so as I thought I should be.

Separately, a friend pointed me to the book “Finnish Lessons” and I bought the audiobook in my excitement, hoping to get inspired. I just started it, but so far I’m disappointed. I promise to “review” it again on my blog when I’ve finished the whole thing, to be fair.

While a lot of what’s in it sounds great (like emphasizing trust in the teacher, going away from market forces influencing education), I am also sort of stumped each time the author talks about how they measure the success of Finnish education using PISA scores.

Each time he mentions this I grimace. You reform education in considerably radical ways (which I am yet to understand in the book) and then you come and measure it with standardized universal tests? Are you kidding me? I mean, I understand that’s how the world might see it, but I would have hoped the Finnish had other measures of success they preferred? (maybe this is coming later in the book)

The author also goes into lots of detail about why what he’s saying should transfer beyond the Finnish context. In principle, this is good and important, of course, or else why read the book? But he keeps focusing on how similar Finland is to other countries (and, in my opinion, it is not done very well)… rather than how the actual reforms done in Finnish education would transfer to other contexts. It seems to me that the approach itself needs to be considered holistically and then to convince me that it’s transferable, take examples from a couple of different contexts and show how it might transfer. But trying to say that Finland is similar-enough to other countries because its population is similar to that of a state in Australia and its size is similar to Massachussetts… Really? He also does this strange thing where he seems to be talking about the global North needing to reform education but not the global South. Ummm. OK. Maybe the contexts would be too different if you went there? Not sure.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be mean. It’s just the rhetoric of universalism is getting to me. I keep hoping there will be a turn around in the book, that I have misunderstood something major, but nothing yet. Will see how it goes (it’s a little impulsive to start talking about this when I have not finished the book yet, but this thing is actually turning me off the book a little. Note to self, if ever I am writing a book, to be clear early on what kind of book it is and what kind of approach it is taking, no big surprises to the reader near the end because you cannot assume the reader will ever reach the end or read linearly).

So let’s end this on a lighter note. Barney. Yes, Barney. I heard that Dora is better for your kids than Barney (more interactive) but there it is and my daughter loves Barney, so 🙂 Anyway. There is this episode she loves watching called “Play Ball”. Now what’s interesting about it is … Barney has four kids of different “ethnicities” (White, Black, Asian and someone who could be Hispanic or Arab). The episode is about balls being the best toy of all. It’s a nice idea because balls are available and easy and everyone supposedly can play with them (barring huge disabilities, I guess). There is a song where they say things like “balls are for boys, balls are for girls”. Whatever. Anyway. There is a part where the kids “pantomime” playing particular games with balls and the others guess what they are. The three games they pantomime are baseball, basketball and tennis. It’s interesting how US-centric that is, because most other countries don’t play baseball. It all also reminded me of one day when I was watching tennis on TV and my housekeeper came around and said (in Arabic) “are you watching basketball?” and I explained to her that basketball has a basket in it, whereas this one had a racket (Tennis in Arabic is more like “racket ball”). Anyway, just making the point that sports are not universal, either. Here’s the Barney episode 🙂

This also reminded me of the time I tried in my class to do a gender activity where I shared photos of Disney Princesses and asked students to think of the gender stereotypes in their stories. Unfortunately, I had not factored in that my students did not necessarily watch Disney cartoons (especially men), though most of them did know the famous Snow White and Cinderella stories – they just did not recognize the graphic Disney representations of them. Anyway, my point again: you cannot assume universality.

I’m hoping the below image is not copyrighted. I got it from:
http://www.trbimg.com/img-503790c6/turbine/hc-mommy-minute-20120827-001/600

Disney Princesses criticism

Disney Princesses gender stereotypes

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

One thought on “How We Look at Education

  1. Not to confuse the relevance of Barney with foolishness, you may want to consider a deeper analysis.
    The Taxonomy of Barney
    Evidence of Convergence in Hominid Evolution
    http://www.improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume1/v1i1/barney.htm

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