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Time is also a context! What does this mean for transnational education?

We know that for any educational program to be effective and sustainable we need to ‘take the context into account’. In the transnational education (also called ‘education export’) this is an especially sensitive balancing act, since we often transfer an already existing program proven to work in one context to a different cultural context. Often educational programs are said to be ‘adjusted’ to the local culture and religion. However, do we know if that kind of ‘adjustment’ is sufficient for effective transfer of the education?

I dare say that transnational education can benefit a lot from disciplines such as cultural anthropology and social psychology, but also political science. Understanding the context is crucial, but how can we define what context is? Ten years ago, I submitted a debate manuscript on the contextual aspects of health promotion claiming that time is one aspect of the context. Well, the idea did not go through well; I was asked to rewrite the manuscript and avoid claiming that time is a context. I had other urgent business going on then and I withdrew the manuscript. After that experience, my international research on getting research evidence into practice and into real-life policy making helped me to ‘keep my finger on the pulse’ of the transnational contextual work. I still believe time is a context. So, why do I claim so?

Brownson, a public health expert I really appreciate, already in 2009 very comprehensively described the dimensions of the context in evidence-based public health ( The dimensions of Brownson ranged from individual to interpersonal, organizational, sociocultural, political, and economic. The sociocultural dimension included social norms, values, cultural traditions – and history. History is related to the temporal aspect of the context, that is time.

Countries and societies learn from each other; their societal structures, principles, and priorities change and develop over time. What was not acceptable 50 years ago might now be mainstream. One public health example is the tobacco legislation. Some countries, e.g. my home country Finland, introduced the first tobacco control act in 1976, which started to decrease tobacco consumption. Another Nordic country, Denmark, my home for 14 years, introduced its comprehensive legislation on smoking-free environment as late as 2007. This is an indication of the time dimension of the context. Despite the published international research evidence on the harms of tobacco, and despite both countries being ‘Nordic welfare states’, the values of individual liberty vs social responsibility behind policymaking were different. For these reasons, the Danish society was ready for the anti-smoking legislation much later than the Finnish society. Isn’t time an important contextual dimension then?

How is this all related to the transnational education?

For example, even if the successful Finnish education practice, known for its student-centeredness and high education level and autonomy of teachers, is known to be effective in enhancing learning in the schools, there is no shortcut to copy these practices to any new context. The multiple dimensions of the context need to be taken into account when transferring education to other countries. This can honestly happen only when ‘the time is right’; in other words, when there is thorough knowledge and genuine respect for the target culture, its values and sensitivity to the contextual dimensions, including readiness for change. These can be learned only in the process of co-creating the educational program. This should happen in collaboration with educators and administration inside the educational institutions but also in the community, including parents, educational policies and socio-economic structures and incentives (such as high-level training and good salaries of teachers).

In my previous blogs I have emphasized the importance of the multi-level needs assessment as the starting point and basis for all training developments and interventions; this is crucial in all successful and sustainable transnational education endeavors.

In my future blogs I will dive deeper into applicability and transferability of lessons learned in one cultural context into another using my experiential expertise from my transnational education projects so far.

03 Nov 2020

Arja R Aro

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