The story of the film “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) is structured as a back-and-forth juxtaposition between the informal, non-standardized “life” learning of the central character and the concept of objective, multiple-choice 'testing' as a criteria for success in an economy characterized by a neo-liberal ideology. The reward for passing this test – which, in the film, is the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire – is a literal fortune in cash, enough to raise even the poorest "slumdog" Indian out of poverty and into a life of meaning and value.
Analysis of the film really gets interesting when we ask the following question: What form of education has the greatest capacity for preparing someone (e.g. the film's protagonist) to correctly answer the multiple-choice style “exam” questions that comprise the heart of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Is it a focused program of formal study of the types of material likely to come up on the exam/game show? Not in the case of the film, which suggests that the life story, or "life learning" of the main character -- the formative experiences that he had throughout his childhood and teenage years -- had a powerful impact on how he learned to make meaning of the world as he experienced it in the flashback scenes. It is these "life learned" meanings that, at crucial moments (such as the unlikely scenario of being a contestant on a game show!) are what we will remember and what will best equip us to deal with the situations of life that we face as these situation arise. Our formal educational experiences (as with those of the young protagonist and his brother, briefly depicted in the film) are often memorable for the sense of incompleteness, confusion, and unanswered questions that they leave behind (e.g. "What is the name of the third Musketeer?").
An additional message can also be found in a careful analysis of “Slumdog Millionaire,” regarding the role of motivation and reward in relation to high-stakes standardized testing (which, in the film, is represented by the questions on the game show, and the million-dollar prize that is at stake for answering them all correctly). The “reward” offered for answering the questions correctly – in both the game show and, in big-picture terms, (arguably and ultimately) with high-stakes standardized testing in our schools – is material comfort through financial security in an economic system dominated by the need to have monetary resources to represent one's value to society. The film's protagonist, however, in addition to having a radically different form of 'exam preparation' (as discussed above), also has a radically different motivation for wanting to take the exam (i.e. participate in the game show) and to progress as far as he can and answer correctly as many questions as possible. His motivation is not the financial security represented by the reward offered in the game show's title. Rather, the protagonist's motivation transcends the immediate reward structure of the game show, replacing it with and using it as a vehicle for reaching a more personal, and more 'human' goal -- reaching out to a long-lost lover. In this regard, he subverts the formal, stated objectives of the game show/high-stakes standardized test, and uses the structure and “space” that the game show offers as a platform for acting on his own values and internal motivations.
Question for Reflection and Application: In regards to schooling and high-stakes standardized testing, how can we apply the messages of “Slumdog Millionaire” to our own practice in the field of education?
(Edited and Revised on 14-November-2010)