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Learning from Comparing: new directions in comparative education research - Volume 1
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Learning from Comparing: new directions in comparative education research - Volume 1

contexts, classrooms and outcomes


1999 paperback 304 pages, £34.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-58-8

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About the book

Learning from Comparing is a major two-volume study which reassesses the contribution of comparative educational research and theory to our understanding of contemporary educational problems and to our capacity to solve them.

At a time when educational research is under attack on the grounds of ‘bias’ and ‘irrelevance’, and under pressure to address only those questions which are acceptable politically (as good a definition of bias as any), this is a serious attempt to bridge the worlds of research, policy and practice. The editors have put together a collection – in terms of both perspective and nationality – which ensures contrasting viewpoints on each topic.


PART ONE: Comparative Education in the 1990s: theory, method and context

David Phillips. On ComparingPatricia Broadfoot. Not So Much a Context, More a Way of Life? Comparative Education in the 1990sJürgen Schriewer. Coping with Complexity in Comparative Methodology: issues of social causation and processes of macro-historical globalisationRobert Cowen. Late Modernity and the Rules of Chaos: an initial note on transitologies and rimsMichele Schweisfurth. Resilience, Resistance and Responsiveness: comparative and international education at United Kingdom universitiesJulia Betts & Stephanie Wilde. Postscript

PART TWO: Comparing Classrooms and Schools

Robin Alexander. Introduction: comparing classrooms and schoolsJoseph Tobin. Method and Meaning in Comparative Classroom EthnographyDavid Reynolds. Creating a New Methodology for Comparative Educational Research: the contribution of the International School Effectiveness Research ProjectRobin Alexander. Culture in Pedagogy, Pedagogy across CulturesMaurice Galton. Commentary: interpreting classroom practice around the globeMichele Schweisfurth. Postscript

PART THREE: Comparing Pupil Achievement

Patricia Broadfoot. Introduction: comparing pupil achievementHilary Steedman. Measuring the Quality of Educational Outputs: some unresolved problemsPeter Robinson. The Tyranny of League Tables: international comparisons of educational attainment and economic performancePatricia Broadfoot. Comparative Research on Pupil Achievement: in search of validity, reliability and utilityMarilyn Osborn & Claire Planel. Comparing Children’s Learning, Attitude and Performance in French and English Primary SchoolsDavid Hawker & Gérard Bonnet. CommentaryPatricia Broadfoot. Postscript


Contexts, Classrooms and Outcomes is Volume 1 in a two-volume set with the overall title Learning From Comparing: new directions in comparative educational research. With Volume 2, Policy, Professionals and Development, it re-assesses the contribution of comparative educational research and theory to our understanding of contemporary educational problems and to our capacity to solve them.

The books are the outcome of a programme of seminars funded over the period 1997-1999 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The programme was initiated by Robin Alexander, and was organised jointly by three university research centres: the Centre for Research in Elementary and Primary Education at the University of Warwick (Robin Alexander, Michele Schweisfurth and Rosemary Preston), the Centre for Curriculum and Assessment Studies at the University of Bristol (Patricia Broadfoot and Marilyn Osborn), and the Centre for Comparative Studies in Education at the University of Oxford (David Phillips and Colin Brock).

During the late 1990s a number of developments combined to make this initiative desirable: indeed, in our view, the corrective function of what we had in mind became increasingly urgent once the slogan ‘education, education, education’ had been coined to urge the British electorate into the polling booths for the 1997 general election.

First, and most evident to those outside as well as inside education, the economic and technological globalisation of the 1980s led to a globalisation of educational discourse during the 1990s. Its most prominent feature was the use of international comparisons, both spurious and genuine, to legitimate government claims about the condition of national systems of education and to justify radical changes in educational policy. This condition was not confined to the United Kingdom (UK): to varying degrees and with differing consequences other countries in Europe, the Americas and Australasia found themselves caught up in the game of international league tables and policy borrowing. For most, the focus of concern was the dramatic rise of the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies of the Pacific Rim, while the conjunction of economic evidence and test score data from the surveys provided by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and the International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP) suggested a cause-effect relationship which many, throwing caution to the winds, found irresistible.

Second, the link between educational and economic performance appeared to be consolidated by developments in pedagogic research, which by the early 1990s had also moved into the international arena. Thus, in the UK, the parallel traditions of largely-quantitative pre-test/post-test sampled studies and more intensive qualitative and ethnographic investigations were being used as the springboard for ambitious cross-cultural comparisons of teaching and learning involving two or more countries.

At the same time, a new research paradigm, that of ‘school effectiveness’, was being marketed as the means of cutting through the equivocations of established research methods to the ‘best buy’ pedagogies which would at a stroke improve schools, transform teaching, and deliver national targets of educational attainment. This paradigm, too, had an international dimension, constituted partly of reviews of the international research literature and partly of new studies in which classrooms in the more successful Asian and European economies featured prominently and thereby seemed to provide the vital ‘process’ ingredient which would link the test and economic data and could then be translated into practical strategies to drive up educational standards.

Third, the richer nations’ preoccupation with educational league tables contrasted starkly with the condition of the developing countries, the more so as similar processes of data aggregation, extrapolation and comparison were being used to shape the donor agencies’ calculations about what quantities of aid, and what intervention strategies, would yield the best and quickest return on their grants and loans, given the widespread assumption that education provides the key to both economic development and political stability. Among comparativists and analysts of education and development, however, the economic and political subtexts of these calculations were coming in for close scrutiny; as were, in an ostensibly post-imperialist and post-colonial era, the attitudes of the donor nations and agencies themselves.

Finally, and partly as a consequence of the intellectual turmoil generated by developments such as these, the academic discipline of comparative education was experiencing on the one hand a renaissance and an influx of new recruits, but on the other a crisis of identity and purpose.

The seminars were conceived as a relatively intimate forum for taking stock of all these developments. They brought together representatives from two key constituencies: researchers (mainly from universities), and ‘users’ (from government departments, public bodies, international agencies, and the press). Incidentally, though the seminars adopted the term ‘users’ – it has become a standard requirement of research grant applications – and responded directly to the imperatives of research communication and relevance which it signals, there were many in both constituencies who found it not entirely helpful. To them, ‘users’ unnecessarily compartmentalised the processes of research, policy and action, and discouraged the reflexive and interactive relationship between these domains which they felt was appropriate to the particular character of educational problems.

Indeed, in planning the seminars, it was felt that the matter of how comparative research is initiated and used was no less important than questions of theory and methodology: the series, after all, had been prompted in part by an awareness that if international comparison of educational processes and outcomes is intrinsically problematic, international borrowing of educational practices of the kind being commended by government advisers during the mid-1990s can be downright dangerous, because it can affect the educational and employment prospects of millions.

Thus, the seminars as planned combined attention to a series of substantive topics with the exploration of a number of recurrent, cross-cutting themes. The topics were as follows.

  • Comparative education in the 1990s: theory, method and context: an overview of comparative education as a field of academic enquiry, set against the background of its development over the past century or so (May 1997, Oxford).
  • Comparing classrooms and schools: an examination of different ways of researching and analysing educational processes, including pedagogy, in a crosscultural context, of the strengths and limitations of each, and of the problems of the enterprise as a whole (November 1997, Warwick).
  • Comparing pupil achievement: an assessment of the evidence from international achievement studies and the problems which these raise, especially once applied in the context of policy (March 1998, Bristol).
  • Research, development and education: what research has contributed, and can contribute, to education in the developing country context, and how the relationship between education and development can best be understood (June 1998, Warwick).
  • The comparative study of educational policy: how in an international context national educational policies can validly be researched and compared, how their impact can be assessed, and the lessons which they offer (November 1998, Oxford).
  • Education professionals compared: comparing the work of teachers and other education professionals across national and cultural boundaries, the conditions within which they work, and the relationship between their work as defined and as undertaken (March 1999, Bristol).

The generic or cross-cutting themes running through the series as a whole were as follows.

  • Theoretical issues: changing accounts of the theory and rationale of comparative education.
  • Methodological issues: cases and problems from specific research paradigms such as survey and ethnography, together with generic issues such as sampling, generalisabilty, language and culture.
  • Policy issues: the various policy contexts in which comparative research and analysis is or might be used – for example, economic strategy, development education, school improvement, inspection and quality assurance, curriculum change.
  • Practice/practitioner issues: the applications of comparative research in the context of educational practice; the ethical and other challenges of involving practitioners in such research.
  • Strategic issues: funding for comparative research; comparative education and disciplinary/ departmental boundaries.
  • Phase-specific issues: the conduct and application of comparative research in, for example, pre-school, primary/ elementary and secondary education, in teacher training and higher education, and in lifelong learning.
  • Regional issues: the conduct of comparative research, and the lessons it offers, in different regional, national and cultural contexts – for example the European Union, Eastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, North America, and developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

In addition, because for funding reasons seminar numbers had to kept fairly low, the planning group decided to round off the programme with an open conference for a much larger membership. At the time of writing this is still being planned, though it is likely to be held at the University of Warwick in late 1999.

Now to the structure of this book. It arises, as will be evident, from the first three seminars in the list above, but it is not merely a collated set of seminar proceedings. All the papers have been revised, some extensively so, and in undertaking their revisions authors have been able to reflect on or respond to the transcripts of the taped discussions which their papers provoked. In addition, the main issues from each seminar have been summarised. Each section opens with an editorial note setting the scene.

There are also additional papers (from Maurice Galton and Michele Schweisfurth) specially commissioned for this volume, and Part One starts with a section introduction by David Phillips on the use of cross-national comparisons in education.

We hope that the two volumes of Learning From Comparing will prove topical, challenging, interesting and useful – to ‘users’, naturally, no less than to researchers and research students. We hope, too, that at a time when educational research is under attack on the grounds of ‘bias’ and ‘irrelevance’, and under pressure to address only those questions which are acceptable politically (as good a definition of bias as any), the seriousness of our attempt to bridge the worlds of research, policy and practice will be recognised. And we trust that the catholicity of the collection – in terms of both perspective and nationality – will be appreciated, for we have taken care to locate contrasting viewpoints on each topic, and each also includes a contribution from outside the UK.

Finally, we record our thanks to all those who participated in the seminars, and to the Economic and Social Research Council, which funded them.

Robin Alexander


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