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The InstitutionS of Education
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Oxford Studies in Comparative Education

The InstitutionS of Education

a comparative study of educational development in the six core nations

WILLIAM K. CUMMINGS

2003 paperback 278 pages, £24.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-69-4
https://doi.org/10.15730/books.16

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About the book

At many times in educational history, including the past decade, there are reports of crisis and cries for reform. The successes of foreign competitors are pointed to, new moneys are sought and laws passed. Occasionally these reform efforts make a difference. Just as often, they end up as mere rhetoric and the educational indicators continue to slide. Education is a dynamic sector with its ups and downs. To understand these ups and downs and to gain a clearer grasp of the essentials of reform, we need to look deeply into the origins and development of successful and failed reforms. This book seeks to answer that need. To do so, it stresses two important themes. First, the essence of educational practice lies in the institutionalised ideals and norms of an educational system, not in how much is spent on education or how many people are involved in education. Second, while many contemporary observers of education tend to think that sound educational practice is pretty much the same around the world, this book argues that these are at least six distinctive educational InstitutionS currently in place in the modern world, each with its unique strengths and weaknesses. Each also has its own cycle of reform and renewal. So the landscape of educational reform is much broader than most observers acknowledge. The book is unique in highlighting the principle characteristics of Japanese education alongside those of Soviet Russia and the core educational systems of Western Europe and North America. While the account focuses on ‘national’ differences, the analysis actually begins from the ground up, looking at particular schools that emerged early in the six modernising experiences. These early schools are described here as representative schools, for the practices they initiated have had a profound influence on the direction of subsequent reforms in their respective national settings.

Contents

PART 1: Introduction

Thinking about Educational Revolutions and Reform

The Great Transformation and the Demands for Modern Education

 

PART 2: The Foundations of Modern Education

The Call for New Schools

The Systematization and Expansion of Modern Education

Expansion and the Worldwide Diffusion of Educational InstitutionS

 

PART 3:The Delivery of Modern Education

Creating Curriculums for Modern Schools

Modern Teachers

Teaching and Learning

Evaluation and Examinations

 

Part 4: The Replacement of Modern Education

The Changing Context

Imagined Futures

Bibliography

Preface

Our history books focus on great wars, technological change, political upheavals, but not on education. At least until recently, we assumed that education was out there doing its job, just like the postal service, or the family doctor. But the steady stream of bad news about education over the past decade – declining test scores, increasing costs, violence in the schools, the high incidence of drop-outs – has surely destroyed our innocence.

At many times in educational history, including the past decade, there are reports of crisis and cries for reform. The successes of foreign competitors are pointed to, new monies are sought and laws passed. Occasionally these reform efforts make a difference. Just as often, they end up as mere rhetoric and the educational indicators continue to slide. Education is a dynamic sector with its ups and downs. To understand these ups and downs and to gain a clearer grasp of the essentials of reform, we need to look deeply into the origins and development of successful and failed reforms. This book seeks to answer that need.

To do so, it stresses two important themes: (a) the essence of educational practice lies in the institutionalized ideals and norms of an educational system, not in how much is spent on education or how many people are involved in education; and (b) while most contemporary (especially American) observers of education tend to think that sound educational practice is pretty much the same around the world, there are at least six distinctive educational InstitutionS currently in place in the modern world, each with its unique strengths and weaknesses. Each also has its own cycle of reform and renewal. And so the landscape of educational reform is much broader than most observers acknowledge.

Most who comment on and work in education have a surprisingly limited perspective, either because they have not been exposed to educational practice in other settings or because they filter their exposure through the lenses of a particular discipline or national experience. The account that follows seeks to broaden perspectives. While most of the study focuses on ‘national’ differences, the analysis actually begins from the ground, looking at particular schools that emerged early in several modernizing experiences. These early schools are described here as representative schools, for the practices they initiated have had a profound influence on the direction of subsequent reforms in their respective national settings.

Many of the arguments in this book have evolved from personal encounters with schools on four continents, and my reflections derived from these encounters. I began school in North Carolina, but later my father took me to South America and India. And my subsequent work and travels took me to yet other settings.

India initiated my interest in education and development, and my studies at both the bachelor’s and doctoral level followed that path. The Indian school I attended during my high school days had once been called the (East India) Company School, and it retained an English orientation, offering a Cambridge Examination Preparatory Stream. All of the students lived in dormitories and followed a strict daily schedule with lots of rules. School took place during the day, sports in the late afternoon, followed by a common meal, study hall, and lights out. The rhythm of this school was very different from my earlier educational experiences in North Carolina and Peru.

Because Japan was described as the only Asian country that had escaped the imprint of colonialism and achieved substantial development, I oriented my early academic studies towards understanding the Japanese approach, and along with teaching in a Japanese university and spending countless hours in Japanese schools I wrote several books on Japanese education.

My Japanese encounter was followed by long sojourns in Indonesia, Singapore and Ethiopia, and shorter visits to many other settings. My stay in Indonesia introduced me to a system that bore the imprint of the continental model introduced through Dutch colonialism, with a tough subject-based primary curriculum that led to high repetition and drop-out rates; much the same can be said for Ethiopia, except that that nation also experimented for two decades with the socialist model. Many of the practices in Singapore, a nation that was and is constantly rethinking its educational approach, had obvious links with the English past. In recent years, more of these visits have been to Western Europe and Russia in an effort to gain a better understanding of the educational approaches of these core societies.

In several of my early comparative studies of educational systems, I tried various ways of classifying educational systems. International agencies like to classify educational systems by regions. But this does not make sense: Singapore is next door to Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, yet there are sharp contrasts between these three systems. Similarly, Ethiopia is close to Kenya, Uganda and Mali, but again the contrasts are enormous. Influenced by my personal experiences, I kept coming back to the insight that the key to classifying systems lies in the cultural models they had developed and/or borrowed rather than their physical location.

So these are the experiences that have led to this book. I have tried to keep my eyes open and not be trapped in a particular discipline or theory. Rather, I have concluded that it is necessary to propose a ‘new’ direction, which I call InstitutionS Theory. Institution was once a prominent concept in sociology and anthropology, but for some time was largely forgotten. Lately, it has experienced a rebirth both in sociology and economics. InstitutionS Theory is close to this recent institutional theorizing, except that it seeks to be more specific in its propositions, more ‘middle range’, to use a phrase of Robert Merton’s. Also, it seeks to avoid the ethnocentrism that characterizes much of the recent work on institutions.

While the recent approaches treat institution as a macro-concept, the InstitutionS I discuss here begin with the emergence of particular representative schools. These first schools embody values and norms that are later imitated and replicated in successor schools as a particular institution of education is systematized and expanded. The school-based character of this study provides the background for a consideration, in the final chapters of this book, of some thoughts on the shape of future schools.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to think about modern schools. While my thinking is still under way, I feel it now is the time to present my perspective. I hope it will incite reactions, and through future dialogues there will be opportunities to improve on this exposition.

Contributors

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