A Brief Overview of Comparative and International Education

Comparative and International Education are sister-disciplines with a long history and centuries of methodological development (Cowen, 1996). The humble beginnings of Comparative Education are found in Herodotus’ Histories, where a foreign educational system is mentioned en passant. Another Greek author, Xenophon, compared different approaches to citizenship training in Persia and Greece in his Cyropaedia (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007). This tradition of comparing educational systems in the formation of responsible, contributing members of society and leaders of the country, continues to modern times, as evidenced by a study on 1960s French curriculum and the training of that country’s modern citizens (Attali, Guedj-Chauchard, Saint-Martin & Savaton, 2011). In between the ancient Greeks and modern studies, many recognizable and influential figures also wrote about or mentioned foreign systems of education, such as Locke (1693) and Rousseau (1762).

The history of Comparative Education may be presented in many different ways, from the chronological to the thematic, or from the geographic (Louisy, 2001) to the linguistic. Eckstein and Noah’s (1969) approach, where the first attempts at comparison begin with accounts of what travelers saw as they journeyed from one country or region to another, presents a viable framework for a general survey of the topic. Their five-stage approach may be summarized as follows: the first stage is characterized by travelers who recorded their observations and perceptions in journals or diaries (published or not); the second stage has travelers focusing on the learning techniques and educational systems of the lands they visited; the third stage is characterized by a freer transit of information between countries culminating in nations understanding each other better; the fourth stage has nations understanding their own make up and ethos; and, finally, the fifth stage is where a more scientific, quantitative approach is utilized in understanding and describing education.

Eckstein and Noah’s (1969) approach, while valid and useful, may cause a perception of clearly defined blocks of time and practice with visible transitions from one stage to the next when, in reality, several of these stages may have coexisted and interacted (Bray, 2010). Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007) propose a variation of Eckstein and Noah’s (1969) five-stage approach, where several stages overlap each other and build on the previous stages. The Historical emphases in comparative analysis approach (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007) presents a more historically-accurate framework for an overview of the history of Comparative Education.


The stage of Description, as labeled by Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007), was en vogue and dominant until the 1830s. During this period, which started with Herodotus’ Histories, a simple account of observations and perceptions comprised the majority of the works on education, or works that simply mentioned educational issues and phenomena. As travelers visited other lands, they observed how teaching and learning took place and wrote down their impressions, some of which were published. In this stage, there was no systematic approach nor a method to compare what was being observed with how education took place in the homeland.

Political Analysis

The second layer came about around the 1830s, when travelers and government officials travelled abroad and were exposed to educational settings in other nations. During this period, “the investigation of foreign systems of education began to have an identifiable political purpose” (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007). This political purpose may have varied according to the country and political interests of the time, but normally included the potential importation of positive aspects of foreign educational systems in order to achieve the betterment of national education. Another political purpose may have been propaganda and the exaltation of national education when compared to foreign models.

The use of comparison to highlight domestic superiority is clearly seen in the relationship between metropoles and their colonies, as colonizing nations were constantly stressing their superiority and sophistication, and implementing their model of education (or lack-thereof) in the colonies (Madeira, 2006). A curious example of this political aspect is the implementation in Brazil of the Portuguese educational system, which in turn was inspired by the French model as opposed to the English model – perhaps as resistance to the fact that England was a Protestant nation and France remained Catholic like Portugal, albeit in constant friction with Rome.

Use Of Statistical Evidence and Systematic Data Collection

The Positivism of the 19th Century had a clear influence in Comparative Education. As the separation of Church and State became more common and widely accepted, educational duties and responsibilities shifted to the State. National debates (in the sense of politicians proposing and making new laws) required not only hearsay and tales by travelers, but information that was presented in clear and persuasive fashion based on reliable data. Emphasizing the need for hard data and evidence to support arguments, researchers gathered information and tabulated it in order to use it rationally. Observations about education were now focused on finding supporting numbers and data, which were collected in a systematic, scientific manner.

Socio-Economic Evidence/Understanding

The reliance on statistics and other types of data allowed researchers and policy makers to gain a better understanding of their own society – social and economic differences could now be analyzed clearly and scientifically, without relying mainly on visual observation and rhetoric (although, to this day politicians continue to explore this avenue as well). This better understanding of society and the economy allowed researchers to have a clearer view of economic growth (or lack thereof), social disparities, regional uniqueness and other topics. Despite its clear advantages, the positivistic tendency to rely on statistics and systematic data collection for comprehending and analyzing a region or nation had its own shortcomings. The positivistic influence is very strong to this day, as researchers in western countries and former colonies strive to overcome this model in order to address certain issues that may not be easily evidenced by hard data, such as social justice and a more egalitarian system of public education (Lees, 2007).

Outcomes Analysis

The positivistic trend is clearly seen in the next phase, which overlaps and interacts with the previously discussed stages. The Center For Outcome Analysis, a research and evaluation not-for-profit entity, has a motto that illustrates this well: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” As researchers have access to educational information from many more countries than was possible just a few years ago, the analysis of outcomes in multiple countries and regions of the world has come to the forefront of International Education, allowing for “large-scale comparisons of educational achievement” (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007). This relatively easy access to international information has fostered an environment of educational congruence, where many countries are now looking for ways to maintain their national educational character while ensuring the equivalency of what is taught in their schools with what is taught in foreign schools (Windham, 1997). An example of this trend is seen in the “Bologna Process” of 1999 (Joint Declaration, 1999), which was an attempt by the European Union to facilitate the transit and transference of students among its member countries. This process has as a foundation an equivalent model of higher education for each member country that would include an undergraduate degree (bachelor) and two graduate degrees (master and doctorate), allowing students to begin their studies in one country and easily transfer to another to continue their education, as well as having their degrees recognized by any member-state in the European Union. This emphasis on transnational education can be understood as a phenomenon linked to globalization (Silova & Brehm, 2009).

Postmodern Approaches

With so many approaches built one upon another, postmodern researchers have a wealth of information and methods to create new approaches and forms of investigating Comparative and Educational phenomena. Criticizing the “male, white and western points of view” (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007), researchers are now working on a pluralistic approach to the study of education, including not only other cultures and past overlooked factors, but making a concerted effort to have a more global picture of education and its factors and results. Three of the main ideas that have guided postmodern researchers are the so-called Class, Culturalist and Feminist points of view (Coulby & Jones, 1996). The study of the “other” – so common in Judaic studies – is also a major theme in postmodern educational research.


Comparative and International Education have a long history – one that stretches back to the ancient Greeks and continues to this day. Researchers have come a long way since the days of Herodotus and its casual reference to foreign educational customs: educational comparativists now have sophisticated tools and methods that allow them to have a clearer, objective and scientific picture of different cultures and their modus operandi. Early educational works are still valuable for research because they present a snapshot of what Comparative and International Education were like at the time they were undertaken and written, and because each subsequent phase in this discipline is built upon the previous stages, using them to improve its own methods and sharpen its tools. The current (postmodern) approaches are the culmination of many strands of study and represent a more global view of education that allows for better-informed policy-making and the pursuit of goals such as social justice and more equitable access to public education.



Attali, M., Guedj-Chauchard, M., Saint-Martin, J., & Savaton, P. (2011). Forming modern citizens in the 1960s: comparative analysis of teaching in natural sciences, physical sciences and physical education throughout France. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 19(2), 259-271. doi:10.1080/14681366.2011.582261

Bray, M. (2010). Comparative education and international education in the history of “Compare”: Boundaries, overlaps and ambiguities. Compare: A Journal Of Comparative And International Education, 40(6), 711-725.

Center For Outcome Analysis. http://www.eoutcome.org

Coulby, D. & Jones, C. (1996). Post-modernity, education and European identities. Comparative Education, 32(2), 171-184.

Cowen, R. (1996). Last past the post: Comparative education, modernity and perhaps post-modernity. Comparative Education, 32(2), 151-170.

Eckstein, M. & Noah, H. (1969). Toward a science of comparative education. London: Macmillan.

Joint declaration of the European ministers of education convened in Bologna on the 19th of June 1999. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/educ/bologna/bologna.pdf

Lees, P. (2007). Beyond Positivism: Embracing complexity for social and educational change. English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 6(3), 48-60.

Locke, J. (1693). Some thoughts concerning education. London: A. and J. Churchill.

Louisy, P. (2001). Globalisation and comparative education: A Caribbean perspective. Comparative Education, 37(4), 425-438.

Madeira, A. (2006). Comparative studies in the history of colonial education: Considerations on comparison in the lusophone space. Sísifo: Educational Sciences Journal, (01), 39.

Phillips, D. & Schweisfurth, M. (2007). Comparative and international education: An introduction to theory, method and practice. New York: Continuum Books.

Rousseau, J. (1762). Émile, ou de l’education. The Hague, Netherlands: Jean Néaulme.

Silova, I., & Brehm, W. (2009). Education and geopolitics in a changing Europe. European Education, 41(2), 7-30. doi:10.2753/EUE1056-4934410201

Windham, D. (1997). Overview and main conclusions of the seminar. In OECD, Internationalisation Of Higher Education (pp. 7-33). Paris: OECD.


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