Comparative and International Education are difficult to define – even some scholars have difficulty in assigning a clear, definite meaning to these disciplines (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007). One characteristic that stands out from the many possible definitions of these two fields is how crucial both are not only for the understanding of educational settings and practices, but also for improvement and positive change. In order to better understand this potential tool for improvement, it is vital to also understand the reasons why researchers conduct studies in Comparative Education and how some of the main themes in that field apply to an educational profession.
Reasons for Conducting Studies in Comparative Education
Narrowing down the reasons for studying Comparative Education is a daunting task. The existence of so many countries, regions, states, educational systems, educators and researchers, provides room for countless motives. But among the numerous possible reasons, two main ones stand out: to make decisions and to learn from others.
To Make Decisions
Humans are thinkers and observers of the world around them, which includes physical and non-physical characteristics. French philosopher Rene Descartes (1644) captured this thought through the expression, “Gogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). As humans think, they are constantly observing, measuring, comparing and contrasting. Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007) state that “comparison is indispensable to our thought processes” (p.13) and the constant comparing and contrasting is a vital part of what Comparative and International educators do.
In order to adequately compare, researchers must be aware of differences such as culture, language and regulatory environment. These and other factors make up the context of what is being studied, and are vital for the correct interpretation of data (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2007). For instance, while observing teaching methods and its effects at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, researchers would need to take into consideration the country’s history of higher education, the university professors’ academic backgrounds, the French heritage of the university, the Portuguese language and its cultural influence, and many other factors in order to understand why teaching and learning occurs the way that it does (Chu, 2011).
Comparing and contrasting can be useless unless decisions are made based on the conclusions of such thought processes. Comparative Education gives researchers the tools and the methods to observe, measure, compare and contrast in order to facilitate and inform decision-making in the field of Education, possibly even extending recommendations to lawmakers and local regulators. These decisions can only be made in an informed manner if lessons have been learned from others.
To Learn From Others
Learning from others is another reason to study Comparative Education. As humans observe and interact, compare and contrast, they reach conclusions and can make adjustments to their behavior when necessary. The ultimate goal of this process, as well as that of Comparative Education, may be summarized as the struggle to make things better, or “for meliorist purposes” (Halls, 1990).
Many benefits arise during the process of learning from others, and one of the main ones is a better understanding of society (Durkheim, 1982). As Comparative Education researchers analyze the culture, language, history, traditions, laws and other factors in different locations, they also gain a better global understanding of such settings and are able to draw parallels and distinctions between them and what/where/who they are comparing them to.
As researchers learn from other contexts and practices, they in turn are better informed and more capable of suggesting changes and influencing decisions in their own educational setting, which can include a country, a state, a district or a school system.
Themes Applicable to Work Environment
I currently work at a for-profit university that has campuses in most states of our nation. In my role of Chair (Campus Dean) of the College of Humanities and the College of Natural Sciences in the state of Oklahoma, I supervise faculty from two main campuses – Oklahoma City and Tulsa – while managing the Student Skills Assistance program (tutoring and workshops for students) and the New Faculty Mentorship program (in-classroom training for new instructors). In this role, I am able to witness first-hand how two main themes of Comparative Education relate directly to my work: the impact of diversity and the benefits of intra-country and cross-regional comparison.
Impact of Diversity
Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007) believe that the diversity of academic experiences and backgrounds is one of the strong points of Comparative Education researchers. The diverse points of view, approaches and methods provide for a more comprehensive and global study when compared to a single-discipline inquiry.
The university I work for strives to hire great instructors who come from diverse academic fields and have the most varied professional experiences. In my role, I supervise faculty from multiple disciplines and professional backgrounds, but what sets them apart is how they may not necessarily be academicians in their field. When hiring facilitators, I look for academic expertise allied with experience. Hence, an instructor who holds a Ph.D. in History but who lived in Saudi Arabia and had great interaction with Muslims may be allowed to teach our World Religious Traditions course and focus on Islam if he or she also had some kind of theological training.
This diversity and interdisciplinary approach helps in the process of giving students a wider perspective and a richer context, which in turn may help them to make informed decisions and to try to make things better. But the benefit of diversity is not only useful from the instructor’s side, but also from the student’s: in the United States, many (if not most) classrooms are now comprised of students from diverse cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds. The exposure by students to instructors from various backgrounds and cultures is another potential positive factor in their education (Chu, 2011).
Benefits of Intra-country and Cross-regional Comparison
Another aspect of my job as Chair for the College of Humanities and the College of Natural Sciences in the state of Oklahoma is the data collecting and comparing that accompanies my daily routine. The university is organized into regions (West and East), with each region containing state-level Academic Affairs staff (a director and college chairs) and local campus instructors. Directors and chairs hold weekly meetings, during which we discuss the state of the university, regional and state data, and campus-level relevant information.
One of the main tasks during our weekly meetings is to compare and contrast what other states and regions are doing with what we are putting into practice. As evidenced by Karakhanyan, van Veen, and Bergen (2011), communication is a crucial factor in evaluating information and implementing necessary change. Information is shared across the university, and Academic Affairs staff from various states often meet via teleconference to discuss issues and opportunities for improvement. We evaluate relevant data and many times use another campus’ information to benchmark our own performance.
Bray and Thomas’ Framework for Comparative Education Analyses, discussed by Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007), could prove to be an invaluable tool in our comparisons and analysis of data coming from other states and regions, for it would give us a manageable system of data organization and visualization that could be used to identify and implement necessary changes and improvements. For instance, the student satisfaction levels of Oklahoma City and Tulsa show a clear disparity and no clear reason. This framework could be used to build a clearer picture of the situation in each campus and help directors and college chairs to adjust their practices accordingly. But campus leaders must take special care when implementing any changes; even if they seem positive, changes may be inappropriate or unwelcome, as evidenced by Ibrahim (2010).
Comparative and International Education can be vital tools for improvement of educational systems and – by extension – society as a whole, especially when the data collected are properly analyzed taking into consideration the many facets of any particular problem or issue. To this end, Bray and Thomas’ Framework for Comparative Education Analyses can be used to arrive at a fuller and clearer picture of a situation, location or system, and well-informed decisions can then be made accordingly.
When researchers use comparative analyses to make decisions and to learn from others during the comparison process, they are putting into practice what Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007) meant by “we can only properly understand an educational phenomenon in terms of the contextual factors that have created and shaped it”; that is, we gain a better understanding of the whole.
Intellectual and academic diversity, allied with the benefits of intra-country and cross-regional comparison, can serve as tremendous tools for improvement when combined with the two characteristics cited above and put into practice thoughtfully and in a manner that takes into consideration the whole array of factors, including but not limited to culture, language and government.
Chu, S. (2011). Perspectives in understanding the schooling and achievement of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 38(3/4), 201-209.
Descartes, Rene. (1644). Principia Philosophiae.
Durkheim, E. (1982). The rules of sociological method and selected texts on sociology and its method. London: Macmillan.
Halls, W.D. (ed.). (1990). Comparative education: Contemporary issues and trends. London: Jessica Kingsley, UNESCO.
Ibrahim, A. (2010). The politics of educational transfer and policymaking in Egypt. Prospects (00331538), 40(4), 499-515. doi:10.1007/s11125-010-9173-3
Karakhanyan, S., van Veen, K., & Bergen, T. (2011). Educational policy diffusion and transfer: The case of Armenia. Higher Education Policy, 24(1), 53-83.
Phillips, D. & Schweisfurth, M. (2007). Comparative and international education: An introduction to theory, method and practice. New York: Continuum Books.
Qiang, H., & Kang, Y. (2011). English immersion in China as a case of educational transfer. Frontiers of Education in China, 6(1), 8-36. doi:10.1007/s11516-011-0120-8