Reflecting on Comparative and International Education
Today Michael Crossley reflects on the field of comparative and international education. He looks at different eras to unpack some of the major debates in the field. Taking this historical perspective provides useful context and intellectual tools to understand and make sense of the big issues facing the field today, such as environmental uncertainty and decolonization.
Michael Crossley is Emeritus Professor of Comparative and International Education at the University of Bristol. The reflections in today’s episode are based on his article “Epistemological and Methodological Issues and Frameworks in Comparative and International Research in Education,” which was published in the New Era of Education: The Journal of the World Education Fellowship.
Citation: Crossley, Michael interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 312, podcast audio, March 13, 2023.https://freshedpodcast.com/crossley/
Will Brehm 0:01
Michael Crossley, welcome to FreshEd.
Michael Crossley 1:11
Thank you, Will. A pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:12
Today, I want to talk a lot about the history of comparative education as a field in a sense, and you have been in this field, I think, your whole career. And so, sort of in the early stages of your career in the 1970s, I kind of want to start there. And maybe for listeners who don’t know the history of the field, how was the 1970s often remembered today? What do we think about when we think about comparative education in the 1970s?
Michael Crossley 1:38
I’d probably want to start out by saying it depends upon where you are when you’re answering the question. A touch of my “context matters” theme, I suppose. But for me, the sort of recollections of those times in the UK, I think Europe and the US the early 70s, I would say, comparative education was still popular university or teacher education course that students would follow. But by the late 1970s, things were very different. So, again, for me at that period of time, even the phrase, the words comparative education, it was seen as somewhat old-fashioned descriptive stuff that teacher education courses would have. Looking at education systems in inverted commas elsewhere. The field was being challenged at that point in time. And if we were thinking of mainstream educational research, at the same time, I would say that was dominated by positivism and quantitative very often in educational research, psychologically leaning educational research, or at least the values and the approaches of a sort of scientific approach to educational research. And comparative education for me -now we’re still in the 70s, also a strong positivistic science influence. And in the UK, that would be reflected, I’m thinking where you’re sitting in London by Brian Holmes’ work and the people that built upon and followed Brian Holmes. But in the states, and therefore globally, in terms of influential publications, Noah and Eckstein’s work they published in 1969, Toward a Science of Comparative Education, again, reflecting that positivistic scientific at least aspirations of the field in that period of time. Just to add one other thing, very often to me it was comparative education, but comparative policies rather than practice and theory, and so on.
Will Brehm 3:33
And so, in your own line of work at that time -I’m not actually sure where you were working but did you see an actual change, like in the faculty where you were working with how comparative education was being taught, delivered, the types of students that were coming in to learn it?
Michael Crossley 3:42
Well, I’d say my career was slightly different to perhaps what your vision is there. I was a practicing schoolteacher in the UK throughout the 1970s. And that, I think, has influenced a lot of my research since then, in the sense that in those 1970s, as I just described them, I felt that educational researchers, certainly here in the UK, were not engaging with the lived realities of practitioners. And I was very, very critical of the whole research enterprise, as I saw it, relating to education, but that’s from a practitioner perspective. I was also interested from undergraduate levels in comparative education as a field. So, I did my master’s degree there at the London Institute of Education in 1972-73. But I did it connected to the comparativists there but based in the Department of Education in Developing Countries, as it was named in those days there in the Institute of Education.
Will Brehm 4:49
That’s quite interesting. So, were challenging or thinking about comparative education from that practitioners perspective, like you said. Were there other sort of challenges to some of this thinking where you saw the rise of positivism over the 1970s and sort of moving away from comparative education as a part of teacher education. Were there other challenges to positivism in comparative education at the time that you were sort of aware of and
Michael Crossley 5:14
Let me connect back then to your asking about my early career. What happened next in my career was that I was keen to do some research myself and to try to bring some of those practitioners, if you like, understandings of the dilemmas faced in changing, improving, reforming education wherever that might be. But that led to me getting a scholarship to do my own PhD that gave me the travel I wanted as well. I traveled to the Pacific really, but it meant to Melbourne in Australia, and I did my PhD with an Australian government scholarship at Latrobe University in Australia. Two reasons why I went there. One was that Latrobe had the biggest comparative education group or department in Australia at that point in time. They were a really thriving, large, active community. But the second probably more dominant reason was I wanted to be able to do fieldwork in the Pacific region. And that’s because I met various people from different Pacific Island communities in London when I did my master’s degree. And that also included Papua New Guinea, where eventually my PhD fieldwork became located in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. But the theme we had originally of practitioners’ perspectives was still strongly with me. What I wanted to be able to do was to work as a comparative researcher that apply the more challenging approaches to research at that point in time, which, for me, were pioneering work in qualitative research in education, in case study research in education by people such as Parlett and Hamilton and their wonderfully titled book Beyond the Numbers Game: Evaluation as Illumination. So, you can see the sort of paradigm shifts that were happening. And I felt I wanted to be part of that, that was engaging with the real lived experiences of those being studied.
Will Brehm 7:18
What years was this in?
Michael Crossley 7:20
The ideas for that were building in the late 70s. And I started my PhD research in 1979. And so, towards the end of the 70s. But in the UK, people were sort of publishing work on case studies of schools, such as Colin Lacey’s work on Hightown Grammar, deep ethnographical studies of the school experience with multiple themes that different researchers would have. But for me, that was opening up the voices of real teachers in real schools or real education systems, and other participants in educational change and reform.
Will Brehm 7:58
So, would it be safe to say, then that on a more abstract broad brushstroke, sort of scale 1970s, we see the sort of rise of positivism but then by the end of the 70s, and into the 80s, we sort of see this reaction to that which it sounds like you are a part of right? The rise of case study, qualitative research, ethnographic research. Would that be sort of generally correct, of course, with a lot of nuances in different contexts.
Michael Crossley 8:24
Let me just tweak that a little by saying the broader picture would be that positivism was very, very strong in educational research and comparative research from the late 60s through into the 70s, in the context that we’re talking about. But in the mid 70s, to late 70s, a qualitative educational research revolution was happening. And that did include detailed ethnographic studies, detailed case studies, this is in mainstream educational research. Not too many people at that stage were bringing that strongly into the comparative arena but some were, and I became part of that process. But I think where there was a significant difference. The case study that I did for my own PhD in one high school in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea -a very, very isolated part of the globe at that point in time- was probably one of the first detailed ethnographic school case studies in a low-income country context. And that, to me, was sort of trying to open up different well later in time ‘ways of knowing’ was a phrase that became used. But different ways of knowing and different ways of respecting the voices of practitioners and those people at the grassroots level involved in educational change. And part of the motivation for that, because if you want successful implementation, then you really do have to engage with those people who are the implementers at that level.
And so, this notion of ways of knowing this is an idea that comes out in sort of the comparative ed literature in the 1990s. Is that right?
Yeah, well, Vandra Masemann’s paper in Comparative Education Review, I think, is a bit of a benchmark paper and that is titled Ways of Knowing. But I think she was capturing the zeitgeist of those days. And yes, the comparative field opening up beginning to say, we have to respect a greater variety of voices, different ways of undertaking research, challenge the positivistic models, yes, but challenge other dominant models and ways of knowing. For me, that was a very healthy period of time and a major shift in the field of comparative education.
Will Brehm 10:38
So, in the 1990s, when this different ways of knowing sort of emerges – as you said, it was a zeitgeist for the time – how was the field connected to teacher education? Because as you said, in the 1970s and 1960s, it was very much closely tied to teacher education. Did it stay connected to teacher education in the 1990s?
Michael Crossley 10:58
In the UK, there were challenges to all the foundation studies in university courses and teacher education courses wherever they were carried out. And therefore, a lot of those foundations studied courses, eventually being eclipsed, pushed out of the way and comparative education as teacher education, the old descriptive model – which I would have challenged at that time anyway – really suffered and started to disappear from the university landscape. I think the similar sorts of things were happening in the states, and they were certainly happening in Australia, I was aware of that there and the disenchantment by the academic community for this old-fashioned comparative education stuff. But in the UK, in the 1990s, for sure, there were major changes in the nature of what was happening. And for me, it’s important to use now the phrase comparative and international research in education, that is the way I feel the field, certainly here in the UK reinvented itself rather rapidly, and became very much a postgraduate type of program in universities or colleges that was more research based, a research-based activity. And for me, that was a whole new start. And sort of the phrase I’ve used in work I’ve published a reconceptualization of the field that made it much more cutting edge and connected also with the rise of globalization as a major theme for researchers in the social sciences.
Will Brehm 12:30
That’s quite interesting. Do you think that the shift to postgraduate work, was it a way of making sure comparative education in a sense continued to survive, at least in the UK setting, since it was sort of being sidelined in the foundations of education, sort of teacher education work?
Michael Crossley 12:45
I think some would have obviously had an interest in making sure that happened. But I think it was more important in a bigger shift. The world was rapidly globalizing, and more and more people worldwide, including policymakers were beginning to look at international experience in education, with the phrase globalization being connected to it, I feel the time was right for that sort of shift in our field to happen. And appropriately, good scholars recognized that and helped to contribute to a revitalization of the field certainly here. And I would say that happened in the states. Slightly different stories worldwide but I think you can see threads of that worldwide with the timing, for instance, in Hong Kong, when the Comparative Education Research Center was founded at the University of Hong Kong, for instance, and more.
Will Brehm 13:42
Yeah. It’s a quite an interesting sort of story to see the zeitgeist of the ways of knowing in the 1990s plus the sort of structural institutional changes happening with teacher education, but the wider sort of global forces that are then impacting the way in which the field is conceptualized and imagined, and sort of the shift towards postgraduate research focused international and comparative education. And in your article, you then sort of say that another big sort of turning point in the field of comparative education was when PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) was first given in the year 2000. So, how did PISA impact the field of comparative education?
Michael Crossley 14:25
So, it’s interesting reflecting on this, especially given what I’ve just been saying. For me, we’d had that healthy period where the field had sort of reinvented it as a research field attracting doctoral students and other postgraduates and so on. So, very important themes and issues that were happening at the time and then PISA happens. For me, it’s important -certainly in the way I look at the development of our field. PISA is not to me, comparative educationalists developing a new way of doing their work. It is a program of governance as many people have since written, but a mechanism, a modality that was directed particularly at policymakers, and developed by people who were statisticians, other forms of social scientists, but not necessarily comparative educational researchers who should be, for me, at least connected to contextual issues, realities, influences and so on. So, we have this new form of, well, to the outside world, this would be the biggest form of comparative education around attracting the biggest funds. It’s there in the newspapers, it’s in the media. But for me, all along, I was sort of uncomfortable. This is not comparative education. It hasn’t come from comparative education. But it seemed to be it to the general public and to the global world at large. For me, again, it was also increasingly problematic because I’ve been involved in challenging what I would label uncritical education policy transfer. PISA was a vehicle that was actually promoting that sort of simplistic policy transfer.
I like that you say that it’s not really comparative education, even though it might be billed as comparative education in say the general public, because of the league tables and comparing one country to another country and it can be really quite problematic. And there’s been, you know, a huge amount of research on that. But if we’re just sort of reflecting on the field itself, how did scholars in our field respond to the sort of rise of PISA. All of a sudden, there’s this huge actor who has sort of not only influencing government policy but is also obviously creating everyday perceptions of what comparative education is.
This is really nice to reflect on this stuff. A very different response from the comparative community of all sorts of different shades of comparativists. But I think the unifying thread is a critique, the interrogation of PISA and its impact, and its influences. That is where a lot of scholarship has been in recent decades, focused upon the challenges to the problematizing of PISA and other related global international surveys that are highly statistical based. And I link that then to later developments of big data and big data modalities and mechanisms. And that I think, is where a lot of contemporary or recent times recent decades work has been focused and quite rightly focused there. The challenging of that. On the other hand, how well the comparativist community have communicated our findings, our challenges to the general public and the policymakers, that are the ones that have been consuming the findings of PISA is a more difficult story.
Will Brehm 17:37
How would you sum that story up?
Michael Crossley 17:54
The Power of PISA is a title of one of the books published in recent decades and the power of PISA has been phenomenal. It’s influenced education systems, education decision makers and leaders worldwide, very dramatically. Some of my own research with doctoral students – we got some lovely quotes from Hong Kong when the British advisors to the Hong Kong education system, were based in Hong Kong, or were visiting Hong Kong and really trying to look at how does Hong Kong come so high on the global league tables that come from PISA? How do those Asian countries do so well, and how can we borrow and copy it back here? And we got quotations in some of the work I’ve published from Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education, saying, we want our children to do the same as you do here. He was looking for a cheaper alternative to the sort of policies that the educational community known in rather disparaging terms here by words that Michael Gove would use when advocating, he wanted a simpler, cheaper model.
Will Brehm 19:02
-that could score well on these international tables as if that’s the sort of perfect indicator for an education system.
Michael Crossley 19:09
So, the power of PISA? Too much power of PISA and therefore, the criticisms really do need to be communicated perhaps in more accessible ways to the general public and other policymakers worldwide. And I think that’s still a big issue.
Will Brehm 19:22
Yeah, I mean, that is quite interesting, right? To think about how comparativists can join that public conversation that PISA has dominated so thoroughly, I mean, to the point where even the other international large-scale assessments don’t have as much sort of publicity as PISA does.
Michael Crossley 19:39
And I’m a great fan of many of our colleagues that have been writing complex critical critiques and challenges of PISA and its effects and impact. You know, that word impact itself, but I’d like to see more writing that is publicly accessible. Communicating those big theoretical sorts of arguments but in ways that can influence the public debate because this is an important one and an ongoing one, we are so well positioned to be speaking there. But if we speak in academic complexities, it’s only our buddies who are going to be listening.
Will Brehm 20:12
That’s right. I write a book and 100 people read it. It doesn’t really have that wide of a reach. But if you can write an op-ed in the New York Times, or the Guardian, all of a sudden, the reach is magnitudes different.
Michael Crossley 20:25
So, there’s a challenge for our field.
Will Brehm 20:27
So, more recently, I would say, particularly in the sort of post-murder of George Floyd, and the rise of Black Lives Matter, but of course, this goes to a much sort of longer-term critique of sort of decolonizing methodologies that I think of like Linda Smith wrote that famous book, and I think that was in the 1990s, even. So, this, of course, has a longer history here. But it seemed to really take a turn after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter. And I guess we could call it sort of a decolonization moment or a decolonization critique. How do you see this critique unfolding within the field of comparative education today?
Michael Crossley 21:07
I think it is probably the dominant theme at the moment. And I agree with your analysis. Those recent days since George Floyd. I really feel our field should be leading on this. We are so well-positioned and yeah, important, critical scholarship is being carried out. And we can see sort of publications across the different journals and books within our field. We should be there. I think it is absolutely vital. But it’s got to be done with critical reflexivity. And with its own discipline in ways that’s really challenging our own field, challenging the broader global discourse, but moving things on in ways that are well grounded in contextual realities of the past and the present. I’m not convinced that everything that’s being done at the moment is strong enough and rigorous enough to be doing that and doing our field justice. So, I would want more of us to be doing really rigorous work around this thing.
Will Brehm 22:09
And talking about critical reflexivity, have you sort of been critically reflective of your own history in the field? You know, like trying to take this decolonial moment seriously, and thinking through all of your work? You know, is there anything that you’ve noticed or sort of think new about when you approach it from a sort of decolonial perspective?
Michael Crossley 22:31
Yeah, I would hope I have. And I hope I would continue to do that. For me, one constant thread -even in the story we’ve just been talking has been my efforts to access the voices of those who are at the sharp end of whatever educational changes are being proposed by those in the wider system. I think that living in Papua New Guinea for a good number of years helped to make me more and more sensitive to the importance of local voices at all levels of a system. And I mean, from the Minister of Education, and the Secretary of Education, through to those in the village, through to the parents of children that are going to a bush school in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. And I think over time, I would hope I’ve become increasingly sensitized to that, and hope I never lose that. And I do worry that the further away any of us get from the grassroots or in terms of if you’re in teacher education, but still doing comparative research, the further away from the realities of a school you get. So, those are cautions that I would always be applying, certainly, to myself as much as anyone else. When I look back over the history of our field, I do feel that we are well positioned to be tackling these arguments today, the decolonial critique, because we do have steps in our own intellectual history where we have made contributions to at least the foundations of the contemporary debate. Dependency theory period of work, for instance. People have engaged in post-colonialism and post-colonial theory and that goes back many years as well, even within the field of comparative education. So, there is a danger to me that we mustn’t get blinded by the George Floyd point in time to think that it all began there. If we do that, we’re missing the intellectual tools, the strengths that we have within our field, to be able to do an even better critique of the now and the future in ways that really do need doing.
Will Brehm 24:35
Yeah. It seems like we don’t want to fall into sort of empirical presentism. We need to understand our history. As listening to you, I was thinking that ways of knowing idea from the 1990s. There’s probably a lot that we could learn about from that time that could be helpful today. That could be helpful in sort of decolonial moment. There’s different ways of knowing, different epistemologies, different ontologies There’s ways of thinking through that within comparative education that scholars have already or at least started to think through that we could then build on
Michael Crossley 25:08
Given my particular interest in small island developing states that goes right back to the Papua New Guinea days, it is those voices really of small island developing states that I would champion a little bit more and more as time goes on. Back in 1993, a writer from Tonga called Epeli Hau’ofa was writing about and challenging colonial views of small island developing states and objecting to the label small island, because he was saying, no, let’s rebrand it, they are really large ocean states. And that stops belittling, stops the writers in the field of small states, belittling our position and our voices in the international arena. So, there’s a critique of my own sort of work. I would say, I’ve had to re-evaluate the validity and my own use of those phrases. Unfortunately, it is connected to global terminology. UNESCO uses the term small island developing states. And there are strong arguments, even from my small states colleagues and friends for keeping that because it’s the thing that binds them together and strengthens their voice in a global arena. But I am very, very, very sympathetic and critical of myself over the small state label, because I think Hau’ofa hit the nail on the head there. They are large ocean states and that would help us to sort of value their voices more into the future. And that is where I’m pushing my own contributions to the decolonial debate. But I’m doing it by trying to give space for my colleagues who are Pacific Islanders, from Tonga, from Fiji, from Tuvalu to get their work into the international literature from their perspectives. And I think that’s probably where I’m prioritizing my work today.
Will Brehm 27:00
I think that is such a nice idea. Like recognizing some of the deficit language that we might use and recognizing that there’s another way to frame it that is much different. And then also recognizing the positions that we have, or you have, in the field, in the sort of metropole, being a white man, all of these sorts of positions of power can contribute to some of this inequality and this sort of colonial mindset and stepping back sometimes and giving space to others and listening and then using the power to sort of try and get UNESCO to change the language that it uses. All of that seems to be, to me, to be a really important reaction to this current moment to this current zeitgeist that we live in.
Michael Crossley 27:46
And yeah, I mean, I don’t want to sort of repeat a point, but I think it’s slightly different. Again, much of my efforts now are directed at trying to help our colleagues and friends from in small island, developing states, but elsewhere, or here’s a phrase I’ve been trying to use more, island states. You don’t need to use the word small very often but you’re still capturing it. Sounds such a simple shift but it’s capturing what we’re trying to wrestle with, but trying to help them get their work published, but published in the international literature. So many really important publications I’m aware of in our area to do with educational reform change, or climate change and educational responses in the Pacific has been published in Pacific journals, and Pacific books, but not in the international literature. So, trying to work with those colleagues to get their voices more in to the journal Comparative Education or the International Journal of Educational Development, or books published by the leading global publishers instead of USP Press. But on the other side of the coin, I would still be a strong advocate of supporting USP Press, and their local education journal called Directions, which I am a member of the board and support that journal, but it’s been running as long as Comparative Education, and it’s published in Fiji, Directions: A Journal of the South Pacific education system.
Will Brehm 29:15
It’s like you need to do both. We need to change some of these structures of the journals that sit and are published in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and are sort of seen as being the international gold standard in the field. We need to change some of those structures, we need to include new voices, we need to somehow adapt the structures of those publications while also recognizing that there’s all these amazing publications that do exist already that just simply aren’t being recognized by people like us sitting in the UK.
Michael Crossley 29:49
The downside effects of the global ranking of journals for instance, means that colleagues I work with it -I’ll use a specific place in Malaysia, their universities will only reward them and encourage them to publish in an international journal like Comparative Education or Compare, and they will not be given the reward if they publish in their own Malaysian education research journal. Here are dilemmas relating to voice and publications and North-South and all those issues.
Will Brehm 30:20
It’s a massive challenge on so many levels. On the individual level, on the institutional level, on the structural level. I think it’s quite refreshing that although we don’t want to say it all started from this George Floyd moment, that moment did sort of create this conversation that is now just so widespread. It’s quite refreshing, I must say,
Michael Crossley 30:39
I agree with that. And it’s brought it into the public arena, too. Well, it came from the public arena. And that also is what’s refreshing about it. It’s not in an academic silo.
Will Brehm 30:52
I guess I would like to sort of end on thinking about your career, and in relation to these different sorts of changes in the field and how the field has sort of, I don’t know, every decade or so it’s kind of been reimagined, right? There’s just been this constant evolution, let’s say, of the field of comparative education. Now, of course, there’s similarities between eras, but it is sort of evolving. What’s the future outlook in a way like if you had to sort of predict or guess or maybe hope for what does the future of comparative education look like in your mind?
Michael Crossley 31:25
I guess I would have a list of things but the thing that binds it all together, I think, is more collective understandings across cultural boundaries and contexts so that we are not so dominated by particularly the Northern or Western agendas, and indeed global international agendas. I would hope that international agendas themselves -this isn’t comparative education as a feel, but they are going to be in the future, listening more to a greater diversity of nation states, cultures, traditions, and so on. For me, back to my own sort of phrase I’ve used many times “bridging of cultures and traditions” but applied in different ways. And I would hope that we have a field that is more open with more diverse voices at different levels of its operation in terms of leading the societies we have, heading the journals we have, and so on so it truly is a global, comparative and international global field. We should be at the front end of that sort of movement.
Will Brehm 32:37
Well, Michael Crossley, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It was really nice to sort of reminisce and remember and think about the field of comparative education together.
Michael Crossley 33:02
Thank you, Will. It was a pleasure to be with you.
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