How to rethink international comparisons in education?


How to know the level of the pupils of a country in mathematics or in reading, in problem solving? Is the level of the little English people going down? Does he go up? Everyone today has the benchmarks necessary to get a fairly accurate idea of ​​the performance of education systems: the international comparison reports drawn up by organizations such as Unesco (notably the Institute for Statistics of Unesco ), the European Union or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD ) are accessible to the general public, the methods known and presented.

These reports are even harmonized so that these large organizations have agreed on what to measure, and how. Of course, all is not perfect and criticism of international indicators exists; it is a good democracy that it can be exercised if researchers can have access to the information systems of school administrations which have become veritable citadels. While the reports are readily accessible to the general public, the information necessary for these reports (for example, the results of surveys before synthesis) remains confidential.

The reader will have already understood that international analyzes focus on schools, very little on family education, almost never on non-formal education (which does not enter into national information systems). This leaves the whole explanation educational traditions sides deserve to be explored within the discipline of comparative education, science born in the XIX th  century thanks to French Marc Antoine Jullien of Paris . It is still significant that many disciplines of comparison were born during the XIX th  century as shown by Cécile Vigor: comparative law, comparative literature, and others, including the Anthropology.

Indicators to put in context

It is indeed this entrenchment of comparative education in a larger whole that it would be advisable to grasp so much the current dynamic, at the national and international level, seems to reduce international analysis to the use of quantified indicators whose use is legitimate but insufficient. The highlighting of the progressions or the regressions in figures, however useful it may be, is part of a very short time which in reality does not correspond to the long, or even very long, time of education. This is the whole problem.

A dimension related to comparative education has emerged within the discipline: cultural anthropology and works related to interculturality, those of Carmel Camilleri in particular have gained ground. The ethnology and anthropology of education have indeed often mingled with the discipline of comparative education. Often suspected of a form of complacency vis-à-vis anti-republicanism or even of compromise with cultural relativism , this aspect is difficult to dissociate from the discipline.

But there is another dimension that seems to need to be better implemented within the comparative discipline in education, because it has many advantages for understanding certain contemporary issues in education. It is a civilizational approach. The term of approach is necessary because, in order to understand education today, it is not a question of knowing all the civilizations of which the least of the characteristics are the long duration, the extent of the productions and the complexity of their development. It is not a question, either, for the person who attempts the comparison to limit his centers of interest to philology, to religious anthropology, to the history of law, to comparative psychology, etc.

What is it about ? It is a question of humbly giving good place to the knowledge of civilizations. One can without blushing name this “general culture” and place in it as you like history, the arts, literature, legal systems, religions, culinary and musical traditions, body care, disease, learning, love and science, study and reading… the list goes on. Why ? Probably first of all because the search for meaning requires this detour of frequentation for a long time.

The ocean of civilizations

Present a course to students devoted to international indicators in education and offer a course to these same students on the history of civilizations and education, I leave it to the reader to guess which course is the most sought after: the demand is there, young people want to talk about long time.

Let’s talk about benevolence in education and see how the notion of fault, forgiveness, reparation, luck or risk can be approached in different civilizations. Why, in Jewish tradition, at least from the first century CE, is it more important to build a school than a synagogue? What is the status of study , of contradiction in Jewish, Christian, Muslim exegesis? What does it mean to study in these traditions? And in the western world? And by the way, what is the West? And the Orient?

What is needed for comparative education to finally take hold of these dimensions? It is not necessarily necessary to abandon the use of indicators and measurement, but also to resort to big stories. We know that the ocean of civilizations is vast and that the water is deep there, but we can learn to swim and become a good swimmer without crossing the seas and without being subjected to the stopwatch.

If we were to examine an indicator measuring access to school education, that of boy-girl parity, for example, for the calculation of enrollment rates, an indicator that is hardly questionable from the point of view of its usefulness, we could without It is doubtful whether we can better understand, through the study of certain major religious traditions, why girls remain relegated out of school and married so young. In this context, the idea that the lever of change can be the transformation of religious exegesis does not appear clearly, and it is indeed this aspect that must be seized upon and not only school systems. Societies can change when we rediscuss doctrines that we believe to be eternal or fixed, but it is still necessary to be able to take the time to seek them out.

Another time scale

We owe to Lê Thành Khôi for having belatedly paved the way for the study of education in civilizations in two important works: Education and civilizations ( Volume 1: Societies of yesterday , Volume 2: Geneses of the contemporary world . he contribution of Lê Thanh Khoï is quite exemplary of an intellectual approach that should be made more general.

First interested in the political nature of education, he opened up to the question of civilizations after realizing the limits of international measurement in education. The commissioning of its work by Unesco was beneficial. Why does comparative education not pay more attention to this openness?

The urgency of measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of systems seems to have prevailed. But what are the changes in indicators over ten years with regard to a culture and a civilization? Are our lives so important and so central that we have to reduce everything to our lifespan?

In an article published in Italy, Andrea Canevaro and I question ourselves on optimism , this psychological and civilizational dimension which often seems to have to be put in breach in education systems where fear, stress, constraint and sorting do their work endlessly.

If we want to understand today the challenges of geopolitics and education, the extent of the power of influence of one civilization on another, the rejection of one civilization by another, have we d other choices than to put the discipline back in this orbit? The pedagogical questions are not only academic, they also appeal to long traditions where philosophy, history, law, aesthetics, literature and science weave a web of which it would be good if we could understand a little better the reasons.

Author Bio: Denis Poizat is a University Professor, Education, Cultures, Politics laboratory at Lumière Lyon 2 University