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Comparative Education and some of its main dilemmas

Comparative education is the science of education that studies the relationships that are established between society and schooled education through the projection, organization, implementation and evaluation of educational policies and systems. [1] and its fundamental objective is to find the similarities and differences in certain spheres and models of education, or as a whole, in different historical contexts and nationalities. [1]

El dibujo de una manzana y una pera como caricatura de una comparación entre elementos distintos.
Comparing "pears to apples" in education. Drawing by the author.

In this way and as its name indicates, comparative education is based on the premise of comparing systems of different schools, universities, localities, regions, countries, etc., by virtue of obtaining feedback that allows improvement and in a certain way standardize . The promoters of this system believe that the comparison can generate unique, critical and significant contributions in the system and the community of educators that are part of it. [2] Even so, it is necessary to take into account that the comparison alone will be able to show the differences, but from there there is still a huge way to go to analyze these results and generate the necessary recommendations, that is, it is a more extensive process and complex that can be inferred from its name.

The history of comparative education is long and complex. In particular, there are important differences about its origin. Some authors consider that comparative education starts from the Greeks and has been modeled mainly from European and North American thought. [3] In general, these Western positions have held a particular interest in hard or quantifiable data that facilitate comparison. [3] This fact tends to condition research on the existence of such data, which makes it more difficult to study countries and institutions that do not have such information, as is often the case in Latin America and Africa; for example.

The search for precision is a debate that has been going on for centuries, being as old as comparative education itself. [4] This precision is hampered by factors such as the heterogeneity that characterizes the different training centers around the world and the barriers of language. [5] That is why it is important to take care that evaluation standards are not formulated that respond to the normality constructed by the majority, damaging unique or exceptional cases. This is one of the most debated issues in comparative education. It has come to be understood as an effort to measure the immeasurable that ends up being closely associated with the great inequality that currently exists in the educational field; [4] as well as in many other aspects of society.

More recently, the search for an accurate comparison has become a great demand on the part of the marketing that stars many of the university education systems that compete to recruit new students. [6] Thanks to the globalization that has characterized the last decades, the choice of a university educational center is usually less and less linked to the geographical issue. Potential students often compare study houses through different rankings, in an attempt to understand the benefits of each one and often without knowing the assessment conditions established by each of these rankings. This new need has led to the question: how can educational excellence be measured and what are the factors that participate in the construction of this excellence? [6]

Perhaps one of the central points of this search has to do with the consideration of context. Due to the marked contextual differences, few comparative studies have a methodology that allows them to take such variety into consideration. [5] Unfortunately, most comparisons are made based on an idealized model of the educational system in which it is often difficult to consider, understand and delve into these differences. In this sense, the theory of comparative education should evolve towards a more globalized system that adjusts to the realities that currently exceed national limits. [7] To achieve this, it is necessary to include factors that go beyond education itself, such as habits, resources, different actors and educational policies that shape national systems. [7]

One cannot lose sight of the fact that the central intention of comparative education is to learn from other systems, that is, from potentially different systems. In this way, the context in which these systems are developed is a fundamental part of learning. If care is not taken, the comparison can be based on the idea of ​​globalization to build a standardized system that does not know how to appreciate the diversity and cultural richness. [8] Which would end the possibilities of mutual learning and thus with the rationale behind comparative education.

In short, comparative education is the best opportunity we have for different education systems to feed each other. Thanks to globalization, the internet and the improvement in connections and travel in general, there is currently an enormous facility to carry out comparative methodologies that reach every corner of the planet. For this reason, comparative education must be maintained as an open and inclusive system with sufficient flexibility to respond successfully to the lack of certainties and necessary creativity posed by the 21st century. [8]


[1] EcuRed, “Educación comparada.” [Online]. Available:ón_comparada. [Accessed: 10-Sep-2020].

[2] W. Cummings, “The Institutions of Education Compare, Compare, Compare!,” Comp. Educ. Rev., vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 413–437, 1999.

[3] R. Koehl, “La educación comparada como estudio comparado de la socialización a lo largo de la vida,” Rev. Educ., no. 260, pp. 86–114, 1979.

[4] E. Unterhalter, “Negative capability? Measuring the unmeasurable in education,” Comp. Educ., vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 1–16, 2017.

[5] U. Teichler, “Comparative higher education: potentials and limits,” High Educ, no. 32, pp. 431–465, 1996.

[6] F. Su and M. Wood, “Reinterpreting teaching excellence,” Int. J. Comp. Educ. Dev., vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 78–82, 2019.

[7] B. Lingard and S. Rawolle, “Globalization and the rescaling of education politics and policy,” in New thinking in comparative education: Honouring Robert Cowen, M. Larsson, Ed. Rotterdam, 2010, pp. 33–52.

[8] W. O. Lee, D. B. Napier, and M. Manzon, “Does context still matter? The dialectics of comparative education,” Asia Pacific J. Educ., vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 139–152, 2014.



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