The Disembedded Laboratory – Torsten Husén and the Internationalisation of Educational Research for Policy

We are happy to announce that the Swedish Research Council have granted our project The Disembedded Laboratory – Torsten Husén and the Internationalisation of Educational Research for Policy. The project can be seen as a continuation of our previous project From Paris to PISA, and will be reported from at this website.

Purpose and aims

The proposed project will examine the accelerated growth of educational research in post-war Europe and the US, through an in-depth study of its articulation, dissemination and consolidation as an international phenomenon. Torsten Husén (1916-2009), the leading Swedish educational figure, whose international career spans the mid/ late 20thcentury, will be the key lens for the analysis. In particular, Husén’s archive, stored in the Swedish National Archive and thus far under-researched and unknown, is a treasure trove for the study of the construction of the European education research arena. It consists of 38 metres of files, and holds all of Husén’s correspondence, from his key roles in the IEA and the IIEP-UNESCO, as well as his extensive scientific networking across the globe. 

However, why focus on Husén? What can the study of a single actor illuminate about the rise of a whole scientific field with its machinations, collaborations, ruptures and linkages over the long decades of the European post-war reconstruction? The project follows a sociology of science theoretical frame in order to examine the Husén archive as a container of a ‘disembedded laboratory’. The disembedded laboratory consists of volatile transnational networks that contribute to the development of social science research beyond fixed time and space dimensions, that extends science beyond individual ideas, researchers, environments, institutions and universities. These are practices that create, mobilise, sustain and challenge relations between actors in innovations, knowledge creation and various social activities (Latour 1987).In other words, the archive represents the socio-material manifestation not only of the intellectual trajectory of a key education actor (as widely evidenced for far by, amongst others,  Agar and Smith 1998; Latour 2005; Bijker et al 1987) but of a whole scientific field (Bourdieu 1993). 

The historical context here is a crucial backdrop to our study. We will be examining the decades that saw the slow yet methodical construction of education comparative data for policy-making, the rise of cross border and international comparisons and the role of a modern, comprehensive education in these processes. Through a detailed analysis of the interactions of a range of actors, materials and institutions, we are going to explore the socio-cognitive processes that saw education as the sole pathway towards the governing of ’a better society’. Such imaginaries of education have been in existence for centuries, nevertheless the notion that education science can and should be informing the making of education policy was a novel idea in the 20thcentury. 

Similarly innovative was the concept of cross-border research. Although ideas had always travelled, post-war Europe education science – with Husén at its helm – becomes systematic, organised and institutionalised; it is materialised through the controversies and consensus of expert networks; and it becomes legitimised in institutions, through the successful set-up of education research organisations like the IEA, which still dominate the education research arena.  Thus, we argue that our investigation is not simply about studying what kind of knowledge for policy; the proposed project will study the rise of the international education epistemic community through a focus on the ideational, value-based, moral, political and cognitive processes that brought previously dispersed scientists into an organised, cosmopolitan, and – crucially – legitimate disembedded scientific laboratory that wrote the first pages of the global education research for policy post-war. The Husén archive and its rich documentation of this important historical period offers therefore a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to document this history and bring it to life.

Research Questions

The project’s overarching aim is to understand the rise of the post-war world of education research, as a ‘disembedded laboratory’, through an in-depth examination of the spaces, places, actors, objects and norms, and its legacy. In order to operationalise this, we ask the following questions:

  1. How did Husén and his peers, as representatives of a new emerging field of science, come together in forming networks and creating common work spaces? Who were the key actors that worked with Husén and what kind of characteristics and qualities did their networking entail? 
  2. When Husén and his transnational networks developed into international organizations, how were they established and sustained? What was the role of key actors in constructing them? How did they organise their work and plan their activity? What funds, kind of work and ideas held these organisations together? 
  3. What kind of knowledge for policy was intended to be produced in these networks? Under which conditions was this knowledge produced and disseminated? Which procedures gave it validity and legitimacy? What kind of knowledge production was prioritised and why?

Pertinent to all these questions are issues of gender, since spaces, places, actors and networks also are arenas for hierarchies, inclusion and exclusion. Even if the project is focusing on a male actor, we will strive to bring more hidden, or peripheral knowledge workers to the fore (Lundahl & Primus 2018).   

Co-branding in National and International Policy Assemblage in Education

Christian Lundahl

In a recently finalised project called From Paris to PISA – governing education through comparisons 1867-2015, I, Sotira Grek, Martin Lawn and Joakim Landahl used Sweden as a case study with the aim to explore and analyse the ways in which national systems and their innovations were influenced, constructed and traded through the use of education comparisons. By focusing on Sweden, a country considered a leading education state for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, we examined the workings and effects of international education comparisons, and the logics of comparison, its main actors and its techniques and effects.

Traditionally there has been an emphasis on using domestic histories of education for the construction of national myths, which has resulted in missing out on substantial evidence from political science research which suggests that, not only at present time but also historically, learning from and with others is one of the primary tools in the policy making assemblage. The recent trend however has been to maybe overemphasize the influence of the European, or even the global, on the national education policy making apparatus. We have read numerously papers on Neoliberalism, New Public Management, the Global Testing Culture, GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) that often with references to Foucault, Rose, Ball, Biesta, Porter etc, stresses the emergence of a culture of performativity, accountability regimes and increased standardization leading to the loss of local multiplicity, the loss of teacher professionalism and in the end reduced learning for the pupils.  As pointed out however by Radhika Guror (2017, 2018) this kind of criticism hasn’t managed to curtail the influence of in particular large-scale assessments over national policy. The problem she states is not just that we as researchers had little political influence but also that we haven’t advanced our epistemology in understanding these movements. 

Also, Antoni Verger et al have stressed in a recent article (2019) that we need to look at howthese global movements are connected to specific countries, because they are adopted, for so many different reasons. I would also say, that sometimes we see nothing else then a local movement that looks like, or are disguised to look like, a global movement. In addition to this we can also assume that there is an influence of the national in shaping and steering international trends, that we often have neglected. 

It is exactly this co-construction between the international and the national in educational policy that I like to talk about today – and the role that educational scholars can play in it. However, I will begin with the parallel case of how IKEA and its founder Ingvar Kamprad (1926-2018) used Sweden to construct itself as a global and multinational company and how Sweden has used IKEA in the country’s own nation branding. IKEA very well illustrates the complexity in the assemblage of national and international influences on say a company, organisation or institution.  

IKEA and Ingvar Kamprad

What is inside a flat-pack from IKEA? Not only a furniture waiting to be assembled by you, but also a set of values and ideas – of which some has a long history. IKEA is a global brand that markets Scandinavian home furnishing styles and Swedish social and cultural values. In her book Design by IKEA(2014) Sara Kristoffersson asks how this strong relationship between design and national identity has come about. 

IKEA is based on a design ideal called ’the Swedish modern’, a term coined in the 1930s, to describe a gentler version of a modernist idiom: wood instead of metal tubing, organic forms rather than hard and angular forms etc. (Kristoffersson, 2014, 5). But as rather well known, this design ideal was actually first displayed in the USA by American designers. However, it became a narrative in Sweden connecting the nation with a particular design ideal. 

Pic 1.IKEA logotypes. (

This design ideal, and the idealistic view of modern Sweden paved way for a very successful co-brandingand in 1983 IKEA changed its red and with logo into the colour of the Swedish flag (pic 1). When IKEA published a book in 1995 called Democratic design they wrote:

It [IKEA] grew up in Sweden and its heart remains there to this very day. And as everyone who has grown up in Sweden has learnt – either from their Dad, or from the society in general – people who are not all that well of should be given the same opportunities as people who are. It is hardly surprising that, as a Swedish company, IKEA espouses Swedish values. (IKEA 1995, 9 in Kristofferson 2014, 58)

IKEA links this notion of Swedishness to a practical, simple, and restrained design that becomes closely linked to ideas about mentality and morality. The peaceful, light, and practical home creates a setting for open, harmonious, and rational minds (Löfgren 2014, 468). Here for example the idealised image of the country side of Småland was used (here in an award winning ad) – ‘the Soul of IKEA’ (pic 2). 

Pic. 2.The soul of IKEA (

Also, the founder of IKEA Ingvar Kamprad became part of the branding. Kamprad has been described by colleagues as a genius working extremely hard but also with a very clever set of leadership skills that borders on manipulation. He visited as a rule 45 stores a year and met with people at ever flor of his businesses (Stenebo 2018). The lessons learnt he passed on, as a former close colleague wrotes (in a critical book on IKEA):

What most people find hard to understand is how Ingvar manages to keep such a large company together. The answer is simple. Through his actions he lets good examples speak for themselves. Everywhere he goes he over and over again refers back to discussions he has had with a head of department at a store in Germany or with the boss of a factory at a supplier’s or with a colleague at a store in China. He is capable of quoting his co-workers’ thoughts and ideas as well as problems in a concrete way. (Stenebo 2018, 22)

This factory-floor strategy, travelling around in the real world, is rhetorically brilliant. How can a product developer in Älmhult ever express disapproval of a discussion where all arguments are taken from reality? 

At the same time, he was ‘marketed as a simple man that with poor education (not really true since he had at least an upper secondary degree in business), that had dyslexia, was an alcoholic, never flew business class, preferred public transportation instead of company cars, and rather took a hot dog at his store than had lunch at an restaurant. This thriftiness became an important part of IKEA’s image as a cost-awareness company (Kristofersson 2014, 29-33; Stenebo 2018, 12-49). 

The ideals of design and mentality that is linked to Kamprad, Småland and Sweden was also intentionally used in the marketing of IKEA in other countries. For example, in Germany: 

IKEA did run a famous ad campaign in the 1990s that showed parodic versions of “German” interiors, in depressing brown and beige with dark and clumsy furniture side by side with light-hearted, sunny and simple Swedish interiors asking the German readers: “Do you want to sleep on or may we wake you up?” (Löfgren 2014, 468)

IKEA loves Sweden but Sweden also loves IKEA. A government report on Swedish trade and investments from 2011 concluded:

Certain major Swedish corporations like IKEA and Volvo Cars have long made use of their Swedish origins in their marketing. As a result of the enormous resources that help to promote Sweden as a brand, Sweden is widely associated precisely with these companies (despite the fact that Volvo Cars has not been a Swedish-owned company for the last ten years). The value to the Swedish image that these companies contribute with their marketing can scarcely be calculated. (DS 2011:29, 123 in Kristoffersson 2014, 84) 

We clearly see here that it is not just IKEA that makes use of values embedded in the brand of Småland and Sweden. It also goes the other way around, Sweden uses IKEA for the county´s own reputation.

The Swedish Comprehensive School and Torsten Husén

The kind of co-branding that we see between IKEA and Sweden has up until lately also been the case between Swedish education and Sweden. Here the famous educational scholar Torsten Husén (1916-2009) was one important reformist as well as Ambassador for Swedish education (Pic. 3 and 4).

Pic. 3.Torsten Husén meets Japanese Crown Prince (Husén 1983, 84ff)

Pic. 4.Torsten Husén meets US Presiden Lyndon B Johnson (Husén 1983, 84ff) 

Torsten Husén was born in Lund 1916 where he also later came to take his Phd-degree at Lunds university in 1944. His supervisor John Landquist was a famous scholar and cultural personality. The closeness to Germany and Landquist’s connections made it natural for Husén to visit and study in Germany during the 1930s. There he learned how to construct and conduct psychological aptitude test. In the 1940s he was employed by the Swedish government to produce, inspired by the German military, test to get ‘the right man at the right place’ in the army.  Here the famous American Army Alpha and Army Beta test also became influential as well as working with the statistical factor analysis. Husén came to work with testing for the government for ten years. He continued working on testing for various Swedish organisations and at the Stockholm Techer collage throughout the 50s and 60s. During the 50s and 60s he also spent several semesters at American universities (e.g. Chicago, Stanford and Aspen). 

From the mid 50s and some years onwards the UNESCO-institute in Hamburg arranged yearly conferences for educational scholars representing just about 12 countries. Husén represented Sweden and when this group of scholars decided to form IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) Husén was chosen to become its chairman – a position he held for 18 years.  IEA is today famous for constructing the TIMSS and PIRLS test.

Meanwhile in Sweden the government had to decid how to move forward on a suggested reform on comprehensive schooling. Husén made valuable contributions and could for example show with results from his military testing that quite a large group had the intellectual capacity to study much longer than they at the time had the chance to. He called them the ’reserve of talents’ (begåvningsreserven). Husén, in line with the Swedish social democratic party, believed that more children should be included and given the opportunity to reach secondary education. In 1962 Sweden got a comprehensive school system.

One of the earlier analyses carried out on IEA material during the late 1960s was to compare countries with tracked school systems with comprehensive school systems. Husén writes in his biography, An incurable academic:

The IEA project (see p. 83ff), which I led for many years, provided unique opportunities to compare various national educational systems with special regard to organisational differentiation. Some of these systems, for instance the British or the German, made an early differentiation between pupils with a more “theoretical” and those with a more “practical” inclination; while others, like the Swedish or the American, then differentiated into streams at a later stage. We were able to establish unequivocally that social class differences between different educational programmes were greatest in the former and smallest in the latter type of system. (Husén 1983, 74)

Clearly this is a good argument both to be used at home to show that Sweden had chosen the ‘right’ path, and abroad to put pressure on other countries to do the same.

In much of his international writings, and probably also in his meetings and lectures he often came back to what was so particular to Sweden and Swedish education where he makes connections between the welfare state and an inclusive comprehensive school system. Here he also made claims for the role of the researchers’ ideological basis: 

Over some twenty years I have been involved in policy-oriented research related to school reforms. In recent years I have been conducted international surveys focusing on policy problems of cross-national relevance. Since 1945 social scientist in many countries, not least in Sweden, have increasingly been called upon to put their competences at the disposal of government commissions and agencies in studying social problems empirically. Studies of the quantitative, ’political-arithmetic’ type gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s and were to provide policy makers and planners with an extended knowledge base for their decisions. /…/ The over-all ideology which permeates this book could be labelled social liberalism in the tradition indicated above of commitment to the Welfare State.The emphasis is on individual self-realization within the framework of the common good and on social control exercised by the State that calls for the establishment of institutional checks aimed at preserving the common good. (Husén 1979, 4-5)   

Here is not the place to more fully describe also the work Husén did for the developing countries through the Institute of Educational Planning (IEEP) that he became chairman for in 1970, or how he to position an inclusive perspective on education when editing the massive and the influential International Encyclopaedia of Education in 1984 and 1995. These were two important channels for the dissemination of his social liberal ideals at a global level. 

Husén made a brand of himself but not least of the idea of comprehensive and inclusive schooling. Here the good reputation of Sweden as a middle way country, not socialistic not capitalistic but a mixture, seemingly was very helpful. Husén can, however, in many ways also be considered as good for Sweden. He invited many famous scholars to visit Sweden to give lectures and disseminate their knowledge on Swedish ground. He also managed in 1969 to move the IEA head office with its financial resources for a long period to Stockholm, Sweden. And not least, with him as the chairman of IEA, we can assume that their test was made valid to Swedish curriculum, assuring Sweden reaching good results.  When I worked at the National Agency for Education during the 1990s, we had several visits from abroad and they were often fascinated that the Swedish comprehensive school was at the same time so inclusive and informal, and still managed to produce good results at international assessments. This ended with the poor PISA scores in 2006 and onwards. 

Conclusions and reflections

To sum up, what is common traits in both of these stories? What can we extract from them about the role of researchers in the interplay between national and international policy movements?

Well, I would say that both stories illustrate the importance of individuals, with the capacity to use present ideas for own gaining but at the same time having the ambition to change the society. The stories illustrate the importance of the interplay between national regions and the international. We also learn that national and international training can intersect – Husén and Kamprad both learned a lot from abroad where they picked up international knowledge and experiences, but they also got a lot of practice through hard and tedious work back home. Further we learn that we can’t underestimate the importance of techniques – the flat pack of IKEA, and the factor analysis of IEA. Overall, we see that it is difficult to separate the international from the national when we try to understand societal and cultural movements.

In a time when internationalisation and globalisation dominates so many discourses and practices, where does this leave us as educational researchers? Which relationship, or responsibilities, do we have towards the national level? When retiring at the age of 65 Torsten Husén had over 900 publications. Most of them in Swedish and most in non-scholarly journals. He admits working close to the social democratic state apparatus, but in his memoirs also refrains from getting to close into relations with the government. It is important to uphold autonomy as researchers. Since the 60s and 70s Swedish educational research has in general taken a more critical path and close collaboration with the government has been rarer when it comes to school reforms. When it comes to for example the uses of large scale assessments this critical research does not get involved in how to interpret the results or make sound reforms of them. This distance position, regardless if it is motivated or not, makes educational research seemingly less interesting in public debate. 

In a recent study carried out by me and Margareta Serder we found that PISA was mentioned several hundred times a month in Swedish press 2017 (forthcoming), whereas educational research was mentioned one or two times even though a vast amount of peer reviewed papers were published during the same period. We also found that when scholarly comments on PISA results were requested, the journalists turned to economists and psychologists rather than educational scholars. 

So, what could be our role and how can we contribute to the understanding of the national and international relationship in policy making? 

I would say that we first of all need to reflect over our own situation and use these reflections in our analyses of educational policy. The demand on us, for example, to publish mainly in international journals makes writing of textbooks and public comments less attractive. This also goes for national and regional conferences.

I also think that we better need to make use of regional variations in understanding how international trends ‘hit’ a country. We would also need to dig deeper into local contextual factors, such as local politics, local governing, school structure, curriculum, classroom culture. It doesn’t help saying that PISA might have negative effects on education, we can go further and actually show how policy effects teaching and learning in various ways under various conditions.  

We need to make sure that we use our national insights well to problematise our understanding of international movements, and that we use our international experiences and knowledge to contribute wisely to national policy. 

  • This is originally a presentation held at ECER 2019, September 6 in Hamburg, at the MOOT: Education and the Return of the Nation: Nationalism in the era of Global Education Policies.


Gorur, R. (2017). Towards productive critique of large-scale comparisons in education,Critical Studies in Education, 58:3, 341-355, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2017.1327876

Gorur, R. (2018). Post script: has critique begun to gather steam again? Beyond ‘critical barbarism’in studying ILSAs. International Large-Scale Assessments in Education: Insider Research Perspectives, 219.

Husén, T. (1983). An incurable academic: Memoirs of a professor. Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd.

Husén, T. (1979). The school in question: a comparative study of the school and its future in Western society. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Kristoffersson, S. (2014). Design by IKEA: a cultural history. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Löfgren, O. (2015). Design by IKEA. A Cultural History, Design and Culture, 7:3, 467-469, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2015.1105510

Stenebo, J. (2018). IKEA – How to create a global brand and secretly become the world’s richest man. UK: Gibson Square.

Verger, A., Fontdevila, C & Parcerisa, L. (2019). Reforming governance through policy instruments. How and to what extent standards, tests and accountability in education spread worldwide, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Online 2019.

Developing a Unified View of Education: the rise of the Assessed since the 1930s

Working papers from our ECER symposium, Developing a Unified View of Education: the rise of the Assessed since the 1930s, now available here.

Intelligence and knowledge is genuinely invisible. It has to be withdrawn from the inside of our heads with help from external measurements using questions, such as an IQ test, and translated into a calculable form. We then have to interpret these figures and numbers to be able to decide the reasonable level of action on these measurements. This process of making intelligence and knowledge valid is the same no matter if we are dealing with traditional IQ-testing, contemporary knowledge assessments or neuro physiological brain scanning. (Messick 1980, 1989, Porter 1996, Wiliam 2009).

The symposium Developing a Unified View of Education: the rise of the Assessed since the 1930s is based on current research from the project ‘From Paris to Pisa: Governing Education by Comparison 1867-2015’, funded by the Swedish Research Council ( The project is organized around four different periods of which this symposium deals with our third phase: the beginnings and history of the development of education statistics in post-war Europe. A major focus of this part of the study is the investigation of actors and networks establishing a unifying and unified view of education as a policy field in Europe. Here the transition from individual intelligence testing to large scale knowledge assessments becomes essential.

For the group of testers to be perceived as viable, the public needed to understand that the test measurements were valid and useful. Academic credentials alone were insufficient, as educational practitioners, by tradition, had enjoyed considerable autonomy in determining which characteristics would count toward being considered an educable child (Kamin 1974; Danziger 1990; Lundahl 2006). Therefore, we observe that validity and usefulness can be thought of as acts of calibrating the public eye to enable it to see, in this case, the world as seen by testing proponents (Landahl & Lundahl 2013). In many European countries, acts of calibration become visible in the turn educational testing took between 1910 and 1960. Here educational policy and research played an ambivalent role as testing proponents on one side, but also adherent to the needs of education on the other side. We can see how new discursive coalitions appear during this period as a consequence of making the psychometrical language and logic more prevalent in the educational field and thus, for example, providing scholars with places, spaces and funds for their research (Wittrock, Wagner et al. 1991; Ludvigsen, Lundahl & Ydéssen 2013). In this symposium we focus on two forms of calibrations that took part during the 1930s to the 1960s. The first one educates teachers in the principles of IQ testing, making possible a transition from psychometrical expertise to educational expertise. The second form of calibration concerns the transition from intelligence testing to knowledge assessments. This transition is basically about the first attempt to conduct curriculum valid assessments.

Ludvigsen, K., Lundahl, C. & Ydesén, C. (2013): Creating an Educational Testing Profession in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, 1910-1960. European Educational Research Journal, 12(1), 120 – 138.
Lundahl, C. (2006): Viljan att veta vad andra vet. Kunskapsbedömning i tidigmodern, modern och senmodern skola. Arbetsliv i omvandling 2006:8. Akademisk avhandling vid Uppsala universitet. Stockholm: Arbetslivsinstitutet.
Landahl, J. & Lundahl, C. (2013): (Mis)trust in numbers. Stuggling with transparency. In Lawn, M. (ed): The Rise of Data in Education Systems. Oxford: Symposion Books. s. 57 – 78
Messick, S. (1980): Test Validity and the Ethics of Assessment. I American Psychologist, vol. 35, No 11, pp. 1012–1027.
Messick, S. (1989): Validity. In R. L. Linn (ed.): Educational Measurement. Third edition 1993. Phoenix: The Oryx Press. Pp. 13–103.
Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton University Press.
Wagner, P. & Wittrock, B. (1991): States, Institutions, and Discourses: A Comparative Perspective on the Structuration of the Social Sciences. In P. Wagner, B. Wittrock & R. Whitley. Discourses on Society. The Shaping of the Social Science Disciplines. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academinc Publishers.

Upcoming book: Beyond PISA – International and comparative education

In February 2017 we release the first book from the project. It is an edited volume in Swedish. The book is titled Beyond PISA. International and comparative education (eds. Joakim Landahl and Christian Lundahl).

International large-scale assessments, like PISA, help to rank countries’ school systems, as well as to point out who is considered to have succeeded or failed. But it is important not to stop there, without looking further and beyond these measurements.

The book Beyond PISA goes beyond the question of how countries’ school systems can be ranked. Instead of seeking answers to the question of how national systems of education can be developed through international comparisons, the book uses international outlooks to provide perspective and broadening horizons.

With an international perspective, the specific features of the Swedish educational tradition and changes over time are made visible, as well as international trends, tendencies and differences. The book provides an alternative to the cemented debate on school performance and highlights aspects of education that international assessments tend to neglect.

The book consists of twelve different chapters by ten Swedish and international scholars.


Bortom pisa

For information in Swedish see the publisher Natur och Kultur, here.

The pre-history of PISA

In a newly published paper, Swedish Education Exhibitions and Aesthetic Governing at World´s Fairs in the Late Nineteenth Century, Christian Lundahl discuss what can be considered an important aspect of the pre-history of international large scale assessments such as PISA – the comparative logic of school exhibits.

The purpose of the paper is to shed light on the relations between Swedish education and the international scene when it comes to policy and practice formation. The field of study is the international World´s Fairs of 1862–1904. Looking at what Sweden displayed, and understanding how visitors perceived it, the paper raises questions concerning how exhibitions like these worked as mediators of educational ideals. The focus is on the dissemination of aesthetic ideals, and the paper shows that the World’s Fairs were platforms for an aesthetic normativity that had governing effects locally as well as globally.

For full-text see: Nordic Journal of Educational History 3:2 (2016)

A visit at the Swedish Education Exhibition at the World’s fair in Saint Louis 1904

All the awards Sweden received at international exhibitions 100 years ago makes a sharp contrast to the present image of Swedish education as a system in severe crisis. One of the more successful exhibitions in this regard was the exhibition at St. Louis 1904 (pic 1).

pic1Pic 1. Prizes awarded to the Swedish school exhibition in various categories. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

Normally education was a minor part of the international World’s fairs. Sweden though had made an effort in presenting its education system in an ambitious way already in London 1862, Paris 1867, London 1871, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1876 (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). In St. Louis 1904 even greater effort was put in since the Swedish government decided to prioritise its display on education. For this investment the Swedish Department of education (Ecklesiastikdepartementet) received both Grand prizes and Gold medals (pic 1).

If we magnify the signs directly to the left after entering the Swedish pavilion, we see that they read Common schools (pic 2). Clearly education had a central place, directly at the entrance to the Swedish exhibition. A sign of pried one can imagine.

pic2Pic 2. Entrance to the Swedish pavilion. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

So, what was Sweden so proud of when it came to education? If we look closely at the plan for the Swedish display we see that it very much comprehend the various forms of education in Sweden: dark blue large area – boys primary school; dark blue small area – girls education; yellow – grammar and secondary school; purple – evening schools, vocational schools, adult education (pic 3). The exhibition also seems to display a model of inclusion of the outskirts of the educational landscape into a comprehensive structure (linking adult education, education in arts, sloyd and drill etc. to a more modern notion of education). The exclusive grammar- and upper secondary education is just a minor part of this exhibition, displayed in the back of the room. The prestigious Boarding school Lundsberg only received a Bronze medal for its part in the exhibition (pic 1).

pic3Pic 3. Plan of the Swedish display on education. Colourmarks added here. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

When it comes to the question of what to highlight from primary education it is interesting to see how much room is afforded to the relatively novel subjects of Sloyd (red) and Arts/drawing and gymnastics (light blue and green). There is also a room about the new subject Kitchen training (pic 7).

If we look at the primary school classroom model we get a hint that “Object teaching” is at fore, displaying various maps, charts, globes and monitors with stuffed animals (pic 4). But Sweden was also awarded for its collection of educational literature in a Pedagogical library (pic 1).


Pic 4. Model of a primary school classroom. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

The from an international perspective relatively unique subjects of Sloyd and Gymnastics got plenty of room, and a lot of different teaching material were displayed as well as drawings illustrating how to actually use them (pic 5 and 6).

pic5Pic 5. Sloyd. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

pic6Pic 6. Gymnastics, drill. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

Finally we also see how Sweden displayed a model of a school kitchen for the subject of Kitchen training (pic 7).

pic7Pic 7. Model of a Swedish school kitchen. Picture from The Swedish School museum archive, Nordiska museets arkiv.

We have elsewhere described these exhibitions as a national flag (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). The Swedish state funded a major investment in the Swedish exhibitions and with each exhibition, it became more sophisticated; from a collection of artefacts and a dark display to a standalone, complex full scale school. The exhibited objects change from merely books and maps to also include examples of new national pedagogical ideas (eg. Sloyd) and comprehensive descriptions of the educational system as a whole (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). The exhibition at St Luis 1904 provided a comprehensive overview of the educational system at large, but the actual space and place of the various objects at display reveal a lack of representativeness. These exhibitions were a plattform for progressive reforms – not showing or sharing what the reality looked like, but what was about to come.

Today, maybe more than ever, the international scene is an important place from where school reforms can be modelled, but in Sweden nowadays it tends to be done by telling everyone how poor the school system is and that is was better before, rather than by lifting hopes and ideas for a renewal in terms of structures, subjects and teaching.


Lundahl, C. & Lawn, M. (2014): The Swedish Schoolhouse: a Case study in Transnational influences in Education at the 1870s World’s fairs. Peadagica Historica

The Beauty in PISA

Today we often use Google when we want to learn something new, for example about education. The function of Google is similar to that of World’s fairs in the late 19th century. It provides a relatively comprehensive overview of things that might interest you.

One way of getting inspired from other countries education systems in the late 19th C was to take the train to Paris or Vienna, or even take the boat to USA and visit one of the large World’s fair’s education exhibits. There it was possible to meet an excessive collection of teaching materials, and even teaching methods. The things displayed at the World’s fairs were not really representative, but carefully selected (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). If we on the other hand turn to Google and ask what present education look like we get so many answers that it is almost impossible to sort among them. One way of overviewing them is by searching a topic with Google images. Pictures can often pinpoint dominant discourses (Fairclough 1992). One interesting question then, is what does the PISA test, or rather the discourse about it, look like.

Using Google images and the search terms “Pisa test” we retrieve a collage of pictures looking like this (March 20, 2015):


Pic 1. Google images: Pisa test

In this picture we see charts and tables illustrating comparisons on differences in outcome. We see that the people constructing these charts often want to illustrate that some outcomes are better then others – there is a slope in most of them. If we scroll among the Google images about PISA we see some variations where also the international foci becomes more prevailing (Pic 2), but we see very few examples of content, i.e. questions asked in these tests or information about test taking processes.


Pic 2. Google images: Pisa test

In a new Phd-theses Margareta Serder (2015) for example suggests, in an analysis based on PISA documents, that low performers appear as threats to the future society, due to the risk that they would become ineffective citizens. Meanwhile, other studies assert that standardized comparison is a practice that, when frequently repeated, contributes to lower results and an increasing disillusion of low achievers. Serder proposes that PISA, rather than to be seen as a knowledge measurement, should be regarded as a knowledge actor. In other words, PISA produces another reality than it measures – while measuring. Sweden is a good example of that. When Sweden started to drop in the PISA rankings 2006, Swedish politicians proclaimed an educational crisis, even if the scores still were quite decent. This paved the way for several reforms aiming at increased testing and control, which at least haven’t solved the problem with dropping PISA-results. Today PISA is synonymous to crises in Swedish educational discourse, which becomes evident when we search Google images for ‘Sverige’ (Sweden) and ‘PISA’ (Pic 3).


Pic 3. Google images: Sverige (Sweden) and PISA

Compared to the international images of PISA this collage illustrates that PISA in Sweden is used to illustrate a negative trend when it comes to school quality – a downfall. Why Sweden fails in PISA and what to do about it is an interesting question, but based on these images we can also raise questions of another kind: what knowledge travels, where does it go and through what media. What shapes does knowledge about education have and when does it change its shapes and for what reason? Images like the ones in Pic 1 – 3 are the perfect “quick language” (Lundahl 2008). They transfer fast, and allows for translations without a spoken word. They can be correctly understood or misunderstood, it doesn’t really matter – they can become meaningful in new ways from the perspective of the spectators. If we consider PISA as a knowledge actor it produces images and idols through which it becomes an ontological reality that reach into space and time in a similar way as the old World’s fairs did. Clearly PISA fosters winners and loser. There is only room for a few top-performing countries. Also in the old World’s fairs competition was a major reason to participate. The spectators however met all of the variation and could with their own eyes and hands try to assess the quality of the exhibition. PISA is not really open to laymen assessment in that way. We see the differences in numbers, ranking and charts but what does it mean? What do the children really know or not? Visualised with the help of Google images one kind of PISA discourse is revealed, and regardless of its meaning, as purely a representation there is a kind of beauty in PISA.



Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lundahl, C. (2008): Inter/national assessments as national curriculum: the case of Sweden. Martin Lawn (ed): An Atlantic Crossing? The work of the International Examination Inquiry, its researchers, methods and influence. Oxford: Symposium Books, 157-180.

Lundahl, C. & Lawn, M. (2014): The Swedish Schoolhouse: a Case study in Transnational influences in Education at the 1870s World’s fairs. Peadagica Historica

Serder, M. (2015). Möten med PISA: Kunskapsmätning som samspel mellan elever och provuppgifter i och om naturvetenskap. Diss. Studies in Educational Sciences, no 75. Högskolan i Malmö.