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)

The Good Student: Comparative Governance and Exhibitions

Exhibitions were hubs for passing and exchanging innovations in education, just as much as in industrial and commercial areas. Ideas, inscribed in texts and objects, were bought from exhibitors or given as gifts by countries. State representatives and agents were given the mission of searching out artefacts or objects which could help their countries progress. In effect, exhibitions were sites of hunting expeditions. Sadler, in 1902, saw exhibitions as ‘great national advertisements’, and combined with their attached congresses, they acted with ‘great intellectual significance’.

In this heightened and deliberate sense of exhibitions as sites of innovation, they could act over time, to shape the state’s sense of identity and managed entry into a world space of modern nations. Countries produced, edited, honed and selected their entries in knowing competition with other states and in a determination to be recognized as modern. For example, from their first entry in 1872, Japan carefully investigated European products and materials [the Japanese government Report on the 1873 Vienna Exhibition comprised 96 volumes]. The Exhibition Bureau in Japan produced ideal design plans to aid the exhibition of its products, and inspected workshops, and in time this created a centralized control of manufacturing. At the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Japan used an American agent who collected “educational appliances, specimens illustrating natural history, art and manufacture of Western countries as well as educational literature. Murray acquired these objects through purchase, donation, and exchange” [Dittrich p156]. Each object bought or exchanged by countries became an object lesson, in the Pestalozzian sense, to be closely observed and often replicated. Educational Museums were developed as a direct result of the accumulation of objects, and the innovative future they represented. The governing of education systems was shaped by the objects and texts produced for the Exhibitions or brought back from them, and the act of comparison. In 1893, Waterman emphasised the value of exhibitions for comparison, not only for Japan but all exhibiting countries

In the jury reports for the Exhibition of 1862, occurs the following statement: “The great utility of an educational collection consists in the opportunities it affords for comparison, and the classification most to be desired in such a collection is not a geographical one, but one of objects.”…….. Without these international exhibitions the majority of educators would therefore be unable to make a comparative study of educational systems. It has been of the greatest value to them that in the last thirty years there have been a series of exhibitions which have brought together the educational methods, materials, and works from all parts of the world, and that each has more reached the ideal arrangement, viz., the one that brings all systems together and places them side by side in a single building [Waterman 1893 p128]

Following the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the Society of Arts collected and exhibited education materials and texts, which was later given to the Government and then to the South Kensington Museum [now the Victoria and Albert Museum], and added to the gifts and contributions offered from public and private sources. At one time, its library contained more than 36,000 volumes of educational books, and collections of models, scientific apparatus, and educational objects [including furniture], were numbered in thousands [Lawn 2009]. More books [used by Her Majesty’s School Inspectors] were added later and a reading room provided. The British Government, through its Department of Science and Art, obtained sets of objects, through ‘Gift, Loan or Purchase’ at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, which were then placed in the South Kensington Museum: Art objects for the Museum and circulation to local schools, for its building and structure division, for Education and Technical instruction, manufacturing objects and objects to be used for decoration at the Museum. In the 1880s it was decided to split the book collection and send them to the Science or Arts libraries in South Kensington museums.

A similar process followed in the USA following the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876.

Many of the European Governments have liberally donated their Centennial exhibits to the United States Government. For their reception, a new building on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution has already been planned, in which one large wing is set apart for a Pedagogic Museum [Hodgins p240]

In fact, over thirty countries gave their exhibit materials to the USA, and over fifty freight wagons were sent to the Washington for the Smithsonian Provenzo p50]. Ontario produced a lot of carefully selected materials,

A comprehensive and varied collection of educational appliances, in the shape of maps, charts, globes, diagrams, models, object lessons, and a most extensive variety of school apparatus from the simplest kindergarten “gift ” or object, up to the more complicated instruments designed to illustrate the several departments of Natural Philosophy and of the Natural Sciences, etc. and, a collection of books (called the ” Teachers’ Library “), which had almost exclusive reference to the science and art of teaching, the discipline and management of schools, national education, school architecture, educational biography, the science of language, and other practical subjects, relating to the Teachers’ profession [the Education Commissioners from Japan ordered the entire collection for their Education Department] [Hodgins p28].

From the Ontario display at Philadelphia

The Botanical Charts and Botanical Cabinets prepared under the direction of this Department were considered of so much importance, that duplicate copies were purchased for Australia, Japan, and the United States.  Duplicate copies of the whole collection of Natural History Charts and Diagrams that we exhibited, including Zoology, Botany, Object Lessons, &c., were ordered from the Department for the Imperial Museum at Japan, the Japanese Education Department, and the Educational Museum at Washington. [Hodgins p31]

So, obtaining objects and texts by ‘gift, loan or purchase’ was major activity by governments engaging in industrial or commercial competition, or wishing to enter this world of modern countries. But this does not mean that these countries were always fully engaged in the business of comparative governance, making judgments about policy on the basis of cross national comparisons.

It is of interest then, following this evidence of the transnational flow of materials and their use in comparative education studies, that the British government was dilatory and sometimes unwilling to engage fully in the Exhibitions. Hodgins, who reported back to Ontario about the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 that the American Education Commissioner [Hoyt] remarked on this

“It is surprising that no effort was made by the British Government to insure a fair illustration of the means now in operation for the enlightenment of the too long neglected masses.”[Hodgins p15]

and that an Austrian specialist newspaper, the Freie Padagogischie Blatter said that the English Educational Exhibition

“is even less than unassuming, and really offers next to nothing.”[Hodgins p16]

This concern about the unwillingness of the British Government to seriously engage with the opportunities of comparison and display was to be expressed by Michael Sadler in 1904, after returning from the US and referring to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St Louis, made the following points: the Americans were much more serious about the Worlds Fairs than Europe, and the St Louis would be three times the scale of Paris in 1900, that Germany would make a great effort to attend, and that the US would be offended by a poor British display [Sadler p2]. And which, despite his best efforts, it was.

But in contrast, Sweden could be a ‘good pupil’, willing to exhibit, engage and explain. At the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the Freie Blatter commended the simplicity and practical character of the Swedish schoolhouse, and says:

“The Swedish Government does more than almost any other European Government for good school-houses, especially in a sanitary point of view. The Swedish Government not only distributes plans of schoolhouses, but accompanies these by a printed pamphlet, giving numerous and valuable hints as regards the location and surroundings of the school, the quantity of space to be allowed to each scholar, the different methods of ventilation.”[Hodgins p18]

Meijerberg, who was responsible for the Swedish exhibition in Philadelphia, had a personal letter correspondence with almost 300 different persons from all over the world about objects, designs and reform in education after 1876.

After the 1871 London Exhibition, where Sweden exhibited a full scale model of the schoolhouse in its own outdoor space, the South Kensington national library bought or was given more than 600 Swedish books, maps, plans, models and globes following the schoolhouse closure. No other education display exhibition was able to match this level of success at inspiring innovation and most of it ended up in the South Kensington collection.

At its close, the Museum received several valuable examples. Among these may be specially noted the contents of a model schoolhouse exhibited by the Commissioners for Sweden. The whole of these were purchased. They comprised models of school buildings, and of gymnastic apparatus, examples of school furniture and fittings, maps, scientific apparatus, and about 600 volumes of books. The Library is now especially strong in Swedish school literature.[Catalogue 1876]

This included the following models or examples:

Model and plans for a common school; seats with desks; teacher’s desk; easel; clock; bell

A series of manuals or texts on pedagogies and subjects

Sets of Common school regulations, accounts and arrangements, and comparative texts on foreign common schools plus reports and tables from School Inspectors

Texts, Courses and models on Drawing, and music manuals,

Gymnastic and drill models, benches and texts

Pupil School works [drawing, essays etc] [Catalogue Sweden 1871]

No other country produced this volume of material in the Kensington catalogue and it reflected the investment by Sweden in schoolhouse equipment and texts, and illustrated the quality of its contents. Later in the century, the material items and the texts were placed in a separate closed collection and were available for ‘reference and inspection’ but were ‘not to be used by students as a reading library’ [Catalogue of the Education Library in the South Kensington Museum HMSO, 1893 in Stray 1990).

Michael Sadler commandeered the Education Library, with its large proportion of Swedish texts, for his Office of Special Inquiries and Reports in 1896. The 9th and last edition of the Catalogue also notes that the collection was recently given several hundred Swedish and Austrian books.


Cunliffe Owen, British Commissioner, to the Centennial Exhibition [Sketches in Hodgins]

Dittrich, Klaus (2010) Experts going transnational: education at world exhibitions during the second half of the nineteenth century. PhD thesis, University of Portsmouth.

Hodgins, JG “Special report to the honourable the minister of education on the Ontario educational exhibit, and the educational features of the international exhibition at Philadelphia, 1876” Ontario

Kayoko KOMATSU The Formation and Transformation of Education in Japan through Exhibitions: Focused on the Educational Museum founded in 1877

Lawn, M [2009] Sites of the Future: comparing and ordering new educational actualities pp15-30 in Modelling the Future – Exhibitions and the Materiality of Education. Oxford, Symposium Books [Comparative Histories of Education Series

Stray, C [1990] A Cellarful of Ghosts? The Educational Division of the South Kensington Museum, 1857-83 Paradigm, No. 3 (July)

Sadler, M [Aug 27th 1902] Memorandum on the St Louis Exhibition 1904 Sadler Papers MS 1314 Special Collections Leeds University Library

Waterman, R Educational Review Vol V Jan -May 1893 [New York, Henry Holt and Co]

Catalogue of the Educational Division of the South Kensington Museum (London: Spottiswoode, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1876), vii.

Catalogue Sweden Division 2, Class 10 – Educational Works and Appliances – London [Stockholm, Norstedt 1871]


Martin Lawn

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.