Purpose and aims

International comparisons have become the lifeblood of education governance in Europe and globally; however, they are not just a contemporary phenomenon. On the contrary, governing by comparison in education is historically as deep-rooted as the founding of the European nation-states themselves. Nonetheless, this is a history untold; following a methodological nationalism approach, historians of education have largely excluded it from their accounts of national education policy- making. Using Sweden as a case study, the aim of the project is 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 willexamine the workings and effects of international education comparisons, and will produce significant knowledge about the logics of comparison, its main actors and its techniques and effects. Through both primary data collection and secondary analysis of qualitative data from our previous scholarship, we will explain the ways in which flows of ideas and practices affected the development of education systems; how and when these processes occurred; and the degree of their relative success and failure.

The title of the project alludes to two significant loci where international comparisons of school systems occurred: a physical one, Paris, as a host for several international exhibitions in the late 19th century, and, on the other hand, a symbolic policy space; that is the massively influential PISA-study carried out by OECD since 2000. Starting our investigation in Paris in 1867 and ending with PISA 2015, we expect to trace significant changes in the role of international comparisons in educational policy-making. Within this timeframe, Sweden has always been in a fluid space of comparison, engaged in both internal and external policy learning and travel. The optimism of 1908 when the Swedish minister of education proclaimed that Sweden ‘has sought to keep at the forefront of the public education field’ has been replaced by pessimism and the PISA-shock. Comparison, which aided the fabrication of the ‘nation’ in the past, is now destabilizing it.


The study has a novel approach as for most historians of education, the emergence of a modern education system since the mid 19thc. occurs as a national and regional process, neatly and carefully closed off within the borders of the nation. However, what these accounts have systematically disregarded are the effects of the flows of cross-border ideas and technologies, such as international comparisons, lesson-drawing, policy diffusion and travel as well as local adaptations and translations of education policy originating elsewhere. This emphasis on using domestic histories of education for the construction of national myths, 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. There is therefore a significant lack of an understanding of the influence of the European, or even the global, on the national education policy making apparatus; on the other hand, we also know little about the influence of the national in shaping and steering international trends. It is precisely both these research gaps that our project aims to fill, by focusing on an analysis of the development of Sweden as a model, modern education state in a constant and two-way dialogue with the world beyond its borders.

Therefore, the project will shed light on core questions like:
How has international comparison grown and developed into a significant force in education policy-making ?
When a system ‘internationalises’, which of its aspects travel abroad and which influences from abroad are absorbed at home? What are the tools nations use to project themselves as progressive and forward-looking? How do these national representations change over time and in relation to the different media and technologies used (travelling accounts, exhibitions, encyclopedias, statistical charts etc)?
What has the impact of national education policy been on the construction of a European education space? On the other hand, how have European and global comparisons shaped the nation?

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