Worlds of Education

Credits: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Credits: GPE/Kelley Lynch

The possibilities for South-North dialogue in education research, by Tore Bernt Sorensen

published 27 March 2018 updated 25 March 2019
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In this week, the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) is taking place in Mexico City. CIES is based in the US but has around 2500 members from around the world. The Annual Meeting attracts a few thousand participants.

This year there are participants from around 114 countries, and the conference theme is “Re-Mapping Global Education: South-North Dialogue”. The theme problematizes the fact that knowledge production and exchange also in comparative education research usually remains a monologue in which “experts” of the North (like, high-income countries) speak to and study the South (low and mid-income countries). Accordingly, the conference seeks to enable South-North dialogue and expand South-South collaboration.

In many ways, South-North dialogue is a great theme because it raises important debates that are anything but straightforward. We might of course question the crude juxtaposition of North and South. Who is in and who is out, and where do the boundaries go between them? Who are speaking for the South and for the North? And more precisely, what are those dialogues about, and whose voices and interests are included? Students, teachers, parents and communities, researchers, entrepreneurs, politicians?

A basic pre-condition for a research-based dialogue on education, teaching and learning is that there exists knowledge about the sites and topics you want to have a dialogue about. At the CIES conference, I will be involved in a panel session on “The teaching professions and knowledge exchange in the context of globalization” together with Maria Margarita Ulloa, from the University of Bio-Bio in Chile, Martin Henry, research coordinator from Education International, and Susan Robertson, University of Cambridge.

As part of the session, I will present a literature review on how the ‘teacher problem’ has been represented in the peer-reviewed academic literature on the teaching professions and teacher policy in the context of globalisation and Europeanisation. The review focuses on the last 25-30 years because this period has seen an intensified political focus on teachers internationally – often centered on specific notions of ‘quality teaching’ and ‘teacher effectiveness’ - accompanied by a surge in the research literature dedicated to the teaching professions.

The review is prepared together with Xavier Dumay and forms part of the 5-years TeachersCareers project, based at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. In the review, we chose to focus on the English language literature due to our language abilities and also considering the dominant status of the language in the research literature on this topic.

Without any ambition that the review should be exhaustive of all the relevant literature, we wanted to map and identify the main patterns in the field based on a broad selection of the literature on teachers and globalisation. After realizing that the main electronic databases such as Scopus and ERIC do not include many books that we regard as key contributions to the field, we developed a more nuanced search strategy which combined searches in electronic databases with compiling bibliographies from previously conducted - and less expansive - reviews, and selected key contributions to the field. The search strategy resulted in close to 1000 pieces of literature which we after screening each piece for relevance reduced to a body of literature consisting of around 300 references.

We reviewed this body of literature and found that it is remarkably diverse in terms of research themes, theories, and methods. We also found that it shows an astonishing geographical bias in the knowledge production on this topic, towards Anglophone countries and contexts (in particular the US, England, and Australia) and a few selected countries in Europe, where Finland - not surprisingly given the hype during the 2000s - stands out. We recognize that our decision to only include Anglophone literature in the review is likely to have worsened the bias that exists in the literature as a whole. Yet, it is remarkable how few titles there are on teachers in Latin America, an area that would simply cease to exist if it was not for a handful of titles on teacher policy in the neoliberal laboratory of Chile and the large-scale education reforms in Mexico in the 1990s and 2000s. The same issue is evident with all of Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East, all of them regions rarely addressed in the literature. In short, our review of peer-reviewed literature suggests that large areas of the globe are left out of the circuits of knowledge production and exchange on teachers.

While this geographical bias appears fairly entrenched, it is interesting that the Chinese context begins to appear in the body of literature from the mid-2000s, thereby joining Japan as a main reference society in East Asia for researchers and policy-makers. In a similar manner, there are several titles issued from 2010 onwards about teachers in India. The reviewed body of literature thus reflects some of the major shifts in geopolitics as well as the more erratic fixations with high-fliers in large-scale comparative research programs like PISA, TIMMS and TALIS.

Finally, part of the reviewed literature is concerned with the promotion of constructivism and learner-centred pedagogy in low- and mid-income countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. These pieces show that international agencies such as the World Bank and various national departments have been pivotal in these efforts, and the large challenges involved in making them happen.

This brings us directly back to the questions of South-North dialogue, because what does dialogue mean within the context of a development programme that comes with certain obligations? Dialogues can be more or less open and equal, and we might well ask if the very possibility for dialogue becomes crowded out when the conversation is framed by objectives that have been defined by one side and attached to funding. More to the point, if you are being represented as belonging to the South, will you then also be taken seriously when you are speaking about issues that go beyond the South?

There is no reason to be naïve about the political economy of knowledge production. Financial resources matter, so the structural features of global inequality are also reflected in research capacities. When there is an imbalance between spaces, it is bound to affect the exchange of knowledge and the dialogues to be had. While it is an uphill struggle, every step and every attempt towards a more equal and open dialogue can only be supported in order to bring in as many resources into the conversation on education, teaching and learning. Let us hope that the CIES conference will live up to the stated aspiration of a “discussion on the borders and divisions that produce power imbalances in our field will be the first step in taking action to re-map or even erase them.”

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.