Policy Transfer and Educational Change


David Scott, Mayumi Terano, Roger Slee, Chris Husbands & Raphael Wilkins

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    This important and, I hope, influential book is about how ideas travel within countries and round the world. The principal theme is reforming school systems, and in the book we examine how efforts in India to achieve this were generally unsuccessful. In particular, we concentrate on the means to achieve this, i.e. the use of a policy-borrowing model, whereby exemplary practices developed in countries round the world are transferred to a recipient country, such as India, our case study. In the end we suggest that this policy-borrowing model is both flawed conceptually and in addition, failed in practice. We have therefore suggested a different model, which we have called a policy-learning model, that is, identifying a set of practices which are considered to be successful in one national setting and then transposing them to another national setting, in which a problem or need has been identified. In order to solve this problem or meet this need, policy-makers and practitioners learn from practices developed in other countries. The focus and the underlying methodology are not arbitrarily chosen from an infinite assortment of possible focuses and methodologies. Their use therefore has to be justified; a task that we undertake in this book.

    Our purpose then, is to develop and articulate a comparative methodology which allows us to understand how educational ideas travel and subsequently influence classroom practices. What this means is that a binding, sufficient and salient reason (or reasons) has to be provided as to why our theory of policy learning is better than other theories focusing on the same area of social life. A number of arguments have been put forward as to whether it is possible to show that Theory1 is better than Theory2, and indeed whether this in principle can be achieved.

    The first of these is that there are real issues which impact on our lives and it is these real issues that determine the truthfulness of particular theories. This is an argument in support of ontological realism but it doesn’t take us very far in establishing whether it is possible to determine that one theory is better than another. However, what it does do is indicate that one of our criteria for this determination is related to the referent of knowledge (indeed that knowledge does have a referent). This is an important step in the argument for judgemental rationality (our ability to decide that one theory is better than another when they are both focused on the same area of social life), but it is not sufficient in itself to establish categorically that it is possible.

    A second argument is that inevitably we do make judgements and we need to make them wisely. This is a curious argument and it suggests, in a tentative fashion, a foundational move. However, this argument is simply another way of asserting that it is possible to make these judgements. It doesn’t provide us with the means to make such judgements. Another attempt is to suggest that the categories we use in the world are open to change. This is simply a reiteration of the central claim that our knowledge–development activity is located in specific geo-social-historical locations.

    The most promising argument in favour of judgemental rationality is that once it has been established that ontological realism is a truthful claim, then what follows from this is that there is a relation/connection between knowledge development and the world (not of course in a correspondence or representational sense). This means that it then becomes possible to produce knowledge of this connection/relation and of the world itself, even if it is indirect. If in relation to the comparative methodology that we have chosen and judged to be superior to other comparative methodologies, we can show how it works, then we can begin the work of grounding our theories in the world as it is and thus establishing in part the possibility of claiming that T1 is better than T2.

    Another argument is that if one theory can explain more significant phenomena than another, then it is a superior theory. However, this seemingly persuasive argument needs to be clarified. What exactly does it mean? Clearly if there are anomalies, contradictions or inadequacies in T1, then it becomes possible for us to argue that this theory is inadequate or insufficient. So in trying to determine whether it is possible to establish that T1 is superior to T2 then we also (in addition to our epistemic criterion) have to build in a notion of rational adequacy. However, I don’t think that there is a problem in using these two criteria together in any judgement we might want to make between T1 and T2.

    A fifth argument that would allow us to make a judgement between two different theories about the same object of investigation is that if one accepts that experiments can provide knowledge, then logically it becomes possible to accept ontological realism. I think that this is a strong claim; however, it is not a sufficient argument for establishing that T1 is superior to T2.

    A further argument refers to Jurgen Habermas’ notion of communicative competence. The argument would then be that T1 is superior to T2 because in its production it better conforms to the rules for communicative competence. That is, any claim to theoretical credibility must be able to make the following assertions: this work is intelligible and hence meaningful in the light of the structuring principles of its discourse community; what is being asserted propositionally is true; what is being explained can be justified; and the person who is making these claims is sincere about what they are asserting. These four conditions if they are fulfilled allow a theorist to say something meaningful about the world. However, since we are trying to establish whether it is possible to determine that T1 is superior to T2, then we cannot use the argument that T1 is superior on the grounds that the supporter of T1 is coming from a better or purer position than the supporter of T2, because this assumes that the argument being made is necessarily right.

    It is suggested that another way of determining whether T1 is superior to T2 is to make the claim that T1 is more powerful and has more powerful effects than other theories, for example, T2, T3, through to Tn. Self-evidently, some interpretations are more powerful or have more powerful effects in the world than others; however, this cannot provide us with an argument that might suggest that it is possible to say that T1 is a better theory qua its theoretical adequacy than T2.

    What are we left with? There are four ways of distinguishing between different theories or models. The first is epistemic: a theory is superior to another because it is more empirically adequate. The second is the converse, so that a version of reality is superior to another because it contains fewer contradictions, disjunctions and aporias. A third approach focuses on the giving of reasons, and concludes that some reasons and systems of rationality are superior to others, and therefore should be preferred. A fourth approach is pragmatic: a theory is better than another because it is more practically adequate or referenced to/part of extant frameworks of meaning. A combination of all four reasons is appropriate. What we have attempted to do then in this book is provide a reason or set of reasons as to why our comparative methodology is superior to other methodologies that have been developed by other people.

    David ScottSeptember 2015


    The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Charles Posner, Chris Martin and Elsa Gusman to pages 1–4 of this book.

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