Constellation Analysis

A Methodology for Comparing Syllabus Topics Across Educational Contexts

by Jason Nicholls (Author) Bryan Cunningham (Volume editor)
©2014 Thesis 296 Pages


Jason Nicholls’ Constellation Analysis is an important contribution to studies in Comparative Education. From a deeply philosophical perspective (drawing in particular on the work of Hegel, Gadamer and Foucault), the author explores the ways in which topics in history education may be analysed and compared across international contexts. Utilising the Second World War as an «exemplar topic», the depiction of this crucial historical event in three countries, Japan, Sweden and England, is subjected to a highly novel form of interrogation. The book provides the reader not only with important insights into the nature of the books in use in classrooms across these contexts, but also into the educational – and indeed broad socio-political – environments beyond the classrooms.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Foreword
  • Editor’s Introduction and Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Chapter One: Traveller’s Tales, Textbook Research and Theory Development
  • Chapter Two: Possibilities and Choices: Reflections on the Literature
  • Chapter Three: The Philosophical Basis of Comparisons I – From the Modernist ‘Thesis’ to the Postmodern ‘Antithesis’
  • Chapter Four: The Philosophical Basis of Comparisons II – Towards a Hermeneutic ‘Synthesis’
  • Chapter Five: Hermeneutic Readings of Past Masters I – Re-interpreting Bereday’s Emphasis on the Importance of Language and Contextual Immersion Using Gadamer
  • Chapter Six: Hermeneutic Readings of Past Masters II – Isolating and Approaching Educational Contexts through a Re- interpretation of the Brian Holmes / Edmund King Dialectic
  • Chapter Seven: Charting a Syllabus Topic in History Education across Cultures – The Descriptive Exercise of Constellation Mapping
  • Chapter Eight: Comparative Constellation Analysis as Method
  • Chapter Nine: Conclusion – Labour, Consciousness and Agency
  • Index

Chapter One
Traveller’s Tales, Textbook Research and Theory Development

It is not the general idea that is implicated in opposition and combat, and that is exposed to danger. It remains in the background, untouched and uninjured. This may be called the cunning of reason…

G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 1991, p.33

Limits define possibilities in comparative education. What contexts can we engage with and what contexts are for one reason or another too remote? All comparisons must begin from somewhere. But the question is where? By acknowledging our limits as subjects we come to understand our proximity to settings in the world. This is as good as locating oneself on a map.

When we compare the education of one country with that of another we are comparing contexts of great complexity. Each will be made up of a web of relationships, influencing factors, configured differently from one setting to the next. The type of comparisons that we undertake should depend, therefore, on our understanding of the internal dynamics of each context. On approaching the context we will need special tools to somehow ‘get inside’ and view the dynamics of the system from within. What is affecting what? Where are the major points of influence? What is the relationship between the various parts and the context as a whole? We may find that several contexts share similar parts. However, where a certain part may be highly influential in one context it may significantly lack influence in another.

To a significant degree curriculum knowledge is an affect. It is shaped, formed and moulded by a dynamic array of factors. This will be true of all curriculum subjects but none more than history. History curricula are permeated with contextual particularities: cultural, ideological and political. The same is true of the ways in which history is taught and examined. If we were to ask teachers and students from cultures around the world ‘What is school history education?’ we would no doubt receive an array of different answers.

In a given context, school history as a whole will be made up of a variety of parts. Each part will exert influence on the meaning of the whole and vice versa. In an abstract sense, this dialectical relationship is central to Hegel’s thought: ‘The parts are diverse from each other and they are what is independent. But they are parts only… ← 25 | 26 → insofar as, taken together, they constitute the whole’.1 Later this dynamic provides the basis for the hermeneutics of Gadamer.2 But the message is straightforward: when comparing contexts it is essential to understand that the relationship between school history education as a whole and the constituent parts is dynamic and may differ from one context to the next. History may be taught and studied at schools in a selection of countries. In addition, the constituent parts that affect the meaning of school history education across the contexts may not always vary in type. However, where in one context a particular part may have enormous influence, in another context the same part may have very little influence. Parts that are the same in type can mean different things in different contexts. If a part has no influence on the meaning of the whole then it has no meaning as a part of that whole.

I would like to use school history education in Japan and England as exemplars. Here are two contexts that I know. I have lived in both of the countries and in addition to my native English I have studied Japanese. History is taught at schools in both countries. By definition this means that there is a curriculum for history in both contexts. But curriculum knowledge across contexts is always an affect. And in different contexts parts may affect the whole in different ways. In Japan, for example, school history is defined by the all-pervasive dictates of government-censored textbooks and preparation for the high school/university entrance examinations. These factors exert enormous influence on what counts as school history in Japan. But in England, it is the centralised National Curriculum and the external examination syllabuses that exert the most influence. There are no university entrance examinations as such and textbooks are seen to ‘typify’ little more than ‘an undesirable transmission model… incompatible with progressive educational practice’.3 Where, for example, textbooks exert enormous influence on the shape and form of knowledge in the history curriculum in Japan, they exert almost no influence in England. To use an analogy, schoolbooks resemble an engine or fuel in the Japanese educational context, while in England they are a kind of back seat headrest used for support at times of rare need. How meaningful is it to compare an engine made by Toyota with a back seat headrest made by Rover? Picture it.

In this book I develop and present methodological system to facilitate the comparison of syllabus topics across contexts using the Second World War as an ← 26 | 27 → exemplar topic. With the end of the Cold War the importance and significance of World War II has receded in political terms. Nevertheless it remains as a popular subject in history classes around the world and is likely to do so for some time. Morally, the war continues to raise fundamental questions. Nevertheless, to understand the location and effects of the war as a syllabus topic in educational terms we must first identify its shape and form as an object. The syllabus topic as a whole will be made up of a constellation of parts, influencing factors, push and pull variables. What is the relationship between whole and parts in particular contexts? How does a particular syllabus topic express this relationship? To make meaningful comparisons of syllabus topics we must therefore compare relationships. To understand the impact or the effect of a relationship on teachers and students we must first identify what the relationship is.

My methodological system is based in a ‘hermeneutic’ reading of the philosophy of Hegel. Other thinkers – philosophers, theorists and comparative methodologists – are interpreted in light of this reading. Essentially, I attempt to develop a position, a synthesis for comparative education, using Hegel beyond the modern and the postmodern. Ideas developed by Gadamer and Foucault are of great importance. Gadamer’s thought – his theorisation of the ongoing relationship between whole and parts – is implicitly Hegelian. However, Gadamer places additional stress on the importance of language as well as developing his concept of horizons. Foucault’s ideas are commonly identified with post-modernity thinking and can appear in diametrical opposition to Hegel. However, by revealing the proximity of Foucault’s later ‘hermeneutics’ to those of Hegel I re-position him. This provides a re-evaluated understanding of Foucault’s concept of the subject and of power. Hegel, Gadamer and Foucault are re-conceived, therefore, providing complementary understandings of the subject and knowledge that together form a foundation upon which to build a distinctive comparative approach.

The ideas of other thinkers are adapted and re-understood within this Hegelian framework for the purposes of the book. Weber’s methodological concept of the ‘ideal type’ is incorporated. So too is Adorno’s notion of ‘constellations’. As for the comparative methodologists, Bereday’s insistence on the importance of foreign language acquisition and cultural immersion is of crucial importance, as is the work on hypothesis generation by Brian Holmes and Edmund King.

In Hegelian terms this book is in fact a synthesis. The original thesis was developed between 1993 and 2001. After completing my MA in Critical Theory in 1992 I became an educator as well as travelling extensively. During this period I developed the core principles of a comparative thesis on the Second World War in school history education, regularly detailing my thoughts and ideas in a ← 27 | 28 → hand-written journal. This was followed by the development of an antithesis in which I argued, ultimately, that school history textbooks represented a relatively poor unit of comparison for understanding World War II in school history education across the countries in which I specialised. This, in turn, led to my doctoral research thesis: ‘The Possibilities for Comparing a Syllabus Topic in School History across Cultures: A Contribution to Method in Comparative Inquiry in Education’.

1.1 The Development of a Thesis: ‘Journalling’, 1993–2001

Many of the ideas fundamental to this book made their first appearance in a journal I began in the early 1990s. My practice of journal writing was integral to the development of the thesis, and subsequently this book, representing the vital first stage in the development of my comparative methodology.

The entries in my journal illustrated my ideas developing hermeneutically over time. From this perspective consecutive journal entries may be understood as a kind of ‘moving procession’. E. H. Carr claims that the use of this ‘metaphor is fair enough, provided it does not tempt the historian to think of himself as an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag’.4 This is because ‘[t]he historian is a part of history’.5 But why not imagine oneself as the eagle? Surveying years of hand written journal entries, it may be possible to observe a ‘parade’ in its entirety, each entry representing a particular present, one after the next. Then we may see in the writing how each entry has a past, a background informed by past entries, and how the past may lead to a particular type of present as well as various futures. From a hermeneutic perspective, the horizons of the diarist can be observed changing from one entry to the next, with the accumulation of experiences. Likewise, each entry represents an example of the diarist attempting to give meaning to the present, the repetition of themes along the parade of entries speaking to the reader of a kind of circular motion between the writing subject and experiences over time. From a hermeneutic perspective, the development of knowledge is essential to understandings of knowledge. The ideas presented in the chapters that follow are only meaningful from a hermeneutic perspective when understood in relation to the experiences and ideas recorded in the journal and vice versa. ← 28 | 29 →

From the autumn of 1993 I make frequent references in my journal to Adorno’s concept of constellations, an important concept in this thesis. ‘Constellations’ are constructed ‘around objects… by subjects’ (Journal, 25th September 1993, London). And the following year I would conceptualise ‘[t]he object… surrounded by a glistening constellation’. We attempt to understand concepts and objects by way of constellations because ‘things’ are complex and multifaceted, ‘contoured’ by ‘their own histories and relationships’ (Journal, 16th November 1994, London). But constellations must be crafted with care if their methodological potential is to be realised to maximum effect. Constellations are neither absolute nor random. Like the constructing subject, ‘the constellation is’ both centred and de-centred, ‘universal and particular, absolute and relative, certain and ambiguous’. It is perhaps for this reason that ‘[s]ome constellations tell us more than others as we form them around objects and concepts’ (Journal, 26th November 1994, London). My thoughts and interests at this time were clearly philosophical, a fascination with the work of thinkers from France and Germany. At the root of this ‘tradition of speculation’, moreover, was a way of thinking first

apparent in Hegel. From Hegel we take the Nietzschean road to Weber – … from a mediation of Marx – and move on to Adorno. This road – a trajectory – doesn’t take us to Derrida… in early/mid stage – … or Foucault… [French] thinkers seem to become this position in their late[r] stage[s] (Journal, 21st November 1994, London).


Fig. 1.1: Early diagram depicting Hegel as source ← 29 | 30 →

During this period I sketched the above diagram (fig. 1.1) depicting Hegel as the source of a range of philosophical tributaries. Essentially, Kant is depicted leading to Hegel while Hegel leads to everything else. Although problematic in many ways the diagram provides overview of the philosophical direction in which I was heading at that time. An updated and more sophisticated version of the diagram appears in Chapter Four.

By 1997, having taught for some years, I had become interested in questions relating directly to education. ‘How does history manifest itself in modern education?’ I would ask. And ‘what are the effects of globalization… its uneven waves of influence – on East Asian education…? Not simply the effects of modernization per se but … the effects of the current order of things… the influence of the balance of forces in the world today…?’ (Journal, 8th December 1997, Hiroshima). Come 1998 and I comment increasingly on issues relating to comparative education with a particular emphasis on the countries in which I had lived. ‘[W]hat and how we are taught’ I would now claim ‘is to a significant extent, the manifestation of historically contested notions of truth, knowledge, freedom and justice… manifested here in the present’. This led me to consider going on to compare ‘the modern identity of knowledge in Education’ in ‘America [meaning the United States], Sweden and Japan’ (Journal, 16th April 1998, Hiroshima). Two days later and I would move the idea one step forward:

Modern education is the embodiment of a particular set of values. Values are communicated through education. A particular education system or policy is the expression of a particular history. In different societies – across them – we find different educational values which are themselves the effects of different histories… Knowledge and Critique in Social Science Education: America, Sweden and Japan (Journal, 18th April 1998, Hiroshima).

The suggested thesis that concludes this entry is the first to sound at least something like the book that has since emerged. Three days later and I would suggest that ‘Japan- Sweden- [and] America’ represent ‘three points of… [a] … triangle’ due to their affiliations during the Second World War ‘Axis-Neutral-Allies’ (Journal, 21st April 1998, Hiroshima). One month on and I am commenting on the relationship between ‘power and knowledge in education: America, Sweden, Japan’. In short, ‘What are the implications of those rationalities and knowledge systems that are dominant against those that are not’? (Journal, 17th May 1998, Hiroshima).

Three events of significance occurred during my last six months in Hiroshima. The first of these related to a particular conservative victory on the level of government and society. Hiroshima had long been a seat of teacher radicalism. Almost all teachers in the prefecture are members of the leftist Japanese Teachers Union (JTU) ← 30 | 31 → and opposed to the conservative censorship of school history textbooks, the singing of the Japanese national anthem and the raising of the Japanese flag. But where the Hiroshima union had, in general, lost the battle over textbook censorship they had managed to hold their ground in the struggle against the anthem and the flag. In March 1999 they lost this battle. The following entry appeared in my journal:

Graduation day today and for the first time in many years a directive from Monbusho [the Ministry of Education] for Hiroshima ken [prefecture] to fly the flag and play the national anthem during the [school opening] ceremony. Yesterday a principal killed himself. Japan’s flag and national anthem symbolise the past in a distinctive and… [it could be said]…terrible way… [s]ymbolising the atrocities of Japan’s militaristic past – fascism and the colonisation of East Asia (Journal, 1st March 1999, Hiroshima).

The 1990s would be a decade of intense ideological struggle in Japan, between right wing nationalists and radical leftists, over the question of Japan’s history and particularly its role during World War II. Yet in a post-Cold War environment it was the right that appeared in the ascendant. A school principal had committed suicide as a result of this ever more ‘sensationalised’ battle. Debates over Japan’s past – aggression in China in the 1930s, ‘comfort women’, controversies over the censorship of school history textbooks – repeatedly hit the headlines.

I would arrive in China at the beginning of September 1999, to begin my next teaching post. By the end of September I had become accustomed to my new surroundings. And from this point on I would make frequent references to World War II, history and social science education and the possibilities for comparative study. In China I began to construct a theoretical framework for understanding World War II across cultures. The conflict had been a pan-global event, a universal historical experience, but the role of different nations in the conflict had been highly specific. What can best be described as Hegelian imbibed logic is clearly present in the following journal entry:

A universal reading of WW2 is nothing without the particulars that are its parts; the relative positions that different powers took in the war. At the same time, the particular roles of the different powers cannot be understood – defined – without a notion or concept of a universal understanding of the war (Journal, 26th September 1999, Nantong).

Nanjing was China’s capital during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. It was also the site of some of the Japanese army’s most brutal war crimes. ‘In December 1937’, writes Bosworth,


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
Erziehungssysteme Japan Schweden England
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 296 pp., 8 coloured fig., 22 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Jason Nicholls (Author) Bryan Cunningham (Volume editor)

Jason Nicholls was a teacher and academic who had studied at the universities of Portsmouth, Nottingham, London and Oxford; from the last of these he received his doctorate in 2006. He taught in a large number of countries, only some of which feature in his work on Constellation Analysis. Bryan Cunningham is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London, where he first met Jason Nicholls.


Title: Constellation Analysis
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