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Constellation Analysis

A Methodology for Comparing Syllabus Topics Across Educational Contexts


Bryan Cunningham

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.
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Chapter Seven: Charting a Syllabus Topic in History Education across Cultures – The Descriptive Exercise of Constellation Mapping


The objective validity of all empirical knowledge rests exclusively upon the ordering of the given reality according to categories which are subjective.

Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences,1949, p.110

History education is configured differently in different contexts. This chapter will focus directly on how it is possible to describe the particularities of a given context. Moreover, it will be argued that this essentially practical and descriptive exercise is central to any comparative methodology where researchers are seeking to locate and analyse a given syllabus topic. Syllabus topics cannot be fully understood outside of the context in which they are situated and of which they form a part. To describe a syllabus topic in context is, therefore, an attempt to understand the working parts, the influencing variables; the constituting push and pull factors. How does each part work and with what effects? In what sense do the parts influence the knowledge that constitutes a syllabus topic? What is the relationship between the parts as a whole?

Syllabus themes and topics express their own generality and their own specificity. Some topics, the Second World War, for example, will be recognised ‘generally’ across contexts, to be taught and examined in contemporary history in many countries. However, the ‘specific’ push and pull variables that constitute the topic are likely to have different effects in different contexts. In order to describe the precise shape of a topic in a given educational context, therefore, the particularity of...

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