Comparing curricula

Robert Damian ADAMSON, Paul James Thomas Francis MORRIS

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapters

22 Citations (Scopus)


Many stakeholders in education undertake comparisons of curricula. Governments compare their states’ curricula with overseas models when searching for new initiatives and when attempting to enhance international competitiveness; parents compare the offerings of schools in order to choose suitable institutions for their children; students look at the range of courses available when they select electives; academics seek to understand the dynamics of curriculum construction and implementation to increase knowledge and assist policy makers; and all parties except possibly the students make comparisons between current curricula and those which operated in earlier historical periods.
The field of curriculum studies provides many of the theoretical and methodological tools for comparing curricula. Indeed, it could be argued that all curriculum research involves some degree of comparison – one is always (at least implicitly) referring to some ‘Other’ when analysing a phenomenon. For every ‘What is?’, there exists implicitly the Other ‘What isn’t?’. Thus, for example, research on how content is assessed in one context might be seen as implicitly comparing the assessment approach with a range of alternative approaches. Another form of implicit comparison is between ‘What is the reality?’ and ‘What is intended?’. A study of teachers’ enactment of a particular syllabus might incorporate an implicit comparison with a desired outcome. However, explicit comparison heightens the contrasts and reveals similarities by “making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange” (see Spindler & Spindler 1982, p.43; Bray 2004, p.250). The focus of this chapter, therefore, is on research that is based on explicit comparisons of curricula, such as those across cultures and subjects.
These comparisons take diverse forms, partly because the purposes of the stakeholders are different, and partly because the underlying conceptions of what actually constitutes a curriculum vary greatly. While this chapter does not adopt the broadest of these conceptions, it does accept that curriculum is complex and multifaceted, operating at a variety of focal points and in diverse manifestations. This creates a critical problem of scope for comprehensive analysis and comparison, although it is less of a concern to stakeholders seeking answers to specific, narrowly focused questions (such as students comparing elective courses). The complexity and diversity constrains the capacity of researchers to capture the whole picture, and one usually has to be satisfied with a partial snapshot, even with multilevel analyses. However, the constraints add to the interest and value of the insights that they permit. Comparing curricula is an on-going investigation of a complex, dynamic entity, and these insights continue to challenge beliefs and understandings that shape and are shaped by curricula.
This chapter begins by examining the conceptions of curriculum in the literature. It then offers a tripartite framework for approaching comparisons of curricula. The framework is applicable for research that involves multilevel or more narrowly focused analyses. The chapter also presents examples of research that have compared curricula, to bring out the complexity of the undertaking and to demonstrate some ways of tackling it. Copyright © 2014 Springer International Publishing Switzerland.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationComparative education research: Approaches and methods
EditorsMark BRAY, Robert Damian ADAMSON, Mark MASON
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherComparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong; Springer
ISBN (Electronic)9783319055947
ISBN (Print)9789881785282, 9783319055930
Publication statusPublished - 2014


Adamson, B., & Morris, P. (2014). Comparing curricula. In M. Bray, B. Adamson, & M. Mason (Eds.), Comparative education research: Approaches and methods (pp. 309-332). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong; Springer.


  • Curriculum reform
  • Christmas tree
  • Assist policy maker
  • Interpretive perspective
  • Early historical period


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