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Restructuring, Reform and Refraction: Complexities of Response to Imposed Social Change

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There is a good deal of ongoing debate about the effects and impacts of globalisation. Many educational theorists (e.g., Meyer et al., 1997) have argued that there is a world systems model at work (see Wallerstein, 2004). And we would agree that a convergent global rhetoric for education has emerged in the neoliberal period. However, whilst at the supra-level of global policy there are clear indicators of world movements and convergent education rhetorics, this poses the question as to how much impact this has on national and local contexts and on ‘policy and practice’. It is therefore possible to envisage a situation where global rhetorics are convergent but national and local policies and practices are divergent. What remains under-researched and definitely under-theorised is how and why these variations at the national local level and at the level of practice actually operate. This is vitally important if we are to have an understanding of the substantial variations in the operation of neo-liberal reform initiatives.

Over the past decade we have been studying the process of variation which we have come to call ‘refraction’. Our work has spanned Europe, South America, the USA and Canada. In each case substantial evidence of refraction was evidenced at national, provincial, local and classroom level (see Goodson & Lindblad, 2010; Goodson, 2014). In the main section we develop a theory of refraction.

What the refraction process warns us of is the ‘unintended consequences’ of symbolic changes and initiatives at the Governmental level. What sets out as being a reform with clear intentions and objectives is actively reinterpreted and reinterpreted at each stage of refraction. On the long journey of school or institutional knowledge, the only way to understand these reinterpretations is to show sensitivity and sympathy to the life missions and intentions involved at each refractive stage. Without this narrative knowledge and without narrative learning, Government intentions can have grievously counter-productive results. It is time therefore to broaden the scope of our research on policy-making and the broad span of the policy process and its subsequent operation.
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Keywords: educational policy; historical periodization; qualitative methods; refraction theory; social research

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2016

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