Decolonising the curriculum – how do I get started?

Submitted by miranda.prynne on Tue, 14/09/2021 - 09:30
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Rowena Arshad provides pointers for any teaching academics considering how to get started on decolonising their curriculum
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If you are thinking about decolonising your curriculum and wondering where to start, do not worry. You are in the majority. Many people are supportive of the idea in principle but are not sure what to do.

Decolonising the curriculum is not just a fad as a result of the escalation of Black Lives Matter in 2020. The concept emerged from the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Cape Town. Those pushing for decolonising the curriculum argue that the production, nature and validity of knowledge is not a neutral project. During colonial times, as suggested Edward Said, author of Orientalism and a leading thinker of postcolonial studies, knowledge became a commodity in colonial exploitation, as did other natural resources.

Disciplines that are part of the academy have not been immune to the process of colonisation. How we gain an understanding of the world will have been grounded in cultural world views that have either ignored or been antagonistic to knowledge systems that sit outside those of the colonisers. Our research and teaching methodologies, all instruments of knowledge production, were also used as ways to classify, organise and represent knowledge. Concepts of academic freedom or disciplinary integrity have allowed some scholars to distance themselves from any responsibility to engage with the decolonisation project. Other academics have been concerned that decolonising the curriculum is about dismissing or deleting what has been.

Decolonising is not about deleting knowledge or histories that have been developed in the West or colonial nations; rather it is to situate the histories and knowledges that do not originate from the West in the context of imperialism, colonialism and power and to consider why these have been marginalised and decentred.

Harshad Keval of Canterbury Christ Church University talks about repositioning “who and what gets to occupy the centre and the margins of ideas and society” and to rebalance that power. Decolonising the curriculum is about being prepared to reconnect, reorder and reclaim knowledges and teaching methodologies that have been submerged, hidden or marginalised. As educators and researchers with a thirst for knowledge, we should be embracing the decolonising project as one that opens new ways of knowing, of researching and of understanding.

So how do we begin decolonising our courses?

There is no universal template. How we take forward decolonising the curriculum has to be contextual to our discipline and subject areas. I would suggest we see decolonising the curriculum as an approach rather than trying to get a neat definition for the term. However, some guiding points will assist:

  • First, develop understanding of why decolonising the curriculum is important as part of our commitment to justice. We can start by examining what coloniality means – read Walter D Mignolo’s 2017 paper “Coloniality is far from over, and so must be decoloniality” as a starter.

  • Examine our own subject discipline to identify if there are alternative canons of knowledge which have been marginalised or dismissed as a result of colonialism that should be included and discussed with students.

  • Ensure a range of voices and perspectives are represented and ways you might re-conceptualise the curriculum to reflect wider global and historical perspectives. 

  • Consider the diversity of our student groups and ensure learning content moves beyond Western to global frameworks.

I have found it helpful to consider the decolonising project in stages.

Diversify a reading list is one ingredient

Diversifying the reading list has been one route that many have chosen as a quick way to begin the journey of decolonising the curriculum. Course reading lists are a legitimate focus for reform and Karen Schucan Bird and Lesley Pitman from UCL, analysing research they conducted on higher education reading lists in 2019, suggest that reading lists are “representation devices serving to reflect particular perspectives and knowledge”.

There is subliminal value in diversifying the reading list because it is a way of acclimatising learners to the presence of a range of writers, be that writers of colour, writers who identity as LGBTQ or other characteristics. It feels like a small change but one that people from minority and under-represented groups have identified as important to improving their learning experience. It also addresses issues of representation by recognising the contributions of those who have been made invisible by structural racism. This 2021 article by Binuraj Menon of the University of Warwick, “The missing colours of chemistry”, gives a useful summary of why it is important to ensure our teaching materials are diverse but also why we need to pay attention to issues of representation.

From diversifying to decolonising

However, diversifying the reading list is about developing an inclusive curriculum. In itself, it does not challenge racism or engage the learner explicitly in the topic of decolonisation. To do this, we need to provide opportunities for the students to discuss the historical legacy of colonisation for that subject area. For example, in astronomy when we discuss life, universe, planet and stars, we can open up discussions on how different perspectives might understand these topics. How might different indigenous communities understand and talk about stars? Would it be in the language of exploration and conquest of space or in terms of navigation and survival?

In mathematics, is there a job to do to widen the attributions to mathematical theorems to original sources and to reflect on why such information is generally unknown. For example, what is the relationship of the Kerala School of Indian scholars with one of the founding principles of modern mathematics: calculus. Why are Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz often credited with discovering calculus at the end of the 17th century when the Kerala School scholars were exploring this 250 years earlier?

Is there terminology that we could adjust? For example, instead of using master or slave to represent computing agents, can we use instead the terms co-ordinator or workers – this is taken from decolonising work done by colleagues in informatics at the University of Edinburgh.

How can we use our subject content to open up discussions about racism and anti-racism while enabling learners to question the origins of knowledge beyond the prism of the Global North? The SOAS Toolkit (p8 and 9) provides useful starter questions for shaping content.

Check out how lecturers are trying to put it into practice at the University of Edinburgh and De Montfort University.

If we are serious about developing an inclusive, anti-racist and decolonised curricula, there is a need to consider the term “whiteness” and how this affects everyday experiences of those who are not white. I use whiteness as a concept rather than to refer to individual people. American sociologist Joe Feagin talks about the importance of understanding how an “overarching white world view”, resulting from centuries of colonialism and imperialism, has impacted knowledge creation, curation and conveyance.

The complexities and challenges we face globally require us to be able to engage with contradictions, embrace diversity and critically question issues of privilege while educating and acting for justice. Rather than rejecting the decolonisation of curricula as “cancel culture”, view the concept as an enlightening and transformative endeavour that enriches education.

Rowena Arshad is professor emerita at the Moray House School of Education and Sport, IECS, University of Edinburgh.

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Rowena Arshad provides pointers for any teaching academics considering how to get started on decolonising their curriculum

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THE_comment

Wed, 24/11/2021 - 10:34

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Everything you list here are great ideas. But with this comes individuals who just don't like particular topics and claim they need to be decolonised. For example, the scientific method of experimentation. History shows that in 1100 individuals in what is now Saudi Arabia first made this popular. So why do individuals insist on debunking the scientific method. Others have suggested we use only pass/fail for student coursework and exams. The idea of ranking has existing for thousands of years and not at all the result of colonisation. This is becoming a fad word, used loosely for individuals to "get their way".
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THE_comment

Thu, 03/11/2022 - 15:37

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In response to the comment, (1) The science studies of the last few decades showed that there is noi such unified entity as "the scientific method"; (2) the problem is not to have occasional and situated rankings. but the ranking of existence, of, say, life itself. Situated knowledges!
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THE_comment

Wed, 09/11/2022 - 09:08

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I struggle with the “ decolonisation” agenda in university curricula especially science. The notion is that in the past some key contributors to scientific knowledge had problematic views by today’s standards ( Newton held shares in South Atlantic slavery for instance). To acknowledge that and the fact that black people were denied education and prominence for their actual achievements ( doubly so if they happened to be women, Katherine Johnson for instance who worked for NASA) is actually right but to imbue this with a senss of historic guilt for the hear and now appears to me to be gesture politics. I am also deeply troubled by the research and focus BAME students as being uniquely disadvantaged somehow in today’s student experience. When it may be that one’s achievement or lack of it owes more to poverty and geography than ethnicity. No one is researching that because it doesn’t fit with the current agenda. A couple of illustrations: I come from a very working class background and grew up in poverty. When I passed my A levels with what was for then, spectacular grades ( there is no equivalence in contemporary A level grading for getting 3A’s and a B in 1979 since the frequency of A grades was 1/4 of the current A crop) I was encouraged by the pharmacist at the chemist’s shop where I had a Saturday job to take the Oxbridge entrance exam because getting A grades would have secured me that right. I couldn’t contemplate it. I went to Keele instead for my first degree and I almost left in the first few weeks because I felt so culturally lost. White working class boys in 2022 on free school meals achieve less well than their Bangladeshi and Black peers in similar circumstances ( on free school meals ). Nowhere are we seeing calls to acknowledge the historic injustices perpetrated on the working classes by our country which “ colonised” us ? Why don’t white working class lives matter too. The historic wealth of this country was based on the labour and exploitation of my forebears by those who employed them, taking far more than their share of the collective bounty from industrialisation. The second illustration I have was Immy’s graduation in July. The majority of the students in her faculty were black African and Asian in origin (many were foreign students) you could tell by the clothes and deportment of their families that they were wealthy and of higher social standing than we are. I am not in any way suggesting that they shouldn’t be, but merely illustrating that BAME is not an homogenous identity. Thirdly as a teacher and a firm tutor I marvelled at the intelligence and potential of my form as they entered Withernsea High. They all had amazing potential. 14 years later I see that many of those I taught and their life chances have been less influenced by ability and potential thsn by social class and poverty. Less able but more middle class ( a mixture of wealth and cultural capital ) students will newly always do better than more able working class students. Why are women ignored in the decolonisation agenda too ? From biblical times through witch trials to banning women from university access women have been marginalised. So you diversify your reading list on a literature course by replacing Emily Dickinson with Benjamin Zephaniah Language is always going to be problematic because especially when we use metaphor often has origins is some kind of abuse or power. The use of terns such as “ master/slave” in computing is being challenged in the decolonisation agenda, but to venture down that route could be the beginnings of being unable to communicate clearly. What about Hysteria (misogyny) The term male and female sockets ( transphobic). Clearly, most of Shakespeare will be problematic ( black heart etc…) We need to stop dealing in slogans and tribal politics which judge people as an homogenous group and start seeing disadvantage where it exists whether the person is black, white, able bodied, female or LGTBQ+. Also whilst acknowledging the inhumanity of slavery and colonialism we can’t change it so I am not in favour of rewriting history because if you rewrite it rather than contextualise it then learning can’t take place. PS gravity still exists whether or not Sir Isaac Newton had questionable investments and Pi is still the same even if someone from a BAME background feels it should be 3.146 or wants to question the concept of a circle.
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