My INSET session on decolonising curricula

In this session, in February 2021, I shared my research on decolonising curricula with teaching staff from across infant, junior and senior schools. I began by explaining some of my motivations to take on a one-year role leading efforts to diversify curricula, which includes raising a mixed-race family. Teachers were encouraged to ‘draw along’ to my presentation.

Full text of the INSET speech:

If you don’t already know this image, please take a few seconds to study it. What do you think is happening?

Many people suggest that these women are celebrating Diwali, or a wedding. As you may know, they are not. They are part of a team of Indian scientists and administrators, celebrating the launch of a satellite that went into orbit successfully around Mars.

Emma Cox has done some fantastic work around unconscious bias in the Wellbeing programme. Today, I want us not just to recognise unconscious bias or prejudice, but I would like us to understand how our colonial past has created some of that prejudice. I will then talk about how we might enter into a process of broadening our curricula. Throughout the presentation, I want you to keep two thing in mind:

  1.  Decolonising is only one of many different ways in which we might diversify and enrich our curricula. And
  2. Decolonising is a process, it is not an endpoint. Colonisation took place over centuries. Decolonisation is not a quick fix. 

It’s not a quick fix because colonialism is insidious, it’s ingrained, it’s entrenched. And colonialism created racism.

In the words of Akala…

‘Everyone has to be functionally miseducated for racism to exist. Racial discrimination is a power relationship seared into our economic, educational and social structures.’

But, and this is a very important ‘but’, this state of affairs is illegal.

‘Racism exists and being anti-racist is enshrined in law. There is no need for ‘balanced’ views on this or to be impartial, because it is not politically partisan, it is the law.’

Let’s go right back to the beginning. What does Akala mean when he talks about ‘power relationships being seared into educational structures’?

To understand this we need to ask the question: Where does our knowledge come from?

And to answer that question, we need to understand colonisation.

The creation of an empire, by conquering another territory and making that territory into a colony, is thousands of years old. Andy Keen would love to tell you about the alluvial lowlands of Mesopotamia in the centre of Asia, that fertile crescent in which empires were forged and emperors fell.  Now’s the time for active learning by the way, by drawing along on your PDF. You will undoubtedly be a much better illustrator than I am.

Dan Watkins and Lois Ray would fall over themselves to tell you about the Persians who arose and expanded from this crucible in the sixth century BC (500s). But power relations in those empires did not create the racism and the imbalance of power that we see today in the UK.

For that, we need to consider the more recent past.

PART 1: RECOGNISING THE PAST

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and his so-called discovery of the so-called ‘new world’ of the Americas opened up a wider age of Discovery.

And this age of discovery opened the doors to a much darker period of colonisation.

The Spanish were Europe’s first leaders in creating an empire in the Americas in the early sixteenth century. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs – here in Mexico –  and the Inkas  – whose heartland was based here, in Peru.

After these territories became colonies and its first-nation peoples repressed, the Spanish transplanted more than 35 universities to its Central and South American colonies,  modelled on the very old University of Salamanca.

Later, the British did the same in what is now the United States, beginning in 1636.  Of the nine Colonial Colleges that were created, several are the current Ivy League Universities, including Harvard,  Yale and Princeton.

Spain, Britain.      Europe. European nations carved up China, battled for influence in India, and scrambled for Africa. Europe, and later North America and Australia, are now broadly identified as ‘first world’ states; they are economically and culturally dominant global regions. This is where, apparently, the power and money lie

Whereas Europe’s colonies have become known as the ‘Third World’, or ‘periphery’, condescending terms that relegate them to second status and which Kat Brimming and her department are keen to challenge.

You may by now be wondering what is all of this seemingly self-indulgent history  teaching for?  Isn’t this just a case of proving that if we give Paula a soapbox, she’ll never get off it?

Well, no. There is a purpose. What it’s for is to give us the context for how knowledge is shaped, and how knowledge from indigenous cultures has been repressed. Because the knowledge being taught in universities has generally been, up until relatively recently, eurocentric knowledge, it was the knowledge of the winners, the conquerors; it was a monoculture.

Professor Soudien,  of the University of Cape Town, tells us why it’s so important to understand this:

‘Curricula content continue to reflect a Eurocentric bias with limited attention given to indigenous knowledge, languages, religions and culture.’

First-nation or indigenous knowledge didn’t make it into university curricula in Europe or in Europe’s colonies. In these universities, the dichotomy of race, in particular the dichotomy of White and Black, was born.

Edward Said, a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, can be helpful to us here. He coined the phrase ‘orientalism’, to describe how Eurocentric and American narratives have been privileged. Said demonstrated that other cultures, the cultures outside the dominant mono-culture, have been characterised as exotic, backwards, underdeveloped and in need of Euro-American intervention. He shows that orientalism has been internalised and embedded, where European or American experts are juxtaposed against the Oriental ‘Other.’

In this viewpoint, indigenous knowledge became savage, uncivilised, and retrogressive.

Of course that has changed. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States eventually allowed African Americans to access education. The student body changed. But there was no change in the faulty staff or the curriculum.

Then in South Africa we had something called The Rhodes Must Fall Movement, which sought diversification of teaching staff.

Now we are looking at the knowledge that teachers disseminate. That is the movement that we find ourselves in. But our movement carries previous movements within it.

And there’s a need for balance, here. The current movement can become very extreme. In my research, I’ve heard some argue that the idea of ‘curriculum’ itself is a colonial idea. 

It isn’t. Curricula were developed by Arab Muslims in the teaching of doctors in the 9th century.

So we need to reflect on whether we really think the curriculum needs decolonising deeply in all areas. I find that decolonisation can be helpfully seen as  ONE approach, among many, for fostering greater diversity, breadth and balance.

We can now start to see that decolonizing the curriculum is about listening to, and empowering,  marginal voices that have been denied in the past.

Dr Foluke Adebisi, an academic at Bristol University, describes this state eloquently and tragically.

‘The world that emerges from coloniality is a dangerous and unjust world. Its victims were cast into the river. We do not remember their names. We never knew their names, never bothered to say them. Too difficult to pronounce. Their bodies and their realities too distant, too foreign to fit into our subject discipline. These wretched humans were damned at the dawn of the subject discipline’s inception. And now our subject  discipline is complete, the canon is closed….To change the world, we must envision new worlds, new laws, new concepts of society, new ideas of being and doing. Decolonisation… matters – for everyone.’

It’s a huge challenge because we are dealing with deeply-embedded structures.  It means that we might need to spend time and energy on identifying a wider variety of voices and experiences to inform our curricula, ensuring that that curricula comes closer to reflecting a fuller picture of humanity, a wider picture of human experience.

Some people argue that a redistribution of knowledge doesn’t go far enough. Some people argue that we need to engage in a process of something called reparative justice.

In the context of decolonising curricula, making reparations might involve more acknowledgement of past injustices in our curriculum. It might involve an apology, or renaming a building, or a classroom reckoning. One example is our History department’s teaching of the transatlantic slave trade, something we know Bristol was heavily involved in. Here we have an opportunity to teach that racialisation is a construct that was imposed for economic and political gain.

At the core of the concept of reparations is the belief that our contemporary experiences are not innocent or separate from the wider inequities of the past and that we have a responsibility to address these if we wish to create a more just society. You might already have a view about the idea of reparations. I am still making up my mind.

Let’s summarise. So far we have established that coloniality has endured for over 500 years, and decoloniality involves an ongoing struggle against its pervasive effects.

Where should we begin our journey towards decoloniality?

First, I want to acknowledge that, for many of us, we are not beginning our journey. That we have been seeking to decolonise our curricula way before Colston fell. The inspirational members of our working group have taught me this.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the term ‘decolonisation’ isn’t always that helpful. The word ‘diversification’ or ‘broadening’ might be more appropriate in many cases. Not all of our knowledge is the result of colonisation. And if we take it too far, we’ll dissolve into madness.

It’s very important, I think to read critically. It isn’t helpful to see the history of Maths, for example, through the lens of decolonisation. I want us all to be very clear: I am NOT suggesting that the sum 2+2=4 is a colonial construct and a manifestation of white privilege and therefore must be damned. Although I have actually seen this being argued.

We need to be wary that the whole business of ‘where knowledge comes from’ doesn’t get elevated over whether that knowledge is true. I’d love to see where we’d be with science to solve the pandemic, or get us to Mars, if we stopped insisting on right answers and told that children objectivity was colonial.

But having a broader understanding of where ideas come from is a helpful starting place. It’s not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is about broadening our pupils’ horizons and meeting the needs of our diverse school community.

In the words of Bennie Kara,

‘We need to expand the world, to tell stories from beyond students’ experience; to tell stories about other countries; other faiths and other cultures.’

And I think the words of a friend of mine, Kate Smee, who is the Head of Humanities at Fairfield school in Bristol, is also very helpful:

‘It comes down to intent. If you make one lesson to get SLT off your case- that’s tokenism. But if you make one lesson as the first step in a long journey, that’s much better- go easy on yourself.’ 

PART 2: 7 PRINCIPLES FOR DIVERSIFYING BGS SCHOOL CURRICULA

My reading and research have led me to construct 7 principles to guide our work in this area, which I’ll be discussing with our working group in our meeting this term.

My first principle is this: We are striving for curriculum evolution.

We are not looking for curriculum revolution. We want thoughtful and coherent development of our programmes of study over time, not wholesale change overnight.

And to make changes, we need to read, which is my second principle (2)

In the words of education consultant Christine Counsell, A teacher who has stopped reading is frozen in time.

And if that time is a product of colonial knowledge, then, to decolonise, we need to update our knowledge. Lilian, for example, is working very hard to find and read material that moves beyond the white men on her Psychology specification.

The knowledge that forms a subject curriculum looks to a loci of authority outside of school. Curricula are not static or neutral. Content choice will always have a complex relationship with changing culture and shifting subject community traditions. We need to engage with our individual subject communities by reading. Let’s make Lucille REALLY busy.

My third principle is: We need to listen,  with curiosity and with humility.

We need to listen to our students, just as Becki and Aruna have done in their work on Diversity, and many others of you do day-to-day. Our students may see the world in a different way. They can challenge our assumptions.

 I thought I was teaching a fairly diverse history curriculum until Ruby asked me when she was going to meet Africans in History. I’ve spent the past 3 years making it up to her.

My next principle is about paying close attention to our language.  This is my fourth principle. We need to avoid ‘othering’

Remember Said and his argument that people from different backgrounds are in danger of being exoticised? That’s what we need to guard against.  We need to recognise that labels are problematic. Most collective terms such as ‘People of Colour’ and ‘BAME’ mask the full diversity of billions of people, essentially labelling those  people as ‘not white’. Identity labels can reinforce the persistent ‘othering’ that underpins so much everyday racism in this country.  We can’t just assume that people fit a label, or that they identify with it.

And the idea of applying generalisations brings me onto my fifth principle. We need to avoid applying generic activities or interventions across subjects and schools.

We can’t ask all departments to grapple explicitly with the history of colonialism or ask infants to decolonise PE. That’s bonkers. We can commit to the same principles, but the way we go about diversifying in our different subjects areas will be different. We need to be gentle and kind to ourselves.

We are all in different places when it comes to diversifying curricula, and we have different personal perspectives. Experiences of racism are profound and varied. Strong emotions may arise when teaching about racism and repression.  In our departments we need to be able to say that we feel nervous about teaching something, enabling others to support us. This has to be the bedrock position.

And finally, Principle 7. Diversifying curricula is a collective endeavour.

Not every single person needs to be taking this on as their project right now. It’s a huge challenge because we are dealing with deeply embedded structures and, no less, a global pandemic. So it should be a collaborative effort.

Let’s now move onto Part 3, and look at some ideas of what we can do.

 PART 3: 4 Cs to help us diversify curricula

There is no single method and, as the historian Olusoga has recently reminded us…

The state won’t save us any time soon.

So, from my reading, and from discussions with colleagues from several different schools and universities, I have arrived at an embryonic taxonomy to guide our efforts. This is the work of many hours spent reading and speaking to teachers and academics at Bristol University, Fairfield School, Yate Academy, The Charter School in London, Huntingdon School in York, and many others.

The process might go like this. We might read a new book on decolonising science or a book on the history of Maths. We might then discuss and criticise what we have learnt with our colleagues. Our department or meeting between Junior School teachers might involve some professional wrestling about how, where, and whether to include what we have read, and maybe some support for each other if we have found the issues difficult or we haven’t understood a word like ‘diaspora’. Sorry Geography, I will do better.

We might then look at what we want to do with what we’ve found.

We might decide that we want to use what we have read to Incorporate a wider variety of places and perspectives, a more diverse gallery of people, to broaden pupils’ horizons

We then might make a decision about what that representation might be. It could be deep representation: a whole text, artist or scheme of work.

Or it might be something smaller and more routine. It might be a starter or a small case study that is juxtaposed against traditional case studies. It’s business as usual, but that business is broader.

Or we might decide that we want to go further in some cases. We may have found that the identification of an injustice has created the desire to deconstruct a colonial narrative or challenge an existing canon

After we deconstruct, we may want to correct misconceptions or fill silences.

These could be our aims. But how might we realise those aims in the classroom? Here are some ideas.

  1. Championing a variety of voices

I think this has an important place. Colleagues at Fairfield School have discussed the importance of representing people from different backgrounds in images and displays. It can help students to see themselves reflected in the subject they are studying, or to find role-models. We might, for example, champion the work of the Black mathematician David Blackwell.

The gallery of actors, rulers, authors, dancers, scientists, politicians,  artists, professors and ordinary people that children encounter at BGS should consist of a diverse array of people representing different ethnicities, genders, LGBTQ identities. Embedded, everyday, usual.

But there is a danger here if all we do is ‘champion’ people from diverse backgrounds. This attempt at promoting diversity can actually just reinforce the othering effect. Diversity isn’t something you stick a label on and make room for on special occasions: here comes a dose of diversity…. now, back to normal learning. Just ask Rory Hambly what he thinks of Black History Month and he will tell you all about how this month isn’t particularly helpful – we want a blended curriculum, not a binary of ‘normal work’ and ‘other perspectives’.

So yes, please, champion. But please make sure that this isn’t all you do.

2. Contextualising with stories

Science author Angela Saini argues that decolonisation in STEM subjects could involve discussion about the context in which scientific discoveries have developed:

It’s important to understand where ideas come from. It’s about recognising that scientific questions don’t just pop up out of nowhere. They are raised by human beings with certain sets of assumptions and biases.

Linny Hutchings, Raj Cullen, Carrie Rosser and other scientists are already telling stories about scientific discoveries in class. And stories are very helpful. Stories are psychologically privileged. They stick in the mind. For example we might in Science  tell a short story about Benjamin Bradley, a man born into slavery, who  went on to design and build some of the very first efficient steam engines. Bradley was not allowed to file a patent because he was born into slavery.

Next let’s move onto

3. Challenging the white, Eurocentric canon explicitly or implicitly

Jane Troup, Sophia Herbst and the Art Department are exploring Kanga cloth and Adinkra symbols from West Africa.

Maddy Stow and the Computer Science Department have planned a journey that ensures that pupils meet a range of peoples and places, to correct the misconception computer science is only the preserve of the white, male, heterosexual, and to tackle complex issues such as racial bias in the domain of Artificial Intelligence.

Every time we broaden the knowledge base of our curriculum like this, we broaden pupils’ horizons and we challenge stereotypes. And we can do this implicitly, through including diverse content without comment, like a study of Ibn Battuta in the infant school, or we can involve pupils in the process explicitly.

Take Maths, for example. We might be led to think that the major mathematical breakthroughs came from great Western thinkers like Descartes and Pascal.

However, as Kate Jones is keen to show, mathematics has developed with greater influence from Mesopotamia and India than we once thought. We can show pupils explicitly that the traditional narrative has been challenged.

I want to point out at this point that colonisation hasn’t had much of a part to play here. As you can see Maths was developed by Greeks, by Hindus in the Indus Valley (who gave us our number systems) and, above all, by Arabs, who gave us algebra and algorithms. So one thing that our working group could discuss is: is our name fit for purpose? We’re not just decolonising curricula, especially in a subject like Maths or Classics. Decolonising is just one way of diversifying what we are teaching.

We might also ask why does this matter? Well, studies suggest that Black students can be put-off studying mathematics due to the perception that it is a set of procedures that only people with inherited ‘talent’ can access, whereas in reality anyone with practice can master the subject. Although some Maths teachers may want to disagree with me here.

Finally we have

4. Connecting across cultures and disciplines

Here, we might show how our language, number system and numerous aspects of modern western culture connect to other cultures, just like we saw in the diagram about the origins of Mathematical methods. My ideas to diversify curricula will overlap, they are just talking points. We might also embark on some cross-curricular work, too, which our Working Group are currently discussing.

The holy grail: Blended voices

An integrated and inclusive curriculum blends voices. Diverse perspectives become normal. It’s just how things are.

PART 4: A SHARED VISION

Olivette Otele reminds us that

Decolonisation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are part of a broader strategy. if we’re going to really change cultures and structures, we’ve got to take a whole institutional approach to drive change.

That’s where our BGS Decolonising – or Diversifying – the Curriculum working group comes in.

We’re working on our overall vision, but we want to get this right, so we’ll share this later.

We have begun curating a reading list to give us the support we need to decolonise.

As you see, we already have  representatives from some departments on our Working Group.  We need representatives from every department, and from Infants and Juniors, and that is something you can discuss this afternoon.

In conclusion…

An anti-racist stance is about celebrating and protecting our basic, timeless, shared humanity. It’s about decentring whiteness as the default idea of the human. It’s avoiding saying that whiteness is British and others are others.

A lot of work is already being done. The exciting work of our working group is testament to that, and Peter and Carrie are going to shine a light on their efforts.

Thanks very much for listening. Time to get off my soapbox. I’ll now hand over to Peter to talk about English.

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