A truly decolonial curriculum means treating students as citizens

On decolonisation, Kirk Sides calls for a focus on not just the classroom but the city and communities in which students learn.

The tearing down of a statue dedicated to a slave trader put Bristol at the forefront of the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Questions are being asked of the city, and of its university, about how it will grapple with its difficult history – so entwined with families whose wealth was built on the violent trading of enslaved peoples and goods produced on plantations where they worked.

As someone who has been working on, and towards, significant structural changes to our western, colonial curriculum for some time, this topic is nothing new. And while I welcome the ripples of renewed energy that arose from throwing the statue of a slaver in Bristol’s Harbourside, I worry that the higher education sector will fail in its key duty – to educate, inspire and empower our students to question the colonial foundations of much of their curricula.

Without students who ask tough questions of both their education systems as well as their societies, we will not succeed in dismantling the institutionalized bias that has built up over centuries.

Tokenism and tick boxes

When efforts to “decolonize” are made, too often we see departments and programs simply place a black, “BAME”, or non-Western author on (otherwise white) syllabi. Not only does this inevitably smack of tokenism, it entirely misses the point about addressing the implicit biases which uphold much of the western educational system. It assumes that the knowledge upon which this system is based can be implicitly folded into a neatly defined and rigorously defended set of official or canonical texts, produced almost exclusively by white authors in western metropolitan spaces.

It’s not hard to grasp the difference between decolonization and decoloniality, yet it’s an error I expect we’ll see many in the sector make. While decolonization efforts can often look like a “check list” or diversity “tick box” exercise, decoloniality, in its very nature, forces us to think differently. It helps us as teachers and administrators to continually work towards epistemic – and hopefully societal – change. Decolonial practice is not only about structural change, it is necessarily a process.

Instead of these top-down decolonization efforts, we need to empower our students, giving them the agency and responsibility to critically interrogate and in turn contribute to their own educational formations. Beyond simply exposing students to more texts and ideas further afield than the standard “official” or canonical provision, we must provide them with the tools to ask the right questions, not only about their education, but about the societies in which they live and the values that continue to uphold their educational systems.

Agency

Here at the University of Bristol, I teach a unit, “City Futures: Migration, Citizenship and Planetary Change”, as part of our university-wide Bristol Futures curriculum. Taught to a cohort of roughly 90 first-year students from humanities to STEM, I designed the unit to provoke student-led conversations about globalization, movements of peoples and goods around planet, the politics of belonging and un-belonging, as well as global environmental and climate crises.

In addition to covering a broad reading list, students were asked to travel across the city of Bristol, watching pre-recorded, site-specific podcast-style video lectures, while also taking their own video and image fieldnotes, which became the basis of our weekly workshops.

This kind of engaged learning not only integrates the students into the city as citizens, but also asks them to take responsibility for the creation of the materials of the unit itself. Through “City Futures”, we’re trying to invest agency in our students, so they become active in both the experience of their education as well as the materials of it.

It’s a university, not a bank

Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, best known for his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes about what he calls the “banking concept of education”, where education becomes nothing more than an act of depositing information. In its simplest form, the banking concept takes the form of the disinterested lecturer coldly delivering a 50-minute orature of facts and figures to the exclusion of any other activities which might ask more of/from students.

In practice this kind of banking educational practice has a much more insidious and often unintended consequence – we mollify students with the aura of the knowledge we profess to have, and as such they never question its foundations. In the very way we organize of our programs of study in the first place, we actually ask very little of our students. Materials are neatly prescribed, assessments are safely circumscribed, and agency is conveniently crushed.

Reflections and reflecting

The “City Futures” unit itself has proved to be an uncanny reflection of current times over the last term, from February to May 2020. After discussing racial demographics, histories of protest in Bristol, and the Bristol Bus Boycott specifically, classes were put on hold during the largest industrial action the higher education sector in the UK has ever seen. Then, after studying sections on policy and infrastructural responses to health and well-being across Bristol, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country. In the lead up to the global Black Lives Matter movement which gained renewed momentum in June after the police killing of George Floyd in the US, students completed a module on Bristol’s historical relationship to slavery.

Given its long maritime history and its role in the transatlantic slave trade, Bristol is a microcosm of many issues currently playing out on the world stage. By taking part in the unit, students are encouraged to explore the city’s relationship to slavery, whether it’s through statues, building and street names, or even the often less tangible connections between societies and endowments and the violent economies which produced them. The point, again, is for students to ask how Bristol has dealt with – or allowed to persist, as the case may be – some of the infrastructural and monumental markers of its exclusionary and indeed violent pasts which continue into its present.

There is no better way to get students to think about ideas of global citizenship than to ask them to look around and interpret the space they’re in for themselves; not just their classroom but the city and communities in which they learn. I’ve consistently received student feedback expressing just how “challenging” this is, while also finding a “productivity” and “usefulness” in this new way of learning. By asking the students for agency, we’re taking a pedagogical step out of the classroom and into the real world – contributing to the societal value of higher education.

If we want to create a truly decolonial curriculum, we should look no further than our students. Give them the tools to question, to be critical, to be aspirational. This is one step towards a more decolonial education and society.

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