How not to decolonise your curriculum

Anti-racist curriculum reform isn't about "banning white authors". Rachel Stone and Sylvia Ashton on the how, what and why of decolonisation.

Rachel Vandana Stone is Senior Lecturer in education at Sheffield Hallam University.


Sylvia Ashton is an independent education consultant. 

The recent Sewell report on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the UK warns against “negative“ demands to decolonise the curriculum, but the authors of the report seem to have a somewhat narrow conception of what this actually involves.

“Banning white authors’ is mentioned alongside “token expressions of Black achievement”, while a proposal for a new “inclusive” curriculum – one which firmly places the UK at the heart of everything – is presented instead.

Confused? You’re not alone. From the title of the report (“The Report”) right through to the rousing call for “British optimism and fairness” in the closing paragraph, this document is packed full of ambiguities, hidden agendas, omissions and wilful misinterpretations.

In the second edition of our book An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education we explore some of the concepts involved in the “decolonising” debate, and here we present three brief step-by-step guides – how to tell if the curriculum has been colonised, traps to avoid when decolonising the curriculum, and what to aim for when decolonising it.

How to tell if the curriculum has been colonised

Most traditional school, college and higher education curricula in Europe, North America – and the countries previously colonised by them – are already well and truly saturated with colonial content and values. Our checklist below allows anyone to measure the extent of this within their own subject discipline and the courses they teach or study on.

Does the curriculum:

  1. Centre on the UK and “Britishness” at the expense of other interpretations of the world?
  2. Draw only on British or European perspectives in relation to the history and theory of the subject discipline?
  3. Omit to mention non-European cultures or groups, or else speak of them only in deficit, tokenistic or stereotypical terms, treating them as “exotica” or curiosities?
  4. Claim a national monopoly on certain moral principles or values?
  5. Fail to interrogate how issues of power, privilege and oppression have developed historically in relation to the subject area?
  6. Assume that the “British” way of thinking within the subject discipline is universal, neutral and value-free?

If the honest answer to most of these questions is “yes” then it’s safe to assume that the curriculum has been well and truly colonised.

Colonisation happens in all subject disciplines – from Hairdressing to History, from Physiotherapy to Philosophy. Curiously, the “Making of Modern Britain” syllabus advocated in the Sewell Report also fits these criteria. The report recommends a focus on the “influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period” and it speaks of other nations and cultures only in terms of what they have contributed to Britain and “Britishness”. Ironically, it’s the very model of a colonised curriculum.

Traps to avoid when decolonising the curriculum

Having identified that the curriculum has been colonised, how do we go about decolonising it?

Clearly nobody should remove authors from reading lists simply because they are White. We don’t actually think anyone would, but the authors of the Sewell report are clearly afraid of this happening.

Decolonising is not about replacing one source with another. It’s about interrogating the current canon and the positionality of the key voices within it, looking at whose words are privileged and whose are missing. It’s about developing these critical literacy skills in students and finding ways for them to access previously unheard perspectives.

On the Education courses we run, we have expanded our Theories of Learning content to include a focus on learning through stories, something that is practiced in many, many different cultures and communities around the world, but which is largely missing from textbooks on adult education.

It’s important to think about learning aims and objectives and why we might choose to include or omit certain content on courses. The Sewell report warns against tokenism but then exhibits exactly this by giving examples such a learning pack celebrating the achievements of “important” and “inspirational” Black people in the UK.

Why have this as a stand-alone resource, devoid of any context, its’ only agenda being to show that “Black people are important, too!”? When teaching the history and theory of a subject discipline, a diverse range of contributors should be presented as part of the overall narrative. The purpose here is then to broaden and deepen students’ subject knowledge by looking at a range of perspectives on it, by telling as full a story as possible.

On our courses in Education, we discuss the influence of Buddhism on reflective learning theorists such as Dewey – we look at concepts of knowledge across a range of societies, and what learning behaviours are valued in different cultures, and we look at how education has been used to oppress and subjugate over time and place, as well as to liberate and empower. The diversity is embedded in the subject content as a means of enriching it. It’s not an afterthought or an add-on.

What to aim for when decolonising the curriculum

The steps we have presented are in part a tongue-in-cheek response to the many misconceptions apparent in the Sewell report. However, we do not wish to give the impression that by following these steps you can then sit back and say “Hurrah! I have now Decolonised my Curriculum! Time for a cuppa and a nap!”

Decolonising is an ongoing process that occurs at many levels – it is a journey of transformation, for teachers, researchers, students, departments and institutions alike. And, in spite of Sewell’s recommendation for a government-sourced national resource bank for schools, there is no “one-size fits all” blueprint for decolonising. It may involve lots of different processes:

  • Deconstructing ourselves. Who are we? Where do our roots lie? What privileges and disadvantages have we experienced in our own lives? Whose knowledge do we value? Whose perspectives have we ignored or dismissed? What do we fear (in the case of the authors of the Sewell report, a great deal)?
  • Deconstructing our subject discipline. What does the accepted canon of knowledge in our subject area look like? How has it varied over time and place? What’s missing? Might there be alternative canons? Is the very concept of an unchanging, “sacred” canon of knowledge becoming redundant in our subject area? Should our subject area even be a distinct discipline on its own? Are there different, more helpful ways of categorising knowledge?
  • Deconstructing our institution. What does it stand for? Who is let in, and who is kept out? Who stays, and who drops out? Who achieves and who scrapes by? What assumptions are made about students’ prior cultural capital, expectations and potential? What assumptions are made about higher education traditions? Can these be broken down and reinterrogated? How might it be different? An example is what counts as valid knowledge – peer-reviewed journal articles only, or in a fast-changing world, can we teach our students to draw from a wider range of sources, applying their own critical analysis to what they find?
  • Deconstructing our students. This is work that should be done with them rather than to them. Who are they? What’s important to them? What are their interests, goals, values and fears? What kind sense of entitlement do they have about being in higher education, or do they suffer from imposter theory, waiting to be found out? The Sewell report talks of giving students a sense of “Britishness”, a shared heritage, in order to help them feel like they belong, but this feels to us to be in danger of producing the opposite effect and simply alienating them further. How about simply listening to what they have to say, and starting from where they’re at?
  • Exploring our curriculum. When looking at the history of our subject can we find other sources of knowledge? How might our course content be reconceptualised in order to reflect wider global and historical perspectives? How might it be taught in a way that enables students to think for themselves and to evaluate and debate current cultural norms and traditions? How can we work with our students to help them shape their own educational experiences?

This is not a definitive list – it’s just the beginning. But when government guidance is about shutting down debate, ignoring statistics, teaching jingoistic content and denying the existence of structural racism, it’s time to start pushing back.

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