Decolonising the curriculum and breaking down barriers

Decolonising the curriculum is vital to understanding different cultures. David Russell, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation, interviews Denise Brown, CEO of Stoke on Trent College, on the opportunities and challenges of this, and the role further education can play.

David Russell, CEO of the ETF, Denise Brown, CEO and principal of Stoke on Trent College

David Russell, CEO of the ETF, Denise Brown, CEO and principal of Stoke on Trent College

DR: The concept of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is gaining momentum. What does it mean to you, and why does it matter?

DB: The Oxford English Dictionary defines decolonisation as “the withdrawal from its colonies of a colonial power; the acquisition of political or economic independence by such colonies”. The expression denotes the dismantling of colonial empires established prior to the 1900s.

However, it also relates to decolonisation of the mind from the coloniser’s notions – notions that made the colonised seem inferior. 

So, when we apply this definition to the curriculum, I understand this to mean reviewing what is taught and assessed and by whom, with the aim of developing a curriculum that rectifies the view of inferiority of people from previously colonised territories and their ancestors, wherever they are in the diaspora. Decolonisation of the curriculum requires a root-and-branch review of how the curriculum is designed, the qualifications used to accredit it, the training of teachers who deliver it and the materials used to support delivery of the curriculum.

It matters because other attempts to equalise black and minority ethnic (BAME) people in British society have failed. Multiculturalism failed to address racism and focused on cultural celebrations that broadened society’s understanding of some of the experiences of BAMEs but not their struggle to overcome perceptions of the inferiority of BAME individuals.

Anti-racism initiatives focused on eradicating racist behaviours but didn’t get to the source of the problem – that colonisation introduced BAME people to the white population through negative experiences and from a position of dominance. Decolonisation dismantles previously held archetypes of beauty, intelligence, behaviour, authority and history. When these archetypes are dismantled, it creates space for equalisation.

DR: In schools there’s a national curriculum, and universities set their own curricula. But in further education (FE), the curriculum is largely dictated by the qualifications we offer. Where can we start?

 DB: If we accept that the curriculum is what is taught and assessed, how it is taught and assessed, and who teaches and assesses it, then a good place to start would be on ensuring that decolonisation is embedded into teacher training programmes and that all elements of the curriculum are included in this training – enrichment and pastoral support as well as specialist subject content.

We also need to look at ensuring that the workforce is more representative of BAME communities and that they, along with their white counterparts, are trained in decolonisation. Being from a BAME community does not automatically qualify you to dismantle colonialism after all; colonisation has left the BAME communities feeling inferior and lacking the confidence to challenge prevailing colonial-centric perspectives.

Leadership would also be a good place to start by ensuring that curriculum policies and strategies embrace decolonisation so that teaching and learning standards drive its implementation. There’s decolonisation and multiculturalism – and sometimes I struggle to differentiate between the two. For me, multiculturalism celebrates difference; decolonisation dismantles what makes difference unequal.

DR: When it comes to practical subjects like horticulture or hairdressing, is decolonising the curriculum still a useful concept?

DB: Qualifications dictate what is taught in FE but the content of those qualifications is often very broad and presents a lot of opportunity for decolonisation.

For example, City and Guilds Level 1 in catering specifies the method of cookery – boiling, poaching, braising and grilling – but it does not specify what is cooked. If you are not experienced in the cuisines of BAME communities, you would not know how to integrate products from these cuisines into the syllabus. This results in these cuisines being marginal, exotic or specialist.

If white communities are taught how to prepare some of these products, they become mainstream, available in large supermarkets and therefore cheaper. Europeanisation of the eating habits of Britain has changed our supermarket shelves, but we now need to think beyond Europe. My heart soars when I see on social media white Scots eating and loving Nigerian food. Exposure to the unknown creates opportunity for cross-fertilisation of cultures and mutual respect.

Hairdressing and barbering are also good examples in terms of dismantling singular perceptions of beauty and normalising working with clients of African and Asian descent. For example, one awarding organisation has working with African hair as an optional unit, but if working with clients from a BAME background were integrated into mainstream units, all learners studying hairdressing would be equipped to work with clients of BAME origin.

I accept that BAME communities are largely concentrated in urban areas, so this might not be practical across all geographies but there are ways around this problem. For example, you could have assessment exchange programmes between colleges in demographically mixed areas with one that is monocultural. I have worked in organisations where the great majority of learners on hairdressing courses are black, but they start their hairdressing journeys working with training head blocks that are white with European hair.

I have yet to see a head block with afro hair in a college, even though I know they exist. Barbering is another example: cutting male African hair is very different from cutting European or Asian hair, while shaving for men with African hair is a completely different process because when you cut curly hair it tends to turn inward, creating bumps and infections. Wouldn’t it be lovely if a black person could walk into any salon or barbers for a haircut or shave and know that that they can be received as a ‘normal’ client. It would be lovely too if white hairdressers could work in salons with predominantly black clients because they have been trained in black aesthetics and African hair types.

Moving on to horticulture, cultivation techniques vary across the globe. In countries that have drought they manage to cultivate crops in very difficult circumstances and, as global warming increases and as the prospect of water shortages looms, it could be part of developing sustainable horticulture to learn from countries that have developed their cultivation techniques in such conditions. But these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa and, instead of their farming techniques being seen as creative, they are perceived as primitive. Decolonising the mind starts to turn on its head the views white people have about the struggles of such countries. Conversely, introducing to Britain the cultivation of crops that are grown across the globe fosters understanding about diet, creates more environmentally friendly access to such products and integrates such products into British society. 

These simple examples demonstrate that decolonisation of the curriculum works universally across both practical and theoretical subjects.

DR: If we move back to the academic subjects like English literature, history or geography, for example, is it possible to lose sight of the purpose of the subjects if we take a decolonising lens?  Might it be a mistake to focus on things that differentiate us, like our ethnicity, rather than things that unite us – like our humanity? Or do we stretch and develop our learners more by showing them different worlds, new subjects, unfamiliar experiences?

DB: BAME people have been immersed in an education system that is not relatable to them since colonisation. For decades, Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese, to name but a few, have been studying Western qualifications in their countries, having been served a diet of literature and science that is outside of their experience. They have passed European-designed qualifications based on European knowledge and history simply to achieve academic recognition from Western society.

Now, their descendants across the globe are still sitting in classrooms being educated with a curriculum where they and their experiences are, at best, absent, and at worst perpetuating negative stereotypes. I have sat in a classroom when charity for Africans was discussed and seen 30-odd white faces swivel to look at me as the only person of colour in the room. It is humiliating to receive the pitying looks and to have no alternative view of Africa to respond with. When you, your ancestry and your family are portrayed as impoverished in mind, body and culture, your sense of self-worth diminishes. How much more could people from BAME communities achieve and how much more could they demonstrate their intelligence if the curriculum they study embodied their experience, their knowledge and their history, and how much more could white people achieve if their learning embraced global intelligences? It is not just BAME communities who suffer from a narrow perspective; white people are cheated too.

Difference is important; it has been a great failing of equality initiatives to try to bring everybody to the same point, the same page and the same perspective. Understanding our differences and accommodating them is important. Yes, we want an integrated society, but we want equal integration. Once we are closer to more extensive experiences, then we can start to look at timeless themes from a variety of perspectives. For example, in the West we wear white for weddings but in most other parts of the globe, colour is the order of the day – in some African communities white is worn at funerals. In some communities, love comes after marriage; in other communities, love leads to marriage or union.

What we see as timeless themes have different meanings in different cultures. Our identity forms our understanding of these timeless themes. Understanding this about other cultures empowers all concerned; denying this inevitably leads to a dominant perspective shaping the curriculum that teaches these universal themes. These themes do not transcend culture or context – rather, culture and context define how we experience and understand them. In the words of the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been”, and that is applicable to white people and BAME communities alike. She also said: “You can’t be friends until you are equal.”

DR: Is there a risk that we rush to diversify the canon but shoot ourselves in the foot if we include something of unproven quality that has not yet stood the test of time, for the sake of diversity of authorial perspective? The literary canon, for example, has been built and honed over time. To help learners understand what has shaped our world, won’t we always end up focusing on what has been considered important up until now? I worry that, as long as one set of cultural capital artefacts is dominant, we cannot challenge and change perspectives unless we have the knowledge needed to critique those things held up as being of greatest value.

DB: Who defines excellence is the nub of this question around decolonisation. To call something to be of unproven quality because it is procreated in a culture or by a race outside of one’s own is to epitomise the problem of colonisation and offer the necessity for decolonisation. Decolonisation broadens the perception of excellence; it does not take away from what is already deemed to be excellent.

A beautifully written piece of African or Indian prose, for example, can sit alongside a beautiful piece of prose considered to be of Western origin. The fact is, global influences before colonisation were rife, and who is to say that Western literature does not have its origins in Eastern or African influences. BAME histories and influences stretch far back into the history of time; they are not new arrivals to the scene. 

I agree that to understand what has shaped our world up to now requires us to re-evaluate what has been most important. Young learners are motivated by ethics, and an increased awareness that what they have been told is the most important no longer is; commercialisation at the expense of the environment is frowned on by the young, so is capitalism borne out of slavery. A curriculum no longer dominated by the supremacy of European countries could also be a new awakening. 

This is a taster article from the summer 2021 issue of inTuition.