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Decolonising the curriculum

Written By: Hannah Tyreman
5 min read

Teacher Aisha Thomas, in her recent TED talk, spoke of how ‘every day BAME children are educated without seeing themselves in the curriculum or their environment. They hear about the greatness of others, all that they have conquered and contributed. Then they look at their own skin and think, what have my people achieved?’ (2020) Our classrooms are a microcosm of society and its people. Our curriculum should represent the whole of this society rather than merely the elements deemed of value.

Recent moves to a knowledge-based curriculum in schools pose a number of possible challenges for educators and their pupils. Such a curriculum often tends to favour ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (Arnold 1869). This is generally translated as famous white men from history, sometimes women, with perhaps at best a token person from ‘other’ cultures. Without questioning and interrogation, as well as more philosophical conversations with colleagues about your curriculum’s aims and purposes, we risk ‘reproducing dominant knowledge that becomes exclusionary’ (Arday et al. 2020). 

We encourage teachers to begin interrogating their curriculum from the start of their career, even if it’s been designed entirely by your colleagues. Reflect on these questions individually as well as alongside your colleagues.

  • What and who are we teaching? 
  • Why? 
  • Are there other figures we could and should be including? 
  • How should this knowledge be introduced so as to be of equal importance to other ‘dominant knowledges’ that usually ‘occupy the canon as the only form of legitimate knowledge’ (Harris 2014).

Schools are already beginning to explore how their curriculum can celebrate diversity beyond confining it to one month of the year, a topic area such as ‘poetry from other cultures’, or integrating it solely in subjects such as drama, and citizenship, which often ‘adopt a second or third tier status in comparison to core subjects’. This usual way of ‘including’ diversity has the effect of othering many pupils and races rather than fostering values of integration, belonging and representation (Arday et al. 2020). 

There are many advantages of a truly diverse curriculum that is conscious of the systemic influence of racism. It can empower ‘a young person to believe they belong so they genuinely thrive in spite of prejudice’ (Arday et al. 2020). Research by Epstein (2009) and Harris and Reynolds (2014) found that ‘black students felt alienated by the curriculum as it presented a narrative which did not align with their experiences and received histories within their families and community. There was a notable absence of their history which resembled a story of struggle and inequality often at the hands of white oppressors, which in many cases persisted into the present.’ Conversely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘white students felt comfortable with the content of the curriculum as it reflected a narrative which aligned with their own received histories from dominant discourses such as the media and other sources which serve to reinforce their perceived sense of themselves within the society they live in’ (Arday et al. 2020).

Whilst a diverse curriculum can begin to foster a sense of belonging for pupils, it can also ‘be a vehicle for creating greater social cohesion and tolerance of racial and ethnic difference in preparing learners to enter a diverse, multi-cultural society; allowing us as a nation to collectively pause and reflect on race relations.’ It ‘can help society to unravel many of the racial stereotypes that linger into the present’ (Arday et al. 2020). In diverse classrooms, pupils see themselves represented and the language used is inclusive rather than Eurocentric with white people and their achievements at its heart.

As well as celebrating diverse figures from Britain’s history, there exists ‘a need for a more critical engagement with issues around Empire and slavery is essential in understanding Britain’s troubled and oppressive history in its absolute unfiltered entirety’. Current curriculum often romanticises these periods of British history; tending to highlight for instance how we helped to end slavery rather than exploring the central part this country played in enabling it and how we generated ‘significant wealth from the profits of trading in human lives’ (Andrews, 2015., Mirza, 2015). The National Curriculum ‘positions Britain as having created medicine and technology, while granting independence to commonwealth countries without highlighting the brutal subjugation techniques deployed in acquiring those territories in the first instance’ (Arday et al. 2020)

‘Engaging in a curriculum that systematically removes positive reference to the contributions of Black and Asian people to British history is a disservice to learners, particularly as one of the primary purposes of education is to prepare individuals to take their place within society’ (Alexander et al. 2015, Atkinson et al. 2018) Reflecting on your curriculum intent; how might this help to shape a curriculum that is representative of all pupils and is anti-racist in nature?

You don’t have to search far to locate the hidden figures you could be including in your curriculum. In his TED Talk, Pran Patel recalls the day he found out about the people of colour who had contributed in his field of study at university: Flossie Wong-Stall, Charles Richard Drew, Brahmagupta and Aryabhata of Kusumapura (2019). We can take time and get curious about the figures that may currently be hidden in our own curriculum.

Where in your existing curriculum might the decolonisation begin? Take a look at the resources listed below to see how these might help support you on this journey.

Read this case study written by Michelle Mangal

The Black Curriculum team have free resources you can sign up for through their weekly newsletter and are producing animations for their YouTube channel, currently showcasing their ‘iconic women in Britain’ series

This website, from Pran Patel, seeks to encourage a conversation about decolonising the curriculum. There are pieces written by educators to exemplify how they’re going about this, a recent example from a music teacher.

The BAMEed Network exist to connect educators who wish to help them ‘work towards an education sector that is reflective of society.’ Their website contains resources and recommended reading to support the mission

‘Britain’s high school curriculum sidesteps its racist past, and the country’ imperialist legacy has been whitewashed, she says. British children are taught about the American Civil Rights movement, but don’t know about British anti-racism campaigners of the 19th century. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race‘ fills those gaps by charting Britain’s entry into the slave trade, white mob lynchings, forced repatriations and police brutality in London’ (TIME 2017).

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