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Decolonisation, power and knowledge in the curriculum

Written By: Bennie Kara
6 min read


Within higher education, the phrase ‘decolonising the curriculum’ originated as part of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, originating in Cape Town, South Africa. The debate centred on the presence of a statue of imperialist politician Cecil Rhodes outside of the University of Cape Town. Following student-led protest, the emergence of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Oxford campaign and the release of a twenty-minute film entitled ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ by students at UCL (University College London), the phrase gained traction in the wider education community.

Looking at it through the lens of primary and secondary education in the UK presents a series of thinking points, made all the more germane following the events of recent months. The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, in March and May 2020 respectively, triggered a wave of global protest. One welcome effect of these events has been a renewed sense of urgency in reviewing the content of school curricula to ensure that schools are contributing to an equitable society.

In saying this, it is important to recognise that decolonising a school curriculum is not merely an exercise in representation or a knee-jerk reaction to international news events. Curriculum thinking is fundamentally about power; whom it belongs to, whom it elevates and whom it places at the centre of the discourse.

We know it is not a new venture to consider the content of schools’ curricula. ED Hirsch, popularly cited as a proponent of a knowledge rich-curriculum, wrote at length about how the what of our teaching acts as a cultural leveller (1988). For example, the anecdote ‘there is a tide’, taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, denotes that failing to act can lead to disaster – Hirsch believes that someone who has not been taught Julius Caesar may be unable to engage in circles of business where this phrase might be used, and claims that the decline of shared cultural knowledge prevents access to power. (Hirsch, 1988, p. 9-10).

Here, we can find the first principle of decolonising a curriculum. Power, as a concept, lies at the heart of the discourse on what we teach. Employee A is expected to learn about and engage with the cultural realm of Employer B. Employer B, a person who is well versed in the works of Shakespeare, exists in a society in which knowledge of Shakespeare is valued currency. In itself, this is not negative and certainly not an argument against learning Shakespeare.

It is worth examining how the dynamic between Employee A and Employer B is encoded in decisions about whose knowledge is powerful. Employee A has been educated with what Hirsch believes is culturally important. What is omitted from the anecdote is whether Employee A has any cultural markers of his or her own that Employer B cannot engage with, because he/she has not been taught about them in school.

If we take this scenario and apply it to schools, we see the same power dynamic. A curriculum in which the taught, and therefore, valued knowledge is the product of white, western, colonial European origin. To decentre the inherent power in this – so that our future citizens can engage in power dynamics with cultural reciprocity – it is incumbent upon those who decide the what of the curriculum to engage with a much broader field of knowledge.

To engage with that broader field of knowledge, one that includes a multi-layered view of literature, history, music and art, is a priority when attempting to diversify the curriculum. It is an argument for more knowledge, not less. In order to do this, we as educators, must engage with a range of voices, including voices that may be seen as ‘disruptive’.

In The ResearchEd Guide to the Curriculum, Professor Michael Young (2020, p. 26-27) criticises ‘left-wing, anti-racist and feminist thinkers who see ‘powerful knowledge’ as another way of imposing an alien culture on those who are assumed to have either no culture of their own’ for pointing out ‘limitations of any attempt to shift the unequal distribution of knowledge through the curriculum but offer[ing] no alternatives except radical changes that are always on the next horizon.’

Within this is perhaps a misunderstanding of discourses of power. Seeing it as the responsibility of anti-racists, feminists and the left wing to decolonise the curriculum is reductive. It is more useful to see the role of these perceived ‘disruptors’ as a stimulus to debate in the staff room, or in the subject meeting. It is not always incumbent upon the disruptors to present solutions. Those who design school curricula have the expertise to take the ideas from those disruptors and make pragmatic changes to the content of the curriculum.

It cannot be seen as a ‘radical change’ that is ‘always on the next horizon’ to include global knowledge in the curriculum. When we teach about Shakespeare or Antigone, we contextualise using our colonialised knowledge of Greek theatre, the dithyramb and Archilocus. We raise the theatrical achievements of white western Europe, not by intention, but by the omission of the wider cultural context of theatre. The act of mimesis is present in all cultures. Sanskrit theatre is said to have early origins, as suggested by the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, a treatise on theatre composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE. It contains within it references to drama, music, movement and theatre production. Similarly, a decolonised view of early African theatre – theatre as a broader construct than the one offered by Ancient Greek convention – allows us as educators to introduce ritual gesture, the combination of dance and spoken word, the use of mask and face paint as symbolism as part of an almost universal concept. One that belongs to all cultures. This is just one example of what might be considered in one subject.

If we are to embark on a journey towards a fairer society, it is necessary to add to the narrative of knowledge we are providing. Edward Said (1993, p. xv) states in Culture and Imperialism that ‘the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism.’ His view tells us that we hold in our curriculum the ability to show students a multiplicity of narratives, thereby extending their locus of power.

Decolonising the curriculum is also an exercise in decolonising the mind of the educator. There is no doubt that this is a difficult process in which time, thought and discussion play a huge role in change. The implications of decolonised thinking about the what of the curriculum must be examined in subject meetings in school, in exam board review, in curriculum creation and adaptation.

In an article entitled ‘Taking curriculum seriously’ (2018), Christine Counsell explains succinctly why knowledge is important. She argues that not only does academic knowledge, developed in intellectual communities over time, ‘offer the language of abstract concepts, but these precise concepts also become tools with which to imagine change.’ She goes on to say: ‘A curriculum must enact processes of ‚Äúepistemic ascent‚Äù (Winch, 2013) by which concepts already understood by students are brought into new relations of abstraction and generality, giving the student yet more power to challenge, rethink and create.’

This explanation brings us neatly back to the idea of power. If we build schemata in which the valued knowledge lies outside of 27 per cent of our students’ culture and heritage, we perpetuate social inequality and undesirable power dynamics. We continue the cycle in which assimilation is required in order to function in our society. When Counsell poses the idea that knowledge allows us to ‘challenge, think and recreate’, by extension, a decolonised curriculum broadens that scope. And that cannot be seen as a negative for anyone.

Key questions for you and colleagues

  1. Whose knowledge is centred within your curriculum?
  2. How can you engage with ‘disruptors’ to decolonise your curriculum?
  3. How can you advocate for reciprocity of cultural power?
Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. Whose knowledge is centred in your curriculum and in what ways might this need to change?
  • Counsell C (2018) Taking curriculum seriously. Impact 4: 6-9.
  • Hirsch ED (1987) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Said E (1993) Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus.
  • Young M (2020) From powerful knowledge to the powers of knowledge. In: Sealy C (ed) The ResearchEd Guide to the Curriculum. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational, pp. 26-27.
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