Why decolonising the curriculum is a job for teachers

It's naïve to assume educators haven't thought about ethnocentricity and diversity in the curriculum, says David Russell

David Russell

Attempts to decolonise the curriculum strike a cord with him, says ETF chief executive David Russell

One thing I’ve learned working in education for 25 years is that if you want to achieve anything worthwhile you have to stay focused, and not get distracted by the myriad educational issues that swirl around in policy and practice. 

My focus is on the mission of the organisation I lead – the Education and Training Foundation – so I think mostly about CPD and leadership development on a national scale. However, people work in education because we are passionate about it, and that means we are interested in the whole shebang. One of the things that was moving quickly in my peripheral vision in 2019 and caught my eye was the movement to “decolonise the curriculum”.  

Having worked on the National Curriculum Review in 2011, I am very interested in curriculum issues, so I read a few of the blogs and articles that were popping up on the decolonising theme.  I found them easy to agree with – as far as they went – but disappointingly superficial. To pretend that teachers and educationalists in the UK have never thought about nationalism, ethnocentricity and diversity in the literary canon or the curriculum more broadly is naïve at best, misleading at worst.

Opinion: 'Let's create a more tolerant and respectful culture'

More: New English GCSE texts ‘reinforce stereotypes’

Background: ‘Use the school curriculum to tackle racism’

Looking beyond our own experience

When I was training as a teacher in the 1990s in Scotland, there was hot debate about the content of the Scottish curriculum. Why could the average Scot in the street tell you the significance of the year 1066 and name half a dozen works by Shakespeare and Dickens, yet they were generally ignorant of their own cultural heritage – the history, geography, art and literature of Scotland? It was addressed to an extent, especially in history and geography, but I still found young people often felt alienated from aspects of the curriculum.

Not that we need to see ourselves in everything we learn – far from it. Indeed, only teaching things that are “relevant” seems to me the opposite of what education is about, and our obligation as educators is to open new horizons and give access to new experiences, not cleave to the quotidian and the easily relatable. No, the problem is not studying “someone else’s cultural inheritance”, it is being presented with someone else’s cultural inheritance unthinkingly as if it were one’s own, with no recognition of where we are “coming from”.

So this is where decolonising the curriculum strikes a chord with me. As a young man I made a conscious effort to expand my contact with both the international literary canon – Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, Primo Levi – and Scottish literature – Neil Gunn, George Mackay Brown, James Kelman. In retrospect, what I was really missing was not the 1.25 per cent of the population of Scotland who were not white, it was the 52.15 per cent of the population who were not male! I think the point I take from it is not simply that we need to represent diversity in our curriculum, but that no curriculum is truly objective, and unless we are aware of the subjective lenses we apply when making judgements about what is worthy of inclusion, we will make exclusionary choices about the perspectives that are represented. It’s less about including a more diverse range of content – though it is also this – and more about realising whose eyes we assume students are looking at the content with.

Addressing white privilege

I think this is part of what Reni Eddo-Lodge is saying in her 2017 book, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. Although the book is certainly flawed – the use of statistics in the section on education, for example, is selective and journalistic – the personal testimony and the argument that flows from it are powerful. At a personal level, I was embarrassed to recognise the childish and naïve concept of "colour-blindness" she describes encountering in many white people. This was the attitude I grew up with in a white mono-culture, and as a result I still hung on to some outrageously idiotic ideas about race when I moved to London in the late 1990s – the first time I had lived in a multi-cultural environment. “White privilege” was a concept I wish I had been introduced to 20 years ago, and which I think is still not properly understood and accepted by many of us.

So, where do I stand on decolonising the curriculum? It may be an issue generating debate mostly in the HE sphere at the moment, but I think it is relevant to all education, as it goes straight to the heart of questions all of us are asking, including Ofsted, now.  What should be taught? Why? When and in what sequence? And how do we decide, given the limited time that is always available? These are deep and urgent questions, relevant to, but so much bigger than, the issue of what should be prescribed in a national curriculum.

For my own part, I realise I am woefully equipped to make good judgements about the relative merits of competing topics, themes or cultural artefacts; not least because my own education has been all through one set of lenses. So I can start at least by educating myself. My new year’s resolution: in 2020, only to read books by authors of colour.  All recommendations welcome! I can’t wait...

David Russell is chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories