How Can Education ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’, but Neglect Teacher Training?
Whilst Black History should be embedded in the curriculum, it still isn’t; with October upon us, I’m sure there are many out there thinking about Black History Month and curricula.
When I hear people talking about ‘decolonising the curriculum’, I often see lots of confusion about what decolonisation means. I have seen bids to ‘diversify the curriculum’, and these two terms are not the same. I have seen academics conflate diversity work and decolonial work. To diversify reading lists and course content is only part of the problem; I think the aim of decolonisation is to deconstruct knowledge production. It’s as much about how we produce knowledge as the knowledge itself. With my backgrounds of Creative Writing and English Literature, there, it was about how we tell stories as well as who is telling it, and the different perspectives of those stories.
What makes essays worth more in academic citizenship than oral storytelling traditions — a form of disseminating information popular throughout the Black diaspora?
On psychology, we have to ask ourselves why whole slates of Black psychologists have been erased, and then study the reasons why. As far as race is concerned, one way could be studying how racism was historically justified, and how race was created (because race doesn’t actually exist, it’s a construct). It’s about showing alternative forms of knowledge to the Eurocentric, especially from academics, revolutionaries and thinkers who were not white and / or from Europe. In decolonising we are not erasing history, we are putting back a dignity that was taken — African philosophers, Indian and Arabic mathematicians, concepts of gender in African and Indigenous cultures that far predate the existence of LGBT+.
We must look at things like BAME because when we think about decolonial thought, we must look at language. Does BAME / BME fall into the colonising imperatives we want to pull away from? Decolonise. Deconstruct. Dismantle. As educators and students alike are all discussing ways to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and The Academy (kinda), as far as race is concerned, I am brought back to when I was a student union sabbatical officer last October.
Towards the end, I hosted an academic that gave a talk on race equality and social justice in initial teacher education [ITE]. It was here she got me to think critically about race, culture, identity politics in the midst of teacher training.
So, really, how can we think about decolonising the subjects we teach children, young people and university students, if how and what is taught to teachers does not follow this same train of thought? The fact student teachers can go through their PGCE without really mentioning race is something to be scrutinised at the very least. If we change curricula to better suit the diverse makeup of the world, how can one expect teachers to teach that, when teacher training courses do not reflect this idea, especially historically?
In talking to teacher friends and colleagues that passed their courses years and decades ago, it is unanimous that the courses of ten and fifteen years ago did not really include narratives of Black and Brown histories, race equality / equity or social justice. In the shouts of “no justice no peace”, as the world cried out in pain for George Floyd, there has been a resurgence to put Black history onto the curriculum. My question is, (as much as I love this in concept) ‘is it at all practical when many of us don’t even know it ourselves?’
The teachers and academics I know that know at least some of the Black history did not learn it from the safety net of the British education system. They learned it from their families and friends around the dinner table, or at family gatherings, or at friends’ houses where they broke bread and talked — from Kenyan grandparents that witnessed the Mau Mau Uprisings first hand; from great aunties and uncles monologuing about Jamaican ancestors mourning the victims of Morant Bay (1865) and slavery; from Black cousins that spouted rumours of Indian and Chinese ancestors that turned out to be true; from parents that have given detailed accounts of the riots in Brixton (1981) and Notting Hill (1958), and the fire of New Cross (1981).
That whilst there are texts now that do give more light to the Black history of Britain specifically — from Afro-Romans to Windrush and anti-colonial dissent in the colonies, it wasn’t always like that. And despite resources like the internet, we are always in a state of learning. Black history, and the contributions of ethnic minorities more generally to Britain is still not a commonality on the curriculum because it is not a commonality in ITE. The establishment still try to hide its slave-trading past, and history of blood and toil closer to home in Scotland, Wales and Ireland where English colonisers demolished, and brutalised native languages, cultures and people.
In my opinion, the teenagers and 20/30-somethings are in the best position to lead this fight to decolonise the curriculum, current students and those that are now completing their PGCE courses. Those with that new wave of optimism. I know teachers that have been at this for 20+ years who are just as passionate as when they started. What I am talking about here in “their positionality” is legacy, wherein my parents’ generation can support this next generation of teacher-activists to fight the fight they were fighting in schools during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s — only to have moved an inch.
Growing up, I attended the Saturday School my mother and godmother created, The Garvey Saturday School where I learned some of the history; where I learned about identity, culture and heritage, and was educated a bit on what it meant to be Caribbean. It was a place where I learned about Black people by Black people, because they knew I would not learn it within the school classroom. It’s where I learned about concepts of Blackness outside of racism. Moreover, where I felt a self-worth and pride tied to the colour of my skin. Are these concepts of race, culture and identity taught on teacher courses? Do these courses feature information on ethnicity awarding gaps and the school-to-prison pipeline, or Bernard Coard’s seminal text How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System?
Recent anti-racist struggles have been led by students and somewhat the academic-activists within universities. Some of the university student-led anti-racist movements have been about statues and curriculum — from Rhodes Must Fall to Liberate my Degree. However, Black Lives Matter UK saw the end of Bristol City’s Edward Colston statue, which had resisted efforts from the community for years. Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA) held a 137-day sit-in of Deptford Town Hall in response to the lack of action on the racial injustice at Goldsmiths College, at the University of London.
There is little wiggle room for schools in terms of what is taught, but seemingly initial teacher training / education is not being looked at with the same enthusiasm as the main curriculum that impacts children and young people.
Until teacher education is looked at and held with the same tenacity as the protests to bring down colonial statues or reform the main curriculum, as I have witnessed by some teachers in my vicinity, any push to decolonise curricula is flawed. It may be a not so simple discussion of chicken and egg. Many of us are self-educating on race, Black history and the rest, but how can teachers teach a diverse histories embedded into the curriculum, if it is not being taught on teacher education? This expectation on teachers to know stuff they aren’t taught is unjust, particularly on Black and Brown teachers, more so now, in light of BLM, and the expectation to know Black history.