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Ideas for decolonising the curriculum in teaching and learning: A personal reflection

Guest posts

Category: Teaching and research

10 July 2020

Beatriz Acevedo reflects on her own experiences of teaching diverse groups and discusses how we all can work to break down structural barriers in Higher Education.

As part of the recent discussions on racism and discrimination, there has been talk of decolonising the curriculum in higher education (The Guardian, 2020). I am aware of better or more specific ways to refer to the need for radically questioning and changing the way education replicates such discriminatory practices, but for the sake of the overall discussion, I will stick to “decolonising the curriculum” as an emerging topic in the Covid-19 crisis.

Notwithstanding, this is not something new: discrimination and racism seem to be ingrained in the very structures of education, limitations to access based on an already problematic school system, the prioritisation of certain ways of “knowing”, and the invisibilisation of the problems and challenges of those students under the guise of a democratic approach.

What the pandemic has exposed are the structural barriers of certain groups of the population with access to health services and their vulnerability to epidemics. Similarly, students and staff from these communities are at a disadvantage when accessing education.

At ARU we’ve been talking about these issues in seminars such as TeachMeet 2019, including my own presentation about decolonising the curriculum. We have agreed that ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘accessibility’ are key aspects of our institutional strategy, Designing Our Future, and Education Strategy. However, it’s important to take advantage of the crisis to question what we are doing to replicate discriminatory practices, and most importantly, what we can do practically and immediately to recognise problems and empower ALL of our students and staff.

To start this discussion, I’d like to stress the place from where I’m speaking, as this makes my assumptions relative to my situation. I am a 51-year-old female lecturer and academic, and when asked about my ethnic origin, I tick ‘Other’. In fact, I only became aware of my colour pigmentation when I arrived in England, was asked about my ethnicity, and labelled as ‘other’ by the apparent managerial forms. Although I’d been aware of my own ‘otherness’ and exposed to the institutional notions of inclusivity and diversity, I confess that in the process I had become colour blind.

By arguing about the need for treating everybody in an equal way, I’ve tried to avoid conflict and uncomfortable discussions in the classroom that can affect my teacher’s evaluation. But the thing is that systemically, some groups are ‘more equal than others’ and my simplistic approach does not cut it anymore! I’m sure I’m not alone in this view that we lecturers and academics, burdened with hundreds of regulations and precautions, try to avoid any type of conflict or confrontation. But this paralysing view actually perpetuates the very nature of social inequality, and by ignoring it we are certainly complicit in its continuation.

This blog aims to offer a personal reflection on addressing inequality and decolonising the educational system and a few ideas that have worked for me and can be useful for others.

Recognising my privilege

Perhaps the first step in decolonising the curriculum is declaring our own ignorance by recognising our privilege, and assuming it without guilt but with responsibility. That privilege is expressed on unconscious bias and colour blindness, while avoiding discussions addressing race, gender, class, etc., and their intersectionalities. As a light coloured ‘other,’ I can’t know how discrimination works for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer) populations, and even though I have experienced racism and sexism, on account of being a “female mestiza,” it is not the same as many others, due to my privileged position.

Notwithstanding, I can work through compassion and empathy. Here, I understand compassion not as the “problematisation or victimisation” of certain groups, but as “feeling together” and responsibility for the “Other who is also I”. In previous blogs, especially regarding learning and teaching in times of crisis, I have mentioned the need for understanding those differences, for example, by avoiding the assumption that everybody has access to technology and broadband, and recognising our students’ complex personal situations. Although it sounds difficult, we must try to adapt to what the students need, and not the other way around. One size does not fit all!

Colour visibilisation

Colour visibilisation is a contentious issue, as I have experienced many times when addressing the need of seeing certain groups in their differences, potential and challenges. Some argue against "positive discrimination", but without recognising that there have been historical, ingrained discriminatory practices, and that if we don’t pay attention to such problems, then we can’t advance.

I could say that due to my teaching groups being around 100 to 200 students, it’s difficult to ‘see’ their differences, but that excuse no longer works. Once I realised the need to actively seek out any differences, I could see how some students tend to dominate discussions, and others prefer to keep quiet, even though in small groups they are more active. Encouraging these students to participate in committees, co-creation exercises, and peer-learning exercises is not a difficult thing to do and can create an atmosphere of trust and richness in the group.

Knowledge is power

Discussions on the issue of race, colonialism, and discrimination need to be located in the wider historical realm. We need to recognise the ways in which dominant groups have ‘created subjects’ through differentiation and segregation. By the same token, Paulo Freire talks about education for the oppressed, and provides means for widening horizons and emancipation.

In my view, it’s crucial to address the genealogy of such distinctions and definitions, as a critical approach that empowers students to decide to adopt, adapt or challenge them. For example, in my own Business modules about sustainability, I include a genealogy of how the notions of ‘development’ and ‘sustainable development’ have evolved. The work of Arturo Escobar around the invention of the Third World reveals how ‘development,’ although a “desirable” goal, stems from a geopolitical agenda of influence championing certain ways of understanding what is ‘development’.

As a university we need to enhance the notion of education for sustainability beyond the ecological focus by including reflections on eco-feminism (Vandana Shiva); indigenous knowledge; the importance of considering intersectionality, black/mestizo/LBQT/feminism (see Ochy Curiel); and social justice in the definition of sustainability.

Widening the bibliography

One of the first actions I took in my quest for decolonising the curriculum was to check which books and references academics use in our modules. We tend to use authors and scholars from the USA, UK and Europe, because they are more widely published, but what about the wealth of knowledge that comes from other countries? In business schools, students are requested to analyse ‘European’ or ‘American’ case studies; similarly, art students are restricted to certain famous artists or accepted schools of art.

As a Latin American, I naturally bring authors from my continent, and add different sources of knowledge beyond peer reviewed articles or books, by including popular culture, films and music. I have also started to ask students who are working on their major project, to include authors from their own country and in their own language. Emancipation starts with the recognition of our own worth; in our culture, our heritage, and our personal histories.

Authentic assessment

When we get to assessment, we return to the familiar restraints. We now need to think about offering authentic assessment whereby the process of reflecting on what has been learned resonates with our students’ personal experiences.

The written assignment is quite restrictive; firstly because of its certain expectations around using academic colonial language and, mainly, because the written format discourages imagination or emancipation. Further, students are told to use the ‘third person’ in their writing which takes away the personalisation and appropriation of their educational experience.

In my experience, asking students to talk about their learning experiences through diaries, journals and the creation of artefacts such as poems, songs, and posters enriches the assessment process, and the marking too! It’s so interesting to read about their own experiences, how they understand certain concepts, not as an “abstract” issue, but in their own personal journeys.

In my module on Responsible Business I invite students to be co-creators in an artistic project called RawTag. I encourage them to create poems, posters or performances on the complexities and visibilisation of the supply chain. In other modules, I changed the assignment from a ‘project’ or “essay” (gosh, I really dislike essays!) to the ‘students’ reflection’ about their acquired skills and learning process. I’m not saying this is easy as in fact, it’s quite the opposite; students seem to prefer the more familiar traditional essay, but once you share the pedagogical foundation of this change, they totally embrace it.

We all need to risk moving away from the false security and dare to create our own ways to subvert such orders! For inspiration in Pedagogies of Transgression, see the wonderful bell hooks!

Educate yourself

Once you start digging into the decolonisation of the curriculum you’ll find a wealth of scholarship, especially in relation to pedagogies of freedom and empowerment. There’s a wealth of materials, and it’s like exploring a new landscape and seeing the world in its different colours. It shouldn’t be seen as a ‘chore’ or another activity on our already swelling ‘to do list’, but as a personal opportunity that benefits our students.

Personally, I enjoy literature, so I’ve been reading books like Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Slay in your Lane by Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke, and interviews for BIPOC women role models, as well the audiobooks of Maya Angelou.

In current popular culture there are excellent materials such as: I am not your Negro by Raoul Peck (based on the unfinished manuscript of James Baldwin); the incredibly talented Micaela Coen’s semi auto-biographical voice in, I May Destroy You (BBC, and not for the faint hearted!), and the many international films that show you that the world is wider and more colourful than Hollywhitewood can offer. All are excellent ways to gain a different perspective, be entertained, and educate not only your brain, but also your heart.

By Dr Beatriz Acevedo


Some resources borrowed from the Webinar organised by University of Birmingham: Decolonising the Curriculum, coordinated by Dr. Emanuelle Rodrigues Dos Santos:


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