Decolonizing Your Subject Discipline: Where to Begin

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Would you like to challenge the established curriculum in your subject discipline and reclaim it for those who have been historically marginalized?

Knowing where to start is challenging. Much of the literature makes a great case for explaining why the curriculum must be decolonized, but says less about how. 

There is no blueprint for the liberation of learning in your subject discipline. Instead, deconstructing the content and approaches that have been used over the generations is a deeply personal – and at the same time, collective process.  

It begins with interrogating yourself and your own positionality. It involves questioning the ‘norms’ within your institution, including who stays and who is excluded. It necessitates knowing your students and whether they’re thriving in higher education or merely surviving.  

Finally, it’s about taking apart the content and approaches used on your courses. Whose knowledge is being taught and whose is not? What perspectives and world-views are being assumed? 

Decolonizing requires, in some cases, a complete up-ending of the epistemology on which a subject discipline is founded (geography, for example, is a discipline that arose from colonialism). However, this cannot happen overnight.  

Adding an author of color to the core reading list for your module is not an end in itself, therefore, but one tiny step in a journey that will endure for your entire career and far beyond. With this in mind, the examples suggested here are not a tick list at the end of which your curriculum can be rubber-stamped as DECOLONIZED. The work of decolonizing is messy and unending. 

The perspective assumed in this article is that of educators in European/North American countries who seek a less ‘Western-centric’ experience for their students (bearing in mind that the very notion of the ‘West’ itself is highly contestable), while acknowledging that the colonization and decolonization of curricula can take place anywhere in the world.  

There is a focus here on course content, but decolonizing applies to all aspects of the curriculum, such as teaching approaches, recruitment, student voice and institutional culture (including structural racism and ‘Whiteness’).  

Education 

This example is from a teaching and learning module on an education degree course. Aware that many teacher-training textbooks focus exclusively on learning theories by dead white men, we decided to include ‘alternative’ views on learning and education (using ‘alternative’ with caution as it can suggest a mainstream ‘Western’ view and other, less important, perspectives). 

To do this we looked beyond Eurocentric and North American theorists and included views of education and learning from other parts of the world, such as collectivist cultures that prioritize the needs of the community over individual ambition.  

We included content on embodied learning, holistic approaches that attend to mind, body, spirit and community, the role of emotion in learning and the importance of using the senses.  

We introduced the power and universality of learning through stories and examined the research evidence as to why this can be so effective. And we asked the students to analyse their current practice through all of these lenses. 

This did not happen overnight. Deconstructing and reconstructing the curriculum takes scholarship and the will to change one’s practices, one step at a time. 

Health 

So many of our subjects are taught as if the given knowledge is universal and eternal. Medicine and the allied healthcare professions are no exception. Here are some angles of inquiry that one could take when deconstructing the curriculum. You might think of others. 

The global history of healthcare and healing. Teach in a global context. For example, you could contrast Cartesian dualism with other philosophies of the relationship between body and mind, or compare notions and practices of ‘healing’ in different parts of the world.  

Views of ability and disability. Critique the medical model. Study how views of disability have changed over place and time, including perceptions of what is considered ‘normal.’ (Lennard Davis is a good place to start)   

Race and medicine. How and why do medical studies categorize patients into different ‘races,’ given that ‘race’ itself is a social construct? Why in some countries are Black women more likely to die in childbirth than white women? Why are Black men more likely to be sectioned for mental health conditions than white men?  

Culture and medicine. What barriers are experienced by service users from different cultural or religious groups? How might these be addressed? 

Patriarchy in medicine. Writer Alan Bleakley asks why research shows that female medical students evidence more empathy towards patients than male students, or why reflective practice in the sector foregrounds individualistic ‘mastery’ models instead of vulnerability and unknowing. 

Analyzing working culture on placements. Support your students to evaluate work culture and practice on placement. How are patients or service-users viewed by staff? How might services be made more inclusive (for example, regarding the use of equipment that gives more efficient readings for skin of lighter pigments)? How is racism manifested in practice? 

From this range of examples, it can be seen that ‘decolonizing’ has a broad and varied remit.  

The Sciences 

‘Western’ science is often presented as ‘universal.’ In fact, much indigenous knowledge was erased through European colonization, with Western science presented as the only way of knowing. 

The history of science. Focus on some of the scientific and mathematical advances made outside Europe, such as the art of navigation, discoveries in astronomy, the invention of algebra.  

Epistemologies. Explore ways of knowing the world that are different from those accepted as ‘standard’ in the so-called West, for example those of indigenous populations. Encourage students to investigate the idea that there are other ways of knowing than via the scientific method or deductive logic. 

Who are the scientists? It may sound tokenistic, but in fact representation in images goes a long way. Case studies of international collaborations or historical images of scholars from non-Western traditions can create a diversity of role models. 

Final thoughts 

As you read this you may be thinking: “But we don’t have time to include all this!” Of course. There are professional standards, benchmark statements and employer expectations to meet. However, decolonizing is not an ‘extra’ or an ‘add-on.’ It involves altering the way in which you think about the curriculum, so that it infiltrates every aspect of teaching and learning. 

Change can start small. It’s about asking questions, modelling lines of thought, planting the seeds of ideas. Tweaking assessment requirements to include a little more critical inquiry. Using flipped learning or finding spaces where you can introduce a little disruption, a hint of cognitive dissonance.  

Most importantly, it’s about developing your students to ask their own questions and challenge the ‘usual’ way of doing things. If you can give them the language and the self-belief to interrogate the status quo, then the work of decolonizing has truly begun. 

Graphic linking to Sharon Ravitch articles on decolonizing knowing
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Rachel Vandana Stone

Rachel Vandana Stone is senior lecturer in education at Sheffield Hallam University. Her publications include Adapting Higher Education Teaching for an Online Environment (SAGE, 2021) and An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education, 2e (SAGE, 2021).

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