When it comes to decolonising the school curriculum, teachers can serve as important agents for change. Martin Johnson and Melissa Mouthaan, both researchers at Cambridge Assessment, explain the role that teacher training and development can play in decolonisation efforts.
In 2020, researchers in the Education and Curriculum strand at Cambridge Assessment’s Research Division launched a collaborative project with OCR to assist the exam board in identifying ways to decolonise within its scope of activities. One of the areas we examined was teacher training and professional development, as our initial research indicated that this is an important but overlooked issue in the research literature on decolonisation.
A significant element of the collaborative project was to identify what we understood “decolonisation” to be in education. Our review uncovered many different definitions, with many of these focusing on activities in the Higher Education sector – however our focus here is on decolonisation in schools and classrooms.
In education, decolonisation involves acknowledging and critically examining the influence of colonial legacies on education systems as a whole, and its various sub-components such as knowledge and the curriculum. There is a consensus that decolonisation is by definition an iterative and ongoing process. Linda Tuhiwai Smith points out that this process focuses on the "bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power". By interrogating the biases and assumptions that underpin current education arrangements, the decolonisation process opens education up to reflecting alternative knowledge systems, philosophies and perspectives. While the decolonisation debate has been particularly prominent in institutions of higher education, decolonising education is relevant at all education levels. Ultimately, this opening up looks to transform the "what" and the "how" of teaching, so that students are better equipped to navigate a diverse world.
In this blog, we examine the reasons why teacher education is a key area for consideration in the development of any decolonised curriculum. We also discuss some of the barriers that currently exist for supporting teachers in delivering decolonised curricula to their pupils – and this leads us to develop some recommendations for how teacher development should engage with decolonisation.
Why teacher training is important to decolonisation
Teacher training is a key point of influence in the cycle of reproduction of ideas. As such, it has the potential to confront and disrupt the cultural reproduction of Eurocentric or colonial narratives in education. It also occurs at a pivotal place in the education system. Although it is often located in the Higher Education sector, teacher training is a place where practitioners from across all sectors of education can share and explore their perspectives.
Our research found that, implicitly or explicitly, teachers are cast as key actors in any classroom decolonising process. Carefully curated teacher training – and spaces/places to learn about and discuss race, identity and hegemonic beliefs – can therefore help mobilise teachers as agents of change, and ensure they are well-equipped to implement this process in their classrooms. This is also important as teachers are uniquely placed to understand their students’ needs, and act as positive role models for a diverse student body.
Because teachers are a major component of this “change making”, decolonisation requires they have a developed awareness of issues around race and (historical and ongoing) colonial experiences and power relations. To support this awareness-raising, teacher training is an important mechanism that invites educators’ systematic reflection on the complex systems of colonisation, while helping teachers to recognise present day systems of race domination, including the impact on students. Within this context, it is important to understand teachers’ own perceptions of the decolonisation process, in order to overcome potential obstacles to implementing a decolonised curriculum. This will help to ensure diverse content is central to the enacted curriculum, rather than remaining at the margins.
Issues that can affect the extent to which teacher training and development can influence curriculum decolonisation
In many education frameworks, such as in the UK, the teaching of histories of empire and migration remain optional and therefore dependent on the inclination of curriculum leads and individual educators. Understanding teachers’ perspectives, interest, reluctance, and confidence in implementing a decolonised curriculum is therefore of crucial importance.
The process of professional development should engage with teachers’ perspectives as a starting point, but this activity is challenging as it requires teachers critically reflecting on their own worldviews and positionalities – things that they have developed through their lived experience. This process is complex as many of the perspectives that teachers have acquired are likely to remain invisible until deep reflection takes place. Confronting and questioning one’s taken for granted perspectives requires both confidence on the part of the teacher as well as access to high quality resources. The creation of such resources involves an investment of finances and time, and once created there needs to be clear pathways of access for teachers.
It also needs to be acknowledged that there are limits to the degree of agency that teachers have in attaining decolonisation. For example, while teachers often have agency in content curation, the selection of the knowledge covered in national curricula is beyond the scope of influence of teachers and teacher trainers. There are also accountability incentives in national education systems that undoubtedly influence teacher practices. Education systems that are characterised by high stakes accountability measures (such as performance league tables) can tend to dissuade teachers from taking risks and introducing new content. Overcoming these limitations may require structural changes that are beyond the scope of teachers’ control (for example the mandated inclusion of decolonised content in curricula or assessments). While there is no simple redress to this structural challenge, it is vital that teachers are supported in decisions to introduce diverse content in the classroom. In addition, efficient use must be made of the spaces and flexibility within national curricula for local, additional and decolonised knowledge.
Recommendations for engaging with decolonisation in teacher training
Our discussion above has highlighted key areas where teacher training initiatives can be adapted to accommodate decolonising principles. This is not to say that such adaptation is necessarily straightforward. Here, we outline some key recommendations.
1. Confronting issues of racism directly. An initial important consideration is for racism and colonialism to be confronted directly in teacher training. Our analysis makes two specific recommendations regarding teacher training:
ii. Incorporate awareness-raising on racism and colonial structures, and
ii. Enable educators’ critical self-reflection on their positionality in systems of race.
In many instances, programmes for teachers’ continuous professional development opt for politically safe, strategy-based instruction, or issues of race are masked by the use of linguistic terms relating indirectly to “diversity”. However, these types of initiatives may fail to provide the appropriate training. At the same time, we note that our recommendations place a responsibility for professional reflexivity on teachers that is challenging, where some may find such conversations uncomfortable.
2. External resources and their use. While improved teaching resources are not in themselves a panacea, the provision of high-quality textbook material can help make meaningful changes. Well-designed learning resources can enable diverse learning without overloading students with additional reading. A learning resource of high quality is underpinned with evidence-based models of learner progression, pedagogy and didactics that ensures the logical sequencing of materials and stimulates learning. Textbooks are also known to serve as useful tools in decreasing teachers’ workloads. Teacher training initiatives can reinforce the importance of using high quality learning materials as a support in classrooms and promote the informed and strategic use of textbooks as a pedagogic tool.
3. Decolonisation is a process. It is clear that decolonisation involves a long-term commitment of effort and reflection. Perspectives that have developed in a society with a well-established colonial legacy are not easy to displace. As part of this process of deep reflection there should be ongoing opportunities to research how teacher training is continually engaging with decolonisation. This could involve the observation of training programmes, conversations with teachers about decolonised learning materials, and qualitative evaluations of teachers’ shifting perspectives.
These recommendations are of course not an exhaustive list. However, we find that these are good starting points for making inroads into decolonising education in the area of teacher training.
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