Decolonizing the curriculum

An Authentic Education for Our Place and Time
Consulting Educational and Communications Expert
Trends in Education

Learning changes the brain

"Pensar es servir"


Every mind is creative


Food for thought


The political and historical consciousness of a country is in large part the product of its education systems and processes.


In 1891 an intellectual from the Americas wrote:

"Our young people enter the world prepared to divine, wearing Yankee and European spectacles, and aspire to lead in a place they don't really know" (José Martí 1891). 

Martí had in mind the civilization-barbarism dichotomy so popular during his time and which still reverberates today. 

In 1971, in a polemical piece, another intellectual from the Americas, Roberto Fernández Retamar, referred to this dichotomy with the phrase "the real life of a false dilemma," relating it another, the widely accepted Prospero-Caliban representation of colonialism. Acknowledging the insights of the Caribbean writers, Barbadian Edward Brathwaite and the Martinican Aimé Césaire, writing in English and French respectively, both having appropriated Caliban as a positive symbol in the Americas, Fernández Retamar wrote:

“In proposing Caliban as our symbol, I am aware that it is not entirely ours, that it is also an alien elaboration although in this case based on our concrete realities. . .

"To assume our condition as Caliban implies rethinking our history from the other side, from the viewpoint of the other protagonist. . . There is no real Ariel-Caliban polarity: both are slaves in the hands of Prospero, the foreign magician. But Caliban is the...unconquerable master of the island, while Ariel...is the intellectual."

"This conception of our culture had already been articulately expressed and defended in the last century by the first among us to understand clearly the concrete situation of what he called . . . ‘our mestizo America’: José Martí” (Caliban and Other Essays).

In 2008, yet another intellectual from the Americas, -John Ralston Saul, echoes this concept (“a métis civilization”) in A Fair Country. Telling Truths About Canada.

This book's relevance confirms that Canada’s national consciousness is still lamentably colonial. It is an invaluable resource for teachers and students.


Authenticity - the measure of a relevant education

What we teach and learn must make education happen in ways that are real and relevant to every student.

Education must enable integration and positive exchange.

Teaching and learning must make it necessary and possible for students to know and understand the history of their country and its people.

Decolonization of the mind, and of the curriculum, is the process of actively critiquing and resisting the power dynamics that privilege the empire’s (or Western) values, traditions, and practices, and deny or denigrate the knowledge, skills, and ways of knowing and doing of the marginalized, subjugated people (who are, in empire’s eyes, the other)


Worth repeating

José Martí

“We will not graduate leaders unless we teach the rudiments of the art of leadership— the analysis of the elements peculiar to the people of this place.” (“Our America” 1891)

“To know is to resolve. To know the country, and to govern it according to that knowledge, is the only way to rid it of tyrannies. The European university must yield to the American university. The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in depth, even if the archons of Greece are excluded. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece that isn’t ours. It is more necessary to us. Graft the world onto our republics; but the trunk must be of our republics” (“Our America” 1891).

John Ralston Saul

“Colonialism is a denial of the reality of self in favour of an imaginary special position inside the mythology of someone else’s empire. That special position can never exist because empires have their own purposes” (John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country. Telling Truths About Canada, 2008).

Linda Tuhiwai Smith

“Decolonization, however, does not mean and has not meant a total rejection of all theory or research or Western knowledge. Rather, it is about centering our concerns and worldviews and then coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purposes” (Decolonizing Methodologies, 2012, 1999).

Kevin Bruyneel

There are “various possibilities for conceptualizing the relationship between people, power, and space over time, and, just as important, to take heed of what we lose by not opening ourselves up to at least a consideration of alternatives” (The Third Space of Sovereignty, 2007).


An authentic education for our place and time?

The nature of resistance and some challenges we know about

•Western values, traditions, and practices are “a construct of reality that is difficult to challenge and even more difficult to transform when working solely within the systems of the dominant society” (Linda Croall, 
Self-Determination Through Indian Controlled Indian Education (ICIE) at the Level of Higher Learning, unpublished thesis, 2008).

•The colonial mindset depends on the mythologies that sustain it.

•Elites and mainstream sectors or individuals seldom divest themselves of the belief systems that privilege them.

•Buy-in from faculty colleagues isn't automatic - change means encroachment; change means more work; identity, privilege and status may be perceived as being under attack.

•Marginalized individuals often become alienated - students withdraw from school; professionals burn out.

•Usually there's a lack of expertise, but there's often an unwillingness to work outside the canon.

•Often there's resentment from students, themselves products of colonized colonial, who perceive their identity as being under attack.

•Discomfort is often the companion of change - the familiar is more comfortable.


Meeting the challenges


•It takes courage, teamwork and collaboration to embrace our discomfort and to welcome discomfort in our students as teaching and learning moments.

•It's important to cultivate and nurture partnerships with educational administrators to influence the vision, practices and priorities of our institutions of higher learning.

•In an environment where corporate culture and "selling points" determine where our endeavours are situated within the structure of our schools, we need to promote the "brand appeal" of authenticity and relevance and showcase our transformed curricula at conferences and in publications.


Decolonization - blueprint for an integrated approach to curriculum development

•Critique the canon and re-evaluate our approaches to our subjects and disciplines.

•Integrate diverse ways of knowing, learning, and evaluating.

•Welcome students' creativity and initiative, even if their ideas are not covered by the course description.

•Incorporate complexity in our processes and practices, encourage open-mindedness and comfort with ambiguity.

•Respond creatively to changing conditions in our communities and around the globe.


Copyright 2010 Pamela Barnett