Riyad A. Shahjahan, Annabelle L. Estera & Kirsten T. Edwards
Today we explore what it means to decolonize education. My guests are Riyad Shahjahan, Annabelle Estera, and Kirsten Edwards. Together with Kristen Surla, they conducted a literature review of 207 articles about the topic. They show that the very idea of decolonizing takes on diverse meanings and subsequently is put into practice in different ways. They argue there is no one way or best practice to decolonize curriculum or pedagogy. They also detail some of the challenges of actualizing decolonization.
Riyad Shahjahan is an associate professor of higher, adult, and lifelong Education at Michigan State University. Annabelle Estera is an Advisor and Instructor in Graduate Education at Endicott College. Kirsten Edwards is an Associate Professor in educational policy studies at Florida International University.
Their new co-written article is “‘Decolonizing’ curriculum and pedagogy: A comparative review across disciplines and global higher education contexts” published in the Review of Educational Research.
Citation: Shahjahan, Riyad, Estera, Annabelle, Edwards, Kirsten, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 256, podcast audio, October 3, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/shahjahan-estera-edwards/
Will Brehm 0:27
Riyad Shahjahan, Annabelle Estera, and Kirsten Edwards, welcome to FreshEd.
Riyad Shahjahan 2:13
Thank you for having us.
Annabelle Estera 2:14
Yeah. So happy to be here.
Kirsten Edwards 2:16
Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Will Brehm 2:18
So, I want to just jump right into this pretty large topic of decolonizing the curriculum and pedagogy. Why, in a sense, is this notion of decolonization so popular today? I mean, I hear it in the news, in universities, it’s becoming written about more and more. Why is it, today, that it’s so popular?
Riyad Shahjahan 2:39
So, let me just jump in. I would say when we started this project, which is about three years ago, there are three trajectories that we would suggest, for us, highlighted the growth of this discussion. Number one was the student movements, both in the global South and the global North. So, for instance, in the global South, particularly between 2015 and 2016, the Rhodes Must Fall statue in South Africa, University of Cape Town, Fees Must Fall throughout South Africa. Then there were also student movements even preceding that. And this is very interesting, Will, in terms of how certain kinds of movements get more publicized than others. So, there were also movements beyond South Africa, in Colombia in 2011, about fees must fall there as well. And then this movement then comes into places like Europe and UK, where you start to talk about why is my curriculum white, and also Rhodes Must Fall was also instigated. So, those were the student movements. The second thing that also emerged -and again, this all happened in the past decade, I would say. That this language of decolonizing, and particularly decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy emerged. Another one is also in Canada, for instance, where you have activists in Indigenous communities, really raising the question around The Truth and Reconciliation Process. And so, in Canada, you see also, a major discussion about the role of education and how it was a tool of domination. That was another area. The third one, and I think this is the one that a lot of people often don’t discuss, which is one of the points that we want to make in this paper, is that the decolonizing language tends to reproduce global North and South relationships. So, we hear in the global North decolonizing, but it’s been elsewhere, right? And so, one of the conferences that I think is monumental that people don’t often discuss, and they’ve created an edited book, is this Decolonizing Our Universities Conference that took place in 2011 in Penang, Malaysia at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, whereby they brought scholars, journalists, students from all across four continents to talk about how do we decolonize the curriculum and resist Eurocentrism. And they have a whole book out on this. And so, I would say those are the three major trajectories that come together that created this explosion, particularly in the academic setting, but especially the movements and the national policies in terms of the larger media.
Will Brehm 5:18
It’s pretty fascinating to think that all of this has happened so quickly, in a way. Annabelle, is there a longer history here? I mean, obviously, colonization has a much longer -hundreds of years of history, domination through education has a much longer history, Indigenous struggles probably do as well. So, how do we begin to understand decolonization of today but sort of from that long durée, that longer history?
Annabelle Estera 5:43
Yes, absolutely. There’s a whole history, a whole context that we try to situate all of our analysis around and discussion around decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy. And I might reframe a little bit to say that there are multiple histories and multiple contexts, right? Dr. Shahjahan just highlighted how our discussion is very much global. And so, when we talk at that level, there’s so many directions that we could go. But sort of just as a baseline, and I’m not going to do justice to all the history in this time we have, but sort of as a starter, we can think about how decolonization as a concept itself started to really gain prominence after 1945. And it, at that time, was referring to the independence of nation states from former colonial empires. So, think like post World War Two. Yet at the same time, we could go even back further to what some would argue was the first wave of decolonization. And when I say that I’m referring to decolonization in the Americas, which was led by Mestizo and Creole and Black actors, such as within the Haitian Revolution. And then of course, we really need to think about the Indigenous peoples, again, across the globe who have been seeking sovereignty and continue to seek sovereignty for more than 500 years. And so, all of these different trajectories of colonization and decolonization, these also come with their own theorists and all works. And so, there is definitely a much larger context that we were situating our work in, and that we needed to always remember and refer back to when thinking about these articles and these works of today.
Will Brehm 7:15
It’s so interesting when you do frame it in those larger histories that you’re bringing up because it makes you realize that the very term decolonization is almost impossible to define in any one way. Like there has to be multiple meanings because of these multiple histories. So, Kirsten, when we are beginning to actually come to terms with what decolonization might actually look like in education and curriculum and pedagogy, how do we even begin to start mapping some of these different meanings?
Kirsten Edwards 7:47
Yeah, so I think that -and I appreciate the background that Riyad and Annabelle have given us already so it really kind of frames my response- in that regard is that really what we’re looking at is people in and outside of education and outside of higher education, attempting to free themselves from the colonial impact. So, trying to free themselves from the product and the process of a colonial experience. And so, we see that through people attempting to, particularly in higher education curriculum and pedagogy across the globe, in our literature review, what we found is that people are trying to resist constraints. The constraints that a monoculture or Eurocentric curriculum or pedagogical design has on them. They’re trying to embed alternatives. So, they’re trying to embed non-Western, non-Eurocentric models of learning into the classroom. And so, they’re trying to disrupt what they’re feeling as constraints, and they’re feeling as blockades to more robust, more eclectic, more global South, locally specific ways of thinking about coming to know, and coming to be that are constrained by these very specific monocultural, Eurocentric Western paradigms. And they’re trying to bring that to light. So, all the things that get taken for granted, they’re trying to bring it to the surface.
Will Brehm 9:12
This may sound like a stupid question, but I’ve always learned that stupid questions are okay. Why is it important to move beyond, as you’re saying, some of those Eurocentric approaches to knowledge? The monocultural perspectives and hierarchies that are found in universities today. Why is that even important?
Kirsten Edwards 9:40
Well, one: we’re better if we have multiple ways of thinking through complex ideas. We do better, we are better. And two: learning is life and if you constrain the way I learn, and the way I come to be in the world, and the way I come to know in the world, then you’re constraining my ability to live in the fullest sense of who I am. And so, I think that people across the globe are experiencing that constraint on life through education, through other means, by way of the state, or however you want to describe it. They’re feeling these constraints on life and they’re responding with a decolonial response.
Riyad Shahjahan 10:14
I would like to say that, as we had discussed earlier, that decolonizing means different things in different contexts and how it looks. But to me, I would say, one way of -I don’t want to put a universal narrative, but it is, to some extent- is really questioning what constitutes a human and which human becomes the representative of all knowledge. And by human, I’m not talking about the social being, but just what is it to be a human and how that gets represented. Whether it’s medical curricula, to arts, to humanities, to education. So, in response to why this is important, is that if we can’t see ourselves human in these contexts, these university contexts, then why are we there? How can we even engage if we are not even seen? We’re invisible. So, I think, to me, it’s a question of being, more than knowing. Is that if our ways of being are not acknowledged, simply whether it’s our knowledge, our histories or whatever it is, is not there, then how can we even be?
Will Brehm 11:19
There really seems to be something about institutional power and structures that limit the ways of knowing and being to a particular formation of a particular human body in a way that would exclude many of the other people in the world that also are participating in that institution. So, I mean, it makes me think that there must be huge pushback for some of these efforts. Because there are these vested interests, so to speak, inside these institutions to keep structures looking like they used to. I mean, that must be something quite challenging when it comes to the work of decolonizing.
Kirsten Edwards 11:56
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of the things that we noticed in the review is that there are resistances and challenges that emerge to attempting to decolonize curriculum and pedagogy. One of the things, and actually, Riyad and I have been working on a couple of other projects that look at some of the temporal constraints that emerge. So, even when we think about curricular design and pedagogical form, there are also Western notions of time that get embedded into these forms. So, things that we don’t -we don’t even think about time. Like, who controls how we think about time. But that control of the way that we even think about time gets embedded in colonial curricular and pedagogical practices. And so, we even see people resist decolonial curriculum and pedagogy. So, for instance, in the United States, no one’s just saying the United States but in, in many global South nations, race, and races, and people of color, in general, are constructed in a past orientation. So, they’re constructed as part of the past. So, racism, the race problem, it’s taught and understood as a product as, a reality of the past. Which makes it difficult for students to understand racism and racialized power as not only implicating the present, are being reproduced in the present, but also projected into the future, are formulating the way that we understand the future, as I’ve heard Riyad say, the yet to come. So, that really creates challenges in the classroom if you’re trying to do a decolonial curricular or pedagogical design, or you’re trying to teach from a more circular perspective, which is very evident in many global Indigenous communities, understanding time as circular, or understanding time, as non-linear, and you’re trying to teach ideas of racial asymmetries, or trying to teach ideas of domination, but you have a student body who wants to maintain the problem really is the bad things that happened in the past. And so, we’re just always dealing with the past but it’s really not a function of the present or how we are constructing the future.
Riyad Shahjahan 14:22
Yeah, I mean, this is something that is also a limitation to the literature we looked at: is not looking at the role of Western clock time that dominates the world. It is a transnational force. And so, for instance, often when we say things about people resisting the youth clock time, like we don’t have enough time to discuss this. So, how an institution prioritizes is also a temporal priority that they’re making. So, for instance, sometimes students are like, “Oh, you’re spending too much time talking about this community”. That’s one way of saying, “Listen, that temporal priority is not our priority. Our priority is to have some global currency”, for instance. Another example is oftentimes the future self -in other ways, the way people want to be in the future- that often impediments what people want to learn today. So, for instance, we have examples from South Africa where engineering students are like, “Well, why would I want to decolonize, because what I want is to be able to have a credential that’s mobile. So, if we put too much local curriculum then I cannot reach my future self of global currency”. So, that’s what we mean by temporality. But the other thing I wanted to talk about in terms of constraints, and it’s a big constraint in our work itself, is language. We only looked at literature in English. And when you talk about the structure of these institutions, English language dominates the academic and business world. Even the kinds of publications we read, again, that’s our fault, because we were limited in accessing knowledges in languages of decolonization beyond English. But hierarchically speaking, English language dominates publication regimes, institutional validity, I mean, the whole internationalization movement that we see in many parts of the world is really about adopting English. And so that is a major, major constraint in bringing a decolonial because oftentimes decolonial is also tied to other languages.
Will Brehm 16:23
How can we even begin to overcome sort of that constraint? I mean, because that’s a constraint that many people potentially have if they only speak one language, right? How, as academics, do we actually bring in other languages into our teaching if it is in English? I mean, maybe the simple answer is translation, but it seems like it’s a big struggle about what gets translated, who gets translated. Translation itself is quite a political process, I would imagine.
Annabelle Estera 16:56
Yeah, I mean, the whole constraint and limitations of having English be the dominant language, like within our own research, but also just globally within education. Yeah, it’s such a huge challenge and something that we’ve wrestled with as a team, and how do we write about this ethically? And how do we get to a place where we acknowledge it? And how do we also try to move beyond this? And so, I feel like, at least personally, I’m in this space of still thinking about what does partnership mean? What does relationship mean? Like how to build those across languages, across spaces, and I mean, that’s not to say like, no matter where you are, there’s people with different languages, so I’m thinking of where I am. So, I don’t need to look across the globe, necessarily, to make that partnership. But I’m definitely in that space of recognizing that we need to break down some of these walls and barriers that we have, and also recognize some of the spaces where this currently actually is happening, and how do we reach out to them? And how do we elevate the work that they’re doing as well?
Will Brehm 17:58
I absolutely agree. And it’s a real struggle in my sort of teaching practice. And even with FreshEd. You know, this is an English medium podcast, and I worry about all the ideas that I can’t access through English, and that’s what sort of worries me the most with the podcast. And also in my teaching, it is really hard to figure out how to navigate that terrain without sort of reproducing the empire of English. So, let’s go back to actual examples of decolonizing the curriculum because I think a lot of listeners at their universities, or their places of work, probably have had these conversations. I’ve been in a few of these conversations and sometimes they end in like, nothing gets done and it’s a bit frustrating. So, if we were to actually critique the positionality of certain knowledge being dominant in the academy, for instance, in an institution, is there an example of decolonizing that you came across in your literature review that you just thought was a really great example?
Riyad Shahjahan 19:02
One example that comes to mind is a music educator in Canada, who basically revised their title of their course from Music Theory 1 to calling it, I believe, if I recall, correctly, something around the lines of Western Art History, Music Theory 1 to kind of gesture that this is not a universal music theory course but rather, it’s about a specific spatial geographical political space from which the course is articulating itself. That’s just one example. Another example is of a colleague in the UK in education, who uses the term of “putting text into place” and what that means is to take what she calls disciplinary fathers and talk about who they are. So, in other words, contextualizing where particular texts, where particular knowledge is coming from is one way of probing the positionality of knowledge that is often taken as the canons. That’s one example. Another example is bringing, like, for instance, in the case of South Africa in trying to bring more of African authors in the political science curriculum. Or like in India, a colleague in mathematics, really challenging the universality of calculus, and its own history in the context of India, particularly colonial relations and how calculus came to be. So, I mean, those are just some examples in terms of questioning the positionality of knowledge. They’re sometimes interconnected. Like when people are critiquing positioning knowledge, they’re also talking about inclusive curriculum. That’s another thing that they discussed. I mean, the music art is a great example of trying to create an inclusive curriculum by subverting what a music theory course assumes by its formal title. But I think in terms of inclusive curriculums, and this is going to be very interesting for us, was very fascinating to see the geographical differences. So, many people were using the language of, I would say, inclusivity but how they were naming it varied. So, for instance, and again, I want to let the audience know that our literature predominantly was hegemonic by North America. So, more than any other part of the world, like nearly 50% of our literature came from North America which is another whole story. But say, for instance, in Canada, they were using the language of “indigenize” but in South Africa, they were using the language of “Africanizing” or “localizing”. Similarly, when it came to inclusive curriculum in Europe it wasn’t the language of indigenize, they were using the language of “diversify”.
Will Brehm 21:51
So, how do you understand these differences?
Riyad Shahjahan 21:54
I think part of the differences has a lot to do with these contexts’ histories, in terms of particularly dealing with minoritized populations, such as Indigenous peoples, or racialized communities, and so forth. So, I think that’s part of it. That was very interesting to us to see the naming vary. Not necessarily the strategy, but just the naming.
Will Brehm 22:04
Does location really matter when it comes to this process of decolonizing the curriculum and pedagogy?
Kirsten Edwards 22:12
Absolutely. I mean, I think that was pretty clear in the literature in our process. While there were several similarities, people really were drawing on their own history of domination to inform their pathways, quote, unquote, forward -and not to use a linear term. But yeah, they were drawing on their own experiences of colonization and domination. Their own unique, locally specific experiences, and histories to inform how they understood colonization, and how they understood the role of decolonization in their process. And so, we definitely saw distinctions in between, like locations where European presence or the presence of white bodies were more prevalent versus locations where the Indigenous culture was much more on the surface. And so, where they wanted to put emphasis on decolonizing. So, we saw in some locations, decolonial strategies in locations where white bodies were more prevalent, and more inward facing in locations where the Indigenous community was more on the surface. So, for instance, if you were in South America or Latin America, there was much more of an emphasis on trying to partner with community organizations, local Indigenous communities, outside of the higher education institution, so having those kind of community partnerships. Versus in locations like South Africa, where many of the people are Indigenous to the location, there was more emphasis on changing the higher education institutions. So, inward facing processes of decolonization that are changing the institution from the inside.
Annabelle Estera 24:03
I think that one caveat that I want to add is that it’s even though we saw patterns, it doesn’t mean like, oh, we saw outward facing within Latin America, and not as much within North America, it doesn’t mean that these North outward facing approaches were not happening or are not happening here, right? It just means like, what was more prevalent in the literature. And it also goes back to a challenge, of do people even use the term decolonization? Are people even referring or talking about something like conceptually similar but are calling it something different. So, even when we recognize these patterns across the literature, we also acknowledge that there are folks that we’re leaving out.
Will Brehm 24:43
That must be challenging to sort of recognize that. The terms are so diffuse, and people might be doing and have similar aims, but calling it different things and or not publishing in the academic literature and so sort of being forgotten in a way. Annabelle, I wanted to ask you a little bit about some of the challenges of actualizing some of these practices that you’ve identified reading across the literature. And in particular, as a white man, I feel like I have to be very careful how I dig into decolonizing the curriculum and not wanting to, in a sense tokenize someone’s work, simply because they’re a person of color. And then I can sort of tick the box that I’ve decolonized my curriculum. So, how can people decolonize their pedagogy and curriculum in a respectful way, in a sense?
Annabelle Estera 25:39
Yeah, I mean, I appreciate that question so much. And I appreciate you responding to that as well. I don’t identify as Indigenous, I identify as Filipina and even though I might have some Indigenous background in the past, it’s not something that I’m connected with. So, I identify as a settler here on Turtle Island. And so, I come up against some of these same challenges. And it was definitely a challenge that was echoed across the literature, particularly settler colonial nations across the globe. There are two examples that really come up for me. And one of them is by a scholar, Adefarakan, who identifies as Indigenous Yorùbá, and she talks about introducing the Yorùbá concept of Ori, which literally means head, but also destiny or purpose, and is really a multi layered element of the Yorùbá world sense, as a way of describing the world in a way that doesn’t privilege sight. I really appreciated her article because she did tackle this question head on and to be a little bit more concrete, she encouraged teachers, who don’t identify as Yorùbá, to invite a Yorùbá elder or someone from the community to co-teach, for instance. And she says, specifically, co-teach the first three weeks of the unit together to really lay down this foundational knowledge, the cosmology, the culture, right? It’s not something that you can tackle in one core session, in one article, so no, let’s do this justice, let’s put some time into this and make it meaningful for students. So, I think that partnership was a big element. She also gave a suggestion to have teachers develop -after they’ve had this co-teaching experience- lesson plans for at least and she again, names a four-to-six-week unit. And she gives some examples on potential themes. So, again, I think it’s highlighting that engaging with these knowledges takes time. So, I think that was one of the biggest takeaways. Even if you don’t identify, take the time. Do the justice, find partnerships where you can. And I think another large component to how do you do this, in a way that’s not appropriating, non-tokenizing, was to really make sure that the content -of Indigenous peoples, of other minorities, people- this is happening across the curriculum. So, sort of similar -and I’ll draw upon one of the examples that Riyad already mentioned Attas who spoke as a music theorist. He told the story of how he created the course and how he did this in partnership with some Indigenous folks across the institution, and he was very conscious of having a six-unit course and making sure within each unit we have some presentation, we have some meaningful engagement with these knowledges, with these topics. And so, I think those were two things that really came to the forefront for me in terms of thinking about how do we talk about these knowledges respectfully and ethically,
Will Brehm 28:42
Yeah. It’s like it’s much more than just representation, which has a symbolic value, but it actually has to have a meaningful value with the way in which the whole module, or course, or curriculum is actually engaged with, and have an impact and change the value judgments one might have over multiple literatures or knowledges that appear in the curriculum. It’s a really tricky balance. I mean, even if you’re working with different local communities, it’s impossible, probably, to have representation of all of those local communities in one class because you’re sort of limited by time, to go back to the Western notion of time earlier.
Riyad Shahjahan 29:21
I think one of the things that we have to be very careful of when we talk about any decolonizing project is talking about magic bullets, or there are best practices because it’s so context specific. So, I think that’s really important for us to constantly keep in mind. One of the arguments that we make in our article is that decolonizing also means making mistakes. One of the problems with linear notions of time is this idea of utopia. Like we’re always progressing to the so-called “right direction”, right? And that underpins even the way we think about decolonizing. That we have to get it right. And I think one thing to keep in mind is that the notion of mystery or invisible is as important in so many cultures as this idea of visibility, right. And the idea of mystery is such that, which again, goes back to the notion of time being something you tame. Decolonizing is not a project of taming something. In many ways, it’s opening. And when you’re opening, just like a can of worms, you can’t predict how it unfolds. So, I would say that there isn’t a concrete way, or here are the 10 best practices of doing it and that’s not actually our project at all. And actually, we problematize such projects because this assumes, again, a Eurocentric modernity perspective of universality and objectivity. So, I think the question of space, location, context, whether or not we’re looking at the world from a world sense, versus a worldview model, all those things, shapes. Yeah. So, I would respond that way: that there is a very context specific, and I would say a humility of way of knowing if I could add is the most important way,
Will Brehm 31:07
It’s so interesting about opening things up and making mistakes and it makes me wonder, you know, reflecting on the pretty big literature review that you’ve just done, have there been any sort of absences that you sort of found and can reflect upon as saying, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty big hole and I wonder why”. In other words, what do some of these absences that you might have found begin to tell us?
Kirsten Edwards 31:34
I think we’ve kind of talked -my colleagues have spoken to this directly and around this throughout this conversation, but one of the things that I want to think about is the language. So, we focused on decolonization, the term, the idea decolonization. And what we realized throughout the process is that many groups of people may be having similar ideas, or may have similar aims, but may not be using the language of decolonization. Even the terminology decolonization has a very location specific kind of use. What groups of people, what regions of the world are using that terminology? And so that excludes several people. And so, what we found in our literature review is we didn’t see, for instance, although the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, in the United States and student resistance around the Black Lives Matter movement -and not just the United States, I apologize for saying that but across the globe- we didn’t really see Black student resistance using the term decolonization in the US, for instance. And although the Black Power movement, several Pan-African movements that have been instrumental in the rise of decolonization, anti-colonial resistance throughout history. So, there is definitely a Black presence within the history of decolonization, the history of anti-colonialism but we don’t see the students now using, we don’t see Black communities now using that terminology, at least not in the literature. Similarly, we had a dearth of information from the Caribbean, but we know that the Caribbean has been instrumental and has been pivotal in global decolonial resistance. We think about the Haitian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and just different Caribbean nations that have really been pivotal in decolonizing, and anti-colonial resistance throughout history. But we really didn’t see a whole lot of literature come out of the Caribbean. There was a complete dearth of literature coming out of the Caribbean. And similarly, in Latin America, we had a very limited amount. But we were also only looking at English. And so that cut off a whole region of the world in this conversation. So, those are some major absences and it really left us -we could only do what we can do. It’s just one project. But as a collective, it really left us wondering: so, what are the insights that were missing when these major pivotal regions of the world are not represented in this document? And why are Black Lives Matter activists not using the language of decolonization? Why aren’t we accessing literature on decolonization coming out of the Caribbean? Those are some really important questions for us to continue to ponder.
Will Brehm 34:33
It seems like a lot of really good dissertation topics for some students out there. But I mean, in a sense, it goes back to Riyad’s metaphor of opening a can of worms. You don’t know what direction it’s going to go and sort of being left with more questions and answers is sort of a great way to end a project or at least this part of the project. I’m sure you’re continuing on exploring these questions in more depth. Riyad, Annabel, Kirsten, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today and congratulations on your article.
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