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Questions academics can ask to decolonise their classrooms

Asking questions can create new ways of teaching and learning. StepanPopov/Shutterstock

The curriculum is not just the “stuff” that students must learn to be knowledgeable and skilled in a particular discipline. It’s about more than just content.

Sociologists of education argue that “curriculum” is a highly ideological hybrid discourse. This means that it includes implicit ways of knowing, ways of doing and ways of being – as well as content.

In South African universities, curriculum issues came to the fore during a series of nationwide student protests between 2015 and 2017. Students have argued that what’s being taught in university courses is imported from the global North and doesn’t draw enough on African-based research and the work of academics from the global South. Students have also argued that course materials don’t take the backgrounds of most South African learners into account in terms of culture, language or method.

Research conducted among academics and students at a historically white South African university suggests that many are thinking about “decolonising the curriculum” from only one angle: changing the content of what they teach.

So, for example, they might add Africa-based authors to a reading list. But they don’t shift the tasks required to engage with that literature, which still leaves many students feeling alienated and marginalised.

Our own work with academics in the humanities and social sciences in South Africa shows there’s not much engagement around how different ways of teaching might bring decolonial practices into the classroom. Universities in other parts of Africa are far ahead when it comes to decolonisation. Both Makerere University in Uganda, and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, for example, have oriented their curricula towards inclusion and social justice since the 1960s.

It’s vital for academics in South Africa to start asking deep questions that examine what decolonisation might look like in their teaching, and how this can be achieved. We were part of a working group at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that generated a number of questions which could serve as points of departure for beginning to think about decolonising ways of teaching.

Bridging gaps

In our work from UCT’s Humanities Education Development Unit, we work mostly on tutor training and on first year courses, in partnership with departments. Our research and development work suggests that there is uncertainty among many academics about how exactly to take up the decolonial challenge in their own classroom practices.

To help bridge this gap, we’ve come up with a series of questions to encourage academics across faculties to unearth some of the norms, assumptions and everyday practices that are taken for granted and which may be entangled in the “hidden curriculum”. This might help us to think through the “how” as well as the “what”, as a first practical step towards “decolonising” our teaching.

These questions are based on discussions held during 2017 in a working group called “Decolonising Pedagogy in the Humanities”. The group was made up of course conveners, teaching assistants, tutors and student representatives.

The questions were split into two themes: curriculum and pedagogy (or ways of teaching). Many questions emerged. We’ve distilled them into just 10 sets, with some supplementary thoughts, that lecturers could start asking as they work towards decolonising pedagogy.

Crucial questions

  1. What principles, norms, values and worldviews inform your selection of knowledge for your curriculum? (think about absences as well as presences, centres as well as margins)

  2. Do you articulate your own social and intellectual position, from which you speak when lecturing?

  3. For whom do you design your curriculum? Who is your ideal, imagined student and what assumptions do you make about their backgrounds, culture, languages and schooling?

  4. Does your curriculum reflect its location in Africa and the global South? To what extent does it draw on subjugated histories, voices, cultures and languages?

  5. How does your teaching recognise and affirm the agency of black and first-generation students? How does your teaching legitimate and respect their experiences and cultures?

  6. Can you speak indigenous or regional languages and relate to the cultures and lived experiences of all students? Do you draw on these valuable resources in your teaching?

  7. How does your curriculum level the playing fields by requiring traditional/ white students to acquire the intellectual and cultural resources to function effectively in a plural society?

  8. How do you build a learning community in your classroom where students learn actively from each other and draw on their own knowledge sources?

  9. How do your assumptions about curriculum knowledge play out in the criteria that you use to assess students? What can you do to make your assessment practices more fair and valid for all students, without inducing high levels of anxiety? What assessment methods could show what all students are capable of, drawing on their strengths and promoting their agency and creativity?

  10. How far do your teaching and assessment methods allow students to feel included without assuming assimilation?

What to do with the answers

When we ask questions such as these, we can begin to unearth some of our hidden practices. These practices can make students feel distanced or excluded from our disciplines and classroom interaction. Asking these questions also allows academics to become active learners within their own classroom, while creating more hospitable environments for learning.

Crucially, this allows students and staff to engage better with course content and with one another.

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