An interview with..., Student Voice

Decolonising the Curriculum Interview Series – Leon Tikly podcast and transcript

In this instalment of the Decolonising the Curriculum interview series, BILT Student Fellows Rhona Wilkinson and Sama Zou’bi talk with Leon Tikly, Professor in Education and UNESCO Chair in Inclusive, Good Quality Education.

Leon Tikly’s interests and credentials are varied and extensive. On the practical side, he has with partners in sub-Saharan Africa to excel the educational system and undertakes projects to develop models of successful practice to raise the achievement of disadvantaged groups of learners in the UK. On the theoretical side, he focuses on education as an aspect of the ‘postcolonial condition’ and the connections between education quality, inequality and social justice.

This interview was a really interesting, inspiring discussion. Rhona, Sama and Leon discuss how decolonisation is a process of multiple levels (local, national and global) and how we can actively decolonise the university and wider society.

Below are extractions from our conversation. [Rhona’s microphone in the introduction/ending comments is not great, there is a little bit of feedback so apologies for this]

Rhona: I thought we could start by a quick introduction and a bit about what your position at the University. 

Leon: Well, first of all, thanks for inviting me and my name is Leon Tikly. I’m Professor in Education in the School of Education here at the University of Bristol. So, basically, I have two main research interests. One is around race and ethnicity and education in the UK and European context and the other is around education in the postcolonial world, particularly in Africa. So, both of those areas of research interests touched on issues of decolonizing the curriculum. From the point of view of the Global South, on the one hand, my work in Africa and in terms of the former metropole if you like here in the UK. 

Sama: Thank you. Then our first question is how do you understand decolonization and how do you view it as a global process per say?  

Leon: So, I think to understand it as a process is important because it’s not something that’s ever finished or complete. It’s an ongoing process. It’s also a contested process. It’s a process that has been contested and continues to be contested. I think if one looks back at the long durian over the period of colonialism itself, one can see efforts to challenge Eurocentric nature of the curriculum during for example the struggles against colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. But also, you know even in period following formal independence, those struggles have continued in the sense that curricula in Africa and elsewhere continue to be heavily shaped and influenced by the colonial period. So, one sees in textbooks in Africa and other parts of the world examples that that are drawn from the European context and still in many cases, although there have been efforts to try and make curriculum more relevant to local context, you can still see a very strong Eurocentric bias. Not just in terms of the examples used but also, and this is the key thing about colonisation, in terms of the epistemic structure of their discipline. The extent to which, at a fundamental level, they continue to reflect European Enlightenment, ways of conceiving of shaping, formulating questions and ideas. I think you know the struggle in that sense is from the outset [it has] always been global. The question of the curriculum has always been a global one. Formal education was introduced in many parts of the world as missionaries and from its outset, a Eurocentric Endeavor.

The Eurocentric nature of the curriculum is also reflected here. During the colonial period textbooks used in the schools were full of race, racial stereotypes and the curriculum reproduced ideas around so called racial hierarchies. But also perpetrated other kinds of cultural stereotypes, for example, Muslims and so on. Of course, these issues weren’t confined to the colonies, the way that people of colour were represented. They also related to the first colonies of England, to Ireland, Scotland and Wales. So the education system here has been complicit through the whole colonial period in reproducing colonial stereotypes but also in putting forward a particular view of the world understanding of the nature of nature and of human society that is, at a fundamental level, Eurocentric in its conception.

Rhona: I think that’s interesting that it’s a global process and I guess [that] the colonial curriculum is not just here, it’s also in other countries and the way that history has meant that colonial stereotypes and epistemologies [has] become embedded in all curricula across the world. I think that’s really interesting. Bringing it back to the University of Bristol and decolonising, how would you understand decolonising in the context of [the] University of Bristol do you think? Just as a quick follow up question.

Leon: Well, you might ask, it is important with all the time always to start where you are, in your own context. Many academics across the University as well as teachers across our city, educators in the city of Bristol and activists have been campaigning, trying to draw attention to the importance of decolonising the curriculum. In Bristol, there are grassroots decolsoning movement amongst staff, bottom-up pressure if you like. Not just staff but students have been incredibly proactive, within the Student Union and in particular faculties, in medicine, in SPAIS in progressing a decolonising agenda.

But in the University, there’s also been top-down pressure to change which is critical in order to realise education chance in a large, complex organisation such as the University of Bristol, you need both a central mandate and pressure for change but also that grassroots energy for change. So, both of these are important. It’s also critical that we’re challenged by interests outside of the University, so the city of Bristol itself, we’re blessed with having a very diverse community and there are structures within civil society in Bristol. They have also been very active in promoting this idea of decolonizing the curriculum. In education, for example, there’s the Black Southwest teachers, or the Global Majority Teachers Network for instance, which has been really important in trying to instigate change in our schools as well as in the University.

So the challenges are enormous in Bristol. Like other universities [Bristol] is deeply implicated at a number of levels in the colonial legacy from the way that our University was initially financed, funded, partly from the proceeds of slavery to the names of some of our buildings. The Bristol logo itself reflects the interests that were involved in the slave trade. At a representation level, there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s obviously the issue of having a very predominantly white faculty, particularly as you up the ladder, more senior levels, in the senior management of the University. To their credit, the senior management realised that that, there is an anti-racist steering group that’s been established to look at these issues so that’s encouraging. You get the sense that there is a genuine commitment amongst senior management to do something about it.

But of course, the issues run deep [and] they’re really challenging. If you look at the disciplines Bristol prides itself on, teaching a broad curriculum but also prides itself on the excellence of its teaching. But actually, if you look at the contents of the disciplines that are taught, they still reflect, in many instances, the Eurocentric bias. You could look at, whether it’s medicine, looking at the kinds of teaching that goes on there and the kind of things that are given attention to, the kinds of diseases that are studied, the way that stereotypes may or may not be propagated consciously or unconsciously in that discipline. In my own area, I’m a social scientist in education, it is very clear that ideas about education, what it means to have a good quality education, they’re often based on very Western ideas, linked to the evolution of schooling. The universities as they’ve evolved in the West, with very little attention given to, for example, indigenous knowledge systems or forms of education that take place outside of Western context, processes of social learning in communities. These are critical, whether it’s education or medicine, being able to put Western conceptions into critical dialogue with other ways of understanding the world. It is really important, not just because it might seem ethically a good thing to do, that may or may not be the case – obviously I think it is the case – but more because you know if we’re thinking about turning out global citizens who genuinely understands the world and are prepared to get involved in the enormous challenges facing the planet, whether it’s climate change or dealing with poverty, realizing sustainable development goals, whatever they might be, you need to understand that there are different ways of approaching the problem. You can’t just look through a narrow lens at the issue, however valuable, for example, Western science is, and it undoubtably has made enormous strides and made really important differences to people’s lives. It has also caused problems, you know whether it’s climate change or pollution, or the development of weapons of mass destruction, science has not been neutral in that sense. Hasn’t been a uniform force for the good and you know there are other ways of knowing the natural world [and] it’s important to draw on and recognise. For example, we’re supporting projects at the moment in Africa and in India that are trying to deal with the impacts of climate change and the kinds of education that are needed, drawing on indigenous knowledge around food security or improving crop harvests to irrigate the lands to fertilize the land. There’s a real role for indigenous knowledge systems that have let’s face it, been around longer in many cases that Western science. So, there’s the kind of practical dimension to it, but there’s also a cultural and ethnical dimension to it as well because it’s about recognition, recognizing the value of other cultures, other ways of knowing the world, other world views. Within the social sciences when we learn history or religion or whatever it might be, it’s really important that we’re able to think critically and to arrive at a more holistic, global understanding of the issues and for me, that’s what decolonisation is fundamentally about.

Sama: Thank you. It seems from everything that you’ve mentioned, it’s a broad, ongoing process that is very embedded in history and culture and so much, perhaps beyond our capacity as students for example working on it within a specific amount of time. So, my question is, what is our role and what are specific goals or responsibilities that we can tackle through being involved in decolonising? I was also present in the UNESCO chair series where you spoke, and you spoke about the different levels of decolonization, what is something tangible that we can do as students or as faculty members working on decolonizing today?

Leon: That’s an excellent question. I think often these debates around decolonisation can quickly become theoretical which is fine, we need good theory, we are in a university after all, we need to understand what we’re doing. But at the same time, it’s a question of practice and putting things into practice. The great educator, Paulo Freire, used that term, it’s the nexus between theory and practice. You can’t have one without the other. You need to put things into practice to better understand what decolonization means and it’s in that process that action, which is pedagogical as well, it’s a learning process, it’s about how do we as people embedded in Western epistemic environment, engaged with these challenges and I think it’s something that we all need to be concerned about so it’s great that we have students for example, [within] the University who are so passionate about this question as well as members of [the] faculty.

So, I think there are different challenges I think and if one thinks about epistemic justice… the term that was coined by the postcolonial critic Spivak to talk about how knowledge systems, though not being fully representative also exclude. So, I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the curriculum.

I think you know what we’re trying to do essentially, I am part of an initiative ran through the anti-racist steering group, we’re trying to encourage other department faculties to adopt a cross curriculum approach to look at the curriculum and to re-evaluate it, to assess it in a very practical way to ask, [for example] in history, whose history are we teaching? What examples are we using? What is the main lens that we’re looking at history through? There are similar questions to ask in all disciplines and I think people are doing that. People are asking those questions and that’s really important work. It’s hard work because it involves not just changing reading lists, which is important, but it only touches the surface of what we’re interested in here. We’re interested in a more profound transformation of the curriculum that critically engages with different ways of understanding the world. The hope is that within different faculties and departments [there] can be an inclusive process, because I think it’s one of those things we have to bring people with you. When you’re dealing with something as fundamental as this, you’re bound to encounter resistance and we need understand what that resistance is and why it is. It might be just because people don’t agree with the idea of decolonising, they might be resistant to it for whatever reason. But in many instances, it may be due to very practical reasons. People don’t know what’s involved, there aren’t any materials or resources out there. Something that we’re hoping that BILT can help with is to provide those resources that can assist people in this task. Busy people [because] let’s remember, people who are also going through a pandemic and the other crises that the University is facing and are engaged on many fronts, with climate action as well as these kinds of issues and challenges. Having a support structure is really important and having resources that people can draw on, having case studies where people can refer to, where this kind of work has gone on before and having professional development opportunities where staff and students can get together to really think about what decolonisation means within a disciplinary context.

So there’s that work to be done, but then of course the other side to epistemic justice is not about just representation but it’s also about access, who has access to this knowledge? So in my mind, decolonisin the curriculum is also very bound up with the widening participation agenda. We want to encourage, particularly our black minority ethnic learners out there, to come and study at Bristol [as well as] our international students. Try and increase access for groups that have been historically marginalized, whether it’s in the city, locally or more globally and that’s the real challenge, how one goes about that. So, things like the Black Scholarship program, you know, I’m very supportive of because it’s a very tangible way of trying to pursue that agenda. But then, I think there’s also the research agenda and again, this is something that often isn’t properly addressed. When we talk about decolonising, people just focus on the curriculum that, but if you think about it historically, what is the curriculum, where does it come from? It’s basically a way that we’ve chosen to organize knowledge, evidence that ultimately derived from research at different kinds. 

So, the challenge of decolonising research is really important and there are really exciting initiatives going on. I mean I run a network, Plus it’s called, which is working with partners in Somalia, India, Rwanda and South Africa where we’re purposefully encouraging marginalized communities, women, cooperatives, youth groups and indigenous communities to get involved in the research process, to work with people from the universities, with policymakers to make a difference. So, one of the projects for example we’re evaluating at the moment is a proposal we’re looking at, hoping to fund at the moment, is from an informal settlement, a group, the community group, based in an informal settlement in Cape Town. I don’t know if you’ve been to that part of the world. Are you Palestinian? [Sama nods]. So, you would understand what I mean, it’s people who’ve been dispossessed, historically. People who are very poor and people who have agency, who have agency and a commitment to making their community better. So they want to work with the people in the University and with people from the Cape Town Municipality to develop, to improve their informal settlement. Of course, education is central to that. There are things that the community group needs to learn, can learn from the researchers. But of course, you know as researchers, we’re often in our ivory towers. We’re cut off from the realities of what it’s like to live in somewhere [like] an informal settlement. So, we need each other, this principle of knowledge co-production becomes very important. Again, it brings us back to this idea that decolonization is largely a pedagogical process. It’s one of learning, being prepared to learn, open your eyes and ears.

I would see those three dimensions as being interrelated:

  • Decolonising the curriculum
  • Democratizing the University through widening participation and diversifying the faculty, listening to our students, listening to our staff, listening to our communities outside of the University and our partners in the Global South
  • Decolonising research, being prepared to work with different groups of individuals rather than on them, which has been the colonial model, the extractivist colonial approach to research.

Sama: I want to ask more about that. So, in terms of what you mentioned, how there’s so many processes involved but also, it seems to be very social and environmental as well. So, I think a lot of times we focus on decolonising the curriculum as you said, in terms of specific ways of teaching and learning, whereas decolonising also means how students interact within one another, how many students are being able to join the University, how faculties are represented amongst different groups. I think a big thing as well is, I feel like we’re talking about decolonization, it’s easy to think of it as something that’s a process that we’re doing as a result of something that that had happened in the past. But my question is, how do current events such as for example, the Black Lives Matter movements [and] ongoing injustices happening in the world, manifestions of colonization that still exists? How do we manage and go forth and decolonise when we’re still surrounded by manifestation of ongoing colonisation? Also, I guess more about how [colonisation is] integrated into the social and learning environments, perhaps more as alongside studying and curriculums. 

Leon: You know those are those are excellent questions. I mean there are different schools of thought. So, some people might take a pessimistic view. They might say, well, given the fact that we have centuries of colonialism and the colonial experience, the colonial legacy to engage with, given that we are living in a very capitalist society where knowledge itself has become a commodity, research itself has become a commodity rather than for the public good, given that…we’re living in societies that are structured through patriarchy, what hope is there? Don’t we have to first overthrow the whole system of racial capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy before we can make progress?

I understand that view, but I don’t share it. I think it is a pessimistic view. I think it is a view that downplays the important gains that have been made by people who [are] at the sharp end, the receiving end of colonialism, patriarchy and a very class-based society who have really struggled to make a difference through forms of populist struggle. But also, as Gramsci puts it…civil society, our institutions… are structured in racism, in sexism and classism. But they are also contested spaces. I mean look at the work you two are doing. I’d like to think that that will, [in] small way, make a difference and because what we’re trying to do here is really develop the next generation of learners of who can go out there into the world and carry on the struggle. I think there are really insistences where you’ve seen [this]. I mean, my own background is in the South African struggle and there [it was] really important that the ANC (African National Congress) had a school in Tanzania when it was in exile where they tried to develop the next cardo of leaders in South Africa. If you look at other examples, thinking about the Palestinian case for instance, the role of social movements in trying to generate change against awful odds and appalling, really challenging circumstances but they don’t just give up and wait for the kind of Zionism that we see in Israel to disappear. They carry on working in their communities and building social learning, solving community problems, mobilizing the community around issues and things that can help and make a difference. You don’t just give up, you have to carry on. But I actually think that at Bristol we’re well positioned to do that because it is, ironically, an elite university so we’re producing the leaders of tomorrow, we can create a situation where the leaders of tomorrow are exposed to a wider range of understandings of the world – opinions, cultures, beliefs, value systems. For me, that can only be a good thing. Maybe I’m foolish but I remain very optimistic.

Rhona: It is optimism, but it is also grounded in practicality, isn’t it? And I think it’s good to inspire hope, motivation and enthusiasm.

We found this discussion really empowering. We can all play a role in decolonising the curriculum and challenge epistemic privilege. We hope you found this interview inspiring – please get in touch if you have any questions.

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