‘De-colonising the curriculum’

ETHER Blog Post: ‘De-colonising the curriculum’ and enabling the telling of whole, diverse stories

by Kate Fellows

Over the last few months, we have had a few conversations with local primary teachers (teaching age 5-11) that have begun thus…

‘Hello Leeds Museums and Galleries, what resources have you got for a Windrush topic? We thought we would add that in to diversify our curriculum…’

We listened, and then asked why. Just ‘dropping in a Windrush topic’ is a good start, but doesn’t address some of the wider, deeper biases within the subjects and methodologies in the English education system that can lead to ‘othering’. However, those phone calls did enable us to open up a conversations with teachers about making the changes together using cultural learning as a starting point.

We did some thinking. With our collections colleagues, we thought about how there is no single story related to most of our objects, and that to tell just one story about something doesn’t give the full picture. We thought about the language we use in terms of commemoration of the past and current celebration of our diverse city, and the language that schools use.

Language has power. Words can draw us together or separate us. ‘Decolonising’ is one of those words. It’s politically loaded. It’s meant to be positive action, but does the ‘de-‘ part make the action negative? Always defining it through an othering process of ‘not being’?

We talked to other people. We asked what ‘decolonising’ meant to fellow museum learning professionals in their work. The responses were varied in language, but all encompassed the same ideas of ‘recognising and actively working to eliminate bias which came with historical imperial power’, ‘broadening perspectives’, ‘questioning narratives’, ‘amplifying voices’, ‘giving others control’, ‘co-produced’. One person raised the question of whether ‘decolonising’ as a term is deceptive in itself, because, as museums, we are institutions with colonial collections and we can never truly decolonise. More food for thought.

We also asked teachers and teacher trainees and found that ‘decolonising’ means very little in a school setting. As a concept, it seems confusing and potentially unobtainable. Many trainees didn’t know how to approach it amongst the perceived limitations of exam board specs, the National Curriculum, or outside of traditional subjects where you may encounter diverse stories or bias, such as history or literacy.

So, how else can we frame the conversation?

We used active language. We talked around facilitating the telling of ‘whole narratives’, rather than simple ‘one-sided stories’. This is active, enabling language. It reduces the perceived limitations and makes the discussion less confusing. Most people recognise there’s usually more than one side to every story.

We asked questions. We worked with schools to begin planning and reshaping parts or all of their curriculums. We asked them questions about how they plan their curriculums…

  • What is the intent behind your curriculum? This is an OFSTED focus about the purpose of what teachers are teaching, the structure they use to teach and the content within it.
  • Where’s the local relevancy for your pupils?

Then we went into detail on different subjects and topics taught across primary schools, such as…

  • When you teach your Explorers topic in Yr1 (pupils aged 5-6), how do you present that? Whose voices do the pupils hear, or not? What are your gaps? Does this raise more fundamental ideas and concepts that might need to be shifted? How much support do your teachers need to teach this? Do they recognise their own biases?
  • Do you centre your ancient Egyptians topic in the context of an African civilisation? How do you relate that to what’s going on around the globe at that time? Is that a better connection for your rocks and fossils topic (linked to ancient tool making)? What examples might you be able to bring in to make it a more rounded picture?
  • What books are you reading in literacy, or scientific language are you using in class? What do they say about our biases?

We changed what and how pupils are taught. We mapped the newly developed curriculums against multifaceted objects and stories in our collections, resourced them through MyLearning.org and our school membership scheme including loans boxes of objects, and delivered whole school CPD for staff so that everyone is comfortable teaching sensitive topics and exploring colonial legacy.

Changing what and how our children are taught, means that pupils in our city are exploring whole, diverse stories that are relevant for them in their school, and help them to make sense of their locality, ground them in their city, and help us all to celebrate the Leeds we have now. It filters through every discipline and is more than just ‘dropping in a Windrush topic’. Pupils now meet regularly with whole stories, and are seeing that people and situations are complex. If they apply that throughout their lives, then they will be able to meet people with different world views with respect and engagement.

And that’s how we change the world, one step at a time.

Click here to read more about Kate Fellows