Decolonising teaching pedagogies – Convivial reflections

Introductory Note

The following conversation is a result of a collaborative project initiated by convivial thinkers.

The call for collaboration was shared via the group’s newsletter and through twitter channels of individual members. Through this approach we aimed to reach out to a group of collaborators as diverse as possible and beyond our established networks of scholars. We invited all to share thoughts and experiences and to collaborate on the questions highlighted below. As a result, the contributors, with exception of Aftab and Julia among each other, have neither met nor worked together previously. We did not know anything about each other’s backgrounds before engaging in the discussion, which may have blanked out positionality, yet led to productive ends.

While the initial aim of the initiative was to produce a paper in an academically approved format, in the editing process, we have decided to keep the document in the structure of a conversation in order to take account of the dialogical, open and collaborative process. We felt that not one, or a group of people, should be in charge of drawing conclusions, but, in the spirit of questions discussed, several opinions, possibly contrasting in nature, could be left to stand for itself. Some basic editing was done for clarity. The result is a patchwork that remains inconclusive. We understand our contribution as a living document and invite all to build on it and elaborate further.

Sayan Dey (Department of English, Royal Thimphu College (Affiliated to Royal University of Bhutan), Juan Fernando Larco Guevara (Global Studies Programme (M.A. in Social Sciences), Albert-Ludwigs University, Freiburg (Germany), University of Cape Town (South Africa), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India), Aftab Nasir (FC College Lahore, Pakistan), Julia Schöneberg (Department for Development and Postcolonial Studies, University of Kassel, Germany), plus one anonymous contributor.


(Julia): Welcome to the conversation. I am wondering: What are ways to decolonize our academic environments? How can we “redo” the classroom?

(Sayan): Conducting classes outside the four-walled room is a good start – in an open environment by citing instances from the natural environment and promoting decentralization of teacher-student discourse.

(Julia): Sayan, can you give examples from your own experience? Do you mean decentralization through tools such as virtual platforms, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter?

(Sayan): Well, Julia yes besides using the social networking platforms for knowledge discourse, what I do is to take my students outside the university campus (where I teach) to an adjacent park outside which during the early morning hours is occupied with aged individuals who may come for a morning walk. Now if that day I am scheduled to deliver a lecture or discuss on “gerontology and urbanization” then I will take my students in that park talk, discuss and then will spare a considerable time in interacting with the aged people.  We ask about their habitual existential experiences within the urban spaces they inhabit and what are the different forms of crisis they suffer from, etc etc.

Now how does it help?

  • It enables the students to relate their textual learning and contextual research.
  • They are able to identify the gaps between the things written in the texts and the ‘felt narratives’ of the individuals.
  • The process of learning and research becomes very creative and enjoyable. In this way, out of 10 lectures in a week, 2-3 lecture plans are designed in this manner.

(Julia): This all sounds very good, but I wonder how quickly are you reaching limitations in practice? In my experience, time is always too limited for the amount of content that is compulsory to be transmitted and that will eventually be tested through exams. In the German context, students’ motivation is very clearly aimed towards collecting the required credit points for reaching the degree, they are specifically demanding to be taught the content needed to pass exams.

I also want to add to your points about exploring gaps between written texts and felt narratives. I believe it is also important to explore how arts and music can be incorporated in teaching environments. However, I am struggling with this myself. Let me illustrate two related points:  Firstly: In a recent course I have been teaching on critical development theory I had planned to let students write a small scene or develop a freeze frame in order to visualize their perceptions towards the term “development” and critically engage with it. Talking to a friend about my plans he said “What do you do if students say they are not in a drama class?”. Eventually I did not do the activity for fear of appearing not “academically” enough.

Second point: In showing students training materials of peasant organisations in Haiti that visualize terms such as solidarity, community and justice through drawings as well as exposing them to local chants and proverbs, I tried to make a point about alternative, indigenous knowledges and their production. The students’ reaction was that “For them, something like this might be important”, implying that this approach to teaching and knowledge transmission was considered too childish and even backward. At this point I felt I should have gone through with the “drama class” to open students’ minds for forms of knowledge not obeying to European ideals of enlightenment and the way knowledge has been produced and transmitted since.

(Aftab): Julia, I want to make an intervention regarding the term “knowledge transmission” that you have used. Let me start by analyzing the opposite. In order to see what should be done, one has to see what should not be done that is being done anyways. So for me the bigger question becomes what should not be the aim of teaching. I think the utmost important thing is to see the students not as tabula rasa, the meager brains that needs to be “taught”. This idea in itself is a product of a certain way of thinking within a certain human experience. Furthermore, the aim should not be to mould the clay in the direction a teacher’s own interests, assumptions etc. took in his or her course of learning.

Learning is not a linear pathway. Let me use an analogy here: If one has to reach the peak, there are different ways of reaching it. For me, the aim of the teaching should not be defined by looking at how knowledge is “transmitted”, an assumption that is based on the belief that there is a transmitter and a receiver. I think the aim should be to do more introspection on the part of the teacher. If the teacher is more self-aware, reflects on his/her own unknown-knowns (to borrow Slavoj’s term, which he defines as things we don’t know that we know), there is a better chance that the exchange of ideas would end somewhere unexplored, which brings me to my second point.

For me, the aim is not to “teach” which roads to follow but to simply learn how to follow. Again, using an analogy, the aim of the teaching should not be to provide the mental image of the whole terrain the teacher explored. I think the role of the teacher is of a figure who teaches a child how to ride a bike for the first time. Once the child learns the basics of balance, coordination and basic rules of traffic and which lane to take, then the territory is not the domain of the trainer. The child then takes all the turns that she/he wants.

Hence, the phrase “knowledge transmission” needs this very basic delinking, that of the role assigned to the teacher and to the student. This very idea that student is an empty container that needs to be filled by the information provided by the teacher, which Freire calls banking concept of education system, has to be eliminated. I see my students as able minds who can think. I tell them they think better than the greatest sociologists or just like them. This very idea gives them more confidence to trust in their own abilities. Abraham Maslow talks about this in his work. He starts with this assumption that the education system actually delimits the human potential for curiosity. The aim should be to fuel the curiosity of the students by providing them positive reinforcements and by building on their interests, by letting them find their own voice, which is my final point. The aim should not be to give students voice but let them find their own voices, which can be raw, problematic, unsophisticated, non-scholarly etc. This should not be a problem as perfection only comes out of imperfection, or rather is a transitory stage between two imperfections. The students should not be taught to be perfect, to give the perfect answer or to be a perfect student. They should simply learn to be, and losing the fear of being one thing or the other.

(Julia): Aftab, again, as with Sayan’s points earlier – I totally agree. Yet, I am still wondering how to put it into practice. Of course, much depends on my own appearance and demeanor. Do I pretend to be omniscient, do I try to put myself on a pedestal, or do I try to be a guide, a companion through webs of knowledge I have entered and crossed before – knowing that there may be several paths and several alternative paths to the ones I have treaded. Nevertheless, I am often confronted with syllabuses outlining exactly what needs to be taught and students asking me “What is the correct answer?”, even when previously stressing that the aim was not to determine right or wrong but to practice critical thinking. That brings our discussion to the next question:

As an educator, how do you “delink” from more mainstream pedagogical traditions and bring these aspirations of decolonialisation into knowledge-sharing, teaching, and learning ?

(Aftab): It is right what you point out, Julia. Power is exercised through grading, studentsare trying to guess the “right” answer, i.e. the lecturers opinion in order to gain good marks. This point has its roots in the psychological makeup of the child. Any institute for socialization provides the list of rights and wrongs, and the agents learn to differentiate the right from the wrong. I don’t think the problem is not to look for the right answer. The problem is to force a certain kind of right answer. If the students are given the confidence that there is no right or wrong answer but an answer that they can justify logically and critically, the job is done.  The job of the teacher should not be to abolish the idea of good or bad marks, but to take away the fear of providing wrong answers and getting bad grades. There will come situations where students, as part of the society, will make wrong decisions, will take wrong turns. The basic aim of the teacher should not be to abolish the concept of failure from the minds of the students. It should rather be to teach the value of failure. Telling students through providing constant support via verbal messages and written feedbacks, in addition to marks, about the value of losing and then trying again is the key to effective teaching. An effective learning can happen if a student does not fear bad marks anymore. This does not mean the concept does not exist. It means that the student is not afraid anymore of falling, but rather prepared to rise up again when she/he falls, hence a basic link between the experience of being a student and being a citizen is created here.

(Juan Fernando): Aftab, you bring up the concept of citizenship here. Let me link that back to theory. In my opinion, one important theoretical approach is Critical Literacy (Andreotti), also I think the use of language the mix between vernacular language and English or Spanish (a clear example is at a community level in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia or in Oceania) plays an important role when we talk about ways to decolonize our academic environments.

(Julia): I have read Andreotti in the context of Global Citizenship Education (GCE). While I think that she basically describes the idea of critically reflecting one’s own positionality, it is hard to derive a practical method from the concept. I am still not convinced GCE, or, even as Andreotti differentiates “soft” and “critical GCE”, is a useful framing. With regard to language: I absolutely agree readings used in teaching should not only be sourced from the colonial languages and not only from academic environments. But how do we make it practically work if we only speak those?

(Juan Fernando): I think this is part of the state role and society to restructure the  curriculum in academic terms. It is true that the colonial languages are worldwide spread and used. They might help to create better links, but there is an important difference in the way people can think in the vernacular language than in the colonial language. This is important for the preservation of knowledges and culture. I refer to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the reasons why he keeps writing in his vernacular language and the damage of translation from the vernacular language to English. That happened to the “Sumak kawsay”, which is now called “Buen Vivir” and from the Spanish translation it has been translated to other languages taking away the important root of indigenous knowledge.

(Julia): True. And I can follow much of wa Thiong’o’s argument. Yet, drawing on Spivak, I wonder whether the relevant question is not whether the subaltern can speak, but whether she is read and by whom. Translations make knowledges available to Eurocentric-dominated realms that they wouldn’t otherwise appear in. Also, quite practically in academic terms writings and publications receive less recognition if not published in (mostly) anglophone “high-ranked” journals and publishers. Vernacular language is rarely acknowledged as “academically relevant”. I think the general “business” of publication is also an important aspect in this discussion, particularly the need for more open access.

(Juan Fernando): I agree. One important aspect in this discussion is not only language but also how knowledge is portrayed and for whom. There is a lot of research in India for example that is not yet part of the academic discussion, the same applies to Latin America.

Coming back to the question of decolonising science (be it sociology or development studies, or academia in general) one important thing is to erase the utopian idea behind “EUROPE” and start the construction of knowledges as an organic interactive celulla. Critical Literary would be a starting point for this. The need to conceptualize the North and therefore the South creates the first dichotomy around the role of education. It has been argued that education in terms of development should be understood as global learning and there is a strong reason for that. There is the opportunity to learn from the experience of the South, the connection with nature and indigenous knowledge as a valid system. A clear example of this is the idea of sumak kawsay –well being- but this is not the space to expand that idea.

(Contributor): Let me come in on the question how we can actively promote a provincialisation of Europe and deprovincialisation of other cosmovisions. I would agree with Juan and would like to go a bit further on this. Decolonising sociology (both empirically and theoretically) appears to be an ardent and a bit difficult job. We can agree that colonisation is both temporal and spatial experiences. Therefore, decolonisation discourses, to make ‘real’ difference, also need to be located beyond the geographies of Europe and/or so called ‘west’. I am not referring to the scholarship, which is being produced on the experiences of ‘south’ or by the non-Europeans who happened to be situated in the ‘west’, therefore, produce knowledge through what Julia refers to as ‘high-ranked’ journals. What I think is necessary and, possibly be productive, is the horizontal access to knowledge producing industry (universities, journals, publishers etc). This would, I believe, broaden the sociology i.e. instead of having a north-south divide or people from south and located in north to eventual south-south and south-north. In short, what I am trying to argue is that the knowledge production sites are to be revisited and re-located to decolonize sociology and knowledge in general.

(Juan Fernando): At the turn of the century many things have been discussed about education, this proves that there is a need to bring the topic not only at a local or national level but also into the international sphere. It is important to invest in centres that teach non-western intellectual traditions, to bring back different narratives, not only from the side of the subaltern that lack voice and representation, but also from the intellectual tradition forgotten in indigenous traditions or communities in different parts of the world. I also believe it is imperative to review the discussion around education, not only in spaces like the United Nations or academia, but at spaces like local governments, civil society and social media. The idea of space is not only related in terms of physical space but rather to the conceptualization of education as a model that reflects a unity between theory and practice in an interconnected dialogue with different actors keeping open channels to listen and to be heard. From this point it is important to learn how to unlearn, to learn what to learn and to learn how to listen. The problem around change in education is that there is still this idea that there is a good system and bad system of education. And, as I mentioned earlier, there is also a strong relation between language and education, for there is the strong believe that some languages are more important than others, and that with some languages people will achieve more than with others.

(Aftab): Following up on your point of listening and hearing, especially with efforts for decolonizing teaching and academia I once again would like to return to the idea of undoing or redoing the classroom. Educational institutes, be it schools, colleges, or universities, are parts of the overall social structures of a particular society, hence they become the basic agents of socialization. Doing away with the classroom where a teacher stands in the center, upfront, by the black/white board, one has to get rid of the whole authority figures present in the society, be it parents (in case of the kids) or potential employers (in case of the university students). Since this task is totally out of control of the teachers, I think it might cause visual and/or perceptual incongruence for the students (especially for kids). I think of it as a formalization. For me the spacing does not matter. In my classes I do not stand at a particular point. I keep rotating.

What else can be done? Well, here are few suggestions, coming out of personal experience. I try to remember all my students by their names and address them regularly while asking questions. I tell them to change their seats every now and then. If there is a small classroom and I am sitting with them, I try to rotate my own position within the room and possibly make students change theirs. As audience who are engaged for a considerable amount of time within a specific space, we tend to pick our spot on the table. By rotating those spots, we can create patterns where faces change and that tends to have a positive impact on the otherwise monotonous activity of teaching and learning. I ask questions and award answers in almost every class with an applause for the answers that come from the students. In every class, there are those who always want to speak and the ones who would rather not speak. I encourage all to participate. Having something as non-significant as a 10 second applause for a very small answer gives students a sense of accomplishment. I noticed that some of them were not speaking at the start of the semester but started participating more just as a result of these few changes. Another example is that i gave a student 21 out of 20 marks in one of her assignments as it clearly stood out from the rest of the class, so basically breaking the whole idea of evaluation by toppling the number just by one figure have had a decisive impact on the overall participation of the class as it created an image for the students of a teacher who is not only awarding the marks by the book but the one who goes out of his way to appreciate them.

Lastly, I think the most important question is to revisit the value of objectivity of knowledge transmission and knowledge production. Normally, students are the participants of an activity that is a lecture within a specific time frame. I take a rather subjective stand here. I think students must be seen as mixture of human emotions, thoughts, needs, perceptions, and behaviours. The teacher should not only be concerned with the class performance. The idea is to help students become better human beings, better citizens of the society. Then a teacher cannot remain distanced from the social experiences of the students that they go through. I try to engage more personally by taking interest in their activities. If a teacher sees a student worried or low in tone, she/he can be the ear that hears about the factors that keep the students from performing normally. Such interest creates a human bond that is crucial for disseminating knowledge. For me, a teacher is not an automaton that reads slides, looks at the book pages and churns out the content. This model is objective in nature hence my disagreement. A teacher is a person like students with his/her own experiences of dealing with unsettling thoughts, behaviours and actions. If a teacher can become the person who knows students by their names, gives them value and takes interest in their lives in general, that motivates the students to go out of their way to learn. The idea is to become a role model, a figure one can relate to, but not that the student must always fall back on or mimic. Now these ideas are rejected in the mainstream academic environments, so they need to be revisited if we are talking about decolonizing academia. The catch here of course lies in not establishing a dependent relationship, hence it should be done with great caution.

If we recall our own past, we will see the teachers we cherished most were the ones who paid extra attention and helped us more “humanly” by taking interest in us or our work. This very human dimension of the teacher, stands as a bedrock which can survive any classroom setting.

 (Julia): Thanks gents, for this thought-provoking debate. I believe there is much to be done. What really bothers me though: where were the other female voices in this conversation?

(Aftab): Wait, before we close and submit… I am just a little concerned that the whole piece does not sound scholarly enough to be shared with renowned academics in such a high-level academic setting.

(Julia): I am a little worried too. But: what does “scholarly” mean after all?

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