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Decolonizing Teaching & Learning: Creating Truly Inclusive Learning Environments for All Students

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By Brian Knowles, Manager of the Office of African, African American, Latino, Holocaust, and Gender Studies within the School District of Palm Beach County

The viewpoints expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect the position and viewpoint of XanEdu, Inc, but instead are shared to promote healthy and productive debate and consideration.

When students aren’t given opportunities to view themes and concepts through lenses that are representative of their experiences and cultural backgrounds, research has shown that they have difficulty understanding the concepts presented, and their learning and skill development is impeded.

Traditional textbooks can either marginalize or omit the historical contributions of Native Americans, African Diasporic people, Latinx, Asian Americans, and Women. Curriculum must be historically accurate and inclusive, allowing educators to embed the voices, experiences, and contributions of all groups. XanEdu specializes in working with districts of all shapes and sizes to create customized learning materials that are inclusive of and geared towards all of its students and that are rooted in best practices for a culturally responsive pedagogy.

Coloniality is the practice of controlling lands and its indigenous people usually for economic exploitation. This has numerous effects on colonial subjects, such as drawing them away from their traditional customs, values, and ways of thinking while drawing them towards a way of being that is reflective of the colonizer or dominant power in society (Fannon, 2005). In other words, this was an erasure of indigenous identity under the nomenclature of assimilation. In the current state of U.S. public education, Western European Patriarchal culture is standardized. It is pervasive that we teach under this framework of coloniality where students of color are treated as colonial subjects where their indigenous voices are ignored. Essentially, education has become a process of acculturation and decentering for some.

The post Brown V. Board of Education classroom clings to a coloniality framework of teaching and learning that does not affirm their histories, cultures, and lived experiences. This educational framework is predicated on the prevailing culture’s normative standards or Eurocentric epistemologies and ways of interpreting the world. Traditional textbooks either marginalize or omit the historical contributions of Native Americans, African Diasporic people, Latinx, Asian Americans, and Women. When these stories are included, they do not appear in their entirety, are left out of the core curriculum, and offered as electives. Colonized students become objects rather than subjects within the educational process. As a precursor to skill development, all students must be provided the opportunity to see themselves accurately reflected in the classroom (Muhammad, 2020). It is imperative to understand that identity is directly correlated with literacy and when students are not given opportunities to view themes and concepts through their lenses, the ability to acquire knowledge and develop skills becomes impeded. This impediment is a result of disengagement from instruction not congruent to their realities. Some students have difficulties understanding concepts interpreted through the prevailing lens and experience of White Americans: core concepts that are presented in the context of learning standards and benchmarks.

Some of the implications of coloniality in education are both the alienation and disengagement of students of color. If we base our approach on common mechanisms to evaluate students such as standardized testing, the effects on academic achievement of this group are profound. In most school districts, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status have become baseline predictors for academic outcomes. As an example, Black and Latinx students usually have lower standardized test scores and graduation rates in comparison to White or some Asian American students. This disparity is not an accurate representation of how these students are able to perform or their capacity to learn. The deficiency does not subside within them, but the system in terms of the instructional approach and curriculum. Both fail to consider the diverse experiences, histories, and perspectives of the communities that schools are expected to serve. This includes instructional materials and pedagogies that reflect the multi-layered tapestry that represents the diversity of our students. As they are multifaceted, so should be our approach to education. Presently, approaches that acknowledge ingenuity, artistry, and leadership skills are absent from our evaluative tools (Howard, 2010).

It is critical that we decolonize teaching and learning to create an inclusive learning environment for all students. To attain this goal, there are steps that we must take to support them through sustainable curriculum reform. We must go beyond the basic premise of representation but change the structure of curriculum that enables all students to view concepts, issues, themes, and problems from their perspectives and points of view (Banks, 2008). Placing expectations on publishers to create historically accurate materials and building capacity with educators around centering historically marginalized groups in instructions are effective means to embark on the transformative approach to curriculum reform. As we propagate narratives around historical events that crafted our society such as the American Revolution and World War II, we are charged with embedding the voices, experiences, and contributions of all groups involved and the impact of the events upon their communities.

In praxis, it is critical that there is intentionality of acknowledging the voices of our students in constructing lessons. Understanding that the perspectives colonized students are under involve the subjugation of concerted efforts of acculturation, we must provide space for agency (Freire, 1970). It is therefore critical to provide spaces where their interests are addressed in lessons eradicating the partition between the classroom and their worlds. Utilizing Hip Hop based education as a tool to develop literacy serves as an example of this. This is equity-based pedagogy where we are modifying instruction to build on the strengths of African Diasporic and Latinx students (Banks, 2008). It is imperative that lessons are used that are of their interests and inclusive of their linguistic and cultural identities, while utilizing evaluative tools that acknowledge creativity, criticality, and persuasive speech.

Schools have the potential to be spaces that enable each student to cultivate their innate gifts and talents to become the best versions of themselves. Under the current paradigm of education, this is difficult to achieve. It is a paradigm constructed within the framework of coloniality where students of color are denied this pursuit. It is challenging to navigate a system constrained by teaching and learning designed to deculturate them through Eurocentric epistemologies and curriculum. This sets up an environment where psychological violence is perpetrated through covert forms of microaggressions and microinvalidations. Pedagogy that fails to address cultural norms that influence learning and curriculum that lacks representation both has deleterious effects not only on the academic performance of colonized students, but also on their socio-emotional development. We have a responsibility to provide a teaching and learning environment that is conducive to cultivation of agency in all students. This is accomplished by decolonizing education and creating a framework where diversity and inclusion is embedded within the institution.

Putting Black Boys' Literacy First: Curriculum Development for the Lives & Literacies Black Boys

Why Representation Matters to BIPOC Teachers and Their Students

Hip hop, grit, and academic success: Bettina Love

Molefi Kete Asante - Afrocentric Education

Reexamining U.S. History Textbooks To Promote Equality In The Classroom

Banks, James A. (2008). An Introduction to Multicultural Education. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Fanon, F. (2005). The Wretched of the Earth (Richard Philcox, Trans.)

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (MB Ramos, Trans.). Continuum, 2007

Muhammad, Goldy E. (2020) An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Scholastic.