Decolonising the curriculum engages learners – but needs time

Contemporary texts can draw parallels with learners’ own lives, writes Sarah Wilson

I work in a local community with a large African and Afro-Caribbean population. As the curriculum manager for English, it’s important to me that inclusion and promotion of equality and diversity are significant features of the curriculum.  

In my department we have come up with pedagogical strategies to decolonise the curriculum, in a way that makes teaching and learning a more transparent, relatable and inspiring experience.  

So we have embedded texts that are culturally rich and bring to the forefront challenging themes that address culture, disenfranchisement and the myths of colonialism. These texts also give a voice to the migrant experience and how those experiences have helped to shape contemporary Britain.  

For instance, we have moved away from using canonical texts such as Animal Farm by George Orwell, published in 1945, to excerpts from The Lonely Londoners by Trinidadian author Sam Selvon, published in 1956. 

Meanwhile, among the quick reads for lower-entry learners we now have Hello Mum by British-Nigerian author Bernadine Evaristo from 2010. This story explores gang culture from the viewpoint of a 14-year-old boy, who communicates with his mother through letters. 

The latter texts reflect the diversity of local community members and therefore create a necessary sense of connectedness with the reader. 

Recognition and promotion of black and female writers who address the “black experience” through various lenses, voices and genres are also a critical part of the curriculum.  

Dark comedies such as The Other Black Girl by black American author Zakiya Dalila Harris focus on the racial micro-aggressions within the workplace.

Published this year, this book follows a woman who is at first the only black person working at a publishing company, and what happens when another black woman is hired too. 

Meanwhile, fantasy novellas such as Given by Nandi Taylor, a Canadian author of Afro-Caribbean descent, take readers into an empire inspired by her heritage. The tale, published last year, helps to demystify assumptions about black writers.  

Contemporary texts with culturally relevant themes often have strong parallels with the lives of many young people. This can encourage engagement, even from the most reluctant readers. 

This is especially important for learners from marginalised backgrounds without pre-requisite English and maths qualifications, who have difficulty in accessing learning. 

So alongside changes to the English curriculum, offering bespoke, full-time English and maths programmes for 16-18 learners can also widen their participation.  

For example, a student who responded really well to Hello Mum was one of our male learners with additional learning support needs (ADHD and dyslexia). The student presented challenging and combative behaviour at times, so his reaction to reading the text was particularly rewarding.

He was initially reluctant to participate in reading out loud in class but as the weeks went on became increasingly engaged.

When we reached halfway, the student came to my office excitedly to reveal that he had predicted what would happen in the next chapters and was starting to analyse the motivations of the characters.

This culminated in the student writing a deeply layered book review. Despite being enrolled on a functional skills level 1 programme, the student was able to show high-level text analysis skills, recognise the wider societal themes and make valid connections between them.

This shows why texts should be decolonised and made relevant and engaging for marginalised communities. 

Leaders must factor in staff workload

However, the main challenge to transforming the curriculum is time: the time to construct resources that support innovative and advanced teaching, as well as re-shaping how Western frameworks have been taught.

Leadership must recognise the importance of factoring this into staff workload and planning. Opportunities also need to be created for more joined-up working across the sector, with providers actively engaged in decolonising the curriculum able to share best practice.

These are localised curriculum actions I am steering, to help address a much wider, national problem.

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