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Let’s decolonize, but how?

October 14, 2021
By Ezgi Ozyonum

Credit: Patrick Tomasso

September 30th marked the first annual day for National Truth and Reconciliation. Six years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada raised 94 calls to action including the transformation of educational institutions’ curricula to be culturally appropriate. Since then, Canadian universities have responded by launching their decolonization and Indigenization strategic plans. As I examine the decolonization of curriculum and pedagogy in my doctoral research, here are some of my reflections and recommendations on how to decolonize education.

First, what does ‘decolonizing’ mean?

Decolonizing is a verb meaning to challenge colonial engagements and systems. It aims to unpack and disrupt structures of systemic oppression. Decolonizing involves de-centering dominant paradigms and pluralizing voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized. It is a tireless commitment which goes beyond cultural awareness and tokenistic inclusion. In order to dismantle colonial legacies and rethink the hierarchy of knowledge production, we need to decolonize education. Such work belongs to everyone and begins with you.

A good starting point towards decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy in education is through deconstructing syllabi.

Credit: Leonardo Burgos

A Guided Deconstructing Syllabus Activity

If you have ever taken a post-secondary class, you have already come across a syllabus. A typical syllabus contains an introduction, course description and objectives, assignments and grading (most students like to check that part first), as well as a weekly reading list.

A syllabus is mostly seen as a finished product. The instructor designs and introduces it to the class in the first week of the semester and applies it to the rest of the course.

But what if a syllabus is not a finished product? What if it is a great tool to start decolonizing our education? Are you ready to reimage the syllabus? Let’s start.

Materials: Any course outline/syllabus

Instructions: 1) Read the questions and reflect on them. 2) Think of ways to critically analyze and reimagine a syllabus. 3) Share your thoughts and engage with others.

Time: It depends on the individual or group. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a lifetime.

Part 1. Introduction

A typical syllabus starts by introducing the course and instructor. This is where you usually find the territorial acknowledgement and general information of the course.

The questions below are prepared to guide you to start deconstructing the syllabus:

- Does the syllabus have a territorial acknowledgement? If yes, how is it stated?

- What does this syllabus tell you about the positionality of the instructor? Would it be possible to rethink the positionalities of the instructor and students?

- What are your first impressions of the course description? Who is perceived as being allowed to “teach knowledge”? Who is at the center? Who remains outside, at the margins?

If you want to expand your knowledge on territorial acknowledgement, please check this link.

Part 2. Course objectives, Assignments, and Grading

This part of the syllabus contains a clear statement of the knowledge, competencies, or skills students are expected to achieve by the end of the course. It also provides information about the format and timing of assignments and grading procedures.

The questions below are prepared to guide you to continue deconstructing the syllabus:

- How can course objectives promote authentic, ethical, and respectful teaching, research, and community engagement?

- Do you keep the existing course objectives, or could you change them over time?

- Does the design of the course provide opportunities to share and create knowledge collaboratively?

- How and to what extent does the course reflect the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion?

- Are course assignments centered around only written assignments? Can you think of creative ways to diversify assignments?

- What is grading based on? Who sets the grading standard and criteria?

Part 3. Course materials: Weekly Reading list

This part indicates required resources and suggested readings of the course.

The questions below are prepared to guide you to continue deconstructing the syllabus:

- Which scholars and authors does your field draw from most often and why?

- Whose voices/perspectives are missing in the reading list?

- What is your opinion on how to make other voices more accessible?

- In what ways Indigenous and other marginalized knowledge systems are integrated into course materials?

Credit: Dan Farrell

Decolonizing education is a lifetime commitment, not a metaphor. By writing this blog, I am not trying to reduce decolonization to one single activity. We just need to start somewhere as decolonizing education is the responsibility of all.

Over the last few years, I have been reading and researching about decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy in various fields. I had the chance to be involved in various spaces and discussions which have influenced the content of this blog. Although I am the sole author in this blog post, I would like to acknowledge collective authorship and their contributions to the work of decolonization and syllabus deconstruction. To name some: the Decolonial Perspectives and Practices (DPPH) team members, its event participants, and Concordia’s decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy director Donna Goodleaf.

In this decolonization work, your next step might be getting involved in the discourses of decolonization and joining workshops and collective efforts. Come to our next co-creative and interactive syllabus deconstruction event on the 8th of November, during my public scholar spotlight week, which is hosted virtually at Concordia’s 4th Space. I am looking forward to seeing you there.

Remember, decolonization starts with you.

About the author

Photo of Ezgi Ozyonum

Ezgi Ozyonum is a PhD candidate in Education. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Bilkent University and completed her master’s degree at Middle East Technical University. Ezgi has taught at the department of Education, Concordia University, and has delivered workshops for Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning and GradProSkills.

Her research brings critical and decolonial perspectives to the study and practice of internationalization and decolonization in higher education. Through her work, she seeks to interrupt common colonial patterns of education engagement. She presented her research at many national and international academic conferences including Comparative & International Education Society (CIES), American Educational Research Association (AERA), and Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE). Her research findings could move Canadian Universities towards a more equitable and inclusive future.

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