Bringing students together to discuss the impact of colonial rule upon global development

Posted on: 01 Oct 2020
Posted by: Cat Davison

Cat Davison, director of service and social impact at Sevenoaks School and founder and chief executive of EduSpots, explores how postcolonial approaches to learning can be implemented in schools.

Students across the UK have called for reforms to our national curriculum to ensure compulsory reflection on colonial history, rather than it being positioned as optional content with atrocities such as the crushing of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya left off the syllabus and a lack of focus on the positive contribution that black people have made to the development of modern Britain.

However, UK students are not alone in wanting to understand the impact of colonialism upon global development. The complex power imbalances created as a result of the Empire are part of our ongoing collective global development, with western narratives and systems continuing to dominate global education systems and curriculums.

Today, Ghana’s national Social Studies Junior High School curriculum asks students to avoid ‘accepting foreign ideas without thinking through’ whilst investigating the ‘loss of true identity’, ‘destruction of culture’ and ‘dependence’. But does it adequately give young Ghanaians a positive path forwards in terms of developing the skills to analyse and challenge dominant ideologies? It also asks students to list the ‘benefits’ of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade; evaluating impact is important but framing some aspects as ‘beneficial’ appears to undermine the horror of the atrocities that were committed. I doubt that we would want to frame lessons around discussions of the ‘pros and cons’ of a genocide, for example.

Postcolonial approaches

Postcolonial theory can provide students in all contexts with a helpful critical lens: it highlights the cultural, social and economic legacies of colonial rule, considering the imposition of language or values upon the previously colonized country, as well as truth-structures that position people as an ‘other’. Whilst the scholars differ in their approaches, they all highlight the impact of the ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1988) upon the colonized whether through causing mental illness (Fanon, 1961), sustaining continued separation as the ‘other’ or ‘Oriental’ (Said, 1978), or leading to a sense of alienation from their communities and culture (Some, 1994; Adjei, 2007).

Postcolonial approaches to global citizenship education demand that recognition of this ‘epistemic violence’ is part of any analysis of education and action in the global context. Andreotti (2006) identifies two forms of Global Citizenship Education: a ‘soft’ version and a ‘critical’ form. A ‘soft model’ is based on a sense of ‘responsibility for others’ based on a recognition of common humanity and a sense of sympathy for suffering, whereas the critical approach uses a social justice lens, encouraging individuals to adapt a practice of ‘learning with others’.


How can we bring these ideas into practice in our schools?

Redeveloping curriculums

We can certainly develop curriculums that offer accurate historical accounts of colonial rule, alongside pre-colonial African history, also exploring the relevance of colonial history to the current global geographical, economic and psychological landscapes.

Building self-awareness

We can also nurture students towards greater self-awareness of how their existing global narratives have been shaped - the IB Theory of Knowledge curriculum equips learners with an important level of reflexive epistemological analysis.

Break down binaries

Students also need to have the opportunity to apply this theoretical understanding to their actions, and explore ways to break down binaries between two worlds where a division is sustained between the ‘active (Northern) agent and passive (Southern recipient)’ (McEwan, 2009: 213). When engaging in charitable action, it is helpful to move students towards a justice-orientated mindset, recognising global complicity in inequalities and challenging those who impose their own assumptions as universal. Students can also be given the confidence to evaluate long-term impact before accepting support from a different context.

A plurality of voices

In this process of understanding, exposing students to a plurality of voices is vital. My experience of working at the African Science Academy, a remarkable pre-university for gifted female STEM students, instilled a recognition of the importance of bringing the voice of young people from previously colonised countries more strongly into these global discussions.

The EduSpots online courses

Leading from this recognition, EduSpots courses explore theories of development, with a focus on the exploration of often-excluded African scholarship, literature and voice more widely. The content is co-created by a UK and Ghanaian team, critically examining dominant ‘western’ narratives prevalent in development literature. Students from different contexts are introduced to postcolonial theory and literature, and asked to apply it to ‘live’ discussions concerning practical dilemmas in development.

European students have commented that the opportunity to discuss development practice with students who have grown up in the very communities that are often stereotyped, cuts through the ‘othering’ process. As an example, students are asked to explore the decision-making process for labelling western-funded community projects in ‘developing’ contexts.

Responses often challenge pre-conceptions, and participants in all contexts also start to question the language surrounding development such as the concepts of ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ contexts which imposes a sense of development hierarchy, placing western development on a pedestal for ‘undeveloped’ contexts to reach. Indeed, African participants recognised that the courses challenged their own stereotypes of western countries, exposing them to issues faced in the UK such as homelessness and poor mental health.

A new model for active global citizenship education

EduSpots was created in 2015 partly with the aim of challenging the approach of western students and staff ‘teaching’ in ‘developing’ contexts, which can reproduce notions of educational superiority. Today, we are a movement for community-led change, with our Ghanaian education team supporting 300 educational ‘catalysts’ who lead 40 physical community-owned education ‘Spots’. Students in the UK are involved in the project, but participate as learners who engage alongside Ghanaian volunteers on projects such as creating phonics cards that have images and words that are relevant to the Ghanaian context.

And what have we all learnt? To listen, challenge, adapt, and include. Collectively, we are committed to building a model for community-led change that enables communities to build their own educational futures, whilst also advocating for curriculum-based change. This process is complex, ongoing, and inclusive - we’d love you to join us.

The 6-week EduSpots online courses on Global Development, Social Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Action and Environmental Sustainability are free for all state school students, with a small charge for independent schools. Contact for further information or to join or support the EduSpots movement. EduSpots won the Tes International Award in 2018 for its work under the previous name ‘Reading Spots’.

About Cat Davison

Cat Davison is chair of the ISC Community Action Group, which aims to bring state and independent school teachers together in supporting students' engagement in community action and service learning. She is also director of service and social impact at Sevenoaks School, and founder of EduSpots.