How can the curriculum be authentic to where it's taught?

Maori Art

The first series of The Internationalist, a new podcast from the ACU, looks at the critical question of ‘Who gets to learn, and who gets to teach?’. With thanks to Meera Sabaratnam, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London, UK and Chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group, and Margaret Forster, Associate Head of School of Maori Knowledge – Te Pūtahi-a-Toi at Massey University, New Zealand, for their contributions and ideas, many of which are outlined below.

The curriculum holds a lot of power. It decides what students learn and who they learn it from. Curricula tend to be modelled on templates of learning that have usually originated in the so-called West. However, in many places there are growing calls to make the curriculum more authentic to where it’s taught.

New Zealand and the UK are two countries which, at a first glance, seem completely opposite. New Zealand, once a British colony, is decades into a process of recovering and teaching indigenous knowledge that was erased during colonialism. On the flip side, the UK is still grappling with its colonial past and trying to define its relationship with countries that it used to rule. One is a question of indigenising the curriculum, the other decolonising it. But are these just two sides of the same coin?

When Margaret Forster joined Massey University in the 1990s, there was no indigenous content on the curriculum. A decade later, she was working as a researcher in the School of Maori Studies, but Maori content was scarce in other disciplines. Today, the school has been renamed the School of Maori Knowledge and curricula in other academic departments, such as science, social work and health sciences, increasingly incorporate Maori knowledge.

'Maori rights, our political rights, our use of our language, our use of our knowledge and our culture has to be a central and integral part of the university. So not just an add on to another subject.' – Margaret Forster

Maori knowledge has now moved from a niche concern to an institution-wide topic, but it took years of work. Margaret describes many conversations between Maori and non-Maori about how to authentically increase Maori content in an empowering way. Central to this is recognising that the knowledge originates from the land and communities, so it doesn’t always automatically transfer well into an academic setting, and that that the legacy of the colonial past has created power dynamics around knowledge.

For Margaret, it is imperative that Maori content is delivered by Maori scholars, for two main reasons: firstly, they act in a guardianship – known as kaitiaki – role, and secondly, they become role models for other students.

'First and foremost our knowledge is for our people and our communities, it’s not for academia' – Margaret Forster

In comparison, Meera Sabaratnam, who chairs the Decolonising SOAS working group, explains how the main challenge at her institution is in transforming hierarchical thinking – which positions Western ideas as central and best – into democratic and inclusive thinking.

'Education generally has to be not just teaching from one standpoint but teaching from multiple standpoints' – Meera Sabaratnam

Whereas New Zealand was a colony, the UK was the seat of power for many years. Historically, scholars at UK universities studied the world from afar, often with many preconceived stereotypes and theories. However, the face of the typical student in the UK has changed significantly in the last few decades. There are more scholars of colour, more international students, and students from a wider range of backgrounds. As a result, any absences within or narrowness of curricula become glaringly obvious.

'There is a standpoint that comes from being grounded in a space which makes your perspective on things different from if you’re studying it from afar.' – Meera Sabaratnam

The question for SOAS is what it means to learn about the rest of the world at a British institution and to engage with the world in a way that is respectful, democratic and rigorous.

Classrooms should be for everyone, regardless of their background. At SOAS, decolonising sensibilities have been built into quality assurance. For example, all students are asked in module evaluations how inclusive and diverse the curriculum was, and whether the teaching methods left them feeling included. They have also developed a toolkit for programme and module conveners, and training is being developed to build basic literacy on how race and racism affects society, as people in the UK are underinformed about this.

The future is in the next generation. As a general rule, younger people are more open to having their ideas challenged and their minds changed, But for big changes to occur, education needs to start earlier – teaching the skills in primary and secondary schools to think critically and reflectively from a young age.

The future is also in understanding the purpose of knowledge. Many of the structures that determine the way knowledge is transmitted and rated are predominantly concentrated in the West, such as journal publishing, conferences and rankings – and these haven’t in the past acknowledged indigenous knowledge. To counteract this, Maori have developed their own journals and created their own spaces for Maori scholars to publish their research.

Linked to this is the question of how we measure performance. At an institutional level, this could be getting feedback on programmes from the very students who study them. At a national and international level, it could be placing more emphasis on the impact of indigenous knowledge on communities, development, and social issues.

It is clear is that there is no all-encompassing approach to making the curriculum authentic. Each university needs to consider what authenticity means at an institutional level. However, whilst the contexts in New Zealand and the UK are as far apart as the countries are themselves on the map, there are parallels that unite them. At the heart of all this work lies people – the students at university, those who are driving change, and ultimately the communities who stand to benefit from richer sources of knowledge.

You can discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.