Dancing with Decolonial Curriculum Theorists: A Search for the Middle Path in Design Education


Over the years, the definition and understanding of curriculum have evolved and continue to evolve. Around five decades ago, Grumet (1981) defined curriculum as the stories we tell students about the past, present, and future, and a decolonial view of this curriculum definition questions the stories students are being told about their past, present, and future, and who tells the story. More recently, Le Grange (2016) opines that curriculum is explicit (what students are provided), hidden (what students learn about the dominant culture of a university), and null (what institutions leave out). However, Fomunyam & Khoza (2021) question these definitions or views, stating that they give little or no consideration to the changing state of knowledge. In Aoki’s (1999) view, a curriculum should not focus only on the planned (curriculum-as-plan) but also on how it is lived (curriculum-as-lived) – by students and educators. Wallin (2010) also stressed the significance of individual experience, stating that the curriculum should not be fixed or closed but rather thought of as an active conceptual force that prioritises individual experience while aligning with society and the economy. Hence, a decolonial curriculum could be viewed through a merge of these multiple perspectives, such as the curriculum as the stories being told, curriculum-as-lived, and curriculum as an active conceptual force.

The conceptualisation of decolonial curriculum in general and specific to design education is faced with theoretical and practical implementation problems in many ways. Decolonial curriculum theorists such as Vandeyar (2020, p.13) conclude that “any attempt at decolonising the curriculum on its own will be futile and at most superficial and cosmetic in nature…”. Considering Aoki (1999), who argues that curriculum should not focus only on the planned (curriculum-as-plan) but also on how it is lived (curriculum-as-lived), how then are inclusive curriculum and student-centred learning practicable in a diverse classroom? In contrast to curriculum dynamics, decoloniality (as a noun) and decolonisation (as a process) add to the complexity of understanding the decolonial curriculum. The defining factors of decolonisation (transformation/development) include racism and epistemology (Mignolo 2009); geopolitics (North versus South) and specific to identity, and aesthetics (Mignolo & Vazquez 2013); technology (Kiran 2015; Ogungbure 2011); indigenous language and culture (Botwe-Asamoah 2005; Thiongʼo 1998); production (research) (Munro A, 2017); and pedagogy and education (Jansen, 2017; Le Grange, 2020; Valenzuela, 2021). Given the complexity of the issue, by joining decolonial curriculum theorists on a dancing stage, how then can we achieve a decolonised curriculum in design education?

Decolonisation in a nutshell

In the last five centuries, curriculum theorisation has been drawn from platforms laid by Western Eurocentric ontologies and epistemologies, resulting in epistemic privilege knowledge that relegated other epistemologies to epistemic inferiority. Grosfoguel (2013) refers to this duality of knowledge structures (epistemic privilege and epistemic inferiority) as Cartesian logic, where knowledge from the Global South is considered inferior, non-Western, and too exotic to be taken seriously because it is alleged to lack scientific reasoning. Thus, Le Grange (2015) proposes that the central approach to decolonising curriculum is by rethinking the subject to liberate thought from the fetters of Cartesian duality, which Le Grange (2016) suggests could be achieved through 4Rs central to an indigenous paradigm (i- relational accountability, ii- respectful representation, iii- reciprocal appropriation, and iv- rights and regulation). Relational accountability acknowledges the accountability of the curriculum to all relations, while respectful representation is about how the curriculum acknowledges and creates space for the voices and knowledges of indigenous peoples. Reciprocal appropriation ensures that both communities and universities share the benefits of knowledge produced and transmitted. In contrast, rights and regulations ensure that ethical protocols that accord ownership of knowledge are observed (Chilisa 2012).

Internationally, according to McLaughlin & Whatman (2011: 367), “[d]ecolonising knowledge in universities, therefore, involves a deep sense of recognition of and challenge to colonial forms of knowledge, pedagogical strategies and research methodologies”. In Valenzuela’s (2021) view, six dimensions (political, economic, ecological, relational, epistemological, and cultural) should be used as guiding criteria to decolonise higher education. Similarly, Fomunyam et al. (2020), proposed four elements to consider, namely, i) changing the nature of knowledge, ii) reviewing the curriculum, iii) deconstructing teaching and learning, iv) institutional identity, architecture and culture. Amidst these different perspectives, the whole concept of decolonisation remains the same, which is to expand our worldview in relation to knowledge by i) cultivating alternative knowledges that contest the supremacy of one form of knowledge, ii) building relationships, a sense of community, and inclusivity in the pedagogical practices, and iii) promoting and preserving indigenous culture, which includes languages, practices, knowledges, and history.

The notion of the curriculum also opens multiple pathways and a basis for decolonisation. From Aoki’s (1999, 2005) notion of curriculum as a lived experience and Wallin’s (2010) definition of curriculum as an active conceptual force, we could draw that decolonisation of the curriculum is indeed not an event but a process that is responsive, inclusive and dynamic. As reflected by various authors, curriculum as a lived experience means constructing and reconstructing knowledge through experience (Okyere 2018), connecting knowledge acquired in institutions to knowledge acquired from the realities of life (Fomunyam & Khoza, 2021), taking into account the dynamics and uniqueness of the educators and students involved in the learning process (Okyere 2018), accommodating societal and individual differences, lived meaning and narratives (Aoki 2005), and ensuring the curriculum is relevant to societal environment and needs (Pinar 2011). From these various views, three main qualities of a decolonised curriculum emerge, which are dynamic, inclusive, and responsive curriculum (Aoki, 2005; Fomunyam & Khoza, 2021; Okyere, 2018; Wallin, 2010). These qualities can be used as indicators to evaluate, construct, and reconstruct the epistemological aspects of education, which are access to knowledge, the process of acquiring knowledge, and the nature of the knowledge acquired (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015).

The ‘Third Space’ as Middle Path in Design Education

To delink from this Eurocentric episteme, decolonial theorists propose a shift in position in relation to knowledge (Quijano & Ennis 2000). The shift focuses on creating new systems of thinking based on an expanded worldview that no longer centres on colonial meaning-making. The shift or new system of thinking, according to Bhabha (2004), is “the Third Space” that draws from the past where necessary but acknowledges that culture is generative and creative. From an epistemological dimension, the concept of expanding worldview focuses on three main aspects, as illustrated in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Decolonised knowledge systems

  1. The nature of knowledge should contest the supremacy of just one form of knowledge (Western knowledge), open spaces to promote a dialogue among others (such as alternative knowledges) and be responsive to societal needs and the ever-evolving role of the designer. A design curriculum content should reflect diverse or multiple perspectives through relational accountability and respectful representation in teaching and learning materials. Examples, case studies, tasks and student projects should reflect potential diversity in the classroom. In terms of inclusivity, it includes not only sociocultural aspects but also socio-economic inclusivity. For example, I have once taught a module (Product design techniques) where all students are from the same cultural background but different socio-economic background. Hence, to ensure inclusivity, I designed the project brief to focus on creativity with minimal financial resources required. In a project, I indicated in the brief that the cost of developing their design ideas must not exceed a certain amount, and in another project, I asked the students to use only recycled material. This approach is what I see as ‘the third space’ where students don’t feel excluded or inferior just because of their limited financial resources.
  2. The process of acquiring knowledge should be dynamic (not static) and go beyond the four walls of formal education. The learning process should accommodate and promote both formal and informal learning, using inclusive learning tools (including language and mode of communication). Approaches such as traditional learning, experiential learning, self-directed learning, open learning, internationalisation, etc. could help create a third space that is conducive to diverse voices and knowledges.
  3. Making access to knowledge inclusive is one of the important characteristics of a decolonised education. For example, developing more structured alternative access to programmes through recognition of prior learning (RPL), where informal learning and experiences can be assessed and considered equivalent to formal learning. Even though RPL has been in place in several universities for a while, the reality is that this pathway to entering higher education programmes remains dormant. Hence, developing a straightforward process and strategy with details of the ontological knowledge on what counts as RPL would enable rather than constrain access to knowledge.

As we celebrate Black History Month (October), permit me to reflect on Steve Biko’s writings (I write what I like) about the importance of restoring the dignity of Black people; especially, the negative representation of Black people in history books and the kinds of knowledge disseminated to perpetuate the inferiority complex. According to Biko (1978 92), “the most potent weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Hence, alternative knowledges and perspectives are critical to restoring the dignity of the colonised character in education and curriculum.


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