Decolonising the active curriculum #activelearning

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This post considers the need to decolonise the active curriculum. It follows on from ideas considered in the previous post on embodiment which concluded that advocates and practitioners of active learning must look deeply at the meaning of being student-centred. We must look beyond the meaning of simply ensuring the learner is more active in the classroom, or even the idea of the student as a co-creator of knowledge, to understand ideas like personalisation, inclusivity, diversity, and decolonisation, as well as embodied experience.

Personalisation

Personalisation is accommodated in the active curriculum by designing for learner agency and the expectation that the student is the ultimate arbiter of their learning because only they understand where they have come from, where they are going, and how what they are doing today fits into their personal schema. I used to think designing for each individual student was logistically impossible, but then I realised that this idea of differentiated design for each student is not what personalised design is about. It can be helpful to have differentiation strategies, such as extension work or further support activities and resources for those who need them. However, I think personalisation mostly involves:

  1. Avoiding over-specifying tasks or, more positively, creating ill-defined activities in which the learner makes decisions to ‘customise’ their version of the activity. This is why projects work, even amongst groups, because the task requires a degree of creativity and design thinking.
  2. Creating space for reflecting in and on learning; in effect, using an experiential strategy. Such reflection accommodates metacognitive engagement involving the learner critically evaluating their response to stimuli.

Note, expectations for engaging in ill-defined activities must be clear to students. It is always important that students are clear about what they are expected to do. Rather, some task design parameters and what they choose to look at are left open for them to specify to make the task ‘their own’.

The implications of this are that learning designers should heed the stimuli or interventions they use. Pedagogic interventions sit on a continuum of broad (e.g. lectures, set literature) to personalised (e.g. an artefact selected, created or negotiated by the learner themselves).

In this sense, decolonisation is about allowing for self-direction by letting go of specification or control. It is about appreciating the value of using stimuli to reflect the breadth and depth of an idea by engaging the breadth and depth of the participants being engaged in the investigation.

Personalisation and decolonisation go hand-in-hand. They are positive design strategies that release the curriculum from its traditional hierarchical and colonial limitations. It also allows the colony, or learning community, to become self-governing. In a learning context, a decolonising ethos leads us to an expectation for learner autonomy, co-operation, peer learning, co-construction of knowledge through co-creation and contribution. Decolonisation is essentially a key dimension of student-centred and active learning philosophy.

Decolonisation is a term rightly associated with BAME, gender and ability, but its broader meaning leads the designer to think about universal design. The challenge for the learning designer, facilitator or orchestrator is to create stimuli that become catalysts for a vibrant and diverse colony, empowering individuals and the social networks within which they belong.

Decolonisation provides a clear rationale for active learning, whether we are using a research-informed learning strategy or more of a problem-based and experiential approach. In active learning, the learner can be understood as a contributor and co-creator and, if nothing else, the effective teacher has access to a huge intellectual resource embodied in the experiences and ways of thinking available to the classroom.

Diversity

Diversity partly concerns the social potential present with any group of people: the ‘2+2=5’ and ‘all for one and one for all’ factors. However, in my experience of educational discourse, diversity tends to surface as being a problem to do with individuals – a deficit discourse. No, diversity brings social benefits in ways that empower individuals. All individuals. Again, the design of ill-formed problems allows individual students to find learning purchase (i.e. self-direction) in order that they develop diverse, complementary valid responses of benefit to all.

This is why diversity must not be read as a deficit discourse. Diversity is necessary and helpful to active learning. It usefully explains ideas such as learning ecologies and student-centredness. A student-centred learning environment is one that accommodates and values the potential of each and every student, and the value of each student to their peer learning community.

Inclusivity

The terms inclusivity and diversity are often used together as though they mean the same thing. Inclusivity tends to emphasise providing access to learning and being able to respond to student needs. A diversity discourse, on the other hand, tends to value difference for what it offers the learning environment.

The tacit and the hidden curriculum in plain sight

If we are to consider the active curriculum as one that is rich in its diversity, we need to pay particular attention to our unconscious bias as orchestrators and contributing participants to the learning environment. We must be sensitive to the unintended messages that may inadvertently undermine our best intentions. We must do our best to make visible and examine the hidden curriculum – those lessons that are learnt by students “…which are not in themselves overtly included in organizational arrangements and the formal curriculum ‘or even in the consciousness’ of those responsible for them (Kelly 1982:8).

From a diversity perspective, this sensitivity is less to do with specific ‘types’ of students (e.g. BAME as a ‘type’ as communicated by Kingston University drama students in a recent performance at our recent Course Leaders Conference), and more to do with common decency and equity as a principle for universal design (it avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users).

Summary

An active learning space is one in which the locus of control is distributed amongst its participants. The teacher’s role is to design stimuli which enable all students to contribute to the co-creation of knowledge in a respectful, trustful and diverse learning environment.

References

Kelly, A. V. (1982). The curriculum: Theory and practice. London: Harper and Row.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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1 Response to Decolonising the active curriculum #activelearning

  1. Pingback: Universal design and #activelearning | Tactile

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