Centering the Student to Decolonize Curriculum

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Topics: Education Equity

During the Education Justice Collective’s panel on decolonizing curriculum, Karen L. Ishizuka, chief curator of the Japanese American National Museum, talked about her educational experience as a Japanese American.

“When they said their parents went to a camp, their teachers basically said that’s a lie,” Ishizuka said of her friends, who were also Japanese American. “They said that didn’t happen. That sets up so much when you’re called a liar by your teacher, the authority figure. Well, am I? Are my parents? Were they mistaken?” Ishizuka went on to explain how these internalizations cause deep identity, belief and trust issues in the self, with family, with friends, with education and with the world at large.

The solution to this form of gaslighting, intentional or not, is to include student voice as part of the learning experience. Student-centered learning can offer the opportunity for the student to become the educator and the teacher to become the learner, and for teachers and students to work together to create the kind of meaningful learning experiences that last a lifetime.

Letting learners be the experts is one of the ways to create a more-student centered classroom. What are four others?
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Questions around lived experiences are opportunities for the student to explore their identity and discover new information and deeper engagement through personalized, competency-based learning. Centering student voice makes the content more meaningful and more personal. For a learner, understanding the past can help them better communicate the future they want, the future that they will be living in.

Another panelist from Georgia, Alexis Campbell, now a freshman at Spelman College, noted how she didn’t feel seen or heard as a Black student.

“As a Black American,” said Campbell, “when we learn about Black Americans in America, the only thing that we’re taught is slavery. It’s very dehumanizing from an early age. That’s when my peers and I began to disconnect with education. When you are not being taught an education that is specifically tailored to your experiences as a person and your identity, then you’re less likely to want to pay attention. I’ve seen so many of my peers disengage because teachers didn’t care to show us how we were seen throughout history.”

For example, when White people are given agency over Black history – such as teaching about White abolitionists over Black abolitionists and freedom fighters – it centers White voices and ignores Black voices, denying Black empowerment. Campbell continued, “I know personally that I saw my identity as not being important in history growing up because a lot of things we’re taught is White Saviorism. So eventually it just became normal to see White people as the most powerful people in society, not recognizing that there are so many other ethnicities that have completely changed the way we view history.”

Teachers can learn from their students and co-learn with them in centering the student. Laura Hilger, a teaching and learning director at KnowledgeWorks, explored teacher-centered versus learner-entered environments, saying, “It’s not about what teachers teach, but what the students learn. To be student-centered is much more than an educator in one classroom. In fact, I’d argue that you can’t be student-centered when acting in isolation; instead, we must work at becoming student-centered as a system.”

By decolonizing our systems with anti-racist practices, we can acknowledge our collective past and move forward to a more inclusive future by centering the student voice and experience through personalized learning.

When we make all of the decisions for our students, what are we keeping them from doing for themselves? Learn more about cultivating learner agency through authentic voice and choice.