Decolonizing Knowledge: Undoing and Reconstructing how we Learn

Decolonizing Knowledge: Undoing and Reconstructing how we Learn

When British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah was asked during a lecture about cultural belonging, he suggested avoiding falling victim to the questionable idea that culture belongs to specific groups. Further, if the dubious concept of ‘Westerner’ were to disappear, it needed not be replaced with something else but that we should rather learn to relate to people in different ways, respectful of each other’s differences without an excess of identification. The lecture host (an English woman), cautiously navigating from question to assertion, said in relation to Western civilization, “But what holds us all together are these things you’ve sort of praised: liberalism, human rights, rule of law, all those things. That gives us the right to choose, it gives us control over who we are. There are people around the world, particularly in Islamic countries, who don’t have that kind of choice. And these things ARE Western” (Appiah, 2016, m.30-36).

This view that Western knowledge and culture are somehow the core of a ‘universal knowledge’ and yet very much ‘remaining the history of the West,’ according to Tuhiwai-Smith (2012, p.66), has existed for centuries. In fact, she explains, the colonized cultures and their forms of knowledge were historically repositioned in a way that would allow for the validation of colonial domination and authority by being labeled as ‘oriental’ or ‘outsider’ by colonial powers. In line with this, Mitova (2020) defines the decolonization of knowledge as the necessity to undo our way of thinking about knowledge and to reconstruct it by learning anew and in new ways rather than those imposed on people, institutions, or nations through the process of colonization (Mitova, 2020; Wiredu, 2002).

Because Eurocentrism has succeeded in creating the idea of universal knowledge, Mignolo (2009) encourages us to ask ourselves: who and when, how, and where is knowledge generated?  Grosfoguel (2013) argues (in a description that matches my own experience as a doctoral student in the UK) that the social theory canon in Western universities has become dominated by a few men from five countries: Italy, France, England, Germany, and the USA; to this, I will further add that on a personal level, 80% of my Social Theory classes not only involved men from only two of those five countries (Germany and France) and but also that they were all white, adding an additional element to the self-arrogated intellectual (and sexist) domination: what Grosfoguel (2012) called epistemic racism. I am not arguing that every one of those social theorists was either of those things, but the recognition of their work should not come at the cost of the institutional eradication of other forms of knowledge that, especially since the 1980s, have begun to reshape and re-inform other intellectual traditions: feminist social epistemology, Eastern, African, Africana, Latin American and ‘Continental’(Mitova, 2020). 

Lessons from the Global South

Latin America presents us with a couple of valuable examples from which the academy can perhaps learn; one of them is in Chile, where, as Nuñez (2017) details, beginning in 2008, the Universidad Catolica de Temuco began to tackle the issue of curricular Eurocentrism within their teacher training programs. They started by offering a degree called “Elementary Intercultural Pedagogy in the Mapuche[1] context”. They also experimented by offering a program titled “Pedagogical Experience in Intercultural Approaches”, geared towards increasing sociocultural indigenous knowledge amongst graduate students in Education.

Burman (2016) offers a somewhat similar example from his experience in Bolivia. While researching within an Aymara community there, he was able to talk to a number of indigenous activists who remained deeply skeptical of Evo Morales’[2] policies regarding decolonization and interculturality. The activists viewed these policies as a disguised perpetuation of the colonial mode of knowledge production in Bolivia. While the Bolivian government did create indigenous universities (something that has not happened in Chile) and introduced reforms into the national educational system, many activists distrusted these policies and engaged in ‘epistemic and ontological disobedience’ (ibid, p.20). The activists opened their own spaces for knowledge creation, such as indigenous universities that function outside the national framework, as well as community sessions and seminars where indigenous people, including intellectuals, are invited to guide debates and deliberations regarding ways to preserve their knowledge and therefore, their social experience. These acts of disobedience are guided, according to Burman, by defiance to three elements that in his view have become an intrinsic part of Bolivia’s intellectual colonization:

 

“…the subjugation of subjectivities (“Be who we want you to be!”); epistemic domination (“Know what we want you to know and in the way we want you to know; create the kind of knowledge we want you to and in the way we want you to!”); and ontological domination (“Live in the one and only world we recognize as real!”). (Burman, 2016, p. 21)

 

Of course, the issue here is not the number, quality, or contributions of Eurocentric philosophers; as Dabashi (2015) elaborates, the question is not how Eurocentric Europeans are, but rather how European thinking has continued to reach a level of universality that has come to the detriment of non-European visions. Perhaps these examples from Latin American nations can offer us lessons to draw from that would allow us to embrace the fact that, as has been argued and widely demonstrated (de Sousa Santos, 2001, 2014, 2018; Smith, 2012; Apple, 2011, 2012, 2013; Semali and Kincheloe, 1999), there is no one single source of knowledge, not one single knowledge pursuit and not one single, linear development of knowledge.

The challenge for Western higher education institutions is to start thinking about ways to give these non-Eurocentric perspectives and knowledge not only wider recognition but also a broader space within their curriculum. As new feminist, Eastern, African, Latin American, and indigenous voices emerge within the academy, we must ask, how much are we paying attention and how much are we listening to them?

Gaston Bacquet

Gaston Bacquet

Associate Tutor, University of Glasgow

Gaston Bacquet works as an Associate Tutor at the University of Glasgow, where he supervises master’s dissertations within the TESOL program and where he is also a first-year PhD student in Education. His research seeks to develop inclusive teaching practices in Latin American classrooms using an intersection of Critical Pedagogy and non-Western knowledge systems.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gaston-bacquet-59a38b9b/
Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gaston_Bacquet2
Orcid: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9802-7249

References and Further Reading

[1] Mapuches are the largest indigenous community in Chile, and Temuco, the city where the university in question is based, is located near a large Mapuche enclave in the south of Chile

[2] Evo Morales, a former farmer and an Aymara person himself, was the president of Bolivia from 2006 to 2019.

 

Appiah, K.A. (2018). The lies that bind: Rethinking Identity. New York: Liveright (Based on his 2016 BBC Reith Lectures).

Apple, M.(2011). Democratic education in neoliberal and neoconservative times. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 21(1), 21–31.

Apple, M. (2012b). Knowledge, power, and education: The selected works of Michael W. Apple. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. (2013). Can Education Change Society? New York; Routledge.

Burman, A. (2016). Indigeneity and Decolonization in the Bolivian Andes: Ritual Practice and Activism. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Dabashi, H. (2015). Can Non-Europeans Think? London: Zed Books.

de Sousa Santos, B. (2001). Nuestra America. Theory, Culture & Society, 18(2–3), 185–217.

de Sousa Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South. New York: Routledge.

De Sousa Santos, B. (2018). The end of the cognitive empire: the coming of age of epistemologies of the South. Durham: Duke University Press.

Grosfoguel, R. (2012). The Dilemmas of Ethnic Studies in the United States: Be­tween Liberal Multiculturalism, Identity Politics, Disciplinary Colonization, and Decolonial Epistemologies. Human Archi­tecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowl­edge, X (I), 81-90.

Grosfoguel, R. (2013). Epistemic Racism/Sexism, Westernized Universities and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long Sixteenth Century, in Araujo, M. & Rodriguez Maeso, S. (Eds.), Eurocentrism, Racism and Knowledge, Debates on History and Power in Europe and the Americas. London: Palgrave

Mignolo, W. (2009). Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom. Theory, Culture & Society. 26(7-8), 159-181. 

Mitova, V. (2020). Decolonising Knowledge Here and Now, Philosophical Papers, 49(2), 191-212.

Nuñez, D. (2017). Reflecxiones en torno a la interculturalidad y la Educacion Superior en Chile. Polyphōnia, 1, 72-94.

Semali, L.M. and Kincheloe, J.L. (1999) What is indigenous knowledge? Voices from the academy (Eds.) New York/London: Falmer

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. London: Zed (2nd Edition).

Wiredu, K. (2002). Conceptual decolonization as an imperative in contemporary African philosophy: some personal reflections. Rue Descartes, 36(2), 53-64.

Internationalising research on teaching assistants: A call for expressions of interest in creating a research network

Internationalising research on teaching assistants: A call for expressions of interest in creating a research network

Across the globe, the drive towards the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools has become contingent on the creation and utilisation of a paraprofessional workforce, commonly known as teaching assistants or teacher aides (TAs).  

Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the US, and the UK have all experienced large increases in this section of their education workforce over the last quarter-century. It is claimed that in many territories, policies of inclusion and provision for pupils with SEN rely heavily on this ‘non-teaching’ workforce (Masdeu Navarro, 2015). And recent evidence from the UK shows how vital TAs have been to keeping schools open and ensuring children can learn during the COVID pandemic (Moss et al, 2021). 

The growing prevalence and prominence of TAs in schools has attracted attention from researchers, who are keen to identify effective approaches to TA deployment and preparation, describe and measure their impact in various forms, and to characterise their experiences of work. Peer-reviewed papers on TAs started to noticeably pepper the academic literature in the mid-1990s, appearing mainly in US journals. Yet, in the subsequent decades, there have been no collections of international writing on TAs.

Until now.

A new special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education, which I have guest-edited with Anke de Boer (University of Groningen), draws together research and perspectives on the role, deployment, and impact of TAs from international contexts. It intends to serve as an indicative summary of work and thinking in the field to date and as a point of departure for future research and development. All articles in the special issue are free to access online from 14 May until the end of June. 

The call for papers generated a truly international response. We received nearly 50 abstracts from researchers in 17 countries across five continents. The selected papers provide insights into the liminal space between educator, caregiver, behaviour manager, and facilitator of learning and of peer relations, which characterises the TA role.

The papers consider the features of team-working and cooperation between TAs and teachers and explore the TA’s role as a facilitator of peer interactions, personal care, and instructional support for pupils with SEN. Two papers focus on the pupils’ perspective of TA support and the implications for social inclusion and the development of independence. One of the foremost researchers on TAs, Michael Giangreco from the University of Vermont (USA), reflects on more than 40 years of experience in the field in a specially-commissioned article.

Our own contribution (Webster & de Boer, 2021) draws attention to a situation that came quickly to light in the process of curating the special issue. While the call for papers shows the extent of the activity and global reach of research on TAs, it also revealed how the field lacks any coordinated network or forum for researchers to convene, share and debate ideas, and disseminate their work.

Many national educational research associations have a special interest group for those researching special and inclusive education. While these tend to provide an intellectual home for researchers studying TAs, research on/involving TAs transcends this discipline and straddles areas such as economics, feminism, and labour relations. Therefore, the launch of the special issue presents a timely opportunity to call for the creation of a network specifically designed to support research on TAs.

It could be, however, that TAs is too narrow a focus for a viable special interest group and that our field would be better served by widening and reframing our focus onto something we might nascently term ‘paraprofessional studies’.

The increase of TAs in education can be seen in the broader context of the rise in paraprofessionals across a range of public services. These are people who work alongside and support those working in professional roles in fields such as medicine, health, social work, law, and the police. Evidence from the UK and the US shows how the introduction of paraprofessionals has led to a redrawing of the boundaries between the roles of established professionals and others who work in their respective fields (Kessler, Bach & Heron, 2005; Thornley, 1997; Wallace, 2003). Indeed, papers in the special issue (for example, Östlund et al., 2021; Zhao et al., 2021) suggest that there are contexts in which TAs may have multiple paraprofessional identifies, with the roles of individual TAs combining or bridging between functions of education and care.

Our international research network would be a lively, democratic space in which researchers from across education and the social sciences could convene around the topic of paraprofessionals. Work on TAs would constitute a productive site for activity in its own right. Still, there would also be potential for rich, innovative ideas to bloom from exciting exchanges and interactions with researchers across the world investigating the role and lives of paraprofessionals in other areas (e.g., healthcare assistants). We would want our network to draw in policymakers and practitioners as well, thereby creating a dynamic, multidisciplinary interface between the worlds of research, policy, and practice.

The pandemic has reshaped ideas about connectedness. It is easier than ever (at least technically) for researchers to come together with multiple stakeholders to share experiences, discuss, debate, and develop ideas and proposals. We see potential for online gatherings and discussion, leading in years to come to real-world symposia and even an international conference – all with a major focus on TAs and TA research.

Such an endeavour, we believe, would greatly expand, empower and raise the esteem of the field of scholarship on TAs. The publication of the special issue presents an unmissable opportunity to reach out to researchers across a range of disciplines, studying any and all aspects relating to the life and work of TAs, who are interested in creating an international network for TA research.

Our paper invites readers to make contact in order to express support for, and thoughts on, establishing such a network. It is an invitation that I am happy to extend to readers of this blog. Please email rob.webster@ucl.ac.uk.

 

Dr Rob Webster

Dr Rob Webster

Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK

Dr Rob Webster is an Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK. He was part of the research team that conducted the world’s largest study of teaching assistants: the ground-breaking Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project. Rob writes extensively on the role of teaching assistants, and he also created the award-winning Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme for schools (maximisingtas.co.uk). Prior to research, Rob worked as a teaching assistant in mainstream and special schools.

Website: www.rob-webster.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobWebster_
http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1416-4439

References and Further Reading

Kessler, I., Bach, S. & Heron, P. (2005) Assistant roles and changing job boundaries in the public services. Final report. London: ESRC.

Masdeu Navarro, F. (2015). Learning support staff: A literature review. OECD Education Working paper no.125. https://doi.org/10.1787/5jrnzm39w45l-en.

Moss, G., Webster, R., Harmey, S., and Bradbury, A. (2021) Unsung Heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown. London: UCL Institute of Education http://maximisingtas.co.uk/assets/unsung-heroesfinal.pdf 

Östlund, D., Barow, T., Dahlberg, K. & Johansson, A. (2021) In between special needs teachers and students: Paraprofessionals work in self-contained classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities in Sweden. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901370

Thornley, C. (1997) The invisible workers: An investigation into the pay and employment of health care assistants in the NHS. London: Unison.

Wallace, T. (2003) Paraprofessionals. Minnesota, USA: Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.

Webster, R. & de Boer, A. (2021) ‘Where next for research on teaching assistants: The case for an international response’. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2).

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901368

Zhao, Y., Rose, R. & Shevlin, M. (2021) Paraprofessional support in Irish schools: From Special Needs Assistants to Inclusion Support Assistants. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901371  

What can international data tell us about education paraprofessionals? Almost nothing

What can international data tell us about education paraprofessionals? Almost nothing

In many schools and classrooms across the globe, the drive towards the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools has become contingent on the creation and utilisation of a relatively new paraprofessional workforce, known variously as teaching assistants or teacher aides (TAs). It is claimed that in many countries, policies of mainstreaming pupils with SEN rely heavily on this ‘non-teaching’ workforce (Masdeu Navarro, 2015).

The intertwining of inclusion and TAs leads to the view that TAs have become ‘the mortar in the brickwork … hold[ing] schools together in numerous and sometimes unnoticed ways’ (Webster et al., 2021, p2). Its relative intuitiveness – more individualised support for pupils that struggle most – is arguably why it is the model of choice for education systems and schools striving for inclusion and why it has replicated itself more successfully than just about any other model. 

Despite all this, there are virtually no macro-level data on the characteristics, role, and contribution of TAs and their relationship to and impact on inclusion. The most influential international study on schools and classrooms, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), is lauded by policymakers and researchers of advanced nations for the richness of its data and the detailed insights it provides. It, however, has vanishing little say about TAs.

The third and most recent wave of TALIS from 2018 – which involved over 275,000 respondents from 31 countries (OECD, 2021a) – stated that ‘teacher aides [and] pedagogical support staff … were not considered to be teachers and, thus, not part of the TALIS international target population’ (OECD, 2021b). Leaving aside whether there is, or there ought to be, an equivalence between TAs and teachers, the decision to exclude TAs from TALIS matters. Not just, I would argue, in and of itself, but because other high-level analyses of education rely on the data it collects, such as the authoritative Global Education Monitoring (GEM) annual report (which is hosted and published by UNESCO).

The focus of the 2020 GEM report was inclusion, yet it was unable to report much at all about TAs because ‘data on teaching assistants is limited, even in high-income countries’ (UNESCO, 2020, p300). The report concluded that ‘comparable international data on inclusion-related use of support personnel are not generally available’ (UNESCO, 2020, p306).

Elsewhere, a rare international survey, commissioned by Education International (the global union federation of teacher trade unions), of the characteristics, employment and working conditions of just over 3,000 ‘education support personnel’ [ESP] – a group among which TAs are prominent – concluded: ‘there are significant gaps in the knowledge and understanding of ESP: who they are, what they do, and what they need to do their jobs effectively’ (Butler, 2019, p1). 

If recent trends are anything to go by, and as the near-global drive towards inclusion continues, large amounts of public money will be spent on employing more and more TAs. In England, for example, school census data show that 28% of the school workforce are employed as TAs (and 35% of the primary schools’ workforce)1. However, there are no public data on what this costs or to what extent it represents value for taxpayers’ money. Such questions can be both reductive and a rather blunt way of quantifying TAs’ highly nuanced contributions to education. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of questions that motivate policymakers and imply a prima facia case for national governments to show as much interest in the working lives, practices, and perspectives of TAs as they do in those of teachers.

For this reason, in a paper for an upcoming special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education2, guest editors Anke de Boer (University of Groningen) and I, call for the OECD to extend TALIS in ways that reflect, and are proportionate to, the global trend towards employing and deploying TAs in educational settings (Webster & de Boer, 2021). 

Many of the themes selected for inclusion in the 2018 TALIS survey are relatable to the lives of TAs:

    • instructional practices
    • professional practices
    • initial preparation for the role
    • school climate
    • job satisfaction
    • human resource issues
    • stakeholder relations
    • career opportunities
    • professional responsibility and autonomy.


At the more basic but nonetheless essential, descriptive level, a survey of TAs would be able to track demographic trends relating to equality, diversity, and representation. Crucial, you would think, for a role synonymous with inclusion.

UNESCO Global Education Monitoring reports ‘serve as a foundation for evidence-based advocacy to promote progress towards SDG 4’ (the fourth Sustainable Development Goal on education) (OECD, 2021c). The 2020 report on inclusion points to how a broader ‘shortage of data on teachers’ from countries that are not included in TALIS represents one of three ‘data gaps remain[ing] in key areas of the SDG 4 monitoring framework’ (UNESCO, 2020, p198). The macrodata gap relating to TAs can be seen as part of the same issue. Providing and sharing the robust evidence needed to underpin policymaking and practice, and to hold world leaders to account, are essential if we are to achieve SDG 4. Progress will be all the slower, if not unworkable, without a coordinated and consolidated data collection effort that incorporates and reflects the role and contribution of TAs.

In our paper, we argue that the potentially transformative ideas for improving policy and practice in relation to TAs exist in the skillful accumulation, harmonisation, and utilisation of data at the macro, meso, and micro levels. Expanding an existing data collection effort that is funded by, and maps education labour force trends in, the world’s most advanced economies seems to us a good place to start.

The next cycle of TALIS, due in 2024, is perhaps the first opportunity to pilot a survey for TAs in a select number of territories where they are a well-established part of the school workforce.

Survey items could be limited to questions drawn from several of the most relatable themes from the teacher survey (see above), and trialled in countries such as the US, the UK, Norway, and Finland; countries that are not only above the OECD average in terms of TA-pupil ratio (7.3 TAs per 1,000 pupils) (Masdeu Navarro, 2015), but also have large enough numbers of TAs from which a meaningful sample can be drawn. We might extend our pilot to Brazil, Chile, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, which interrogation of the most recent OECD data from 2018 suggests also have sufficiently sizable and sampleable TA populations across both primary and secondary education (OECD, 2021d).

A successful pilot could lead to approaches which, within a couple of TALIS cycles, are capable of producing the kind of data on TAs that have impressively – and in relatively short order – transformed and enhanced our understanding of teachers and teaching.

Dr Rob Webster

Dr Rob Webster

Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK

Dr Rob Webster is an Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education, UK. He was part of the research team that conducted the world’s largest study of teaching assistants: the ground-breaking Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project. Rob writes extensively on the role of teaching assistants, and he also created the award-winning Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme for schools (maximisingtas.co.uk). Prior to research, Rob worked as a teaching assistant in mainstream and special schools.

Website: www.rob-webster.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobWebster_
http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1416-4439

Further Reading

Notes

  1. Department for Education (2021) School Workforce in England: November 2019. Available at: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-workforce-in-england (accessed 09.03.21).
  2. A special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education entitled ‘Teaching assistants: Their role in the inclusion, education and achievement of pupils with special educational needs’ will be published in April 2021. It draws together research and perspectives on the role, deployment and impact of TAs from six European countries.

References

Butler, P. (2019) Understanding the invisible workforce. Education support personnel’s roles, needs and the challenges they face. Brussels: Education International. Available online: https://issuu.com/educationinternational/docs/research_esp_final_report. Accessed: 04.02.21.

Masdeu Navarro, F. (2015). Learning support staff: A literature review. OECD Education Working paper no.125. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1787/5jrnzm39w45l-en. Accessed: 11.02.21.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2021a) TALIS FAQ. Available online: https://www.oecd.org/education/talis/talisfaq/. Accessed: 04.02.21.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2021b) Annex A. Technical notes on sampling procedures, response rates and adjudication for TALIS 2018. Available online: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/1d0bc92a-en/1/3/1/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/1d0bc92a-en&_csp_=1418ec5a16ddb9919c5bc207486a271c&itemIGO=oecd&itemContentType=book. Accessed: 04.02.21.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2021c) The Global Education Monitoring Report, in brief. Available online: https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/about. Accessed: 04.02.21.

 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2020) Global Education Monitoring Report 2020: Inclusion and education: All means all. Paris: UNESCO. Available online: https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/report/2020/inclusion. Accessed: 04.02.21.

 Webster, R. Bosanquet, P., Franklin, S. & Parker, M. (2021) Maximising the impact of teaching assistants in primary schools: Guidance for school leaders. Oxon: Routledge http://maximisingtas.co.uk/our-books.php

 Webster, R. & de Boer, A. (2021) ‘Where next for research on teaching assistants: The case for an international response’. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901368