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Exploring the impact of colonialism on education


Jane Munro
25 January 2011
The influence that Australia's colonial heritage has on contemporary educational thinking is being examined through a research project, entitled 'Unsettling Pedagogical Spaces: Decolonisation and Social Justice in Higher Education', being undertaken by Southern Cross University PhD candidate Soenke Biermann.

Mr Biermann believes European colonialism has had a huge impact on shaping the world over the past 500 years and his research project is designed to develop an improved understanding of how those historical circumstances continue to influence the university environment today.

"Among other things, I am a migrant. I have come to this beautiful country yet I am asking myself if Australia has really dealt with its colonial heritage and how much of that colonialism might still be with us in the way in which we produce knowledge and the way in which we think and teach at universities," Mr Biermann said.

"I think this idea of how our minds are colonised along with our bodies is really fascinating and I am interested in how we might consider decolonising our minds. For Indigenous people, this is certainly not a new idea - Indigenous scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith or Ngugi Wa Thiong'o have talked and written about this for a long time.

"But what about those of us who are part of the dominant culture – are we able to decolonise, able to recognise how much colonialism still frames our way of thinking and able to learn to listen to and engage with others in a more equal manner? I am interested in how university educators come to terms with these questions and what they might do about decolonising their pedagogical practice.

"I have chosen university education as a way of considering these concepts because, despite increasing trends towards managerialism and corporatisation, universities are still spaces where we have more freedom in the way in which we think and teach.

"I also think a lot of interesting work on decolonisation has come out of universities in the last 10 to 20 years, particularly from Indigenous scholars. As well as that, I am a university teacher in Cultural Studies myself so it is an environment I know really well and can write more comfortably about than, say, high school education.

"The research project is qualitative and has a number of elements. Apart from the literature review setting out the theoretical framework, there is an auto-ethnographic component which is looking at the self - for example, if I looked at myself and my own institutional environment as 'strange' or 'foreign', what might I see, how might I describe those kinds of processes and practices that I partake in?

"My cultural studies background really helps me here as that is precisely what we do – making an effort to 'unsettle' oneself and see the familiar as strange.

"The other research aspect is to interview university educators around Australia and in New Zealand and Canada, because they are also so-called 'settler' societies. Through this part of my research I want to look at how academics think about decolonisation and ask 'what do they then do in their own pedagogical practice?', and 'what might be some of the commonalities and also some of the differences between Australia, New Zealand and Canada?'.

"I think what is really important at the moment with the Bradley Review of higher education and the equity agenda of widening participation is that we don't just have a greater diversity of people but also a greater diversity of knowledges and world views.

"I guess the question is how well we respond to that diversity of views and knowledges for everyone's benefit, and I hope that this thesis will contribute to making the 'settler' university a more inclusive and open - a less 'settled' place," Mr Biermann said.

Soenke Biermann graduated from a Bachelor of Indigenous Studies at Southern Cross University in 2006 and then completed a Bachelor of Arts with Honours at Southern Cross University in 2009. He received First Class Honours in 2009 (Title: Indigenous Pedagogies for Decolonisation: Listening for Resonance and Making Connections) and the Southern Cross University Medal in 2009. He has produced seven peer-reviewed publications (three co-authored with colleagues) including in the International Journal for Pedagogies & Learning, the Australian Journal of Indigenous Education and the Journal of Indigenous Australian Issues.

Photo: Southern Cross University PhD candidate Soenke Biermann