(How) can decoloniality inform "educational (curriculum) knowledge" selection?

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(This article is based on a presentation made as part of the Curriculum Knowledge Selection plenary panel,  at the annual conference of the South African Education Research Association, Pretoria, 22 October 2018)

The move to decolonise education has been a matter of concern for all those thinking about the nature and purpose of university curricula.  Repeating tropes of the 1950s and 1960s, this concern has recently surfaced to challenge the dominance of Eurocentric knowledge at our universities.

Students have made a call for an ‘all-inclusive’ approach to knowledge to inform our curriculum initiatives.  Africa-centredness, they suggested, ought to be at the heart of university knowledge.

In response, the impulse to decolonise education has produced a number of popular media and academic articles. In this article I move the debate to a consideration of the epistemological claims of a decoloniality approach and, based on this, reflect on how decoloniality would inform curriculum knowledge selection at the university.

Universities are complex systems with different knowledge mixes operating across their different knowledge regions, i.e. disciplinary, applied, vocational and professional knowledge.Each of these has its own knowledge structures, a theoretical understanding of which would provide a basis for working out how an approach to decoloniality would inform curriculum selection processes.

This article offers a  conceptual toolkit to inform curriculum selection processes that I call an  ‘educational knowledge’ approach to decolonising the curriculum. For this purpose I draw on two theoretical families that have hitherto operated on parallel and incommensurate epistemological tracks. I place the theoretical literature on decoloniality into conversation with social realist literature on conceptions of ‘educational (curriculum) knowledge’.

The rest of this article is made up of three sets of comments to develop my argument.

The first set is a consideration of the curriculum knowledge claims of the decolonising approach.  Decoloniality is based on a critique of the formative relationship between the coloniality of power, knowledge and being (see Maldondo-Torres 2007).  The triumph of modern colonial epistemology, it argues, was achieved through colonial violence, relegation of people’s knowledges to an inferior status, and the creation of the deracinated modern colonial subject. Race is central to colonial epistemology (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013) .

Decoloniality can best be understood as a call for a type of cognitive justice based on an overhaul and expansion of the Western knowledge canon. The call is also for knowledge pluralisation, which refers to the incorporation of the complex ways of knowing of subaltern and all previously excluded groups (Fataar and Subreenduth 2015).

It favours  an inter-cultural understanding of heterodox forms of being human. All knowledge forms have to be brought into play in an intercultural education that promotes a type of epistemic openness to the knowledges of all human beings.

Despite accusations of being caught up in ‘obsolete’ knowledge of the past, decoloniality is focused on the complex challenges that characterise our ‘post-human’ condition. Questions about emerging life forms in the wake of climate change (Brennan 2017), artificial intelligence and technological innovation take centre stage in their dynamic interaction with decoloniality.

The call for decolonising education is thus nothing less than the full incorporation of all of humanity’s knowledge systems, past and present, and in anticipation of future knowledge constellations, into the knowledge selection systems of universities.  

But not all knowledge can logically be included in the curriculum. What is required is knowledge selection through the contingent curriculum processes of specific university programmes and modules.   

Decoloniality, I argue, offers three curriculum knowledge claims. Claim one, as illustrated above, is based on the centring of an all-inclusive, ecologies of knowledge approach (Santos 2014) that challenges the hegemony of Eurocentric theories, concepts, canons and perspectives.

Claim two is the knowledge and identity claim, based on the productive recognition and restoration of the full dignity of subjugated peoples and so unearth their full human potential.

Claim three pivots on  knowledge relevance and contextualisation.  This is the idea that curriculum knowledge ought to make epistemological connections to the knowledges of people, their contextual life circumstances, indigenous knowledge systems, literacies, languages and ways of knowing.  This claim emphasises the dynamism embedded in the connections made to the contexts and knowledges of people’s Africa-centred life worlds (see Zipin 2017, Cooper and Morrell 2014)

I attend to each of these three claims - centring knowledge, knowledge and identity, and knowledge relevance – below.

For my second argument set I appropriate what has come to be called a social realist approach to educational (curriculum) knowledge. Social realism, I contend, provides us with a set of theoretical tools to inform curriculum selection. The core challenge here is to work with theoretical families that have different approaches to identifying knowledge boundaries; social realism requires observation of knowledge boundaries and the socio-epistemic weight of disciplines, while decoloniality insists on a flexible, principled, complementary cross-boundary approach. 

Social realists emphasise a real(ist) conception of knowledge, not a constructivist one. They make the point that any discipline has a basic conceptual scheme by which its knowledge is organised and grows. Social realists call these schemes knowledge structures.   They point out that knowledge structures are either vertical as in physics and chemistry with a strong spine of tightly linked internal concepts, or knowledge structures can be horizontal as in sociology and political science, whose schemes are characterised by sets of concepts which develop segmentally.

These knowledge structures are, however, not binary either/or, or self-enclosed systems. Both sets of knowledge structures, I argue, allow fertile space for inserting decoloniality, in their different ways, depending on how one works with the logic of their structures. 

Subject areas such as sociology, journalism and marketing, for example, would facilitate a decolonial turn by including different and ever-expanding sets of theories and bodies of social knowledge to offer greater, more inclusive objectivity. In this way it becomes possible to “pursue a robust social science by triangulating a wide range of partial perspectives, which would yield ‘stronger objectivity’ than the ‘God trick’  of supposed objectification from a dis-interested universal perspective” (Haraway 1988 as developed in Zipin, Fataar and Brennan 2015, 16).

The space to decolonise vertical knowledge structures (science) could be opened up by highlighting, for example, the historical development of mathematics, astronomy and medical concepts. This would be done through incorporating hitherto ignored scientific work from India, Africa and Asia, where many of the foundations of these disciplines were laid. 

Decolonising Science-related disciplines such as chemistry and physics would emphasise how they evolve and subsist through their historical, contextual and horizontal integration with the social world, via the social sciences, emphasising what Santos (2015) calls the ‘external plurality’ of science. Decoloniality here would thus work carefully and principally through dismantling the silos of knowledge structures.   

Moreover, a decolonial approach would also emphasise what Santos (2014) calls the ‘internal plurality’ of scientific knowledge based on the view that, over time, “scientific research developed on a complex mix of science and non-science constructs; the selection of topics, problems, theoretical models, methodologies, languages, images, and forms of argument” (2014, 194).

Decolonising knowledge in the areas of history and social theory could include, for example, the work of Ibn Khaldun on ‘assabiyyah’ (social structures and cohesion) developed in the 14th century in the Maghreb region of Africa (Alatas 2006), and ubuntu-inspired social and philosophical work developed in South Africa in recent years (Letseka 2013).

Ibn Khaldun’s theoretical architecture precedes the social structuralism of people like Marx, Levi Strauss and Bourdieu. And ubuntu-inspired philosophy provides fruitful ground for working with the context-related cosmological knowledges of people.

Ibn Khaldun’s assabiyah and ubuntu could be incorporated into  the knowledge structuring of history, law, sociology, public administration, philosophy and business management curricula. Such perspectives would extend our theoretical frameworks, in addition to introducing students to a much wider epistemological canon.

Similarly in disciplines such as history, literature, and law one could work with different periodisations and conceptions of world and African history and society, which would challenge constructions that emerged from colonial discourse. The unilinear depiction of modernity as an Enlightenment phenomenon could be problematised through a consideration of multiple models of modernity that emphasise how slavery, war, capital, bureaucracies, education and other social systems worked in Africa, Asia and the Americas before, during and after the onset of colonial or imperial modernity. 

The South American scholar, Enrique Dussel, introduces the notion of trans-modernity that brings a pluri-versal understanding of modernity into view.   He explained that “trans-modernity is a recognition of epistemic diversity without epistemic relativism” (in Grosfoguel 2013, p. 88). Such a perspective breaks with uni-versalist view where only Western men (sic) got to define what counts as knowledge. 

The centring of an all-inclusive ecologies of knowledge approach, based on a trans-modern pluri-versal view,  I argue, would thus be facilitated by adopting a principled approach to curriculum selection that respects the knowledge structures brought into play within the specificity of particular curriculum constellations at the university.

My third and final argument moves explicitly to address principles of decolonising curriculum selection with respect to some the university’s knowledge regions.  Shay (2015) builds on Muller’s (2009) discussion of knowledge differentiation as a way of bringing curriculum selection in professional and vocational education into view.  She uses the distinction  implied in Maton’s (2000) legitimation code theory between semantic gravity (relation of knowledge to context) and semantic density (relationship of knowledge to concepts) to guide her theorising.

Drawing on Shay (2015), I suggest that the strength or weakness of a discipline’s logical coherence with respect to concepts (semantic density) as well as the strength or weakness of its coherence with respect to context (semantic gravity) would allow one to determine how to incorporate decoloniality into specific knowledge constellations. 

The question that has to be asked is how the conceptual coherence and contextual coherence of a specific knowledge area come together in its knowledge offering. This is not an either/or proposition.  In other words, no field of knowledge is founded entirely on either contextual or conceptual knowledge.  A knowledge area is constituted in a specific way depending on the interplay between its contextual and conceptual knowledge dimensions.

I argue that the decolonial appeal for the contextual relevance of knowledge would find space in those knowledge areas or subjects with greater contextual purchase and application, in other words, where the logic of the discipline is derived from its context.

The example of the subject, design, which resides in the area of vocational or professional education, illustrates the possibilities for an emphasis on decolonial relevance (see Gilio and Belluigi 2017).  Design is conceptually informed by its external relation to people’s lived contexts from where it derives its logical principles.  Active interaction with local Africa-centred aesthetics, knowledges, languages, architectures and tastes is paramount in how the ‘knowledge for design’ is recontextualised into the curriculum.  

There is a particular relationship between context and concepts.  The curriculum logic for design is derived from the context of its application and recontextualisation into the curriculum occurs through a process of concept development that derives from the contexts.  The concepts are developed with reference to the logic of the contexts.

This would also apply to disciplines such as engineering, agriculture, bio-informatics and commercial law. The knowledge assemblages of these disciplines are defined by conceptual logics that are worked out in respect of their application in professional and vocational contexts. While not deriving their primary logics from contexts, as is the case of design, curriculum selection in these areas would emphasise how their disciplinary and conceptual logics would apply to their African and decolonial contexts of application.

This is a somewhat truncated account, but the point I wish to make is that understanding the specific relationship between concepts and contexts in specific knowledge regions and their recontextualisation in the curriculum opens the possibility of a careful and disciplined incorporation of the principles of decoloniality and Africa-centred relevance into specific curriculum areas. 

In conclusion, incorporating a decolonial approach into the university curriculum is clearly not easy. There is much work to be done.  Frames and concepts have to be developed, and research pursued, for decoloniality to inform curriculum selection. Such a task invites us to bring new knowledge problems and trans- and inter-disciplinary work into the process of curriculum design. A related focus would be on other equally important curriculum processes such as pedagogy and assessment. This article has suggested that working with, and developing ‘educational knowledge’ concepts would help us move decoloniality into the space of curriculum knowledge selection.


Alatas, F. 2006. Ibn Khaldun and contemporary Sociology. International Sociology. 21(6):782–95.

Brennan, M. 2017. Struggles for teacher education in the age of the Anthropocene. Journal of Education. 69:43–65.

Cooper, D. and R. Morrell. (Eds). 2014. Africa-Centred Knowledges: Crossing Fields & Worlds. James Currey, New York.

Fataar, A. 2018a. Placing Students at the Centre of the Decolonizing Education Imperative: Engaging the (Mis)Recognition Struggles of Students at the Postapartheid University. Educational Studies, 54:5.

Fataar, A. 2018b. Decolonising Education in South Africa: Perspectives and Debates (Introductory article for a special edition on ‘Decolonising Education’). Educational Research for Social Change. 7: iv-x.

Fataar, A. and Subreenduth, 2015. The search for ecologies of knowledge in the encounter with African epistemicide in South African education. South African Journal of Higher Education. 29(2):106–21.

Gilio, S. and D. Belluigi. 2017. Underlying knowledge – knower structures in graphic design: Contributing to establishing a cohesive language for use in graphic design education. Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education. 16(2):7–21.  

Grosfoguel, R.  2013. The structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism / Sexism and the Four Genocides / Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, XI(1):73-89.

Letseka, M. 2013. Educating for Ubuntu/Botho: Lessons from Basotho Indigenous Education, Open Journal of Philosophy, 3(2):337–44.

Luckett, K. 2016. Curriculum contestation in a post-colonial context: a view from the South. Teaching in Higher Education. 21(4):415–28.

Maldondo – Torres, N. 2007. On the coloniality of being. Cultural Studies. 21(2-3):240–70.

Maton, K. 2000. Languages of legitimation: the significance for intellectual fields of strategic knowledge claims. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 21(2):147–67.

Muller. J. 2009. Forms of knowledge and curriculum coherence. Journal of Education and Work. 22(3):205–26.

Muller, J. 2015. The future of knowledge and skills in science and technology higher education. Higher Education. 70:409–16.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. 2013. Why decoloniality in the 21st century? The Thinker. 48:10–5.

Prah, K. 2018. A outline of decolonized education in Africa. (Seminar paper presented at CPUT, Cape Town, 25 April)

Santos, B. 2014. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder.

Shay, S. 2015.  Curriculum reform in higher education: a contested space. Teaching in Higher Education. 20(4): 431–41.

Zipin, L, A. Fataar & M. Brennan. (2015) Can Social Realism do Social Justice? Debating the Warrants for Curriculum Knowledge Selection. Education as Change. 19(2):9–36.

Zipin, L. 2017. Pursuing a problematic-based curriculum approach for the sake of social justice.  Journal of Education. 69:67–92.  


  • Aslam Fataar, Department of Education Policy Studies, Stellenbosch University 


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    Melanie Grobler

    Hierdie artikel is insiggewend en baie belangrik. As lektor by 'n TVET-kollege help dit my om oor my kurrikulumprraktyke te dink. Dankie.

  • Dit klink vir my meer en meer dat daar 'n agenda bestaan of nog ontwerp word wat ten doel het om die verskil tussen kulture te ontken of te vernietig. Kennis kan tog geen ander inhoud hê as die werklikheid nie en daar is net een werklikheid. Kennis daaroor sal altyd net 'n interpretasie wees en elke interpretasie sal noodwendig kultuurgebonde wees. Waarom kan die mense van Afrika nie hulle eie interpretasie van die werklikheid saamstel en daarvolgens leef nie? Die wêreld se beskawings is immers eeue oud, waarom moet alles nou herinterpreteer word in terme van net een aspek van die geskiedenis, naamlik "kolonialisme"?

  • Hierdie is ‘n uitstekende artikel – die reaksies, behalwe die persoonlike aanvalle wat ek betreur, wys hoe in die kol die artikel is. Dit wys op die kennisprobleme in die samelewing, die grootskaalse uitsluiting van gemeenskaps- en inheemse kennis, en die miskennings van die rol van gemeenskapskennishouers en hulle kennis- en taalregte.
    Ek hoop die artikel word ‘n deuroopmaker van formaat, en dat opvolgskrywes verby die tegniese en akademiese Stanford-formulering kan gaan om meer insluitend van plaaslike mense en taalgemeenskappe te wees.
    Ons het sulke gesprekke gehad in die UDM/NECC-tyd; toe gewone landsburgers in alledaagse omgang, in gemeenskappe, koerante en elders gepraat het oor kennisontwikkeling as insluitende en bevrydende aktiwiteit.
    Hierdie is dan ook die vrae vir ons tyd:
    Hoe kan die keuses van universiteitskennis oopgemaak word om insluitend van alle kennishouers, -bronne, -tradisies te wees?
    Hoe kan universiteite met hulle keuses van kennisontwikkeling en onderrig, meer eksplisiet bydra tot die sosiale verandering en geregtigheid wat ons vir die toekoms so nodig het?
    This response to Aslam’s article is an appreciation for the argument and perspectives stated. The article is seen as a door opener, and the hope is expressed that it will start to open public conversations about the serious questions: What knowledge should be researched and taught at universities, and how should univ contribute in significant ways to the imperatives of knowledge justice and social change?

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