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"A relational approach to decolonizing education: working with the concepts of space, place and boundaries"

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Abstract

In this paper we examine the spaces and places in which education happens and the boundaries that are created around them, whether real or imagined. We begin by providing definitions of the ways in which we use these concepts, followed by an analysis of how they are understood and acted upon from within two alternative knowledge traditions – object-based/colonial and relational/decolonial (see the companion paper, Pirbhai-Illich & Martin, 2019). We then apply this analysis to formal education and the classroom space arguing that currently classroom spaces, places and boundaries are dominated by colonial ways of knowing and being. We conclude by offering some ideas about how educational spaces might be decolonized.
University of Regina
Faculty of Education
A relational approach to decolonizing
education: working with the concepts of
space, place and boundaries”.
Fatima Pirbhai-Illich and Fran Martin
Source: Fran Martin
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
1
A relational approach to decolonizing education: working with the
concepts of space, place and boundaries.
In this paper we examine the spaces and places in which education happens and the boundaries that
are created around them, whether real or imagined. We begin by providing definitions of the ways in
which we use these concepts, followed by an analysis of how they are understood and acted upon
from within two alternative knowledge traditions object-based/colonial and relational/decolonial
(see the companion paper, Pirbhai-Illich & Martin, 2019). We then apply this analysis to formal
education and the classroom space arguing that currently classroom spaces, places and boundaries
are dominated by colonial ways of knowing and being. We conclude by offering some ideas about
how educational spaces might be decolonized.
Space, place and boundaries
Space has many meanings and in the context of this paper we use it to refer to the social, material
(physical environment) and esoteric (spiritual) spaces that support the relationships that are integral
to any classroom. Spaces are created in places, the latter of which are sometimes referred to as
points on the earth’s surface, or locations, such as a province in Canada, a town within that province
and so on. Places each have a unique set of characteristics that are determined by the coming
together of intricately intertwined elements, processes, and relationships that are always in flux
(McGregor, 2004). Space and place are therefore closely connected ideas that do not really make
sense in isolation because they are always in constant relation with each other the construction of
spaces gives character to places and the social and/or physical location of a place can influence the
types of spaces that can be created. Boundaries serve to indicate the limits or bounds of spaces and
places. Boundaries may be material (physical) such as the walls of a building, or socially constructed
such as national identity, and these boundaries may serve to indicate who or what is included within
the boundary and who or what is excluded.
The concepts of space, place and boundaries are not neutral and, in the following sections, we
examine how they are understood and acted upon from two contrasting ways of knowing and being
object-based/colonial and relational/decolonial.
Object-based, colonial constructions of space, place and boundaries
In our previous paper (Pirbhai-Illich & Martin, 2019) we identified one of the characteristics of object-
based/colonial thinking as creating a separation between the knowing subject (I/self) and the known
object (It/other). This separation makes it possible to treat anything that is other to the subject as an
object or a ‘thing’, which in turn makes it possible for the subject to rationally and objectively
categorise those others/objects into groups (e.g. schools/not schools) with discrete boundaries
according to their characteristics.
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
2
For example, if we think of a school as a place, it may
have a clear boundary (such as a wall or a fence)
between it and the local area. It will also have clear
boundaries according to the social use of space
inside the school for example schools are divided
into areas for playing (playground), learning
(classrooms), movement (corridors) and so on. These
areas are all clearly demarcated.
A school is also a space of social interaction and there are boundaries placed on who can
legitimately be inside the school (students, staff, parents at certain times of the day) and who cannot
enter into the school grounds or buildings. For those who have a legitimate place in the school, the
spaces each can access will also be ‘bounded’ – for example, students will know that they cannot
access the staffroom without some form of invitation. These may not be visible boundaries, but they
are determined by both implicitly and explicitly understood societal norms norms into which
students become socialised as they start school, and as they move from one class / one school to
another.
At school level the norms of the school community will differ from school to school because each
headteacher will work in their own way with the staff to develop a school ethos and culture that is
welcoming and inclusive for students and that aims to create a sense of belonging. Elements of a
school’s ethos and culture will be visible (e.g. welcoming posters in different languages in the
entrance hall; policy documents available online for staff and parents) while elements of it will be
hidden (implicit in, for example, staff-student relationships). At class level the class teacher will
similarly work with students to develop a class ethos and culture that reflects both that of the school
and her/his own teacher identity.
This raises questions about whose cultural norms are the ones that form the basis of school and
classroom communities and, as we argued in our previous paper (Pirbhai-Illich & Martin, 2019), the
way of thinking that has come to dominate is the object-based, colonial tradition. For example, in
Canada the governing structures at federal and provincial levels are dominated by white settler-
colonial perspectives which in turn are historically based on European ideals and values. At the
centre of the European colonial project was a relationship to land that treated it as a thing to be
owned i.e. treating it as property. The significance of viewing land as property to education is
explored below.
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
3
Land and property as white
1
possessions.
On the face of it, anyone can own property including
land. However two key factors affect property rights.
The first is that what it means to ‘own’ something
from the perspective of the object-based, colonial
tradition is different to what it means from the
perspective of the relational, decolonial tradition.
The second is that, as we have already argued, it is
the colonial tradition that the colonizers used to
create a racialized hierarchy of peoples that placed
white, Europeans as superior and non-whites as
inferior. The significance of this is that, during the
spread of colonialism across the world, land became
a white possession in the service of the ‘home’
European nations. For the settler nations of Australia,
Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, as
they moved to independence land and property as
white possessions became translated into
nationhood and citizenship as white possessions.
That is, the nation was created according to the
image of those in power (white settler Europeans),
and legally only those who were in possession of land
had the right to vote and therefore the right to count
as full citizens.
These moves to create new nations and a citizenry as white possessions were violent forms of
erasure of Indigenous peoples of their culture and their ways of life because, in order to survive,
people classed as ‘non-white’ were forced to take on white ways. One of the key tools by which
white settlers achieved the erasure of other ways of being was education which, as we will show
below, has been designed as a white, colonizing space. In addition, in settler nations such as Canada
and Australia, education was used as a tool of erasure of Indigenous ways of being through the
residential school system (Cote-Meek, 2014). First though, we examine how the concepts of space,
place and boundaries are understood from within the relational, decolonial tradition.
Relational, decolonial constructions of space, place and boundaries
From a relational perspective, there is no separation of self from other whether that be a human,
more than human (spiritual) or non-human (material) other. All beings are interconnected and
1
White here is not used as a way of describing individuals by their skin colour but is understood as a system that is
structured to privilege people of white, Euro-western heritage. AnnLouise Keating states that whiteness cannot be
conflated with white people and argues that it is dangerous to act ‘as if racial categories are ‘real’ rather than socially
constructed, and as if they are ‘permanent, unchanging categories of meaning’ (Keating, 1995 p. 910).See also this blog
entry: http://cosmologyofwhiteness.blogspot.com/2011/04/whiteness-and-white-privilege-paradigm.html.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015)
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
4
interdependent. For cultural groups whose ways of being are relational, such as people of
Indigenous descent and Southern and Diasporic communities, there is no separation of self from
community or community from land; connections extend to all living beings and matter, all of which
are considered ‘relations’ (LaDuke 1999). Ownership and property are understood in the context of
these relations, and lead to a communitarian sense of place and identity that includes living in
harmony with the land. For example, in this extract Karen Dannemann explains what ownership
means for Anishnaabe people:
In our culture possession is viewed very differently [to its
meaning in English]. Our teachers, for example, tell us that
our children are not ours but are on loan to us. Our partners
are on loan to us. Our homes, our canoes, our tools and
equipment are on loan to us. Even the articles of our clothing
are on loan to us. Our very bodies are on loan to us. We are
very carefully taught that everything on loan to us must be
cared for and then returned in the condition, or even better
condition, than it was when we acquired it the words "my,"
"our," "your," "his" or "hers" refer to a relationship. When
we say, "Trout Lake is my home," we do not mean that we
own Trout Lake, that we possess it (and therefore you do not
and neither does anyone else) but rather, it means that Trout
Lake is that part of our great Mother the earth with which we
have a very special relationship.’ (Haig-Brown and
Dannemann 2002, p. 456).
Australians of Aboriginal descent refer to land as ‘country’ and describe country as a living, breathing
entity:
The land is the mother and we are of the land; we do not
own the land rather the land owns us. The land is our food,
our culture, our spirit and our identity.” Dennis Foley, a
Gaimariagal and Wiradjuri man, and Fulbright scholar. When
people talk about country it is spoken of like a person: we
speak to country, we sing to country, we worry about country,
and we long for country. “ . . . It is this knowledge that enables
me to identify who I am, who my family is, who my ancestors
were and what my stories are. We are indistinguishable from
our country which is why we fight so hard to hang on.”
Catherine Liddle, Arrente and Luritja woman, and Aboriginal
activist. (Common Ground, 2019).
From this perspective education is not a thing, but a relation it is the learning that happens in the
moment of interaction between people, and between people and their environments. From a
Androgyny: Anishinaabe artist
Norval Morrisseau (1931-2007)
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
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relational perspective, the focus is on the space and what it enables in terms of learning, rather than
on the boundaries of that space (school or classroom). The spaces and places of education are
therefore not contained within the school or classroom, nor are they separate from the wider
community or society that staff and students are connected to. Individuals are also not tied to
particular ‘roles’ – for example, anyone can be a teacher and anyone a learner. Teachers can learn
from students, students can teach and learn from each other, teachers can be family or community
members and other beings (trees, rivers, rocks, the earth) and so on. So spaces and places of
education may have boundaries, but these boundaries will not be fixed nor will they be clearly
demarcated because they will shift and change with each new relation.
The spaces, places and boundaries of education
What does this mean in practice? In the following sections we discuss how the two knowledge
traditions affect teachers’ practices and the spaces these create for educational relationships,
focusing on power, identity and curriculum.
Power
Figure 1: Colonial and de/colonial
2
enactments of power.
2
We use the term de/colonizing with a slash to denote that there can never be a purely decolonizing space because such a
space is always already in relation with, and only necessary because of the existence of colonizing forces. ‘Therefore,
de/colonizing denotes a movement within, in-between, and outside colonizing discourses and decolonizing desires
(Bhattacharya, 2018, p. 15)
Identity and subjectivity
Power
Is enacted in educational spaces
and places
Which potentially creates
boundaries (permeable, rather
than permanent)
Which in turn determines the
forms of relationality that are
possible in that space
Colonial model
The teacher holds the power
and enacts power through
ownership of the space
Which potentially creates
boundaries between teacher
and learner, and potentially
learner and learner
Which in turn imposes a type of
social identity on the pupils (e.g.
pupils know their place, they
are compliant, they follow
instructions)
ALTHOUGH there is always the
potential for resistance
De/colonial model
Power is shared between
teacher and students
Space is created for students'
identities and knowledges, and
to develop relationships
Permeable, porous boundaries
exist but they are not
determined solely by the
teacher
Through relating to each other
students have agency in finding
their place
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
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As white possessions, we argue that schools and classrooms are organised in such a way as to
maintain unequal power relations to keep schools, classrooms, curriculum and methods of
instruction culturally ‘white’, Euro-western. Power, by its very definition, is derived from the ability
of certain people or groups in society to impose coercion. The imposition of white, Euro-western,
colonial ways of ‘doing’ education is achieved explicitly (e.g. rules governing behaviour, timetables
governing lessons) and implicitly (e.g. methods of instruction, teacher-student relationships, the
hidden curriculum).
In an ideal world, the spaces and places teachers create would enable students to participate
equally. The reality, though, is that education is governed by a system designed to privilege people
of white, Euro-western, heritage and their object-based, colonial ways of being and knowing. As we
argued earlier, education, schools and classrooms are white possessions and thus are set up to be
welcoming to students whose identities and ways of being and knowing mirror those of the
dominant, powerful group, while those whose identities and ways of being and knowing are
different find educational spaces and places Othering, uninviting and inhospitable
3
. A relational,
de/colonizing approach does not argue for a replacement or erasure of whiteness or coloniality
because this would be colonization in another form. Instead, de/colonial approaches aim to expand
and pluralise the identities, cultures, knowledges and instructional methods that are welcomed into
classroom spaces and to put them into relation, as we discuss below.
Identity
Identity is at the heart of teacher-student relationships and as different identities come together and
interact in the classroom space, this can be likened to intercultural interactions or relations. An
object-based understanding of intercultural assumes that there are discrete cultural groups and
these are often equated with nationality and/or race and ethnicity. A relational understanding of
culture understands it in broader terms to include family, community, gender, organisation, religion
and so on. Each of these groups will have fluid boundaries that change according to time and place
and the socio-cultural, environmental contexts in which they have meaning. Therefore, any
individual will have a unique identity that is a product of the differing socialisation processes of the
groups to which they belong and the processes that take place at their intersections.
Intersectionality is an analysis related to identity, not an identity
in itself. Systems of hierarchy have been created around our
multiple identities, and the combinations (or intersections) of
those systems affect how life goes for us. Some of these identities
give us a leg up, while others push us a rung down the ladder. The
combination of identities can compound (or diminish) advantage ...
The point of intersectional practice is to look at all these possible
combinations of privilege and vulnerability, rather than just
stopping with the ones that apply to us, whoever we are. (Sen,
2017).
3
For a full discussion of what it might mean for education spaces to be inviting and hospitable please refer to our
companion paper (Pirbhai-Illich & Martin, 2019).
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
7
From a relational perspective, therefore, it does not make sense of talk of educational spaces as
spaces of inter- or intra-cultural interaction. Instead, they might be thought of as spaces of inter-
subjective interaction the processes of which would be informed and influenced by individuals
multiple identities and their intersections, and the geo-political, historical contexts within which they
are formed that is, how people ‘read’ each other during their inter-subjective interactions will be
informed by their worldviews. This is allied to the idea put forward by Paulo Freire (1970) that
reading is not just about the ability to read (or hear) the word, but also the ability to read (or
interpret) the world, by which he meant the worldviews giving meanings to the words.
Curriculum
The curriculum is also a white possession. For example, the division of knowledge into discrete
disciplines or subjects was done by Europeans, with some disciplines (e.g. geography) being the
direct result of colonialism and the need to map the world and name territories in order to own and
control them (hence lands are described as being ‘discovered’ by European explorers rather than
existing in their own right). Curriculum knowledge is further divided into an implicit hierarchy with
English, math and the sciences being valued more than the humanities and creative arts, and there is
a separation between academic knowledge (included in the formal curriculum) and home or
community knowledges (not included in the formal curriculum). Important questions for teachers to
ask themselves are therefore: Whose truths are represented in the curriculum? Whose knowledges
are included and excluded? Whose ways of being are presented as superior and whose inferior?
An explicit understanding of the power of knowledge and whose truths are validated is an important
first step towards de/colonizing the curriculum and opening up spaces for a more holistic, relational
understanding of curriculum in which multiple knowledges are invited to interact with each other.
Such a curriculum would come into being through those spaces of interaction and be authentic and
meaningful to students because they would have a direct relation to their home and community
funds of knowledge (Gonzalez et. al. 2005).
De/colonizing educational spaces, places and boundaries
When the concepts of binary, categorical, property-bound thinking are applied to education we can
see the coloniality of the classroom ‘box’ each class/box is separated from the others by four walls
with a door, each school is separated from the community by a fence with a gate and a buzzer at the
main door so people requesting entrance can be screened. The space for learning is therefore
bounded and closed. Within classrooms, space and material resources (arrangement of desks, where
the teacher is located in relation to students etc) are organised to produce hierarchical relations
based on ideas of order, discipline and competition.
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
8
Figure 2: Classroom arrangements
Figure 2 shows three alternative arrangements of tables, chairs and resources and although the
classroom on the left is the most visibly hierarchical (there is a clear separation between the
teacher’s and students’ spaces), any one of them is likely to produce hierarchical, I-It relations
because the spaces, places and boundaries of education and the underlying ways of being and
knowing they support are object-based (figure 3). In other words, the spaces, places and boundaries
of schools and classrooms are white possessions. The power of this model is evident in the fact that
it can be found in schools around the world, across nations and cultures.
Figure 3: Colonizing, coercive educational interactions
It might seem that, because the physical, material arrangements of schools and classrooms are
currently organised according to a box-like mentality, that the spaces for learning and teacher-
student relations will be similarly bounded. However, we argue that this is not the case. Even within
a bounded space it is possible for teachers to create a sense of openness through developing ways of
working in which students feel they can participate and that their knowledges and ways of being are
invited into the classroom and taken up in the teaching (figure 4).
T
1
0
The teacher interacts with students as if
they are a homogenous group (black
circles). Everybody is treated as if they
are the same.
The teacher interacts with students as
individuals (red arrows and circles). Here
the teacher is working in a more
thoughtful way to ensure that everyone
can be successful. However, the teacher
holds the power because her worldviews
unconsciously influence those
interactions.
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
9
Figure 4: De/colonizing, reciprocal educational interactions
As McGregor states:
‘Thinking in this way ‘outside the box’ allows a dynamic and politicised understanding of
space, and challenges the view of places such as schools as pre-existing and bounded,
replacing it with an open conception of place as hybrid, provisional and porous. Social
relations are understood as relations of power, but where power is not a thing to be
possessed, rather residing in small, local interactions, power ‘with’ rather than ‘over’’
(McGregor, 2004, p. 14).
The classroom space is, from the perspective of the student, ‘owned’ by the teacher. Due to the legal
contract that governs the teacher, s/he does not have a choice over whether the students cross the
threshold into the classroom, but s/he does have a choice over whether to create a relationship that
‘is not primarily whether or how to include or exclude those who are not the same as ‘us’, but
embraces the possibility of keeping open the question of who the other is’ (Langmann, 2014, p.112
italics in original). For teachers this means becoming explicitly aware of not only one’s own
worldviews but also the dominant social norms that govern behaviour and their influence on
educational relationships. Teachers cannot abandon all claims to property, or the learning
environment, but s/he can approach the educational relationship with the intention to be
unconditionally inviting and hospitable, to create spaces for inter-subjective interactions in which
s/he has, and fosters in students, an orientation that attends to otherness, listening and learning,
valuing and honouring the ways of being, doing, knowing and valuing that the students bring with
them.
T
11
A variety of interactions are evident:
teacher-student, student-teacher and
student-student. Over time, as everyone
gets to know each other, the boundaries
between people, their ways of being and
their knowledges become more
permeable.
This critical intersubjective space is a space
for interaction to learn with each other
about each other that is consciously
attentive to how power is enacted.
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
10
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Autoethnography. Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, 18(1): 9-15.
Common Ground. (2019). ‘Connection to Country’.
https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/connection-to-country (accessed 28 March 2019).
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Education. Black Point, NS, CAN: Fernwood Publishing.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York : Herder and Herder.
Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. 2005. Funds of knowledge: Theorizing Practice in Households,
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Haig-Brown, C. and Dannemann, K. (2002). A Pedagogy of the Land: Dreams of respectful Relations.
McGill Journal of Education, 37(3), p. 451-468.
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Langmann, E. (2011). Representational and territorial economies in global citizenship education:
welcoming the other at the limit of cosmopolitan hospitality. Globalisation, Societies and Education,
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McGregor, J. (2004). Space, Power and the Classroom. FORUM: Special Issue Space and Schools,
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Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pirbhai-Illich, F. & Martin, F. (2019). A Relational Approach to Decolonizing Education: Working with
the Concepts of Invitation and Hospitality. Paper produced for Education Core Studies 100,
Knowledge, Schooling and Society, University of Regina.
© 2019 F. Pirbhai-Illich & F. Martin. This paper is awaiting publication and is not to be copied or
circulated without the permission of both authors.
11
Sen, R. (2017). How To Do Intersectionality. https://mavenroundtable.io/rinkusen/politics/how-to-
do-intersectionality-VMDT82Ef0kKj0pMsNo-ulQ/ (accessed 5 September 2019).
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Book
In Colonized Classrooms, Sheila Cote-Meek discusses how Aboriginal students confront narratives of colonial violence in the postsecondary classroom, while they are, at the same time, living and experiencing colonial violence on a daily basis. Basing her analysis on interviews with Aboriginal students, teachers and Elders, Cote-Meek deftly illustrates how colonization and its violence are not a distant experience, but one that is being negotiated every day in universities and colleges across Canada.
Article
In this article, I argue that any success a discourse on cosmopolitan hospitality might have in global citizenship education depends on how it deals with its own limits, and I propose a way of responding to these limits that takes the cosmopolitan commitment to openness to the other seriously. Following Jacques Derrida, my point is that to teach global citizenship on the basis that we already can know who the other is risks counting some persons ‘in’ while leaving others ‘out’, which forecloses the possibility of welcoming something new and unforeseen at the limit of our cosmopolitan selves.
Colouring Memories and Imaginations of
  • K Bhattacharya
Bhattacharya, K. (2018). Colouring Memories and Imaginations of "Home": Crafting a De/Colonising Autoethnography. Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, 18(1): 9-15.
Connection to Country
  • Common Ground
Common Ground. (2019). 'Connection to Country'.
All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life
  • W Laduke
LaDuke, W. (1999). All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.
A Relational Approach to Decolonizing Education: Working with the Concepts of Invitation and Hospitality. Paper produced for Education Core Studies 100
  • F Pirbhai-Illich
  • F Martin
Pirbhai-Illich, F. & Martin, F. (2019). A Relational Approach to Decolonizing Education: Working with the Concepts of Invitation and Hospitality. Paper produced for Education Core Studies 100, Knowledge, Schooling and Society, University of Regina.