In this post, Lena Hertzel summarises her presentation at the MaWSIG showcase during the IATEFL conference in Harrogate in April. In her talk, Lena focused on the problematic representations of Africa in ELT coursebooks, and offered guidelines for materials writers to decolonise their materials.
Postcolonial power structures and knowledge archives continue to shape our society and the perceptions and actions of individuals who have grown up in this society (Marmer & Sow, 2015, pp. 22–23). Educational institutions and areas such as ELT, including educators and coursebook publishers, are no exception. Rather, as a part of society, they tend to contribute to a perpetuation of these power structures and knowledge archives on several levels (Autor*innnenKollektiv, 2015, pp. 5–6).
One of these levels is teaching materials, and coursebooks in particular, because they have a strong potential to stabilise prevailing discourses of power. This is because they are considered socially relevant and worthy of teaching, being associated with official knowledge that has been proven (Bönkost, 2020, p. 21). Indeed, current studies show that teaching materials often perpetuate postcolonial power structures and knowledge archives (Alter, König, & Merse, 2021; Awet, 2019; Bönkhost, 2020; Mamer & Sow, 2015). Against this background, decolonising practices are required in order to challenge these conventions (Autor*innnenKollektiv, 2015).
But what does it mean to ‘decolonise teaching materials’? To answer this question, I will use the example of Africa to set out three aspects for consideration.
The first aspect is awareness: as educators, we need to be aware of postcolonial power structures and modes of representation so as to be able to identify and challenge them in our lessons and teaching materials. This includes challenging our own complicity with these structures and modes of representation (Autor*innnenKollektiv, 2015, pp. 13–15 & 19–20). Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) urges us to avoid what she terms the ‘single story of Africa’ (00:05:02 – 00:05:05), in which Africa is portrayed in either an ‘Afro-romantic’ or an ‘Afro-pessimistic’ mode (Adichie, 2009, 00:06:03 – 00:06:20; Marmer & Sow 2015, p. 17). While the former represents Africa as a timeless and heavenly place with breathtaking natural landscapes and wild animals where ‘exotic’ adventures can be experienced far away from ‘civilisation’ (Nduka-Agwu & Bendix, 2007), the latter constructs Africa as the deficient and ‘underdeveloped’ ‘other’, without agency and in need of help from Western countries (Jacobs & Weicker, 2015, p. 204). Both modes of representation have their roots in colonialism and construct Africa as a homogenous entity in contrast to the West, whereby Africa becomes the stereotypical ‘other’ (Marmer & Sow, 2015, p. 17).
To move beyond this Eurocentric single story, we need to consider the importance of representation. A starting point for this discussion is the inclusion of African countries and the African diaspora in teaching materials, through which Africa’s diversity should be embraced, and multi-perspectivity considered. Ways of doing this include highlighting the continent’s cultural and linguistic diversity and using non-stereotypical representations. Moreover, we can challenge Eurocentric representations of Africa by including African and Black perspectives and sources, and by portraying them with agency in all social roles. Africa should be approached by its own norms, standards and values – and not by Western ones (Autor*innnenKollektiv Rassismuskritischer Leitfaden, 2015, pp. 25 & 42-45).
Now let us imagine that we are aware of postcolonial power structures and our own complicity (i.e. we have awareness), and are also able to design teaching materials that include multi-perspectivity and embrace diversity (i.e. they demonstrate representation). What would we be missing if we stopped here? Ongoing postcolonial power structures would be rendered invisible as they would not play any role in our materials. Thus, deconstruction matters just as much as representation (Autor*innnenKollektiv Rassismuskritischer Leitfaden, 2015, pp. 34, 38 & 49; Castro Varela, 2015, pp. 310–311; Bönkost, 2020, p. 88). Students need not only to get to know the diverse stories of Africa, Africans and Black people (representation), but also to learn to identify postcolonial power structures in their contexts, and to critically reflect on the impact of these on society and on themselves (deconstruction).
Below are some guiding questions for materials writers. The list is far from exhaustive and should therefore be considered as a starting point only.
• How does my own socialisation affect the materials I choose and design?
• Do my materials include Eurocentric and racialised representations of Africa?
• Which parts of any existing materials should I drop and which can I keep for critical discussions?
• Are African and Black perspectives, voices and sources included?
• Are Africans and Black people portrayed with agency?
• Are non-stereotypical representations provided?
• Is Africa approached by its own norms, standards and values?
• Is the single story of Africa made visible and put in its colonial context?
• Are there opportunities to critically reflect on the various ways colonial continuities structure our societies and the way we interact?
• Are there opportunities for students to critically reflect on their own entanglement in these power hierarchies?
Lena Hertzel (she/her) works as a research assistant in EFL Education at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She studied English and History at the University of Münster and graduated with a master’s degree (Master of Education für das Lehramt an Gymnasien und Gesamtschulen) in 2022. During her studies she spent a year abroad in Ghana to work as a volunteer at PEC School in Nsawam Adoagyiri.
Her main research interests revolve around inter- and transcultural learning, global citizenship education and anti-racist education. In addition, one of her core concerns is the consideration of Postcolonial Theories in ELE. Following up on this, her PhD project is concerned with decolonising cultural learning.
Adichie, C. N. (July, 2009). The danger of a single story (video). TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Alter, G., König, L., & Merse Thorsten (2021). All inclusive? Eine kritische Lehrwerksanalyse zur Repräsentation von Diversität in den Englischlehrwerken für verschiedene Schulformen. Inklusion. Zeitschrift Für Fremdsprachenforschung (ZFF), 32(1), 81–104.
Autor*innnenKollektiv Rassismuskritischer Leitfaden (2015). Rassismuskritischer Leitfaden. Zur Reflexion bestehender und Erstellung neuer didaktischer Lehr- und Lernmaterialien für die schulische und außerschulische Bildungsarbeit zu Schwarzsein, Afrika und afrikanischer Diaspora. https://www.elina-marmer.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/IMAFREDU-Rassismuskritischer-Leiftaden_Web_barrierefrei-NEU.pdf
Awet, K. (2018). Die Darstellung Subsahara-Afrikas im deutschen Schulbuch: Gesellschaftslehre, Erdkunde, Geschichte und Politik der Sekundarstufe I (Gesamtschule) in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Budrich UniPress.
Bönkost, J. (2020). Konstruktionen des Rassendiskurses in Englisch-Schulbüchern. In K. Fereidooni & N. Simon (Eds.), Rassismuskritische Fachdidaktiken: Theoretische Reflexionen und fachdidaktische Entwürfe rassismusskritischer Unterrichtsplanung (pp. 19–47). Springer.
Castro Varela, M. (2020). Postkoloniales Lesen: Hegemoniale Wissensproduktion und postcolonial literacy. Journal Für International und Interkulturell Vergleichende Erziehungswissenschaft, 26(1), 84–95.
Castro Varela, M. (2015). Koloniale Wissensproduktionen: Edwards Saids ‚interpretative Wachsamkeit’ als Ausgangspunkt einer kritischen Migrationsforschung. In J. Reuter & P. Mecheril (Eds.), Schlüsselwerke der Migrationsforschung: Pionierstudien und Referenztheorien (pp. 307–322). Springer VS.
Jacobs, I., & Weicker, A. (2015). Afrika. In S. Arndt & N. Ofuatey-Alazard (Eds.), Wie Rassi mus aus Wörtern spricht: (K)Erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache: ein kritisches Nachschlagewerk (2nd ed., pp. 200–214). UNRAST Verlag.
Marmer, E., & Sow, P. (2015). Rassismus, Kolonialität und Bildung. In E. Marmer & P. Sow (Eds.), Wie Rassismus aus Schulbüchern spricht: Kritische Auseinandersetzung mit „Afrika“-Bildern und Schwarz-Weiß-Konstruktionen in der Schule – Ursachen, Auswirkungen und Handlungsansätze für die pädagogische Praxis (pp. 14–25). Weihnheim, Basel: Beltz Juventa.
Nduka-Agwu, A., & Bendix, D. (2007). Die weiße Darstellung ‚Afrikas‘ in der deutschen Öffentlichkeit: Wie ein Kontinent genormt, verformt und verdunkelt wird. https://www.freiburg-postkolonial.de/Seiten/2007-Afrikabild.htm