What does it mean to incorporate social justice principles into my teaching?


MAYNOOTH UNIVERSITY | 10 September 2020

Decentring the canon

Whose story is being told? Who’s assuming the right and ability to tell this story? How are characters portrayed and positioned? Whose point-of-view is centered in this story? Whose voices are marginalized, silenced or erased? Which stories are translated into and from which languages and what impact does this have on homogenising or expanding our imaginations and worlds? The idea and role of the canon is profoundly intertwined with values, attitudes, beliefs, norms, the ‘hidden curriculum’, and power systems around these questions of authority, and perceived educational, literary, and cultural value. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on the dangers of a single story has strongly resonated with me personally and professionally. As a reader, a lecturer in English language and literature, and a teacher educator, I try to help student teachers and educational professionals unpack and transform their attitudes to and relationships with the tradition of the literary ‘canon’, especially the ‘usual suspect’ authors and ‘classics’ which are set (often nostalgically and unquestioningly) as class novels and are bought in class sets in so many classrooms. But we need to and must go beyond merely selecting ‘different’ and ‘diverse’ texts and explore how we might disrupt and decolonize canons, curricula, classrooms and universities.

Disrupting and decolonizing

I’ve been grappling with the Decolonize the Curriculum movement which requires scrutiny of what universities and faculty prioritize learning about, the models that we use to learn it, and the classroom culture that is created as a result, and how I might use my power as an educator more ethically and inclusively. As I said in my first blog piece, I consider myself ‘well-educated’ and I’ve been trying to recognise and confront the biases and practices which underpin and enact the traditionally exclusionary purpose of the ‘canon’. I‘ve been especially informed and inspired by the recent #DisruptTexts, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices movements in international youth literature. #DisruptTexts isn’t just about replacing some texts: it requires a tough, honest audit of our own reading experiences and value judgements and applying a critical lens to our practices, to the texts that we do privilege in our teaching, and what is being learnt through these choices.

There are many changes one might make for attempting to decolonize the classroom and teaching and learning community and over the last year I’ve been focussing on meaningfully diversifying the exemplar texts, reading lists and content for my courses. I’d like to mention two books that in particular have helped me reflect on potential changes in my own practice as well as changes in higher education, media and youth culture. In her book Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability, Leigh Patel examines the ways through which coloniality manifests in contexts of knowledge and meaning making, specifically within educational research and formal schooling. Euro-Western educational systems are so deeply embedded with colonial and discriminatory ideologies and practices and she cautions that even apparently ethical concepts such as social justice can ‘become a vehicle for settler logics and heteropatriarchal racist capitalism’ (p 88). In thinking about how I might sustain my commitment to social justice, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, has challenged me to consider my own complicity regarding what she terms the ‘imagination gap’ involved in the representation crisis and lack of diversity in children’s and young adult media. I’d also recommend the following resource for any educators and readers wanting to review and transform their personal and educational canons and reading lists: the ‘Classroom Library Questionnaire’ from Lee & Low Books. The list of questions and topics is rather US-based but you can extend and revise it to respond to your own context. It’s a deceptively practical yet revealing tool for analysing our concepts of what constitutes ‘diversity, how we resource our classrooms and how we both consciously and unconsciously shape these teaching and learning communities.


Adichie, Chimamanda (2009) ‘The Danger of a Single Story’.

Lee & Low Books. ‘Classroom Library Questionnaire’.

Patel, Leigh (2016) Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. New York: Routledge.

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth (2019) The Dark Fantastic: Race and Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. New York: New York University Press. P5