Decolonising Study Skills & The Role of Learning Development

At Newcastle this year, we’ve been beyond fortunate to have an incredible Student Union exec, a team of formidable and inspiring Sabs who have not only worked their hardest to support their fellow students through what they couldn’t have known would be one of the hardest academic years ever due to the pandemic, but who have also somewhere found the reserves of energy to engage with another critical and timely issue, decolonizing the curriculum. Their Decolonise NCL campaign has to date included a series of online events attracting a seriously impressive array of speakers, as well as pulling together resources and pushing the University to pledge a commitment to decolonisation and anti-racist work at all levels. It’s simply awe-inspiring.

Their work has got me thinking about the place of decolonisation in what’s commonly called ‘study skills’, and how it impacts on the role of Learning Developers. I wrote a while ago about coming to understand the related and tricky value of emancipatory practice, a related concept, which I feel is the defining Learning Development value, but even at the time felt I was only just beginning to get a handle on it. Since then, my Leeds colleague Sunny Dhillon has written eloquently both about his ambivalent feelings about emancipation in LD as well as questioning whether universities can feasibly decolonise themselves. Working on projects around student induction this year, at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve also examined ways in which an uncritical approach to inducting students to our academic community could be oppressive. The Student Union campaign has prompted me to further this thinking and tie these disparate threads together in the context of my own profession.

To this end, I offered to contribute a session to their programme of Decol NCL events, NOT because I have any expertise in this area, but because I wanted to pick up the challenge they had thrown down and explore how this ‘well-meaning middle class white woman’ might begin doing her own anti-racist work within her professional context. I’ve since taken this discussion to a meeting of my own profession of Learning Developers in Scotland (ScotHELD). This post draws together some of the questions and avenues I explored in those sessions. Our NUSU sabs talk about brave spaces as well as safe spaces, about the need to let people take risks to step outside their comfort zone, and I’d like to take that idea up and step out.

“…universities remain white middle-class spaces. They require students to adopt particular ways of being and doing – those which conform to middle-class practices that define success in higher education – ways of writing, speaking and the use of academic language. Universities measure a particular type of success that is possessed by those from white middle-class backgrounds.”

(Bhopal, 2018)

As I’ve written before, my role is often understood as teaching students to write ‘properly’. Implicitly, that means as white, middle class and male. I’d extend this understanding of ‘academic literacy’ also beyond just academic writing to other practices covered by a Learning Developer, from seminar participation to independent study, reading to critical thinking, time management to revision, which are equally situated in socio-cultural expectations of what it means to be a “good” student – the default norm being a white, middle class, male student with all the resources, privilege, cultural capital and opportunities they possess.

“Academic practices are usually presented as neutral, decontextualised sets of technical skills and literacy that students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are seen to lack”

(Lillis, 2001). 

These practices are not neutral, and those of us who teach them must interrogate what it is that we are doing, and whether it is reinforcing a colonial, oppressive education system rooted in white, middle class, western norms of how we should think, act and communicate at university, thereby positioning Black, Asian, working class etc students in terms of deficits to be remediated. While it may be true as Bourdieu says that ‘academic English is […] no one’s mother tongue’, it’s a language closely related to my own RP middle class English, and one I can learn with greater ease and inhabit more comfortably without challenge to my identity and sense of belonging.

“Through taken- for-granted academic practices, constructions of difference are formed, often in problematic ways. The tendency is to project a pathologist gaze on racialist bodies that have historically been constructed as a problem, and as suffering from a range of deficit disorders (e.g. lack of aspiration, lack of motivation, lack of confidence and so on’)”

(Burke, 2015).

What I’ve learned from the speakers at NUSU’s events so far: Decolonisation is not synonymous with other concepts such as diversity, inclusion, equality or widening participation, laudable as those initiatives may be. They imply an extension of the status quo, an affirmation of it, additive rather than transformational. Decolonisation, while related to these concepts, demands a fundamental change, a dismantling, decentring, disruption, a relinquishing, restitution, restoration. It has a revolutionary quality. “Decolonisation”, we are told, “is not a metaphor” (Tuck and Yang, 2012). Moreover, decolonisation cannot be achieved simply through inclusion or widening participation measures, as the structures and processes of an oppressive system are ill suited to fundamentally dismantling its underlying issues: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 18984). To decolonise the HE curriculum means

an underlying transformation from a culture of denial and exclusion to a consideration of different traditions of knowledge. To diversify our curriculum is to challenge power relations and call for deeper thinking about the content of our courses and how we teach them.

James Muldoon

How does this relate to Learning Development? Well, by extension, to decolonise the curriculum means not only what we teach and how, but also how we expect students to learn. Lea and Street’s tripartite framework of approaches to the teaching of academic writing offers us a lens to examine our practice. The second level, the academic socialisation model, maps onto ideas of inclusion and widening participation: “ [it] is concerned with students’ acculturation into disciplinary and subject-based discourses and genres. Students acquire the ways of talking, writing, thinking, and using literacy that typified members of a disciplinary or subject area community” (Lea and Street, 2006). These ways also typify the ideal or assumed white, middle class, male member of that community, for whom that system was created and in whose interests it operates. This is Academic Literacy as The Thing That We LDers Teach to students.

A Learning Developer whose primary guiding model is an academic socialisation approach is upholding this status quo. No matter how welcoming the gatekeeper, no matter how wide we throw open those doors and how helpful we are in orientating those we admit within the walls, we are still insisting that students enter on the terms of a white, middle class academy. We are also closing our ears to our students’ experiences; what is just a surface feature and linguistic or practice quirk to us is a troubling challenge to their identity or weighty burden to enact, for some students.

Colonialism assimilates or destroys; this is Learning Development as colonial assimilation. Become like us, or fail. We don’t want the bits of you that don’t conform. But not only does a predominantly academic socialisation approach assume that “once students have learned and understood the ground rules of a particular academic discourse, they are able to reproduce it unproblematically”, it also assumes that those ground rules are unproblematic.

‘Inclusion tends to be more about fitting into the dominant culture than about interrogating that culture for the ways that it is complicit in the social and cultural reproduction of exclusion, misrecognition and inequality.’  

(Burke, 2015)

The third model identified by Lea and Street maps more closely onto the decolonisation agenda. It not only notes that academic writing is not homogeneous but a multiplicity of practices or meanings, but also acknowledges that these meanings are bound up with epistemology and identity, that they consist of socio-cultural practices situated within hierarchies of power and authority and are therefore contested on unequal terms. I’d like to raise an observation I’ve frequently made when listening to or reading accounts of Academic Literacies as a model, both in Learning Development and EAP. Very often, these accounts focus on one implication of Academic Literacies, that academic writing is not generic or monolithic and therefore our work needs to differentiate multiple discipline-specific discourses and tailor provision, at the expense of the other: that these discourses are situated in hierarchies of power and authority. That critical, radical observation is right there in the model, and yet is frequently downplayed or overlooked.

Similarly, it positions study skills not as surface tools to be adopted at will, but fundamentally entwined with identity, and therefore belonging. Education is supposed to change you, but not to the extent that you can only learn if you become someone else entirely, or fragment your identity, your self. And if Learning Development’s defining value is its emancipatory practice, then it is these more critical implications that we need to foreground, or what we have is a tailored academic socialisation model (Ivanic’s 2004 four tier model acknowledges this better perhaps than Lea and Street’s, separating out writing as a contextualised event from writing as a sociocultural and political practice).

The principal function of student writing is increasingly that of gatekeeping.

(Lillis, 2001)

Due to the nature of our work, Learning Developers have a special relevance to the project of decolonisation in Higher Education. Decolonisation is often spoken of in terms of adding a more diverse range of authors to a reading list, or including broader topics in a module, mostly applying to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Put a few Black authors on the English Literature curriculum, hire a couple of BAME lecturers and be done with it. But decolonisation applies to the whole system of how we teach, the way we expect students to learn, and how we recognise and assess that learning, a system which, if it’s not designed for you, makes everything harder, if it doesn’t exclude you outright. It forces you to learn on someone else’s terms, and ‘Study Skills’, the core remit of Learning Development, cross-cuts and underpins all aspects of the curriculum at every level, in every discipline.

It’s our role to not only to help students better understand their curriculum, institution and discipline better, but also to negotiate it successfully. Negotiate – it’s a wonderful word in this context, meaning both to find your way through obstacles, but also to bring about a desired outcome through discussion between parties. Negotiation demands dialogue and change on both sides to progress. I’m not sure decolonisation is something Learning Developers can really choose to disengage from or remain neutral on.

How should we respond to decolonisation? Do we need to decolonise study skills? I think it’s clear that we must, and that Learning Development has a key role to play in this. I’ll look at how we might do that in my next post…

By: RattusScholasticus Head of Writing Development Service and Learning Developer at Newcastle University. View all posts by RattusScholasticus


Decolonising Learning Development: Doing the WorkIn “LD Values”

Emancipatory practice: the defining LD value?In “LD Values”

A Manifesto for Learning DevelopERs

SOAS University of London

Dr. Meera Sabaratnam and SOAS students talk about the university’s efforts to decolonize the curriculum and provide a more global education. Our blog:…​ Study at SOAS:


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