Imagining a Postcolonial classroom
In recent years, researchers of the Dutch project ‘Imagining the Nation in the Classroom: A Study of the Politics of Belonging and Nationness on St Maarten & St Eustatius’ have been studying and comparing constructions of hegemonic ideologies of belonging and nationness within the Dutch Caribbean. The project focuses on primary schools on the Caribbean islands of St Eustatius and St Maarten and is funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). The research team consists of researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam (UvA) and Utrecht (UU) and the former University of St Maarten (USM) (See www.Imaginingthenation.org).
On May 14th the Imagining the Nation in the Classroom research team held a seminar in Amsterdam on the topic “Diversity and the Construction of National Identity in Postcolonial Classrooms”. Using the idea of a ‘Postcolonial Classroom’ as a sensitizing concept, the multidisciplinary research team aimed to prompt a discussion on postcolonialism and education from an anthropological as well as educational academic perspective. The researchers and stakeholders came together in the main library of the University of Amsterdam.
Participants were invited to explore “ways in which students are being socialized into national subjects’ in schools within the Dutch Kingdom” and to reflect on questions such as: how do teachers and students co-construct or challenge diversity and national identity within a postcolonial classroom? In what ways do teachers and students handle polarization or conflict due to diversity in the classroom? And, how do we as researchers deal with normative premises within these classrooms?
Dr. Vincent de Rooij (University of Amsterdam) gave the first keynote titled ‘Raising critical awareness of Self and Other as complex constructs in the postcolonial classroom’. He set the tone by posing a core question: What is actually the goal of formal education? Dr. de Rooij, a linguist and anthropologist specialized in youth, language and popular culture, suggested that schools should be places where children could reflect on their relation to others in order to construct a world where everybody has a ‘place’. In his own words, he advocated a classroom “in which the focus is no longer on simply categorizing, classifying (and, hence, dividing) but, instead, on the critical inquiry of these activities”.
Prof. dr. Mariëtte de Haan professor of education and pedagogy at Utrecht University gave the second keynote of the afternoon. In her engaging talk on ‘Polarization in Education: Directions for intervention’ she reflected on her own approach towards research with an interventionist agenda within education. Professor de Haan, who specializes in cultural diversity and learning, discussed her current research that aims to tackle the challenge of polarization within Dutch diverse classrooms in order to ‘form inclusive schools’. Her talk thus focused on the drawbacks of diversity within the classroom and on a problem of polarization and non-communication within the Dutch Educational system.
The validity- and the goals- of intervention in culturally diverse classrooms were central to the subsequent rebuttals and questions from the participants. Although both keynotes valued intervention in their own way, a question from the audience with regards to the role of the school in the emancipation of individuals also uncovered a divergence within the types of interventions each favored. The first keynote seemed to put more emphasis on personal development of the subject and the right to diverse viewpoints within these classrooms. The second keynote focused more on a perspective that favored intervention aimed at inclusivity and unification. This would lead to less confrontation and polarization. With regards to limits to cultural diversity, both speakers concurred that diversity within the classroom becomes a problem when communication becomes an issue and the conversation comes to a halt. Enigmatically, issues of underlying normative premises at the base of definitions of ‘communication problems’ remained relatively untouched here.
During the second half of the afternoon PhD students Jordi Halfman and Nicole Sanches - researchers within the Imagining the Nation project- led work sessions and presented cases they had encountered within their own research on respectively St Maarten and St Eustatius/ The Netherlands. Afterwards they put the participants to work in groups with questions and or prompts.
For me, the Postcolonial Classroom seminar led to questions with regards to what needs to be un-learned within a diverse classroom and how hegemonic ideologies play a role in un-learning within such a classroom. The work sessions, where attendees were invited to stand, walk around and engage with the material world allowed a shift in the critical thought processes to include another level of perception. It also accentuated how issues such as perceptions of how you are supposed to act in a specific setting, at a specific moment in time, or how you are supposed to interact with specific materials are all able to influence the learning process. The focus of both speakers on informal and creative forms of education and learning was certainly brought to life in this manner.