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date: 29 June 2022

Postcolonial Theory and Teacher Educationfree

Postcolonial Theory and Teacher Educationfree

  • Radhika ViruruRadhika ViruruTexas A&M University
  •  and Julia C. PerskyJulia C. PerskyTexas A&M University - Commerce


Although there have been attempts to relate postcolonial theory to teacher education, those attempts have been somewhat limited. Analyses of the corpus of research on teacher education reveal a focus on defining how to become a teacher, how to judge whether what teachers are doing is effective, how to ensure that theories of learning guide what teachers do, and how to ensure that the teaching profession becomes more diverse and more like the population of children they teach. Although these areas are certainly important, what is striking are the losses they conceal and the absences that are revealed. Postcolonial theory has offered powerful commentaries on how most of the world has yet to engage with its colonial past and with endemic issues such as racism. Issues such as how the production of knowledge has been carefully restricted and defined to privilege Western ideologies, the creation of binaries that have systematically marginalized groups of people, the marriage of racist and colonial ideologies, and the creation of institutional structures such as schools that have imposed flawed knowledges on children have yet to be widely acknowledged in teacher education research.


  • Education, Cultures, and Ethnicities
  • Education and Society

Postcolonial Theory

Postcolonial theory, as has been said many times before, does not lend itself to and, in fact, resists easy definitions. Further, given the number of contexts in which it has been used, over the years it has spun itself into a much wider web than may have been originally anticipated. Although postcolonial theory first began to gain momentum in the academy in the 1980s through the work of scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said, its antecedents go back much further (Go, 2016). Postcolonialism was an important part of the anticolonial imagination and struggles of early scholars such as Frantz Fanon and even W. E. B. Du Bois and political leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, who although not typically cited as a postcolonial scholar, certainly embodied the field’s aspirations (Lee, 1996). As Andreotti (2016) has said, given the multitude of interpretations associated with postcolonial theory, it is important to clarify how, in fact, one is using the term in one’s scholarly endeavors.

Andreotti suggests that postcolonial work centers around two major clusters: One is deeply skeptical of grand narratives of “progress and emancipation” and consequently attempts to be partners in the struggle for liberation for those who continue to be oppressed, for example, by continued physical colonization. We would suggest that what constitutes physical colonization itself has to be reinterpreted in the 21st century, for as Boehmer and Morton (2010) have commented, there is widespread “effective continuation of the authority structures of the colony in the post-imperial nation despite ‘flag independence’” (p. 7).

The other strand, to which this work and many others belong, follows more of a discursive turn and examines complexities in the relationships between colonizers and colonized by imagining

relationships beyond coercion, subjugation, and epistemic violences . . . and proposes a constant and immanent problematization of knowledge production (even knowledge produced by the “oppressed”) that defies traditional conceptualizations of history, teleology, and emancipation.

(Andreotti, 2016, p. 17)

In this article, we attempt to examine the ways in which knowledge about teacher education has been produced and draw from the concerns that postcolonial theory raises, namely the need to be aware of the coercive and repressive nature of commonly held belief systems as well as the possibilities that exist when those systems are breached.

One of the foremost contemporary scholars of postcolonialism, Robert Young, describes postcolonial work as examining the effects of colonialism on contemporary cultures globally, in addition to revealing colonial mechanisms that are still employed to ensure economic, political, and cultural dominance of the colonizer over the colonized (Young, 2000). From this point of view, like colonialism, postcolonialism functions internally as well as externally, as a culturally hegemonic force that requires the participation of the colonizer—who imposes the conditions—and the colonized—who submit to those stratifying conditions, whose societies are thus economically, materially, and culturally subordinated (Young, 2000). A particularly significant characteristic of the postcolonial mechanism of control is the process of Othering. Said’s (1978) example of the Oriental described as “irrational, depraved, childlike, different” (p. 40) in comparison to mature, scientifically advanced, rational, and pious Europeans illustrates the subjugation of people and cultures via essentialized representations that cast them as inferior to the West (Rivas, 2010). This process is important because it serves as a tool that controls not only the colonized but also the colonizer, as the economic enterprises of imperialism must assert control over Western subjects as well as indigenous populations (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Young, 2000). Disparagement of one group based on ethnic, geographic, economic, or ideological markers encouraged all Europeans to identify with the dominant, positive construction of Western colonizers—which subsequently allowed the colonizing power to control them all (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Rivas, 2010).

Colonial enterprises also inevitably spawned borders or contested sites of power as colonizers are always working to keep the subaltern in “their place” while simultaneously maintaining positions of power and privilege. The borders thus become the space of both overt and covert resistance (Cannella & Viruru, 2004). Postcolonialism makes use of two primary forms of power, explained by Foucault (1980) as disciplinary power, which ensures compliant, useful, docile bodies, and regulatory power, which serves to monitor and regulate populations. Both are critical to establishing and maintaining divisions that hierarchize and normalize (Shallwani, 2010). The norm generates borders as it compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, and excludes people, while it operates as a mechanism of disciplinary and regulatory power as it defines the average to be achieved, establishes limits of deviation, and is applied to individual bodies and to populations (Foucault, 1977).

Anzaldua (1987/2012) explains the borderlands as places and spaces “where two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between the two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (p. 19). There should be no question as to why borders exist; they are constructed for the purposeful separation of us from them, of the safe from the unsafe, the clean from the unclean (Cannella & Viruru, 2004)

Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war . . . the coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference cause un choque, a cultural collision.

(Anzaldua, 2012, p. 100).

Subjugating Constructions of Us–Them Binaries

Another way in which postcolonialism has been theorized to function is through the justification of the oppression and subjugation of the Other through the construction of us–them binaries that create a superior–inferior climate privileging the dominant culture over colonized cultures (Cannella & Viruru, 2004). These binaries always work in the interests of the colonizer and serve to maintain the social, economic, and cultural hierarchy.

The language invoked by the us–them, superior–inferior binary is associated with codes of difference and deviance that generate the power to oppress, degrade, and exclude the Other (Shallwani, 2010). Difference and need are always located on, and within, the bodies and lives of the Other—family, home, language, education, socioeconomic status—and the alleged deficiencies serve the us–them binary as it functions to allow or deny access to mainstream culture (Shallwani, 2010). The postcolonial employs the us–them binary to flex its power over the Other as it seeks to neutralize difference and purge society of its heterogeneity by either excluding or exterminating that which is different or by absorbing those who are different into the mainstream and then forcing them to conform to standard social norms (Butler & Spivak, 2010). Therefore, these modes of being dictate every aspect of subjugated lives including movement, personal associations, work, schooling, and speech (Butler & Spivak, 2010). There are several dangers that stem from superior–inferior binary constructs, one of which is benevolent patriarchy, discussed by Paulo Freire (1972). Postcolonial conceptions of the Other as deficient, as somehow always lacking, as backward and static, generate a sense of urgency that suggests the necessity for patriarchal responsibility to and for the Other, thus legitimating authority and control (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Shallwani, 2010). Portrayal of the Other as socially, economically, historically, and culturally undeveloped lends to the compulsion and justification of presuming the right and authority to teach them how to live appropriate, enlightened lives and thus reinscribe dominant ways of being and belonging (Aries, 1962; Saavedra & Camicia, 2010). In this light, it is of particular importance to note the role of education in the postcolonial agenda, as schools are a particularly significant mechanism employed by the dominant where the use of education professionals, books, curriculum, and other learning resources are wielded as tools to legitimate authority, as weapons of domination, and as molds to shape and ensure compliance (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Loomba, 2005; Shallwani, 2010). Having justified its interference in the lives of the Other and establishing itself as benevolent patriarch whose purpose is to save, the postcolonial agenda is further advanced in its aim to normalize as it seeks to colonize minds.

Colonized Ways of Knowing

Western imperialism also ascribes to the belief that knowledge is a source of power and those who reside within the strongest economic positions articulate that which can be considered knowledge, thereby privileging one way of knowing, one set of knowledge, over others (Cannella & Viruru, 2004). The powerful use of social processes and practices to legitimate knowledge deemed true and valid, while delegitimating indigenous knowledge through exclusion, silencing, marginalizing, ignoring, and prohibiting it, thus denies the rights of expression and representation of indigenous peoples to their own realities (Rivas, 2010; Smith, 2002).

Every aspect of the field of education is controlled by a hierarchy of experts who determine which knowledge is of most importance, what information gets included in curriculum, who has access to education, the language in which it is presented, teacher preparation, and the manner in which learning opportunities are offered to children (Soto, Hixon, & Hite, 2010). In doing so, education is normalized, as all children are expected to learn the same material, the same way, at roughly the same time, with little or no room to accommodate difference. Learning and development thus becomes a universal phenomenon that is predictable, orderly, linear, progressive, cumulative, and normalized; children whose development lies outside this established universal path are therefore considered abnormal (Shallwani, 2010). The universal insists that all children are the same, so then when a child diverges from that norm, race, class, gender, or culture are to blame and are the reasons a child is considered deficient; thus, again, dominant discourses on learning and ways of being are maintained and reinforced (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Shallwani, 2010).

Growing up in the United States and being educated in its public schools almost assuredly means that students will not be exposed to any cultures or languages other than those of the dominant (Persky & Viruru, 2015). Since it begins in childhood and continues throughout their lives, children from non-dominant backgrounds learn to accept and participate in the process of their own marginalization and thus essentially consent to the erasure of self as they are shoved into the margins, powerless (Moschkovich, 1983; Yamada, 1983). From her own experiences as a child, Wong (1983) expressed, “When I was growing up, I felt dirty. I thought that God made White people clean and no matter how much I bathed, I could not change. I could not shed my skin in the gray water” (p. 8).

Culturally hegemonic educational discourses generate such a profound imbalance in power that many marginalized children succumb to the conditioning process that teaches them not to expect to be taken seriously, to matter, but to instead figure out how to fit themselves into the molds prepared for them (Yamada, 1983). As children submit themselves to the continual degradation of the conditioning process, they not only learn to yield themselves to the power exercised over them by others, they also transmit their oppressor’s ideologies to friends and family members (Anzaldua, 2012; Canaan, 1983). “When we view our liberation as a scarce resource, something only a precious few of us can have, we stifle our potential, our creativity, our genius for living, learning and growing (Canaan, 1983, p. 235).

Racism as Colonizing Mechanism

Perhaps one of the most obvious ways postcolonialism is in visible is racism, as it serves to subjugate the Other via construction of a racial hierarchy that positions and privileges Whiteness as superior to all other races of people. Racism is rooted in the doctrine of White supremacy, and though prejudiced individuals may join the larger movement, racism is a movement of the collective that consists, first, of a belief in the inherent superiority of some people and the inherent inferiority of others, and second, of disproportionate access and denial to goods and services in accordance with such judgments of unequal worth (Weinberg, as cited in Nieto & Bode, 2009).

Historically, the concept of race emerged as a means to justify chattel slavery as well as the exploitation and annihilation of indigenous people groups due to westward expansion and imperialism (Alexander, 2012). Racism, as a mechanism for sorting, hierarchizing, and normalizing populations and individuals, is explained by Foucault (1975–1976/1980) as a “break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die” (pp. 254–255). In true post- and colonial fashion, racism exerts its influence through physical and psychological control as those caught in its grasp grapple with the costs of Otherness. Dealing with the fear born of racism exacts a toll and affects individuals differently as, Wong (1983) explained, “I began to wear an imaginary pale skin” (p. 7), and as expressed by Lorde, “I urge each one of us to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there” (1983, p. 101).

Classification of the world’s people along racial lines, then, is an act of power that functions, on one hand, to affirm the superiority of Whiteness and dominant cultural norms, while, on the other, justifies the right to define the Other and who should or should not be granted access and included in mainstream society (Ahmed, 2000; Alexander, 2012). It should be mentioned, however, that while racism is most frequently and accurately associated with the oppression of people of color by Whites, it is important to also consider that there are poor and working class people of color who, having adopted dominant cultural beliefs, also function from a racist perspective because “we are all continually pumped with gross and inaccurate images of everyone else and we all pump it out” (Cameron, 1983, p. 49).

Used to create both false differences and very significant real ones, race becomes a border that divides the normal from the abnormal, where Whiteness is constructed as normal and all others are therefore abnormal, different, inferior, in need of intervention, and excluded (Quintanales, 1983; Shallwani, 2010). Moraga and Anzaldua (1983) explained it as being constantly compared to a color chart, while Canaan (1983) recalled the degradation associated with her brownness as “lazy, shiftless, poor, non-human, dirty, abusive, ignorant, uncultured and uneducated, while the ultimate model of good things was White” (p. 232). Though resistance to the message that White is better than Brown is possible, it is not a message that can be unlearned easily; as Anzaldua (1983) indicated, it took over 30 years to turn her own self-hatred to love.

In education, racism, as defined by Foucault (19751976/1980), is evident in the regulation of children’s bodies and the spaces within which they interact (Shallwani, 2010).

United States classrooms reflect racism in the larger society as children are segregated, classified, and normalized (Shallwani, 2010). Children may live a multitude of experiences that leave deep, long-lasting negative effects on them socially, emotionally, and academically. Chrystos (1983) expressed her difficulty in liking herself while surrounded by a culture that perceived of her as a disease. Similarly, Moraga (Moraga & Anzaldua, 1983) felt alienated from and fearful of her peers due to class and cultural differences, and Cameron (1983) internalized her anger, frustrated with herself for her inability to trust her White friends and for the alienation she experienced as a result.

Members of minority groups often internalize racialized stereotypes such as the mild Hindu, the slow Black, or the studious Asian, which reinforce the superior–inferior binaries, position Whiteness as culturally superior while constructing children from other backgrounds as culturally deprived, and therefore serve to limit options and opportunities for learning (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Loomba, 2005; Rivas, 2010) Constructions of cultural deprivation, or the culture of poverty, justify segregation, difference in access, low expectations for learning, disciplinary differences, and discrimination. Yet, “culture is not really something I have a choice in keeping or discarding. It is in me and of me. Without it I would be an empty shell and so would anyone else” (Moschkovich, 1983, p. 82).

Postcolonialism thus subjugates group–cultural values in favor of the interests of the individual. Individualism serves as the basis for many racist constructions so that the failure or underachievement of children from particular groups becomes a cultural deficit, characteristic of a child’s environment rather than the failure of a racist system (Collins, 2010; Rivas, 2010). Racism in classroom settings functions to devalue and erase the lived experiences and cultures of children of color and to then replace that which was lost with a new set of values and experiences that aim to make malleable their bodies and minds (Saavedra & Camicia, 2010). That which gets excluded dismisses the heritage of those from non-European descent and denies the truth of the real connections that exist between all of us (Lorde, 1983). Racism then becomes internalized and is always present and inescapable, as it is easier to repeat the racial patterns of fear and prejudice than it is to resist them (Moraga & Anzaldua, 1983).

It can therefore be argued that, as colonialism forced indigenous cultures into the same economic path, the postcolonial–neoliberal agenda in public schools pushes all children from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and historical traditions toward the same path in service to an economy that serves the elite—in a capitalist–imperialist global order. Just as colonized indigenous populations globally, children in public schools are Othered via race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, size, socioeconomic status, and immigration status as well as other markers of difference from the White, heteronormative middle-class Protestant construction of normalcy and belonging. It is an imagined contrast that sustains Otherness and justifies the domination of colonial rule (Rivas, 2010). In education, it is not difficult to identify characteristics of oppressive Othering in the interactions that affirm the ideologies of the dominant group, in the inferior–superior, normal–deviant binaries, and in the ways the postcolonial enterprise has rendered children subjects, as objects—commodities—for the Empire (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Schwalbe et al., 2000). And just as the mechanism of Othering served to justify domination and destruction of indigenous people and societies, so it serves to justify the continued domination and destruction of children deemed different, thereby placing children and educators under the control of dominant economic forces (Cannella & Viruru, 2004). It is imperative, however, to recognize that it is impossible for colonial authority to ever be total or complete; thus, power and resistance to power occur at the same point and make preservation of agency and identity possible for the colonized (Asher, 2009; Bhabha, 1994; Foucault, 1980; Cannella & Viruru, 2004).

Our argument in this article is that such ideologies, particularly relating to children who are designated as the Other due to race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, size, socioeconomic status, immigration status, as well as other markers of difference, ought to form part of the foundations of teacher education as a discipline in the United States. Scholars of postcolonialism have long argued that parallels between children and colonized groups are logical to draw: Each has been defined as “less-than,” interested in what they can become rather than what they are, less intelligent, needing direction, and ultimately in need of a firm hand to bring order into their lives. As pointed out elsewhere, in children’s daily lives adults typically take over and control their lives, institutionalize their needs, and often directly and physically control their bodies. Concepts like voice, relevance, and meaning are often used to “empower” children, even though they are defined mostly by adults. The literature on teacher education does not appear, however, to reflect these foci.

Willey (2016) has commented that academic disciplines often represent a form of storytelling in which academics themselves are constituted as “knowledge producers” (p. 994). As Willey puts it:

The stories we tell about our fields, stories we must tell in order to situate our own work, depend upon the invocation of particular genealogies of those fields. Conversely,they render alternate genealogies invisible. Some stories are contested. Others become quite entrenched and make it difficult to see other ways we could tell the story of how we arrived at or might conceive the stakes of a given intellectual project. Through analysis of academic storytelling conventions, we open up space to think our fields anew.

In this article, we describe the stories that are told, that have made teacher education what it is, and attempt to use postcolonial theory to open up the spaces to rethink them. We first describe the context within which teacher education in the early 21st century operates in the United States, and then move to an overview of the most pressing issues in teacher education research. We also present examples of how postcolonial theory has been used to enrich research in teacher education. Finally, we draw from postcolonial theory to comment on gaps in teacher education research and conclude with some suggestions for how the two fields can align more closely.

Stories of Teacher Education

As Tatto, Richmond, and Andrews (2016) have said, teacher education is a crowded space where the interests of multiple distinct entities need to be taken into consideration when knowledge is produced. For example, teacher education curricula must typically conform not only to an institution’s own regulations (such as a university core curriculum) but also reflect an understanding of the schools that graduates are being prepared to enter, the concerns of educational researchers, institutional accreditation requirements, national regulatory requirements, and the perspectives of teacher advocacy groups. It is important to note that there is also a parallel movement to move teacher education away from the academy altogether, reflected mainly in the rise of alternative routes to teacher certification in the United States that place teachers in classrooms (often in high-poverty areas) after only about five weeks of formal training (Teach for America, 2018). As Zeichner and Pena-Sandoval (2015) have commented, both governmental and private resources are being increasingly redirected toward non-university-based teacher preparation programs.

In the United States, new regulations for university-based teacher preparation programs were released in October 2016 that tie their success to the success of children in schools, thus more formally elevating the discourses of accountability to the teacher education level (Andrews, Richmond, & Stroupe, 2017). This movement has met with some resistance from various groups at different levels. Teacher educators have also raised concerns about the sociopolitical climate after the 2016 presidential election in the United States in which hate crimes against children from marginalized groups have been more prevalent (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016), which further complicates the work of teacher educators. According to Andrews et al. (2017), the current climate necessitates that all policies regulating teacher education be critically examined in order to ensure that “exacerbated gaps in access” not be widened and that teacher educators be able to create environments in their classrooms that are welcoming of all (p. 122). We offer an example from our own institution in which our faculty member had to grapple with a situation in her class where a Mexican American student was seated across from another student whose laptop had a “Build the Wall” sticker affixed to it.

Cochran-Smith et al. (2016) have compiled an extraordinarily detailed map of the landscape of teacher education research based on a review of approximately 1,500 empirical peer-reviewed studies on teacher education published between 2000 and 2012. Although the majority of the articles reflect research in the United States, global perspectives were both sought and included. This review commented at length not only on the different “territories” that the map of teacher education research is composed of, but also on how teacher education research has responded to the contexts it is situated within, as well as the kind of research that is lacking. Given the scope of this review, we consider it to be the most authoritative source currently available and, as such, we draw heavily from this work to illustrate the stories that make up the field.

Cochran-Smith et al. (2016) identified three major focus areas that form the bulk of research within teacher education, namely (a) research on pathways to teacher preparation, accountability, and effectiveness, (b) research on teacher preparation for a “knowledge society,” and (c) teacher preparation for equity and diversity. They also indicate that non-mainstream research in teacher education has tended to focus on one of two issues: first, attempts to align entry into the teaching profession with what Cochran-Smith et al. (2016) call a “neo-liberal agenda that has both policy clout and funding,” and second, studies that believe that teacher education should help teachers combat systematic issues of oppression on the basis of race, class, and linguistic differences. Both of these non-mainstream streams, the authors point out, have explicit political orientations and make no pretence at neutrality. In contrast to these studies, much of teacher education research espouses more of a social-constructivist orientation, a philosophy that is also often reflected in the curricula of many traditional teacher education programs. As the authors suggest, it is to the credit of the field that it has disdained the telling of “simple stories,” recognizing that teachers and children are complex individuals engaged in a challenging enterprise (Boyd, Grossman, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2006, p. 206).

In terms of the first major area, namely pathways to preparation, accountability, and effectiveness, Cochran-Smith et al. (2016) found that there is now widespread acceptance that teacher quality matters beyond just the pales of the classroom and is linked to critical national outcomes such as health and economic productivity. Further, despite numerous studies having been conducted to examine differences between the two, there are no clear answers as to whether traditional teacher preparation programs are always better than alternative pathways. Although accountability has become an indelible part of the field, the teacher education community remains an executor of policies decided upon elsewhere rather than an active participant in its construction (Boyd et al., 2006; Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Freelow, 2002; Xu, Hannaway, & Taylor, 2011; Papay, West, Fullerton, & Kane, 2012).

In terms of the second research area, Cochran-Smith et al. (2016) found that researchers in teacher education are acutely aware that they are preparing teachers to educate children to take part in what is broadly categorized as the knowledge society or a social milieu in which knowledge is prized more than the ability to perform labor. Further, this genre of research focuses on different pathways to knowledge, recognizing that people learn in different ways. Many research studies thus focused on the impact of innovative methods, particularly those that emphasized cooperation among teachers and students and that positioned student-teachers themselves in more collaborative roles with mentors and supervisors. In particular, the review found that university-based teacher preparation programs emphasized constructivist philosophies of teaching and learning; consequently graduates of those programs received a great deal of instruction in how to get to know students and make instructional decisions on the basis of that knowledge, as well as in self-reflection on their own teaching practices.

Finally, in terms of research on teacher preparation for diversity and equity, Cochran-Smith et al. (2016) found many studies that looked at the impact of requiring more field experiences in diverse communities. Many studies found that these efforts have been successful in that graduates from many teacher education programs do exhibit a heightened awareness of diversity and the need to diversify both the content they use with students as well as the pedagogical methods they employ. Additionally, researchers also focused on the impact of cross-institutional partnerships, particularly with nontraditional partners often to be found outside academia. These studies also showed generally positive effects in that it resulted in diversification of the teaching population, which in the United States in particular, is populated mostly by middle-class White females, even though almost half the students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools are children of color (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2014) and almost one quarter of the school population lives in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

Postcolonial Stories of Teacher Education

As must be evident from the brief overviews of the concerns of postcolonial scholars and teacher educators (see the section “Stories of Teacher Education”), the two fields differ in many ways. As Gutierrez and McLaren (2016) have said, teacher preparation programs continue to focus on the teaching and learning of monocultural and acontextual “models” of instruction such as the seven-step lesson plan. Who needs to be critical and reflective when the continued use of decontextualized “teacher-proofed” methods, materials, and curricula is the normative practice in schools (p. 113)?

We would suggest, however, that commonalities do exist between the two fields, particularly in terms of a commitment to addressing entrenched systems of power and privilege in which spaces of overlap in existent research studies are to be found. Although there are a growing number of research studies in education that draw from postcolonial frameworks such as the recent works of Tuck, McKenzie, and McCoy (2014), Tikly (2016), and Loftstottir and Jensen (2016), to name but a few, these still form a miniscule part of the whole. Within that microcosm, postcolonial work has markedly strengthened research in the areas of global citizenship education and human rights education (Pashby, 2016; Osler & Starkey, 2003) and early childhood education–childhood studies (see Davis, Krieg, & Smith, 2015; Layne & Lipponen, 2016; or Saavedra & Camicia, 2010 for some recent examples). When it comes to teacher education in particular, however, the areas of commonality have been far more restricted and seem to cluster around three focus points: critical literacy studies and postcolonial possibilities in teacher education; using postcolonial theory to reframe teacher education globally (not surprisingly, this research is often focused on countries that were themselves former colonies); and how indigenous perspectives can form part of the larger discourse of teacher education in the “minority world” (Pence, 1998).

As Luke (2000) has said, bringing ideas such as critical literacy, which draw from fields such as postcolonialism and feminism, into the “tent of a secular state education system” is not an easy task and can in fact cause them to perhaps lose their edge or encounter seemingly impenetrable barriers such as “repressive tolerance” (p. 448). However, critical literacy studies has been one area where those attempts have been made. The results have posed some interesting challenges to dominant ideologies of teacher education. Janks (2014) indicates that the key concerns of critical literacy educators relate to the nature of language as a socially constructed practice and how the creation of texts and discourses maintain or challenge the dominant order. According to Luke (2000), much of what literacy educators do in schools in terms of enhancing the individual development of their students takes away from key tasks of critical literacy, namely the need to open up access to what are generally constituted as literate practices and discourses, and to enable students to challenge and interrogate them. Along these lines, critical literacy studies of teacher education that draw from postcolonial studies have particularly focused on deconstructing the connections between literacy and personal growth. As Luke (2000) indicates, most approaches to literacy, such as the Australian Early Literacy In Service Program, to name but one, have focused on individual development. Models of teacher education in literacy have thus focused on processes such as “process writing” or the need to encourage children to create personal responses to texts or find their own personal voices when writing. Although there are possibilities inherent within such approaches, from postcolonial and related points of view, they privilege a “new possessive individualism at the expense of an analysis of socioeconomic power” (Luke, 2000, p. 452). Further, this emphasis on personal growth marginalizes the study of areas such as gender identity (Gilbert, 1989; Green, 1993; Lee, 1996) and limits opportunities for students from underserved populations to examine how to construct liberatory discourses (Cope & Kalantzis, 1999; Halliday & Martin, 1993).

Studies of global teacher education reforms have also drawn from postcolonial theory for context. They too have presented an interesting set of complexities worthy of consideration. As Kanu (2005) has said, in the new “globalized” world order in which knowledge and information have become hot commodities, higher education has become a new form of trade. The rise of the unfortunate phenomenon in which industrialized countries from the West—who overwhelmingly “own” the scientific knowledge being produced in academic institutions and who, incidentally, tend to produce such knowledges mostly in English—“collaborate” with their partners in the global South (Scott, 1998; de Wits, 2002) to create forms of knowledge to meet local needs, can easily be read as new forms of “cultural imperialism and undermining” (Kanu, 2005, p. 494). For example, models of teacher education that have originated in the West can, as McLaughlin (1996) and O’Donoghue (1994) found during their work in Papua New Guinea, often be cultural misfits, at best, in other contexts.

Arreman, Erixon, and Rehn’s (2015) analysis of teacher education policies in postcolonial Namibia is a particularly interesting example of how postcolonial studies and teacher education research overlap. Their study was partly composed of a historical examination of teacher education in Namibia that found that during colonial times, when the dominant ideologies in circulation were to enforce apartheid-regulated segregation, teachers were trained based on a Christian National Education curriculum that specifically excluded mathematics and science (Rowell, 1995). Arreman et al.’s (2015) analysis also describes the effects of a 1980s Swedish government effort, known as the Integrated Teacher Training Programme (ITTP), on teachers in Namibia. This program was based on pedagogical ideas of learner-centered education and became the model on which independent Namibia based its teacher education reform efforts. (Angula, 1999; Dahlström, 1995; Zeichner & Dahlström, 1999). Research revealed that the principles of learner-centered education embedded in the program drew from Dewey’s work on preparing children for active participation in society. However, they were often interpreted in unexpected ways in Namibian contexts, such as minimizing the role of the teacher, which consequently led to higher rates of teacher absences. Further, researchers pointed out that the ideas behind learner-centered education, which focus on individual growth and enhancement, did not match with local traditions that emphasized obedience to adults and conformity to society. Dahlstorm (2002) also pointed out that local authorities were often hostile to the ideas behind learner-centered education, as they perceived it not as challenging their own authority, but as culturally suspect, as it came from within colonizing frameworks and from individuals who had often actively cooperated with the colonizers themselves, and further, had been framed without local input (Shanyanana, 2011).

In a similar vein, Kayira’s (2015) study of postcolonial teacher education in Malawi revealed tensions between the implementation of Western models of teacher education and local knowledges. For example, Kayira examined the new Primary Curriculum and Assessment Reform (PCAR) recently created by the government of Malawi that proposed to incorporate both Western and indigenous knowledges. Kayira’s analysis revealed that the indigenous knowledge included in the curriculum tended to be highly selective, such as focusing on how drums were used to send messages from one group to another or how bows and arrows were developed, rather than assuming a central role. Thus the indigenous knowledges appeared more as an interesting side note or supplement to accepted Western scientific knowledge (Phiri, 2008). Kayira (2015) comments that concepts that can appear alien to Western eyes, such as the notion of “uMunthu,” also known as Ubuntu in some parts of Africa, which can be translated as “when one is on their own, they are as good as a wild animal; however, when they are two, they form a community,” were mostly excluded from the science curriculum. This omission is relevant as uMunthu emphasizes that humans are deeply connected to the natural world (Sindima, 1995) in Malawi, and in other parts of Africa. As Kayira says:

the meaning of life cannot be seen apart from nature because “nature plays an important role in the process of human growth by providing all that is necessary, food, air, sunlight, and other things. This means that nature and persons are one, woven by creation into one texture or fabric of life.” (p. 126)

On a related note, studies of how indigenous knowledges are represented in teacher education curricula in the West (Kerr, 2014; Madden, 2015) reveal a fundamental tension between the “secular cosmology” that most Western institutions espouse as a bedrock principle, and indigenous perspectives, which are often based on different ontologies. Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith (2008) have discussed how this incompatibility has often resulted in the destruction and ridicule of indigenous knowledges worldwide and called for the strengthening of alternative frameworks. Madden (2015) draws from the work of Ma and Russell (2012) to suggest that teacher educators play an important role in this process as they prepare teachers to avoid what Battiste (2012) terms “cognitive imperialism,” or the imposition of the dominant worldview upon all, particularly those who hold to alternative worldviews. Many research studies on indigenous education suggest that teacher educators must teach pedagogies for decolonization by educating teachers about indigenous communities and their histories, which includes the infamous residential schools movements, and by helping teachers examine how indigenous communities have typically been misrepresented or omitted from dominant knowledges (Chinnery, 2010; Battiste, 2012). Madden (2015) emphasizes that such work must be done carefully and in ways that deeply engage the complex issues involved. For example, she comments on the limitations of the development of empathy as a decolonizing tool. Although some scholars argue that without empathy teachers cannot be effective, others have said that it can limit the capability to fully engage with the past and one’s own engagement with the colonial present (such as why it is that mostly White middle-class females educate most children of color around the world). Positioning teaching as fundamentally based on empathy can cause future teachers to let themselves off the hook too easily, so to speak, as they are more likely to engage in “feeling sorry for the pitiful [Aboriginal] victim” than to focus on cultural strengths. Madden (2015) also outlines the importance of indigenous antiracist education studies as well as place-based education studies that take teacher education out of the classroom and into the places where knowledge is created in indigenous communities. For example, teacher candidates can be exposed to stories about land by indigenous authors, which present an alternative viewpoint on environmental education, and these can, in turn, transform teaching practices.

Moving Forward

Although, as evidenced, there have been attempts to relate postcolonial theory to teacher education, those attempts have been somewhat limited. The work in critical literacy that has attempted to use the tenets of postcolonial theory to “push the envelope” in terms of reconceptualizing what terms like literacy itself should encompass, and what kind of curriculum that would necessitate in teacher education programs, stands out as the exception rather than the norm in postcolonial teacher education research. The two other major areas where postcolonial theory-based research in teacher education has been done is (a) in examining how mostly Western-centric models of teacher education have been implemented in former colonies around the world and (b) in seeing how the perspectives of indigenous peoples in the West can be incorporated into existing teacher education frameworks. Although this work is important and has generated insights that indicate alternative possibilities, it has not been acted upon.

Mbembe (2010) has suggested that it is only when the process of colonization is understood to have created spaces of loss that the former colonizers and the colonized can recognize the existence of debt and move toward remedies. As Mbembe says,

representing the memory of the colony does not only require an engagement with psychic work and its losses; it also requires a critique of time and artifacts that claim to be the last substitutes for the very substance of time. (p. 28)

We would like to extend this metaphor into analyzing the existing research on teacher education by suggesting that the field has not yet reckoned with the losses it has produced and that, to move forward, one must focus on what it has created to substitute for what could have been.

Within the institution of education, one such creation, born of postcolonial endeavors and the collision between cultures, which should be included in teacher education if we are to truly move forward, is that of the hybrid third space.

Third Space—Hybrid Space

Without postcolonial discourses in teacher education programs, conversations about the dynamic possibilities born of hybrid third spaces are also missing. Because identity is often constructed as difference in relation to the dominant culture (Moje & Luke, 2009), it is common for teachers to frame children, whose identities are from nondominant backgrounds, as deficient. Many teachers may not have the training or experience required to recognize and understand diversity and the complexities resulting from cultural differences in the classroom that produce hybrid learning spaces (Gutierrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Tejeda, 1999).

It is within these hybrid spaces—these third spaces—that children from marginalized backgrounds find ways to do more than exist as the Other under the gaze of the colonizer. Third spaces, according to Bhabha (1994), hold infinite possibilities. Thus, in these hybrid third spaces, children thrive as they rely on their home cultures, life experiences, native languages, and identities to make sense of new learning contexts that consist of multiple languages, cultural identities, and practices (Gutierrez, 2008; Gutierrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Tejeda, 1999). In these unfamiliar and often unwelcoming hostile spaces, children at the margins of dominant cultural practices are empowered as they draw upon their experiences and understandings and build on the “cultural collisions” (Anzaldua, 1987/2012, p. 100) to form hybrid identities, hybrid languages, and hybrid cultures (Bhabha, 1994).

Without the training and experience necessary, teachers are more likely to fail to recognize the cultural, linguistic, and communal knowledge and strength that children bring to school with them—resources that could serve to contribute to their growth academically and in their daily lives (Gutierrez et al., 1999). However, even the most marginalized children are not passive recipients of knowledge, helplessly dependent on their teachers to save them. “New and hybrid agencies and articulations” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 275) interrupt the ways children and families are constructed, inscribed, and interpreted by dominant discourses by making possible a third space where those marginalized exercise their own agency and reinscribe the meanings for their symbols and experiences (Bhabha, 1994). They draw from their experiences across cultures to bridge the gaps between their home cultures and the dominant school culture—to construct a new identity, in a new space, for themselves (Bhabha, 1994; Gutierrez, 2008; Gutierrez et al., 1999). Thus, within the third space, there is room for resistance to colonizing discourses and practices that Other children, those marginalized in classrooms can seek, and then “newness enters the world” (Bhabha, 1994; Gutierrez, 2008; Moje & Luke, 2009).

Hybrid spaces promote learning and promote diversity by restructuring the social organization of classrooms such that children are able to navigate between and across cultures and resist binaries typical of Western-centric classroom settings (Gutierrez, 2008; Gutierrez et al., 1999). Therefore, third spaces, those hybrid spaces of possibility, within the context of postcolonial theory and teacher education, must also be analyzed.


Analyses of the corpus of research on teacher education reveals a focus on defining how to become a teacher, how to judge whether what teachers are doing is effective, how to ensure that theories of learning guide what teachers do, and how to ensure that the teaching profession becomes more diverse and more like the population of children they teach. Although these areas are certainly important, we are struck by the losses they conceal and the absences that are revealed. As the section “Postcolonial Theory” suggests, postcolonial theory has offered powerful commentaries on how most of the world has yet to engage with its colonial past and with endemic issues such as racism. Issues such as how the production of knowledge has been carefully restricted and defined to privilege Western ideologies, the creation of binaries that have systematically marginalized groups of people, the marriage of racist and colonial ideologies, the creation of institutional structures such as schools, which have imposed flawed knowledges on children, and the possibilities born of third spaces within educational settings have yet to be widely acknowledged in teacher education research. On the contrary, the field has often focused on largely “managerial” issues, such as how to manage entry into the profession and how to measure the impact of particular methods of instruction. It is striking, too, to see that children’s and families’ lives are only a miniscule part of the tapestry of teacher education research. For example, the relationship between schools and society (of which children are a part) does not appear as a major focus in teacher education research. Neither does research on involving families in schools, although there is considerable research that would suggest that such involvement is a critical part of the enterprise (Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield & Quiroz, 2001; Jeynes, 2003).

Andreotti (2016) has suggested that a key way in which postcolonial theory can become actionable in educational environments is through widespread engagement in colonial discourse analysis. As she describes it:

Colonial discourse analyses challenge the neutrality and objectivity of academia and its role in constructing stereotypes, images, and knowledge of colonial subjects and cultures which support and legitimize institutions of economic, administrative, judicial, and bio-medical control. On the other hand, it constructs academia as an essential sphere of influence where postcolonial intellectuals can “facilitate dialogue between the Western and non-Western academies, and in so doing, to think a way out of the epistemological violence of the colonial encounter.”

(Gandhi, 1998, quoted in Andreotti, 2016, p. 87)

We concur with Andreotti that engagement with these possibilities can be extremely beneficial for teacher education researchers, but caution that perhaps the recognition of the losses Mbembe describes must occur for the movement to be meaningful.


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