Decolonising the child: a perspective on the extant colonialism in global early childhood education and reflexivity in research and action

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Published by Sabilah Eboo Alwani, & artwork by Ryan Ward

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” But what if education is the weapon we are using to keep the world the same?

The lasting legacy of imperialism in education, as enacted through the auspices of international development, is yet apparent, even in the earliest institutions of formalised learning. This is not simply because NGOs promote a certain type of school or preschool – in fact, there are numerous organisations who are invested in home-grown solutions that empower people locally, and that are culturally contextualised (like Kidogo in Kenya (1)). Rather, it’s because the project of international development, as a 50-year endeavour, was itself conceived as a ‘new imperialism’ which incorporated poor economies into a global governance system built on orientalist constructs and derived from the age-old desire for western nations to ‘participate in’ (read: control) other economies. 

How education became a sub-theme of international development is a story we can understand by employing the lens of postcolonial theory to analyse the intellectual tradition of development itself: modern international development is the child of economics. The story gets interesting at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, where American economist Gary Becker, and his colleagues Theodore Schultz (also U.Chicago) and Jacob Mincer (Columbia, my alma mater) developed what we know as Human Capital Theory – an amalgam of premises founded on Adam Smith’s work that conceptualised investment in human development as the key to economic growth. This was quickly co-opted by the project of international development, both at the level of the State Department and by other players like the World Bank, who were extremely influenced by the work emanating from these intellectual centres, and who rapidly helped popularise a view of education as the ideal human capital investment. As a result, education has been a critical part of the operationalisation of international development. 

Where the story narrows to early childhood is with the work of Cunha and Heckman (2), two other University of Chicago economists, who built on the work of Becker, Schultz and Mincer by demonstrating that investing in the youngest of children, at the earliest possible stage of schooling, offered both individuals and economies the greatest return. Enter: the role of preschool in economic development, from a western-centric perspective, theorised by American economists, and with an evidence base fully determined by American experiments. But many countries didn’t have home-grown models of pre-school – the idea that ‘formal’ education should extend to this early age was imported. Today more and more LMICs have designated policies for early childhood care and education (3). This in itself isn’t bad, it’s good – but the modus operandi has been to look at preschool in the global north and emulate, if not replicate (4). 

The result of this human capital approach to education, and its simultaneous relationship with projects of international development, is that there has been a perpetual colonialist slant to education constructs around the world. Bristol-based Professor of Education Leon Tikly articulates succinctly why this is a problem: he says, “This new role for education… serves to reinforce the new imperialism through further limiting the capacity of low-income countries to determine their own educational agendas.” But what we haven’t realised is that this has been happening all along – that the 150-year process of western nations establishing schools in other countries, or playing a hand in education policy in other countries, has set in stone certain typologies of pedagogy, and commodified certain skills, that have obvious historic links to our economies and our interests – a subtle manifestation of neo imperialism (5). 

A key example is the commodification of the English language as a medium of instruction in schools around the world where English is not the spoken first language. Historically, schools that taught in English were missionary schools, who were certainly connected with a kind of ‘development’, for though it was religious in nature, it came attached to western notions of knowing, being, and behaviour. This was built on in the second half of the 20th century post-war world, when through the operationalisation of international development for the purpose of promoting global capitalism, as conceived of by human capital theory, we have (accidentally or not) made English the passport to participation in the global economy, as well as the project of knowledge-making. But as Professor Boa de Sousa Santos noted in Cambridge’s launch of CERJ Volume 7 (6), “you cannot experience capitalism without colonialism.” And in addition, Dennis Brutus, South African activist and educator, noted that English was always an extension of the project of colonialism – a way for the British and Americans to ‘colonise the mind’ (7). Operating in English, therefore, seemed to pander to the construct of western hegemony. The result of this is that the framework of the English language, a historic language of colonialism, continues to circumscribe educational experiences and define the parameters of knowledge making from the outset of children’s engagement with learning in many international contexts. 

In India, for example, parents across large swathes of the country indicated that they wanted their children to attend English-medium schools, working extra to pay the price for their children to attend private preschools and grade schools that offered this, seeing it as a future advantage for their children and an indicator of what a ‘good education’ looks like (8). The expectation is that better, more highly qualified teachers – even at preschool level – are able to teach in English (9), and meanwhile, the conception is that local, state-run education services are poor quality, and that they do not prepare their students for intellectual or economic engagement. However, research has shown a significant difference (10) between how well children learn in their own language versus in English – and it’s not English-medium instruction that fares better. In fact, being forced to learn in English often significantly hampers how students perform. Imagine what this means for a child who is only four or five. Their entire educational journey is already set back, and willingly, by parents and school systems who mistakenly think they are advantaging those children because of our imperialist legacy of education, where not only our schools, but also our language of instruction, has remained the model de rigeur. This shows how English-medium instruction in schools serving pupils as young as pre-school age continues to be what Foucault might conceive of as a form of the technology of power, simultaneously achieving both authority and exclusion (11). 

Circling back to Mandela, he also said of education that “without education, your children can never really meet the challenges they face… so it is vital to educate children and explain that they should have a role in their country”. How then do we view the child who is from the age of 3 or 4 expected to read and write in English, a language they have no connection to? The child who is implicitly taught that this language is better than theirs, more powerful, more valuable? What dichotomisation of the mind will they experience, and how will their perceptions change of those who only speak their local language, their native tongue? There will be an inevitable, subtle, othering of those who do not have this ‘advantage’ (as English has been designated as such), but how can we begin to examine the inevitable, subtle othering that must occur inside for that child? What does this mean for Mandela’s idea that educated children will have a role in their country, if the children’s perceptions of ‘their country’ are coloured by latent imperialist modes of knowing? The resulting identity politics are dividing people up into new castes based on the ability to speak English well, on English fluency from childhood. 

What’s worse is that scholarship validates this, at the other end of the education pipeline. Academic papers published in English have far more citations in comparison to those published in any other language (12), and in some countries academics publish in English rather than the native language at the astounding rate of 40:1 (13). This is as if to say that the entire project of knowledge making is defined by the parameters of the English language. But to see this continued to be imposed on the youngest of the world’s learners means that yet another generation will be confined by this subjectivity, this neo imperialist approach to knowledge, and also defined by this internal schism of mind and identity. 

For most of you readers, you will be playing some role in the project of knowledge making. You will be a researcher, a Professor, a scholar of some kind. We need to ask ourselves what our role is in this, whether we are in the field of education or sociology or international development or anything else. What is our role in decolonising modes of knowing? As de Sousa Santos’ book The End of Cognitive Empire encourages us to ask reflexively, what is our role in being open to other forms of knowledge, other languages of writing which might not be our first language, where we might have to take a backseat and have things explained to us? Can we sit with that sacrifice? Can we explore the real cost of our positionality (14) as researchers on continuing to institutionalise forms of knowing that do not represent the full picture, by which we – as Edward Said said (15) – quietly normalise unseen power? 
For those who are not in scholarship, but who are in praxis: we must seek to champion the role of local experts (16), and local expertise, as a pathway to decolonise education for international development. Though the international development sector has been making important efforts (17) to decolonise itself, we have for too long been presumptuous – bringing in programs, installing mechanisms and leadership structures that prioritise outside people and outside ideas, without thinking hard enough about the need for localised experience and trust-building that should be playing a critical part in the work that is done. This continues to manifest in contested forms such as pay gaps (18) between international and local aid workers, and even at the highest levels of representation within the NGO sector (look here at the international leadership team of World Vision (19) – what do you notice?). Rather than thinking of going somewhere and building a bridge, we need to envision our work as actually building a bridge. As it has been said, “one hand cannot clap.” We do not have all the answers, and we do not have all the knowledge. Once we accept this ourselves, the patterns can start to shift – and we can hope that the next generation of little learners stand a chance to learn in their own language, to value their own knowledge, and to strike out in the world without the burden we have continued to place upon them right from the start.


 Flavio Cunha & James Heckman, ‘The Technology of Skill Formation’ (2007) 97 American Economic Review 2

 Michelle J. Neuman & Lynette Okeng’o, ‘Early childhood policies in low- and middle-income countries’ (2019) 39 Early Years

 Jane Murray, ‘Early childhood pedagogies: spaces for young children to flourish’ (2015) 185 Early Childhood Development and Care

 Leon Tikly, ‘Education and the New Imperialism’ (2004) 40 Comparative Education 173

 Cambridge Educational Research e-Journal,

Wolfgang Schäfer, ‘South African Literature Liberation and the Art of Writing’ (1986) Evangelische Akademie

 Uma Vennam et al, ‘Changing Schools in Andhra Pradesh: The Experiences of Children and their Caregivers’ (2014) Young Lives

 Michelle J. Neuman et al, ‘A Review of the Literature: Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Personnel in Low- and Middle-Income Countries’ (2015) 4 Early Childhood Care and Education Working Papers Series 37

10  P. Sree Kumar Nair, ‘Does Medium of Instruction Affect Learning Outcomes? – Evidence Using Young Lives Longitudinal Data of Andhra Pradesh, India’ (2015) 68 ESP Working Paper Series

11  Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016)

12  Mario S. Di Bitetti & Julián A. Ferreras, ‘Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications’ (2017) 46 Ambio 1

13  Adam Huttner-Koros, ‘The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language’ The Atlantic (21 August 2015) accessed 22 November 2020

14  Elizabeth Mackinlay, Critical Writing for Embodied Approaches: Autoethnography, Feminism and Decoloniality (Palgrave, 2019)

15  Edward W. Said, ‘The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals’ in The Public Intellectual (Blackwell, 2002)

16  Veronique Barbelet, ‘As local as possible, as international as necessary: Understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action’ (2018) HPG Working Paper

17  ODI Bites: decolonising international development (15 October 2020) <,XULW,695XUA,47KM3 ,1> accessed 22 November 2020

18 Tobias Denskus, ‘The salary gap between expat and local aid workers – it’s complicated’ The Guardian (19 April 2017) <> accessed 22 November 2020


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