Values, Wokeness and Decolonising the Curriculum

Stephen RossDigital Technology Facilitator, Te Whai Toi Tangata, University of Waikato

I recently saw this link shared on the NZ Physics Teachers Facebook group. It was an article from the Daily Mail UK: “Universities ‘decolonising’ courses to mollify activists, Mail reveals”.

The original poster had added “I wonder if there are any plans afoot to decolonise our physics curriculum.” Pretty soon other comments appeared there:

“Did not realise that physics had anything to do with colonisation. Another example of minority and misguided elements trying to debunk knowledge basics.”

“Wokeness run amock [sic].”

“How do you decolonize wave particle duality? AC [Alternating Current] theory? Newton’s laws?”

Putting aside the nature of the Daily Mail for a moment (known for its sensationalist, unreliable, click-bait type articles) I was drawn to the way the article was shared and the comments it elicited. This got me thinking…


The link shared in the original post was published 9th of October 2022 and positions itself as a Daily Mail investigation. It reports on a requirement for first year students at Oxford University to take a collection of courses and workshops on “consent, race, LGBTQ+ and disability”. It also states that at Somerville, a college maintained by Oxford university, staff are expected to attend training on “unconscious bias/tackling race bias training.”

When I see notions of “consent, race, LGBTQ+ and disability” I think of inclusivity, diversity and responsibility. I’m also reminded of the fundamental aspects of being a global citizen, of social justice and restorative practices which hold the mana of all as paramount to building respectful relationships within all communities. In Aotearoa New Zealand, schools are expected to uphold values around these ideas. This is visible in the Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession and all teachers are expected to meet these. You see the same ideas in the NCEA Change Programme and, though the timelines for this have adapted in response to COVID-19 impacts, it’s set to be in place in secondary schools from 2024. Inclusivity is also explicit in Te Mātaiaho: A draft Te Tiriti-Honouring and Inclusive Curriculum Framework.

The Ministry of Education offers support for schools around these approaches under the PLD priority of cultural capability. Although I can’t speak to the Oxford University courses and staffing requirements I can certainly say with confidence that teachers in this country should already be aware of – and making efforts to be better at enacting – these ideas and the approaches that go with them.


The Daily Mail article includes commentary from various groups lamenting that these changes would “inhibit free speech and distort learning”; that yes, students should understand the laws of the land but “indoctrinating [students] with woke ideology is dangerous and irresponsible” and that this would all have “a chilling effect on free speech”. Interestingly, the article gives more voice to right wing detractors than the staff and students at the University.

Is this wokeness? What is being woke? In American culture, woke has a history of usage and meaning which is beyond the scope of this blog but is worth exploring if you have the time. Most recently the term has been used to call on black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious, self-aware and critical of racially motivated oppression and inequality. Woke has also been co-opted through social media to apply to any person of any colour who is informed, up to date, who might be taking action to address inequity, or who is concerned with issues of social justice. However, woke has also been used as an insult to label someone as too politically correct, too left-leaning, too flowery, fluffy or idealistic. Its meaning continues to shift. So are the changes at Oxford University about wokeness? Wokeness in which meaning? If you call someone woke as an insult, what does that say about your own values?

Decolonising the curriculum

In the article there are allusions to lecturers taking action to decolonise various courses but it doesn’t explain what decolonising a curriculum means. Concerns about decolonisation are evident in responses to the Facebook post and, as a Pākehā teacher, I can understand these. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some of this rhetoric persists. In my experience as a PLD facilitator, secondary schools are slow to take up the MOE’s PLD support around cultural capability.

Decolonisation could form a series of blogs, webinars and podcasts to last for years! By way of introduction I’ve created a table to say what decolonisation is NOT, but what it could look like in the Aotearoa New Zealand education context. It’s by no means a comprehensive guide and I encourage anyone interested in decolonisation to dialogue with tangata whenua and explore that notion in academic research, social media, news articles, online networks and professional groups.

Decolonization is NOT…Decolonisation could look like…
taking away established Western knowledge and skills from the curriculumincluding more te reo and tikanga in the classroom, assessment and everyday school life
replacing established Western knowledge and skills with indigenous knowledgerecognising and giving space to indigneous ways of knowing alongside Western ways of knowing, such as mātauranga Māori and science
returning to a pre-European arrival way of livingreflecting on power systems and identifying the dominant discourse
making more work for teachersraising your awareness of injustices suffered by Māori following the arrival of Europeans
letting minorities take overexploring the impacts of intergenerational trauma
devaluing established Western knowledge and skillshonouring Te Tiriti however you can
an attack on Western ways of knowing and beingexploring and applying kaupapa Māori approaches to learning and teaching
token inclusion of Māori culturereciprocal relationships with marae, iwi and hapū
not waiting for Māori to do all the hard work; Pākehā need to lead decolonisation approaches for other Pākehā

I don’t think most schools are rushing to decolonise physics just yet. Physics isn’t going to be debunked in a decolonised curriculum and as far as I can see no minority is mounting an attack on basic physics knowledge. Who can say whether wokeness is running amok here. What does woke mean to the person using that term? One thing is for certain – education in Aotearoa New Zealand is undergoing rapid change and, like any other sector in 2022, we all have to be prepared to rapidly grow and adapt.

This post was originally published on the blog of Te Whai Toi Tangata, University of Waikato and is republished by permission.

Stephen Ross is an accredited Digital Fluency facilitator for Te Whai Toi Tangata Institute of Professional Learning at the University of Waikato. He is exploring what the interface between Mātauranga Māori and science might look like in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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