Appropriation of Marginalized Knowledge and Practice as Innovation
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As exposure to diverse cultures and traditions increases through globalization, cultural appropriation has become a commonplace in nearly every aspect and sector of society including religion, fashion, language, food, art, sport, and even science (Morgan 2003). Much of this appropriation is then repackaged and marketed in the West as “innovative” without acknowledging its historical origins or intentions. This entry reviews some of the ways in which marginalized forms of knowledge and practice are appropriated by Western educators and then touted as innovations in pedagogy and research. Delinking appropriated traditions from their cultural roots is understood as a form of colonialism that upholds the power of Western culture to claim legitimacy and universality while perpetuating the marginalization of knowledge systems associated with non-Western cultures (indigenous, Asian, Latinx, African, and Oceanic, among others). In this way, innovation in the form of appropriation reproduces social, cultural, and epistemic inequity and contributes to the erasure of cultural knowledge held by many marginalized communities.
Despite the widespread phenomenon of cultural appropriation characterized as educational innovation, the inclusion of non-Western cultural knowledge and practice in mainstream Western education is not, in itself, contested by most. In many cases, it is actually encouraged through calls for culturally sustaining pedagogy, holistic education, and other related concepts. The use of these pedagogies/traditions as consumable goods in an increasingly marketized education sector is what becomes problematic. The neoliberal penchant to own, massify, and monetize that is characteristic of Western modernism has led to this trend, where pedagogical strategies that have existed for millennia in other cultures are now deemed innovative (i.e., new but also necessarily marketable or capable of developing marketable skills in students) upon introduction to mainstream Western schools. Indeed, dominant discourse tends to suggest that innovation in education is only valuable to the extent that it can lead to economic or political gains. Thus, the appropriation of non-Western practice as “innovative” pedagogy also reproduces neoliberal ideologies of modern Western capitalism and its associated sociopolitical power structures. This entry describes several prevalent examples of this phenomenon, such as contemplative and mindfulness education, project-based learning, and curriculum integration.
Contemplative and Mindfulness Education
There is a burgeoning movement in many Western countries to adopt contemplative and mindfulness practices in mainstream educational spaces (Gunnlaugson et al. 2014). Under the broad umbrella of contemplative and mindfulness education, there are myriad pedagogical practices, including meditation, deep listening, qigong, yoga, and visualization, among others. Many of these are rooted in various Asian religious/spiritual traditions. From meditation as a conflict resolution tool in elementary classrooms to the entire graduate degree programs for contemplative education, examples of this movement can now be found across all levels, types, and fields of education in the West, in urban districts, and in rural areas, even the Ivy League.
In many cases, the introduction of these practices is described as innovative, without proper acknowledgment of their sources. Certainly, introducing yoga in a Western intermediate classroom may stand in contrast to the existing norms of the school, but yoga is an ancient Hindu practice and has been used pedagogically in India for centuries. Similarly, variations on meditation and mindfulness are the foundation upon which entire dharmic religious traditions have developed and have long been used in a wide range of educational contexts across Asia. Yet, mindfulness meditation programs (often called mindfulness-based interventions, or MBI) are touted among Western educators as pedagogical innovation.
To be sure, the convention of separating religion and government in the West leads to a great deal of discomfort around discussing anything related to religion in the context of education. Moreover, growing religious conservatism among the Christian majority (particularly in the USA but also in other Western countries) makes it difficult to utilize practices from non-Christian religions in schools without ardent backlash from Christian parents, teachers, students, and community members. Instead, tenets and practical strategies based on contemplative and mindfulness education practices are uncoupled from their spiritual/religious origins in order to make them more palatable to the general population. Doing so forgoes an opportunity to discuss the value of intercultural knowledge exchange or a pluralistic approach to learning.
Furthermore, in Western discourse around contemplative and mindfulness education, its value is supported by research demonstrating its impact on students’ ability to focus in the classroom and to increase various learning outcome indicators. In other words, mindfulness practices are only seen as beneficial insofar as they help students “behave” and more efficiently absorb “real” knowledge – things they need to do in order to successfully and positively contribute to the economy as adults. Historically, however, practices like meditation and yoga were (and still are) used for building internal wisdoms like understanding one’s true self, recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings, and expanding one’s capacity for compassion. In that way, not only are the origins of mindfulness ignored and co-opted, its intentions are also obscured and exploited to support a neoliberal economic and sociopolitical agenda.
Another frequently discussed “innovative” pedagogical strategy is project-based learning (PBL). The basic idea of PBL is that teachers facilitate opportunities for students to pursue their own curiosities (related to the intended subject matter) through projects rooted in contextually relevant, real-world issues and experiences. Numerous other terms within the lexicon of Western educators describe a similar objective, including context-based learning, crossover learning, or even play-based learning (mostly used in reference to early childhood education, although not exclusively).
In an era of increased standardized testing and decreased time for recess – as we find ourselves in today – calls to get students out of their chairs, working collaboratively, and attempting to solve real-world problems through their own inspired inquiry may seem like a new and creative idea to use in the classroom. However, this type of applied learning is how most cultures around the world have historically taught their children, and, for many, this is still a common practice. Various tribes in Africa, for example, have documented their traditional use of play- and context-based learning strategies to teach children about topics ranging from animal herding to weather patterns to philosophy. Similar accounts hail from Native American groups, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
In the course of history, what we now understand as “formal” learning (i.e., in a school building, sitting at desks, receiving information from a teacher) is a relatively new phenomenon, heavily linked with Western European colonialism and Christian evangelism (Anderson 1970). Representing a similarly colonial mindset, current enthusiasm for PBL in the West explicitly promotes its potential to prepare students to excel in the workforce of the twenty-first-century global economy. Much of this discourse is tied to the growing obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as the supposed answer to all of our problems and the neglect of non-STEM fields like arts, humanities, and social sciences. In other words, STEM subjects are “increasingly recognized as a key driver of opportunity” in the modern economy, and PBL is endorsed as valuable precisely because it is an effective way to develop STEM skills (U.S. Department of Education 2016, p. i).
While applied learning could potentially be used for and understood as a rejection of an overly rigid Western style of education and a return to ways of learning that are traditional for most cultural groups, dominant discourse around PBL, instead, reproduces neoliberal priorities like economic growth and opportunity. Seen and applied differently, renewed interest in PBL could perhaps be aligned with concepts like culture-based learning or de-/anti-colonial education movements, where historical uses of PBL-like pedagogies are more readily acknowledged. Yet, current PBL efforts in the West are not oriented as such.
A related, yet distinct, “innovation” many schools and organizations are pursuing is curriculum integration – that is, threading together previously separate disciplines in order to enhance learning of a particular theme or concept. Terms like multi-, inter-, and intradisciplinary learning are also used to describe this goal. Like PBL, this idea often represents a return to educational approaches that existed long before the establishment of the siloed disciplines of formal Western education.
At primary and secondary levels, curriculum integration may mean teachers from different subjects collaborating to present unified units to their students. In some cases, it also means integrating culture-based practices such as canoe voyaging or land stewardship into science, math, or any other mainstream subjects. In higher education, curriculum integration can mean the development of cross-disciplinary programs, courses, events, or research projects, among other things. It also manifests as support for thesis and dissertation projects that integrate diverse research and representation methods. Examples of these include rap, hip hop, spoken word, dance, dramatic performance, and/or production of a cultural artifact as part or all of a final dissertation where a standard format written dissertation would typically be expected.
All of the examples listed above have been heralded as innovative, when in reality they are strongly rooted in a long history of culturally specific (non-Western) pedagogy. Canoe voyaging is uniquely Polynesian. Hip hop is uniquely African American. Various forms of dance, performance, and land stewardship are unique to the indigenous cultures they stem from. Integration of these cultural pedagogies and research methods into mainstream education is certainly a positive shift away from the overwhelming dominance of Western norms and expectations in education, but they are hardly innovative.
Moreover, as with mindfulness education and PBL, dominant rationale for pursuing curriculum integration perpetuates neoliberal logics of economic competition and development, where curriculum integration is promoted as one strategy in the larger goal of getting ahead in the global knowledge-based economy (OECD 2013). As such, the appropriation of non-Western interdisciplinary pedagogies as innovation (understood as both new and economically advantageous) is, again, a distortion of history and a manipulation of non-Western cultures for pursuit of neoliberal goals.
Appropriation and Innovation: Neoliberal Realities and Epistemic Alternatives
Appropriation of non-dominant knowledge systems and cultural practices as and for innovation sits at the intersection of epistemicide and neoliberalism. At once, it both perpetuates the sociocultural marginalization of non-Western epistemologies, through ignoring their existence and value, and reproduces neoliberal ideologies by co-opting non-Western traditions for economic and political purposes. In that way, culturally appropriating pedagogies is harmful (even if well intentioned) in that it uses marginalized groups’ traditions to reap benefits in the modern economy without appropriately recognizing their sources and histories – something that educational ethics policies and honor codes warn against. In many cases, the ideas and practices being appropriated have been protected and perpetuated by long genealogies of cultural practitioners. More often than not, they have also endured zealous assimilation/conversion tactics by Western colonialists and Christian missionaries who labeled them backward and evil. As such, adopting an ancient cultural practice in a modern, Western classroom, labeling it innovative and exploiting it for economic or sociopolitical gain, maintains the colonial system that has long denied the realities and experiences of the communities associated with those practices.
However, a growing body of research demonstrates the value of using many of these non-Western practices (those described in this entry and others) pedagogically in Western education contexts – for all students, not just those whose cultural backgrounds match the practices/pedagogies in question. Increased achievement (diversely defined), stronger social-emotional well-being, decreased stress levels, improved motivation and sense of belonging, and reduced absenteeism are just some of the benefits that have been noted of late. Thus, the goal for many educators has become to incorporate non-Western practices as pedagogy without engaging in appropriation. Strategies for attempting this vary, and the extent to which they successfully avoid appropriation is up to the respective cultural groups to determine for themselves. Example approaches include hiring cultural practitioners and community leaders as teachers, faculty, and staff and involving them in curriculum, training, and/or program development; implementing regular evaluation and improvement protocols that include assessment from cultural community group members; establishing community partnerships whereby formal class instruction is complimented by time spent learning in cultural community contexts; incorporating a critical review (from the perspective of the appropriate cultural groups) of the history of the practice and the people who have perpetuated it over time; and facilitating self-reflection programs whereby students, teachers, faculty, staff, and/or administrators examine their own cultures, histories, and genealogies as they relate to the practice or content being used.
The reality is, however, that education of all types and levels is becoming increasingly privatized around the world (often in the name of development and modernity), placing increasing pressure on educators and administrators to “be innovative” in order to prove their worth in a market system. Indeed, many educational initiatives intended to promote innovation are often coupled with efforts at “entrepreneurship” and “commercialization” – two terms that are commonly found alongside “innovation” in institutionalized endeavors. While there is certainly the potential to be innovative in the realm of education – for instance, through the use of new technologies or the application of creative solutions to problems that did not previously exist – suggesting that others’ ideas and traditions used in a Western classroom are innovations in teaching is a misnomer that dilutes the meaning and significance of innovation as a concept. Moreover, while there is surely some value in being innovative, elevating it to be the ultimate desirable standard is unnecessary in the field of education – a point that becomes more clear when considering alternative perspectives.
Many non-Western cultures (e.g., indigenous, Asian, and others) place high importance on the recognition of ancestral knowledge and working in concert with ancestors, community members, and the natural world to advance the collective good. An individual’s work, then, is not seen as a product of theirs alone but as only possible because of the work of myriad others who have come before them. Likewise, success and value are measured by the extent to which that work benefits the community; individual achievements are not separated from community needs/achievements. In this way, discovering something new, claiming ownership over an idea, or attempting to be the first, best, or only anything is not necessarily considered a priority. From many non-Western worldviews, the obsession with being innovative that we see so strongly in Western culture today can be interpreted as furthering an attitude of exceptionalism that fails to recognize the interconnectedness of all people, their ideas, and their environments. Similarly, emphasizing innovation as a goal in the field of education, specifically, represents a de-valuing of the work that teachers are doing (i.e., “you’re not doing enough, figure out how to be better”) and the pedagogical practices that have been refined over the previous generations. A non-Western worldview would ask educators, in the face of decreased student achievement or any other challenges, to examine the larger context of the problem (acknowledging that all things are related) and to seek out the wisdom of elders (not just by age, but by experience) who understand how to approach the issues holistically. Rather than responding immediately with their own innovative solution, one should first attempt to learn about how others have previously handled comparable issues and then move forward in the present shaped by the wisdom of generations past. Central to many non-Western cultures is the notion that you are not alone in your work and your accomplishments are not meant for you to claim or benefit from exclusively and that even when being creative in your pedagogy, you understand that others have also done this long before you and, in doing so, have shaped you, your context, and your work. The idea that we can create new ideas and pedagogies to then package, promote, and sell (either for money or prestige) exemplifies a Western/neoliberal ideology that contrasts with and is a danger to many marginalized communities and their knowledge systems.
Several pedagogical strategies that have been deemed innovative by Western educators in recent years are actually ancient traditions that have been used pedagogically by various non-Western cultures for centuries. There are many examples of this, but the ones described in this entry include contemplative and mindfulness education, project-based learning, and curriculum integration. Appropriation of this sort represents a form of colonialism whereby modern Western culture claims ownership over ideas and practices developed by others, maintaining the marginalization and invisibility of many non-Western cultures and communities. Moreover, the manipulation of these cultural practices into tools for advancement in a market system exploits marginalized epistemologies to reproduce neoliberal power structures.
Indeed, on an individual level, well-meaning educators can easily engage in this type of appropriation without malicious intent. Factors that contribute to this include (1) social and institutional pressure for teachers to “be innovative” (as if their hard work is not enough and as if their students’ struggles are not rooted in causes teachers have no control over), (2) a socialized neoliberal tendency to “create” and “own” ideas that can be marketed, rather than thinking of all teaching and knowledge creation as supported by previous generations of teachers and thinkers, and (3) discomfort with the topic of religion generally and with minority religions specifically, since many of the non-Western pedagogies being appropriated are linked to ancient religious and spiritual practices.
Of course, innovation is real and an important part of progressing as a society. However, examining this phenomenon (the burgeoning popularity of innovation in educational contexts) through any number of non-Western worldviews shows us that sometimes what we call innovation is simply the adoption of other cultural pedagogies and practices used to compete in a neoliberal market system. This misuse threatens the legitimacy of the concept of innovation at its core and goes against much of what we understand about educator ethics.
- Anderson, J. (1970). The struggle for the school: The interaction of the missionary, colonial government and nationalist enterprise in the development of formal education in Kenya. London: Longman.Google Scholar
- Gunnlaugson, O., Sarath, E. W., Scott, C., & Bai, H. (Eds.). (2014). Contemplative learning and inquiry across disciplines. New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
- OECD Directorate for Education and Skills. (2013). Innovative learning environments: Curricular integration of key competences project. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/esp.systemnote.pdf
- U.S. Department of Education. (2016). STEM 2026: A vision for innovation in STEM education. Retrieved from https://innovation.ed.gov/files/2016/09/AIR-STEM2026_Report_2016.pdf