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A Decolonial Approach to Internationalization of the Psychology Curriculum—Glenn Adams & Natasha Bharj (2019)

Overview

The instructors applied a decolonial approach to internationalization of the curriculum in an upper-level cultural psychology course designed to meet KU Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2 on diversity and intercultural awareness. The aim was to help students not only develop an appreciation for diverse cultural perspectives, but also (and more importantly) to better understand their own cultural positioning and knowledge formations.”

Background

Efforts to “internationalize” the curriculum (i.e., the heart of KU Core Goal 4.2) have been an ongoing concern in the field of psychology. Core Goal 4.2 aims for students “to be able to examine a variety of perspectives in the global community, distinguish their own cultural patterns, and respond flexibly to multiple worldviews.” Internationalization initiatives in psychology can take several forms and often have imperialist overtones: whether as an expansionist project to “give psychology away” and make converts of people outside the USA, or as an assimilationist project to incorporate work or voices from outside the USA into (USA-centric) mainstream psychological science. In contrast to these imperialist forms, many proponents of internationalization advocate decolonial versions of the project, which entail the study of non-USA settings as an epistemic framework from which to re-think conventional wisdom and apparently natural truths of hegemonic disciplinary forms ” content.

The primary expression of decolonial internationalization in the KU Department of Psychology is PSYC 545: Cultural Psychology, which I have taught regularly since Spring 2002. The purpose of the course is one that fits squarely with KU Core Goal 4 (both 4.1 and 4.2). The aim is for students not only to examine and develop appreciation for diverse cultural perspectives within and outside the USA but also (and thereby) to better understand the cultural positioning of their own experience and knowledge formations. However, the purpose of this appreciation for diversity or global awareness is not simply about mastery of content or better self-awareness. Instead, and reflecting the origin of the course in decolonial perspectives, the purpose is to promote global self-awareness as a foundation for critical thinking (KU Core Goal 1.1) and social responsibility/ethics (KU Core Goal 5).

Implementation

In its current design, PSYC 545: Cultural Psychology includes two components. One component is the standard body of knowledge associated with any course in cultural psychology. The mechanism for delivering this component is a well-regarded, mass-marketed textbook (Heine, 2015), which does an excellent job of organizing and presenting the broad, empirical base of cultural psychology. However, like most work that it reports, the textbook offers a relatively sanitized presentation of cultural psychology, and it does not articulate a decolonial perspective or emphasize the reflexive practices associated with KU Core Goal 4.2. gnette answers.

In order to scaffold a decolonial perspective, we rely on a second component of the course consisting of supplemental readings and supporting activities. In these materials, I explicitly introduce a formal, concrete framework for decolonial thinking in psychology. The primary mechanism for evaluating this decolonial component of the course is a set of open-ended, short-response items that students receive ahead of exams. We select one of these items as a homework assignment, which we have students peer evaluate in an in-class practice exercise. We select another item from the list for formal assessment of the learning goal, which students complete in closed-book exams at midterm and end of term.

Student Work

To assess the effectiveness of the course at promoting KU Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2, we analyzed two sets of data. The first set was student responses to exam items evaluating student learning of the decolonial component of the course. We assessed student learning of two decolonial strategies via exam items at midterm and the end of semester.

The second set of data that we analyzed to assess the effectiveness of the course at promoting KU Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2 was an optional end-of-term survey that assessed global identification and openness to diversity and challenge. Although the sample size was too small to afford firm conclusions, results suggested that high scores on the measures of KU Core Goal 4 (global identification and openness to diversity) were positively associated with community engagement (a measure relevant to KU Core Goal 5.1, Social Responsibility) but negatively associated with critical reflection (a measure relevant to KU Core Goal 1.1, Critical Thinking) and traditional indicators of course performance (e.g., exam items).

Reflections

With respect to the assessment of Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2 via exam items about decolonial strategies, results provide evidence of both success and enduring challenges. Half of the students demonstrated mastery of both decolonial strategies by the end of the term, but half did not. Students were more likely to demonstrate mastery of the “normalizing Other” strategy than they were the “denaturalizing self” strategy, which gives us some sense of where to focus our effort to improve student proficiency at these learning goals.

With respect to the assessment of Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2 via the end-of-term survey, results again raise interesting questions for further inquiry. The problem of small sample size constrains our ability to make strong conclusions, but results suggest little evidence that attitudinal indicators of KU Core Goals cohere around a unitary construct. Although attitudinal measures of global identification and openness to diversity were positively related to scores on an attitudinal measure of social responsibility, they were negatively related to a more performance-oriented indicator of critical reflection. This observation prompts us to re-think our assumption that teaching students to consider issues from diverse standpoints will lead them to develop both desired habits of thinking (e.g., critical consciousness) and desired habits of feeling.


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BACKGROUND

Since before the KU Core, there have been ongoing initiatives to internationalize the curriculum. Similar initiatives have become a priority of various organizations in the discipline of psychology, including the American Psychological Association (APA) and units within the APA. For example, I have been involved in internationalization initiatives of the APA Office of International Affairs and has served as chair of the Internationalization Committee of APA Division 9: The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

Internationalization initiatives can take several forms with conflicting goals. Within the discipline of psychological science, internationalization initiatives have often had imperialist overtones: whether as an expansionist project to “give psychology away” (the theme of the 2016 SPSSI meeting) and make converts of people outside the USA, or as an assimilationist project to incorporate work or voices from outside the USA into (USA-centric) mainstream psychological science. Both of these versions of internationalization have neocolonial implications related to the hegemonic imposition of particular knowledge regardless of historical or cultural context (in expansionist versions) or domestication of transgressive voices as mere “spice” or variety to make the master narrative of hegemonic psychology more palatable (in assimilationist versions).

In contrast to these imperialist forms, many proponents of internationalization advocate decolonial versions of the project. Resonating with the idea of theory (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2011) or epistemologies (Santos, 2014) “from the [Global] South,” these approaches to internationalization entail the study of non-USA settings as an epistemic framework from which to re-think conventional wisdom and apparently natural truths of hegemonic disciplinary forms. Decolonial internationalization is a pressing concern in psychology, which faces strong criticism for its status as WEIRD science: a supposedly universal framework for the study of human experience that rests almost exclusively on a knowledge base of investigations in settings that are Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and (supposedly) Democratic (Heinrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). The point of decolonial approaches to psychology is not simply to better understand people in non-USA settings, but instead to re-make disciplinary knowledge in ways that better reflect and serve the interests of global humanity.

The primary expression of decolonial internationalization in the KU Department of Psychology is PSYC 545: Cultural Psychology. I proposed this course when I first arrived at KU, and I have taught it regularly since Spring 2002. The purpose of the course is one that fits squarely with KU Core Goal 4 (both 4.1 and 4.2). The aim is not only for students to examine and develop appreciation for diverse cultural perspectives within and outside the USA, but also (and thereby) to better understand the cultural positioning of their own experience and knowledge formations. However, the purpose of this appreciation for diversity or global awareness is not simply about mastery of content or better self-awareness. Instead, and reflecting the origin of the course in decolonial perspectives, the purpose is to promote global self-awareness as a foundation for critical thinking (KU Core Goal 1.1) and social responsibility/ethics (KU Core Goal 5). In recognition of this purpose, PSYC 545 is currently one of four upper-level undergraduate courses that students can take to fulfill the diversity, equity, and ethical behavior requirement for the psychology major. Course enrollment in recent years has ranged from 20 to 35 students per semester.


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IMPLEMENTATION

In its current design, PSYC 545: Cultural Psychology includes two components. One component is the standard body of knowledge associated with any course in cultural psychology. The mechanism for delivering this component is a well-regarded, mass-marketed textbook (Heine, 2015). The primary mechanism for assessment of student learning for this component of the course is a series of multiple choice exam items that we have adapted from the textbook publisher’s test bank.

The textbook does an excellent job of organizing and presenting the broad, empirical base of cultural psychology. However, like most work that it reports, the textbook offers a relatively sanitized presentation of cultural psychology, and it does not articulate a decolonial perspective or emphasize the reflexive practices associated with the KU Core Goal 4.2. In order to scaffold a decolonial perspective, we rely on a second component of the course consisting of supplemental readings and supporting activities. Many of the supplemental reading selections are chapters or articles that my collaborators and I have authored.

In these supplemental materials, I explicitly introduce a formal, concrete framework for decolonial thinking in psychology. The framework consists of two decolonial strategies:

  1. Normalizing the “Other” patterns that hegemonic knowledge perspectives portray as abnormal deviations from healthy, standard ways of being.
  2. Denaturalizing the (usually WEIRD) “standard” ways of being that hegemonic knowledge perspectives portray as just-natural features of the human organism.

During a class session, we introduce these strategies, discuss them, and provide an illustration.

The primary mechanism for evaluating this decolonial component of the course is an open-ended, short-response item on each of the two course exams (one at midterm, one near the end of the semester). Students receive a list of six to eight items several weeks before each exam, some of which assess student learning of a decolonial approach to cultural psychology. More specifically, the relevant items require students to apply the decolonizing strategies that we noted above to respond to an account of cultural difference that pathologizes non-WEIRD, “Other” ways of being. We select a relevant item from this list to appear on the exam. We instruct students to use any means at their disposal—including collaboration with other students—to prepare answers to the item in the weeks before the exam. During the actual performance of the exam, students must produce responses to the items without any external supports or written notes.

To scaffold student learning of and performance on these items, we created an assignment that closely parallels the critical exam items. In the week preceding the first exam, we instruct students to prepare an answer to the following question:

“Chinese preschools suffer from lack of funding that is evident in excessively high student-teacher ratios and primitive facilities that require collective visits to use toilet facilities. This puts Chinese kids at risk for stunted psychological growth and emotional maladjustment.”

—Apply decolonizing strategies of a cultural psychology analysis (Adams, Kurtis, Salter, & Anderson, 2012) to respond to the experts.

We direct students to exchange their answer with another student. The students evaluate each other’s work and then discuss their mutual evaluations. During the lesson, we discuss our “approved solution” to the assignment.


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STUDENT WORK

To assess the effectiveness of the course at promoting KU Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2, we analyzed two sets of data. The first set was student responses to exam items evaluating student learning of the decolonial component of the course. A second set of data was an optional end-of-term survey that assessed global identification and openness to diversity and challenge.

Exam items

Natasha Bharj had primary responsibility for grading exams. In the Spring 2018 course, we assessed mastery of the decolonial strategies in the midterm exam with the following item:

A panel of child development experts at an American university makes the following observations in response to footage from the “Preschool in Three Cultures” video.

Japanese preschool teachers show an aloofness and lack of attention that puts students at risk of harm from accidents or other students. They should supervise activities more closely and intervene more quickly to prevent escalation of conflict.

—Apply decolonizing strategies of a cultural psychology analysis (Adams, Kurtis, Salter, & Anderson, 2012) to respond to the experts.

We assessed mastery of the decolonial strategies on the end-term exam using the following item:

People from a variety of marginalized racial minority groups tend to claim a more prominent role for racism in current events than do White Americans. Mainstream discourse tends to portray these claims of racism as a form of exaggeration or even a strategy of “playing the race card.” Apply decolonial strategies of a cultural psychology analysis to respond to this characterization.

We evaluated performance on the items via the following rubric:

  • Students got 2 points for defining the normalizing strategy: Students should accurately define the strategy (explaining how a practice reflects reasonable and optimal ways of being in that specific context) and discuss its implications for the project of decolonizing psychology.
  • Students got 3 points for applying the normalizing strategy: In the midterm exam, students should explain how leaving the children to resolve conflicts and explore on their own tells us something about culture and social goods in Japanese culture, rather than being a bad or abnormal pattern of behavior (as the American experts claim it is). In the end-of-term exam, students should explain how conditions of everyday life for people in racially marginalized communities provides them with insight about the reality of racism.
  • Students got 2 points for defining the denaturalizing strategy: Students should accurately define the strategy – “turning the lens” to show how (White) American ways of being are constructions of culture and not “just natural” – and discuss its implications for the project of decolonizing psychology.
  • Students got 3 points for applying the denaturalizing strategy: In the midterm exam, students should explain how the assumption that children require intrusive supervision tells us something about American culture and social goods, rather than being a natural standard against which to derogate Japanese culture. In the end-term exam, students should explain how White American denial of racism is not a straightforward reflection of objective reality but instead reflects cultural patterns that afford ignorance about the reality of racism in US society.

In scoring this item for purposes of course (versus student) assessment, Natasha looked for evidence that students understood the two decolonial strategies. We classified responses into one of three categories.

  1. Low comprehension: Students fail to demonstrate understanding of either decolonial strategy. An example of a low-comprehension response is available here.
  2. Moderate comprehension: Students successfully demonstrate understanding of one decolonial strategy, but not the other. Responses in this category generally revealed understanding of the normalizing strategy – for example, explaining actions of the Japanese school teachers or perceptions of racism among people of African descent in non-pathologizing, context-sensitive ways. Responses in this category generally failed to convey understanding of the denaturalizing strategy. That is, they failed to critically examine the cultural-ecological bases that underlie comments of the US education experts or denial of racism among White Americans. An example of a moderate-comprehension response is available here.
  3. High comprehension: Students successfully demonstrate understanding of both decolonial strategies. here.

The distribution of categories for each exam appears in Table 1 below.

Total number of students taking the exam varies because 10 students who took Exam 1 were satisfied with their exam score and decided to skip the second exam. (We take the top score out of two exams and delete the other.) Two students did not take Exam 1 but did take Exam 2. Results indicate a strong trend of improvement over the course of the semester. Assuming that many of the students who did not take Exam 2 scored in Category 3 in Exam 1, this suggests that roughly half of the students in the course (16/30) achieved a Category 3 score: a quarter of students (8/30) in Exam 1, and another quarter of students (8/30) in Exam 2. The remaining half of students demonstrated no higher than Category 2 understanding at either exam, with one quarter of students never progressing beyond Category 1 understanding, even at Exam 2.

End of term survey

At the end of the semester, we administered a survey to evaluate some of the dimensions relevant to KU Core Goals. The survey included items related to KU Core Goal 4, Global Awareness and Appreciation (Global Identification, Openness to Diversity & Challenge), as well as KU Core Goal 5 (Social Responsibility) and KU Core Goal 1, Critical Thinking (Critical Reflection). A copy of the survey is available here.

A total of 16 students completed the survey. Although we describe patterns that we observed in this sample, we caution readers that our sample size is far too small to allow meaningful inferences about larger patterns.

One question of interest was the extent to which indicators of different learning goals (including course grade) formed a single construct that one might call “undergraduate education.” Data bearing on this question appears in the Table 2. Results in the form of positive correlations indicate some compatibility between Social Responsibility (Community Engagement), Global Awareness, and Appreciation for Diversity. However, relationships between these learning goals were negatively related to our measure of critical thinking (Critical Reflection). The observation that progress toward some learning goals was unrelated, or even negatively related, to progress toward other learning goals is consistent with assessments that we have conducted in larger courses (e.g., Jessop & Adams, 2016). This pattern raises questions about the coherence of the different learning goals into a unified construct.

A second question of interest was how our measures of progress toward learning goals were related to measures of course performance. Data bearing on this question appears in the Table 3. Results suggest that endorsement of community engagement items, a measure of social responsibility, was negatively related to performance on either exam. Results also suggest that scores on global identification and openness to diversity were negatively related to performance, but only for items related to decolonial strategies on Exam 2 (in yellow highlight).

How is one to understand the change in relationship between indicators of Core Goal 4 and course performance from Exam 1 (neutral or positive) to Exam 2 (negative)? Rather than changes in the psychological tendencies of students, the more likely interpretation is that students who made more progress toward Course Goal 4 (either as a result of engagement with the course or as a pre-existing individual difference) did better on Exam 1, were more pleased with their performance, and therefore exercised their option to skip Exam 2. If that is so, then observed relationships involving Exam 2 are biased in that they do not include the strong performing students with high scores on both Exam 1 and measures of Core Goal 4.

Evidence for this interpretation comes from a comparison of mean scores of (a) the 12 students who took both exams and (b) the four students who took only Exam 1 (Table 4). Scores on indicators of Global Identification, Openness to Diversity & Challenge, and Critical Reflection (but not Community Engagement) were higher for students who took only Exam 1 than for students who also took Exam 2.


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Reflections

Professor Glenn Adams

Glenn Adams

Professor Natasha Bharj

Natasha Bharj

With respect to the assessment of Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2 via exam items about decolonial strategies, results provide evidence of both success and enduring challenges. One quarter of the students in the course demonstrated mastery of both decolonial strategies at the time of the first exam, whether because of previous experience or because they learned quickly. Another quarter of the students who did not demonstrate mastery of the decolonial strategies at midterm did demonstrate mastery of the strategies by the end of the term, suggesting that something in the meantime—likely participation in the course—changed their understanding. We count this as a success.

At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the 25% of students who demonstrated no mastery of these strategies by the end of term or the 25% of students who demonstrated mastery of only one strategy. This is a reminder to us of enduring challenges. Concerning the latter group, closer analysis of data from the exam item assessment suggests that students were more likely to demonstrate mastery of the “normalizing Other” strategy than they were the “denaturalizing self” strategy. This gives us some sense of where to focus our effort to improve student proficiency at these learning goals.

With respect to the assessment of Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2 via the end-of-term survey, results again raise interesting questions for further inquiry. The problem of small sample size constrains our ability to make strong conclusions about relationships between different indicators. In addition, the attrition of participants means that our assessment of relationships with performance on Exam 2 are biased toward less well-performing students. Bearing in mind these caveats, results suggest little evidence that attitudinal measures of global identification and openness to diversity, which we used as indicators of progress toward KU Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2, were associated with performance on open-ended exam items that we designed as a more performance-oriented indicator of progress toward these KU Core Goals. Moreover, although the attitudinal measures of global identification and openness to diversity were positively related to scores on an attitudinal measure of social responsibility, they were negatively related to a more performance-oriented indicator of critical reflection.

These patterns resemble results that we have observed in other work (Jessop & Adams, 2016), and they have led us to reflect critically on our attempts to operationalize KU Core Goals 4.1 and 4.2. In particular, they lead us to re-think our assumption that teaching students to consider issues from diverse standpoints will lead them to develop both desired habits of thinking (e.g., critical consciousness) and desired habits of feeling. What if these outcomes are separable and unrelated (or even antagonistic)? Is it our mandate to change students’ attitudes and values regarding global awareness and diversity, or should we limit our efforts to changing their habits of thinking, with hope against evidence that changes to habits of feeling will follow?

Our current investigation cannot provide answers to these questions. For one thing, we note again that the small sample size renders observed relationships highly unstable. It is very likely that another investigation with a larger sample size would find significantly different patterns of relationship. Beyond that, there are other reasons to argue against over-interpretation. For example, we measured goals only at the end of term. This means that we lack data on trajectory, so we do not know if people who scored high on measures of the goals started from an elevated baseline (consistent with a self-selection effect) or increased over the course of the semester (consistent with a “treatment” effect).

Despite these shortcomings and remaining questions, the exercise has prompted us to reflect more carefully on our attempts to assess Goals 4.1 and 4.2. We hope that they have prompted readers to do the same.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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