Decolonising assessment within higher arts education

In my experience as a sessional lecturer at a number of London art colleges – and a student, having written a BA, MA and currently undertaking a practice-based PhD – I feel that the essay still tends to be the dominant assessment form. In fact, it is the form that in many cases may be preferred by students who often consider it the safer option that has been tried and tested more than, for example, recent ‘portfolio assessment’ alternatives. Writing an essay or thesis asks students to utilise academic writing – and thinking. Even when writing and thinking about their own artistic practice, students are expected to utilise a theoretical concept that ‘fits’ their personal approach.

Published on 9th November 2021 | Written by barbara mueller | Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The dominance of theoretical concepts in Western arts education might not only make it hard for students to find ‘a good “fit” between the theoretical and the practical’ (Morley, 2017) but it might also make such arts education exclusive for students from cultures with a different approach to knowledge production, for example, an analogical approach that thinks with images and metaphors like in some East Asian cultures (Morley, 2017).

Bell hooks’ (1994) Language makes this line from Adrienne Rich’s poem The Burning of Paper Instead of Children its recurring theme: ‘this is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you’. Similarly, academic writing and thinking can be classed as the ‘oppressor’s language’ which students need to utilise to validate their knowledge, make their ideas heard – and pass their assessments. If they don’t do this, their work and knowledge run danger of being considered irrelevant or unworthy. If they do, the very act of utilising the oppressor’s language will transform their work – and their original knowledge could get lost in translation.

Art schools who insist that only this form of thinking would show intellectual engagement exclude many of their students from participating in and contributing to knowledge exchange and research culture, and ultimately limit the creativity and diversity that emerges from their institutions. Hooks writes that, for example, in the United States standard English was a ‘mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear, the speech of the Gullah, Yiddish, and so many other unremembered tongues’ (hooks, 1994, 168). African-Americans that were brought to the US as slaves were robbed of their own language – often not able to communicate amongst each other without using the oppressor’s language (hooks, 1994, 169). Their language was ‘rendered meaningless with a colonizing European culture’ (hooks, 1994, 168), forcing them to learn standard English instead. She elaborates that it was ‘difficult not to hear (…) the slaughter and conquest’ in standard English and that ‘the very sound of English had to terrify’ African- American slaves (hooks, 1994, 169). She explains that this terror ‘resided (…) in the anguish of hearing a language they could not understand’ (hooks, 1994, 169).

If we apply this image in a wider sense to the Western idea of academic writing and thinking, students who are being forced to think through theoretical concepts – instead of, for example, analogies or images – may not only lose their way to think and produce artwork and knowledge but may beyond be terrified by the very sound of Western academicism and intellectualism with its –isms and -ologies, its referencing systems, but also its quasi-objective view, taking a perspective from nowhere – Donna Haraway calls this the ‘god trick’ (Haraway, 1997). A lot of the knowledge we generate in art and design education is practical knowledge that emerges from learning by doing (Schön, 1987) or experiential learning (Aubrey and Riley, 2019). Often such knowledge is tacit knowledge and cannot be externalised through explicit means such as text and if it can be it is more often than not personal and situated knowledge, taking a perspective from somewhere. So how can students express their deeply personal knowledge through someone else’s theoretical concepts, transporting it into the terrifying realms of academic writing and thinking for assessments?

If we return to hooks, she imagines ‘Africans first hearing English as “the oppressor’s language” and then re-hearing it as a potential site of resistance’ (hooks, 1994, 170). For her, performing and modifying the oppressor’s language through, for example, black vernacular speech empowers speakers to resist and create new perspectives: ’The power of this speech is not simply that it enables resistance to white supremacy, but that it also forges a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies – different ways of thinking and knowing that were crucial to creating a counter-hegemonic worldview’ (hooks, 1994, 171).

As a researcher hooks aims to decolonise research culture by integrating black vernacular in her writing, she explains how editors keep sending it back to her in standard English (hooks, 1994, 172). She acknowledges that translation may be needed to make her writing more inclusive for a bigger audience (hooks, 1994, 172). As an educator she aims to decolonise discourse by inviting her students to speak and write in their first language, so they do not estrange from their original way of speaking and knowing – additionally, she asks them to translate it to make it more inclusive for fellow classmates who do not speak their language (hooks, 1994, 172).

Similarly, one could decolonise creative assessments and intellectual engagement, letting students engage through their own way of knowledge production. For artists who commonly produce knowledge through practical making, a looser theory-and-practice-link as Simon Morley (2017) suggests in his essay In praise of vagueness: re-visioning the relationship between theory and practice in the teaching of Fine Art from a cross-cultural perspective might make knowledge production and intellectual engagement in art and design more inclusive. One could promote and introduce methods utilised by practice as research, a multi- method approach led by practice (Haseman, 2010) and encourage students to deploy primary instead of secondary research methods. For example, one could help decolonise assessments by encouraging students to work with images and metaphors, allowing them to carry these over from their creative practice (Hall and Ames, 1995). Although working with images and metaphors has been said to be a preferred way of intellectual engagement of East-Asian students it is important that all students are encouraged to do so, deploying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and preventing deficit models.

Beyond, it is important that all students can add to the ways in which they are assessed and co-define intellectual engagement. Educators should facilitate dialogue in their teaching through formats and activities like critical fora and discussions, letting students ‘articulate their practice from within’ encourages them to think analogically, not solely logically (Morley, 2017). Utilising Lave and Wenger’s (2019) Communities of Practice, this could be further supported through practice as research interest groups, in which students articulate their practices to their peers, helping them to situate and develop confidence in their own approaches to knowledge production. Further, I will suggest a model of how creative assessment formats and intellectual engagement could be decolonised through a dialogic model in the following sections.

Some useful strategies for decolonising learning and teaching can be found in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London’s Decolonising Learning and Teaching Toolkit. It suggests to teach controversies rather than an established way of thinking, give opportunity for student perspectives, contextualise topics in historical contexts, ask students what kind of contents they would like to be addressed, and re-organise materials (questioning if these are still appropriate) (Decolonising SOAS Learning and Teaching Toolkit for Programme and Module Convenors, 2018).

If we apply this to intellectual engagement in assessment contexts, only a dialogic assessment model can facilitate this such as Tracey Waller’s Meta Assessment (Meta Assessment Background, n.d.). Meta Assessment is the piloting and delivery of a dialogic assessment tutorial at Camberwell College of Arts ‘where the tutor(s) and student sit together to evaluate and grade the learner’s work’ (Meta Assessment Background, n.d.). It has been co-designed by staff and students and aimed to find new formats for assessments within applied tutorials and workshops. Students formerly felt that assessment was ‘being done to (them) rather than with (them)’, the new model allowed learners to conduct the assessment together with the educators (Meta Assessment Background, n.d.). On the basis of these dialogues, academics co-designed new assessment forms within a dialogic workshop that instructed participants as follows: 1 ‘On the post-it note write a question, observation or reflection from your own assessment experiences (or you can take a provocation from the wall)’ 2 ‘Explore answering this by designing an assessment model. Write your model up, draw a diagram and give it a name’ (Meta Assessment Background, n.d.).

Taking inspiration from and building upon Waller’s model, I would suggest to help decolonise assessment in a dialogic workshop with students instead of academics. Utilising the strategies from the SOAS toolkit, I would open my workshop by emphasising the controversies of creative assessment formats and intellectual engagement. I would provide some information on how these formats have developed, putting them into historical context before inviting students to share their perspectives on assessment and intellectual engagement and swap these with a fellow student participant to co-design new assessment models and definitions of intellectual engagement following Waller’s workshop idea.

I appreciate that it can be intimidating for educators and students to open a dialogue about colonialism as many educators and students from Western backgrounds feel they would not be able or entitled to add to it from their Western perspectives, do not feel comfortable speaking about it as they know too little about the wider problematic or fear they do not comprehend different perspectives enough. However, it is important to note that decolonising can be performed by opening a dialogue, pointing out the limitations of a model at hand, gathering perspectives on it together: ‘we do not necessarily need to hear and know what it stated in its entirety, that we do not need to “master” or conquer the narrative as a whole that we may know in fragments’ (hooks, 1994, 174). Hooks highlights that on the contrary such a dialogue can grant an ‘opportunity to listen without “mastery,” without owning or possessing speech through interpretation, but also the experience of hearing non-English words’ (hooks, 1994, 172)

I hope that I can stage this workshop with my students in the near future, co-designing assessments in which alternative forms of intellectual engagement can be practised and celebrated. Through this I aim to help decolonise assessment culture in which personal and situated knowing is still marginalised. Hooks emphasises that within our society ‘to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language’ (hooks, 1994, 175) and I extend the thought: universalist, theoretical concepts are always more important than practical, situated knowing. I hope that I can offer a small contribution to decolonising assessment by co-designing creative assessment formats and co-define intellectual engagement through a multitude of personal perspectives.

About the author

Barbara Mueller is an artist, researcher and lecturer at the Royal College of Art.


Aubrey, K. and Riley, A. (2019). David Kolb: Experiential Learning Theory. In: Understanding and Using Educational Theories. Sage, pp. 195-210.

SOAS (2018) Decolonising SOAS Learning and Teaching Toolkit for Programme and Module Convenors.

Hall, D. L. and Ames, R. T. (1995) Anticipating China: Thinking through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State University of New York.

Haraway, D. (1997). Modest-Witness@Second-Millennium.FemaleMan-Meets-OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Haseman, B. (2010). Rupture and Recognition: Identifying the Performative Research Paradigm. In: Bolt, B. (eds.) Practice as Research, Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, pp.147–158.

hooks, b. (1994). Language. In: hooks, b. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 167-176.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (2019). Socially situated learning and communities of practice. In: Aubrey, K. and Riley, A. (eds.) Understanding & Using Educational Theories. London: Sage, pp.211–226.

Meta Assessment Background. (n.d.). Accessed 14 Jun. 2021.

Morley, S. (2017). In praise of vagueness: re-visioning the relationship between theory and practice in the teaching of Fine Art from a cross-cultural perspective. Journal of Visual Art Practice, 16(2), pp. 87–103.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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