International or postcolonial?

 Kyle Kopsick considers that we need to think hard about our global values and examine what we teach and how we teach it using the challenging perspective of postcolonialism. What? Read on!

The current state of international education

Internationally accredited curricula programs have a significant presence in 21st Century global education. Two of the best-known programs that reflect this presence are the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Cambridge International Examination (CIE). As of 2016, the IB has graduated nearly 1.5 million students from 136 countries, and nearly 1 million CIE learners from over 160 countries are annually certified (IB Graduates & CIE Who We Are).

Both the IB and CIE are growing. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of IB programs offered has grown by 39.3% (IB Facts & Figures). CIE recently reported that they have become “the world’s largest provider of international education programs and qualifications for 5 to 19 year olds” (CIE Facts & Figures). Furthermore, the International School Consultancy (ISC) Research team stated in 2016 that “the number of students studying at international schools in their home countries continues to increase. This means that more families are selecting a fee-paying international school in preference to the local national school” (ISC News).

While the IB and CIE vary in their histories and missions, they share three characteristics that should give pause for thought:

  1. Their geographic spread within the North/South Divide*
  2. Their Western-centric curricula
  3. Their non-local and Northern teaching force

Using postcolonial theory to critically examine these characteristics and their implications can be an instructive tool for international educators.
Postcolonial theory examines the effects of colonialism in historic and contemporary times. Its most important principle asserts that unequal power dynamics remain between former colonizers and the colonized, ultimately resulting in systemic marginalization of the latter. Two seminal postcolonial theorists are Paulo Freire and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. The former is well known for exploring the oppressive and liberatory aspects of education, while the latter is recognized for blending postcolonial and feminist theory. Applying a postcolonial lens to international education raises significant questions regarding potential coloniality in the classroom and in larger educational structures.

 The Geographic spread  of International education within the North/South Divide

International education programs are typically headquartered in the Global North, but are consistently operating in the Global South. For example, the IB, founded and headquartered in Switzerland, now has its programs in 157 countries, a majority of which are located in the Global South (The IB by country). CIE, founded and headquartered in Britain, has a considerable presence in former British colonies in both Asia and Africa (Find a CIE School).

A geographic spread that heavily leans from the North to South creates a dynamic in which Northern education organizations are certifying students in the South. This gives significant educational capital to certain Northern international organizations while simultaneously making it more difficult for alternative, potentially Southern, programs to gain international recognition. Questions to consider:

  • Why do Northern programs have the power to decide what makes students in the South ready to advance to the next level of education?
  • Why are there no prominent Southern programs that greatly influence the academic future of students in the North?

The IB and CIE use curricula that are commonly Western-centric in their broader outlook and prescribed content. In a 2010 position paper published by former general director of the IB, George Walker concedes the Western-centric position and perspective of an IB education, while also suggesting the situation is unlikely to change due to IB success and popularity. However, Walker does recommend that, “the learner profile be reviewed regularly and used as a focus for internal debate on this issue.”

Examining the prescribed content of literature syllabi also shows a Western-centric leaning, particularly with regard to CIE. While the IB Diploma Program emphasises the study of literature “in context” and requires the study of at least one text in translation, the prescribed literature curricula of CIE overwhelmingly feature men from the North (IB Lang/Lit Guide & CIE Literature Syllabi).

The Western-centric position of curricula in their broader outlook and prescribed content encourages the idea that Western and Northern knowledge is the most valuable. This has the potential to leave students thinking that there are little or no positions or literature from the South that are worthy of study. Questions to consider:

  • What other values are implied when schools, regardless of their context, embrace Western-centric ideals?
  • Why are students, regardless of where they are studying, required to read an overwhelming number of texts by men from the North?
 Non-local and Northern teaching force

As international education organizations from the North grow in presence and prestige throughout the South, so too does the teaching force from the North. In order to teach the dominant Western-centric curricula, educators who are most familiar with the content are deemed reliable and experienced, and thus are more likely to be hired in international schools.

A teaching force that is equipped to teach Western-centric curricula creates a situation in which international schools employ parts of a teaching force that are potentially unfamiliar with the histories, cultures, and politics of the given country. This can result in a locally removed teaching force that may, unknowingly, propagate Western-centric ideas, while simultaneously devaluing more local approaches to education. Questions to consider:

  • What is lost when a community has a teaching force that is predominantly from the outside?
  • Are foreign educators from the South as employable in the North as their Northern counterparts are in the South?
Recognizing the problem

The issues raised here are not wholly unrecognized by the IB or CIE. Both programs are aware of their international prestige and responsibility to provide education for the current globalizing world. The IB has promoted their philosophy of “international-mindedness” to aspire for intercultural understanding and global engagement, while CIE offers a Global Perspectives program to help students “engage positively with the rapidly changing world” (What is an IB Education & CIE Global Perspectives).

Even while the IB and CIE recognize shortcomings related to international education, nowhere in their philosophies is there language dealing with international power dynamics, privilege, marginalization, justice, or broader coloniality. This is postcolonial language that, if present, would help face the larger colonial issues in the current scene of international education. Ignoring these implications is irresponsible and further perpetuates North/South imbalances. Although these dynamics are rooted in complex colonial histories, internationally accredited curricula programs can use postcolonial theory to shape their positions and policies.

This would encourage international education to focus its power on challenging and shifting unjust North/South imbalances.


Kyle Kopsick graduated with a M.Ed. from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in 2015. He currently teaches History in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at Colegio Alberto Einstein in Quito, Ecuador. His research interests focus on applying critical and postcolonial theory to educational contexts.



*This article uses the terms Global North and Global South to name the relationship between former colonizers and former colonized countries. Postcolonialism accepts that the Global North has a history of carrying out colonization, while the Global South has a history of experiencing colonization. Western-centrism is inextricably linked to the Global North, ultimately linking the West and the North.


Images: Pixabay

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