Decolonizing Educational Research: Lead the Change Interview with Corinne Brion

In this month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview Corinne Brion shares reflections on her experiences as researcher and teacher in efforts to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination in education and education research. Brion is an Assistant Professor at the University of Dayton. The overall framework for her research is cultural proficiency to foster equity, diversity, and inclusion and create socially just educational systems. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website,

Lead the Change (LtC): The 2023 AERA theme is “Interrogating Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth” and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Corrine Brion (CB): The specific responsibility of educational change scholars is to decolonize research. This means being more culturally proficient in our collective approaches to the work, and focusing on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), belonging, and social justice.

Thinking broadly about my experience and work on cultural proficiency and DEI, I think one important move would be to shift our attention towards more critical frameworks and participatory research methods and orientations. My research agenda is largely guided by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2030). The SDGs aim to eradicate poverty. As part of this effort, there are numerous targeted goals towards enhancing education, gender equity, and attending to the environment and climate change.

I am currently designing a community based participatory action research project in Ghana where teen pregnancy and HIV and tuberculosis infections are on the rise. This action research project will seek to understand the lived experiences of girls and women in the New Ningo Prampram community. Local participants will be at the center of every phase of the research–from the design to the implementation–because they are the experts in their context, know what is culturally appropriate, as well as how to build community buy-in. In this project, specific topics, data collection and analytical methods, and approaches to dissemination will be determined by the girls and women involved. In the past, we have engaged similar approaches that focused on the vocational goals of girls, documented and shared stories through audiovisual recordings, and used talking circles and collective art as means to collaboratively analyze shared experiences. This new work will inform how we can uplift the voices of the local girls and women in a systematic and sustainable manner. This project is the first phase of a larger undertaking that aims to provide access to formal education for these girls and women so that they can help themselves economically and live long and healthy lives. Together, we will learn to act and act to learn.

In the United States context, I have also partnered with a middle school in my state that has worked over the past three years to increase the number of teachers of color employed there. This has been a tremendous success. When the project began, the school had only one BIPOC teacher in the school, and now, three years later, 96% of their faculty identify as BIPOC. The teacher turnover that facilitated these new hires was due to teachers needing to relocate, teachers going back to school, and retirements. As the school grew, there was also a need for additional teachers and these spots were filled largely by teachers of color who have thus remained at the school.

“To be truly equity-focused, we must have…policies and structures that are aligned with an anti-racist and liberatory agenda.”

I was excited when the leader of the middle school asked me to come, think through, and support a study to understand whether and to what degree this demographic shift had impacted the school culture, elements of teachers’ daily work, and/or student learning and well-being. As I approached this work, I knew I wanted to include the voices of all stakeholders. Teachers and school administrators were involved in the research design and were keen to hear students’ thoughts. To do so, we used a PhotoVoice approach in which I asked students to take pictures of things and people that were helping them succeed and made them feel good. Afterwards, I interviewed each student one-on-one to discuss their pictures. Students stated that teachers’ dispositions were most important in helping the students feel part of the school community and succeed academically. Such dispositions included: being approachable, funny, kind, caring, giving advice and feedback, and showing genuine interest in the student’s success academically, socially, and emotionally. Students, and particularly those who identified as people of color, also mentioned that having BIPOC teachers was helpful when it came to understanding and appreciating students’ cultural backgrounds and ways of knowing.

The call for this work came from the school, so I worked with them, and they with me, and I’ve learned a great deal through this study. In particular, I was reminded that diversity and inclusion are separate concepts. It is not enough to simply hire a more racially diverse staff, to be truly equity-focused, we must have a system in place that includes professional learning regarding bias and discrimination and policies and structures that are aligned with an anti-racist and liberatory agenda. Only then will all people, and particularly those from minoritized identities, feel welcomed, included, and empowered in our schools.

Moving forward, I think my role as a scholar and mentor to doctoral students is to support them in pursuing more equity-oriented approaches such as community-based participatory action research.  I also would like to pursue inquiry around gender equity in Africa, in particular.

LtC: In your work, you advocate for recognizing and embedding cultural identity in both adult and student learning to ensure learning transfer and inclusive communities. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

CB: Given my history as an international student and now, scholar, my experiences as a second language learner, and someone who spent six years in five different African nations, I have always been fascinated by the multiple cultures in which I have engaged. Culture is everywhere; it is pervasive. Moreover, each of us belongs to multiple cultures including, but not limited to, those that exist at the societal, organizational, and familial levels.

When I teach students, I often offer the metaphor of culture being like an iceberg. Above the water, we might see about 30% of this iceberg. Similarly, “above the water,” at the surface level, I observe particular traits and things about others and are observed of me. For example, people who see me see that I am a white woman. They can maybe guess my age, my level of education; they can hear an accent when I speak. All of these elements conjure particular assignments and assumptions regarding my identity and the culture or cultures to which I belong.

However, what they don’t see is the 70% of my identity and cultural affiliations that, back to my iceberg metaphor, would be underwater. They don’t see my talents, my learning style, or the traumas I have experienced. As such, a casual observation misses much of who I am and what cultural affiliations and understandings I bring along with me. The goal of such a conversation in my course is to help my students to understand that as leaders and teachers, we need to take the time to know our students, colleagues, staff etc., so that we can best understand them and thus serve them and their needs effectively.

“We need to take the time to know our students, colleagues, staff etc., so that we can best understand them and thus serve them and their needs effectively.”

Indeed, unless a teacher understands their students and their cultural orientation, it will be tremendously difficult, and probably frustrating, to effectively engage with these young people. Even more importantly, this lack of understanding could be extremely harmful for students. For example, think about students coming from the Republic of Congo as refugees in one of our U.S. based schools. They arrive in a new country, do not speak the language, and have spent years in refugee camps where they lacked food and education. Prior to living in a refugee camp, they witnessed and experienced atrocities such as wars and/or loved ones killed. How can a teacher teach such students effectively without understanding their experiences and cultural background (for instance the way they communicate or not, the way they mourn etc.)? 

I am really interested in how school leaders support refugee and immigrant students. For example, do they offer culturally proficient, professional learning and provide social-emotional learning opportunities for adults and their students? How do they provide such resources and how do they lead during crises? It is important to not just understand the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, but the multiple crises schools and educators frequently face such as chemical spills, natural disasters, shootings, school shootings, generational poverty, etc. (Brion, 2022; 2021).

I am also constantly examining the phenomenon of learning transfer for adult learners because schools and school systems spend millions of dollars on professional learning, but less than 10% of that investment gets implemented or transferred. To help with this process, I’ve developed a multidimensional model of learning transfer (MMLT) where culture is at the center of the model (Brion, 2022a; 2022b; 2021a; 2021b). The MMLT has the potential to help practitioners across fields and disciplines organize, deliver, and follow-up on professional learning to enhance the transfer of learning. Understanding learning transfer in professional learning is key because organizations worldwide spend large amounts of money and resources on developing their employees and should see better return on that investment.

LtC: In your recent work you investigate the important role of national cultures in the professional learning of school leaders in West Africa. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners across the globe approach professional learning in new ways that more closely align teaching and learning? 

CB: One important consideration in doing work in an international context is the role of national cultures. Ghana was British colonized, Burkina Faso was French colonized, so obviously understanding the stories of these histories and their ongoing impact before working in these contexts is very important. It is also important to be open to new understandings and learnings when working in contexts that are not your own. When I was in Burkina Faso, for example, I came to find out that there is an opening ceremony or celebration before a training. Unaware of this ritual, when I first arrived, I came to the opening session dressed in casual business attire. All of a sudden, the media arrived, and the participants arrived in their beautiful favorite clothes, and probably best attire, and it was a whole party. Only then did I realize that I had taken for granted that things would be done the same way there as at home. This taught me that it’s very important to take time to understand the context in which you are working and to ask lots of questions about how things are done as well as to be open to reorienting oneself as things evolve. Once I knew these celebrations were a regular part of the training process, I always put a couple of extra hours on the schedule to create space to celebrate and connect.

“Cultural humility is a key element to a decolonizing approach.”

When working in a different culture than our own, it is crucial to learn as much as possible about the culture beforehand and continue the learning, seeking feedback, reflecting process. It is important to observe, be flexible, and pivot quickly to match and uplift local customs and ways of working. It is also key to acknowledge mistakes and apologize when perpetrating a cultural faux pas. Cultural humility is a key element to a decolonizing approach.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

CB: Learning to have authentic, courageous conversations about our different experiences and beliefs is an essential component of supporting transformation in schools and the field. These conversations need to be expansive covering topics from race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, language, socioeconomic status, age, abilities, and other cultural characteristics. Courageous conversations support transformation work as they move us towards an asset rather than deficit mindset. They should be oriented towards moving participants to see the talents and cultural richness of someone rather than labeling them different, unable, or limited. As an example, a courageous conversation would be one in which problematic terminology such as English Language Learner can be challenged. This label can be demeaning and foster inequities rather than calling to this community of learners as multicultural learners signaling their rich linguistic capital and their capacity to speak one or more other languages. Similarly, a courageous conversation would be one in which we would challenge the label of “students with disabilities.” I see these different abilities as strengths and talents that should be uplifted rather than “fixed.” Imagine, for example, what a student who is experiencing blindness (notice I did not say a blind student) has to go through daily to keep up with their learning. They have to learn reading in Braille, to be creative when finding resources to help them with writing and completing assignments more generally. As such, these students show tremendous navigational capital (Yosso, 2005) and our conversations need to reflect these realities. I think change is about learning how to have those conversation, and it’s a process. Change is about seeking feedback and continuously learning about culture and having a culturally proficient mindset. It’s about self-awareness, as well as being aware of the culture of others. Change is about being able to pivot and evaluate and pivot again. It’s about knowing when to push someone that’s ready for more information, content etc. and knowing when to hold someone back who needs more time to reflect, think, and/or digest. Ultimately, however, it’s about making our systems more just.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

CB: I think, because of COVID, we are in a process of learning new ways of doing. This includes finding new ways to collaborate across the world. My students can Zoom with students in Ghana and talk about leadership and how culture affects leadership styles across contexts in ways that were far more limited previously, for example. I would love to build on these new opportunities for connection and do more co-teaching and learning from educators around the world, not just see them for a short period at conference time once or twice a year.

The possibility and necessity of better preparing global leaders is also exciting to me. To do that, we need preparation programs that prepare leaders with a global mindset. We need social solidarity because when we have social solidarity, we accrue social dividends, which are the benefits we all gain when people come together across races and other identity markers to accomplish what we simply cannot achieve alone (McGhee, 2021). As a result, we need multicultural coalitions as these partnerships increase our individual and collective cultural proficiency, which in turn improves our capacity to think critically, our ability to solve problems, and fosters more civic engagement (Brion, 2022; McGhee, 2021).

We can achieve such outcomes by globalizing our curriculum, seeking readings and guest speakers from around the world, and organizing short-term study abroad trips that are part of relevant courses. We can also use simulations in class as well as figure out new ways of connecting to ensure all students have access to the global community.

Finally, an asset lens will allow each of us individually and as a collective to play a part in progressively dismantling inequities and creating more inclusive and equitable communities. There is no doubt that creating socially just environments is an audacious endeavor. However, staying silent is perpetuating inequities and injustices. I look forward to continuing my cultural proficiency journey. I hope to meet you along the way and learn with you.

References: 

Brion, C. (2022a). Whose poverty is it? An autoethnography. Dialogues in Social Justice, 1(7), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554589221104999

Brion, C. (2022b). Culture: The link to learning transfer. Adult Learning, 33(3), 132-137. https://doi.org/10.1177/10451595211007926

Brion, C. (2021a). The use of culturally proficient professional development to enhance learning transfer. Journal of School Leadership. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10526846211018205 

Brion, C. (2021b). Leading in times of Crisis. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership (JCEL). 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555458921992386

McGhee, H. (2021). The sum of us: What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together. One World.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race ethnicity and education8(1), 69-91.

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