Decolonizing Knowing: Transcending Linearity and Hyper-Productivity as a Restorative Community-Building Practice

Categories: Contemporary Issues, Other, Research, Research Design, Research Roles, Theory


MethodSpace readers will recognize Dr. Sharon Ravitch, who served as a Mentor in Residence in March 2020 and has contributed significant posts, including ones on Flux Pedagogy. This post, with co-researcher Kaley L. Ciluffo, is the first of a three-part series.

Part One: (Un)taking Wisdom 

“It is important to reclaim for humanity the ground that has been taken from it by various arbitrarily narrow formulations of the demands of rationality.” Amartya Sen

We write together as humans. Not as professor and student, though as you read this, your mind will likely take you to that hierarchy given your—and our—socialization into the de/valuation of people and relationships based upon their stature in the human hierarchy we uphold as a society. 

We write together to humanize thought and heart partnership in research, and in learning more broadly, to show how when hearts and minds come together in educational spaces that create the conditions for the healing cultivation of personal and collective agency, decolonizing transformations can happen within individuals and in diffusion effect. 

We begin with a reflective vignette, written by Kaley, that illuminates both the frames and the contents of this inquiry on decolonizing knowledge and meaning-making systems. As you read this, imagine deconstructing how you know the world, yourself, and yourself in the world.

I remember when I first ‘remembered.’ I assumed that the ways that flashbacks from posttraumatic stress colonized my memory and told me who I was represented all of me, a singular and powerful paradigm of knowledge. As I moved through the University system, I received similar messages, explicitly and implicitly, every day about who could embody “knowing” through the dissemination of learned, institutionalized knowledge. I had many unsuspecting applied life experiences, but even as a White woman with the privilege to hide my intersectional identities, I received messages that “knowing” was not something I had the power to do fully. When I first spoke of these lived experiences in my graduate M.S.Ed thesis, I carefully followed a blasé and traditional knowledge framework. For a moment, I viewed this as progress. As I continued to work through drafts, this form of academic writing—institutional knowing—colonized my story and paradigms of knowledge felt deeply inauthentic to the weight and power of it. 

The rules for “knowing,” that we continually navigate and intake in academia, act as frameworks for both our oppression and liberation. To truly leverage the political, social, and economic power for collective change in educational institutions, we must decolonize how we intake students’ (and teachers’) wisdoms because our lived realities and stories are at the heart of institutional and community transformation.  

As a White graduate student at an Ivy League, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to transcend the linearity of knowing while also decolonizing it. When it’s understood how our identities and knowledge are colonized, we understand our agency, power, and strength differently. As a researcher, I hope to create malleable community and storytelling frameworks for healing from complex trauma, both for myself and others. I seek to do this even as I know that the colonization of the mind creates products from our wisdom and stories. Products that, as parts of capitalism, serve, fuel, and cultivate larger power structures to the detriment of our collective liberation. 

When we break with convention, we open up possibilities for authenticity—our own, others’, and in our relationships. This is the inquiry, this is the hope.

The Evolution of Wisdom

In the United States, knowledge represents the highest form of epistemic good, but the very act of obtaining knowledge fuels a larger productive machine. As we propose that a decolonized wisdom is the hope for human emancipation, we realize that the very act of proposing this is inherently colonized. How can we shift out of this epistemic trap? We offer a tripartite approach of love + soul + liberation = wisdom.

Under the guise of capitalism and other hidden structures of oppression, wisdom can no longer function as knowledge for liberation. Distributing wisdom, resultantly, must accompany a predetermined set of qualifications and privileges—such as education, race, and class. Historically, privileged identities are used by colonizers to sufficiently contribute to the machine of American productivity. To decolonize ourselves, and each other, we must decolonize the institutions that shape us and limit our relationships. Decolonization, like most aspects of change, does not happen overnight. What solutions does this leave us with today? We are in a moment when the decolonization process is happening in real-time—shaped and being shaped by decades of consistent and intentional activism, and there are steps we can take to expedite this process. 

Children as Wisdomkeepers

At one time or another, nearly all Americans attend an institution of education, and American education has long been in crisis. At the heart of education and in our carceralesque schools sits generations of children, with immense and extraordinary capacities. We squander these capacities ruthlessly and pretend to care a lot about American children, but society defaults to the amount of life lived as a measure of knowledge (in a White Western definition of what constitutes knowledge). And this is true; moving through life does provide invaluable wisdom that Americans should value more than we do. For humanity to truly evolve from colonization, however, we must challenge ourselves to become comfortable growing though and intaking wisdom nonlinearly. We do this by reaching toward both our elders and our youth to expand ourselves. 

By and large, we ignore children because we do not view them as qualified or productive individuals. Children are dependent, we believe, but in many ways, they are not. Children are quite independent and arguably more liberated than adults because they have not, as completely, moved through and been socialized by the institutions that oppress them. As adults, we do not like to admit that we are viscerally frightened of children’s limitless capacities that far surpass our own. Frightened of what children might reveal to us about ourselves, about how we are entangled into systems that we can no longer see, we colonize them to fit them into a comfortably constructed paradigm of adulthood. We swiftly indoctrinate children into ‘productive’ citizens prepared to contribute to the American machine. 

Part of decolonizing knowing is not only revisiting our inner child but shifting power dynamics to value the ways that children receive and understand their world to enhance our own. This requires that we profoundly break with convention, that we notice the invisible agreements (Ruiz, 1997) to which we adhere (and to which we turn over our power) without even realizing it. These agreements are, in essence, the ways we have allowed in the colonization via those who raised and educated us—one socially constructed expectation to meet after another (Ravitch, 2020).

Unlearning Our Education

Robinson (2006) explains how education systems actively educate humanity out of our innate curiosities and wisdoms. He proposes, “…we are educating people out of their creative capacities…We don’t grow into creativity; we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” Creative education is nonlinear, but it also leaves room for interpretation and uncertainty, and productivity culture hates uncertainty. To eliminate uncertainty, institutions of education tell children that they cannot get things wrong because errors are not productive—not in a factory assembly line, not in profit margins, not in American life. Consequently, we educate pieces of children, privileging the identities deemed most productive based on social, racial, and cultural norms (White men). Often, we push these identities toward a productive and, eventually, high-paying productivity-focused education (Alegria, 2015). And we marginalize and neglect those who do not fit into the tiny square holes of these proscriptive norms and identities.

Human development encompasses liberated wisdoms and embodies creativity. Traditionally, academic psychologists view wisdom and creativity as distinctly separate. When we begin to decolonize our minds, we see that wisdom and creativity enhance each other. In a time where we are in a radical state of flux and collective mental wellness reckoning, our colonized wisdoms can no longer save us (Ravitch, 2020). In fact, they ensnare us relentlessly. 

This pandemic moment is unlike any we have lived through before. To begin to grow and emerge a decolonized version of ourselves, we must look to and learn from those whose knowing has not traditionally had value. We begin to do this by shifting our conceptualizations of what it means to intake wisdoms within institutions and invite people as their authentic selves to the table. Whose stories are we hearing? Further, in what colonized ways do we intake their wisdoms? How are all of us set up to be inauthentic and how have we all co-signed onto this through our early and ongoing agreements?

Though productivity intentionally urges us to move forward as a form of development, liberated growth is complex. It is learning to embrace the forward, backward, and sideways forms of wisdom nontraditionally and sometimes with discomfort, even pain. At this moment, the question of where do we go from here does not mean emerging back into an old “normal.” This territory looks different, and it should because this moment has torn down everything we thought we knew as permanent. It has illuminated that justice is not just; Democracy is not permanent, and our world is fragile—very fragile. Leaning into healing, that is authentic to us, from these realizations is a brave and necessary act of decolonizing. And liberation. 

Posttraumatic Growth

Emerging into this new space is the possibility to offer ourselves a chance to rebuild differently. Seminal scholars Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun (2004) define posttraumatic growth as “a positive psychological change experienced as a result of struggle with highly challenging life circumstances” (p. 1). When our wisdoms and forms of knowing are narrowed, colonized, our healing looks linear too. Toxic positivity culture tells us that our healing must push us toward an effective form of ok (Chiu, 2020). It is why we have rushed back into our offices post-pandemic and ultimately why the engine of American productivity will once again fire on all cylinders. Not because we want it to, but because it must. Pain is just that, painful. To truly grow and decolonize ourselves, we must consider what it looks like to lean into pain not to be productive, not to make products from it, but to be with it as it is in the moment—to not rush as we grow into knowing, into wisdom. Our experiences, on the continuum of emotions, are our wisdoms. We do not always need immediate solutions that tie up all loose ends to appease productivity culture, and we do not always need to lean on institutions to provide solutions. 

As an example, Kaley’s master’s thesis no longer follows traditional forms of academic convention, and that knowing represents a privilege. As she chooses to disrupt and know differently—to break convention and own all pieces, however uncomfortable, of lived experiences—she is growing into a decolonized wisdom and paving the ways for others (e.g., creating the space for this new possible approach by modeling it). We are both growing into decolonized wisdoms, and it takes intention and community. Some days, this growth is not linear. Other days, our colonized minds tells us that we need to package our experiences into a neat productive narrative with a storybook ending that looks a particular way. This was socialized into us as children. 

As children, we feel everything. We see and hear the world and ourselves without judgment, as it’s presented to us with curiosity, awe, and trust. That is also our decolonized knowing. Knowing represents a quest of getting back to those ways we disrupted and resisted as children before we were institutionally, socially, and culturally colonized. This is our true power; it is a way we begin to (un)take the wisdom around us. Let’s go there together.


Alegria, S. N., & Branch, E. H. (2015). “Causes and Consequences of Inequality in the STEM: Diversity and its Discontents.” International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology7(3), 321-342.

Chiu, A. (2020). Time to Ditch ‘Toxic Positivity,’ Experts Say: ‘It’s Okay Not to be Okay.’ The Washington Post.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence.” Psychological Inquiry15(1), 1-1

Ravitch, S. M. (2020). Flux Leadership: Leading for justice and peace in and beyond COVID-19Perspectives on Urban Education. 18(1) 77-100. 

Ruiz, M. The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen.

Coming soon on MethodSpace:

  • PART 2: Disrupting the mythology of linearity/productivity culture
  • PART 3: Restorativity and Community Building

Relevant MethodSpace Posts:


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