Do we need a more diverse curriculum?
Updated: Jun 21
“…the notion that we should all forsake attachment to race and/or cultural identity and be “just humans” within the framework of white supremacy, has usually meant that subordinate groups must surrender their identities, beliefs, values, and assimilate by adopting the values and beliefs of privileged-class whites, rather than promoting racial harmony [.]This thinking has created a fierce cultural protectionism.”
bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism.
The short answer to this question is yes, of course we do. We need to continuously adapt and develop what we teach at every stage of education, so that the learners, and their histories, are reflected in their learning experience.
However, the true answer is much more nuanced and complex. The real question should be…whydo we need a more diverse curriculum?
As bell hooks quite rightly asserts in the opening sentiment of this article, surrendering one’s identity, beliefs, and values can ensure assimilation to societal norms/ expectations. However, this assimilation can come with the emotional levy of constant judgment against the barometer of (white) privilege. On 25thMay 2020, Central Park- New York became a microcosm of this reality. Two NY residents both decided to take their daily lockdown exercise and enjoy the natural beauty of their surroundings. Both residents share the same surname (no apparent relation to each other) and were well educated, affluent representations of western progression. What happened next was the antithesis of racial harmony, with its seeds sown in colonial history.
There is no need for me to recount the tale of Amy Cooper vs Christian Cooper- we have all seen the video and pursuant online and real-life fall out of the incident and others like it. What is less discussed is, will incidents like this ever be a thing of the past? Will the Shaun King endorsed and ‘Karens Gone Wild’ online justice movements expose so many of these colonialist thinkers and supremacists that the less brave will be driven underground? Is that what we want? Is their covert behaviour actually far more harmful? In the words of Pierce (1974) “...one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative mini assault is the substance of today's racism...”. Will the hashtags for lost lives, BLM marches and Justice for [insert the name of the recently murdered black victim] make the difference we need? Will the justice system ever stop acting like the biggest ‘gang’ in the land and let our people live? One cannot watch Ava Duvernay’s ‘13th’or listen to Cadet’s ‘Gang Gang’ without reflecting on the deep sense of injustice experienced by [usually] black people, which they have to live with on a daily basis.
Despite this doom and gloom, we must celebrate and embrace the discussions society is now willing to have. Movements like #BLM and Rhodes Must Fall have enjoyed a new wave of interest and engagement…and rightly so. It was invigorating to see so many people of different races and generations coming together this summer to protest over the brutal murder of George Floyd and challenging the status quo when it comes to police brutality, race relations and white supremacy. Young people in particular, across the world, want to see change in not just this area, but in how we -as a society- handle climate change, animal welfare and consumption, education and much more. This is the energy we need to preserve. This is the energy we need to celebrate. This is the energy we need to foster in all of us.
As with so many previous political shifts, the energy of this ‘younger’ generation has been vital. From protests and civil action against wars, apartheid and civil rights, to the emergence of the internet as the ‘space’ for political discourse…young people are willing and able to make things happen to change society. J.B. Priestley hoped as much when he wrote the post WW2 play ‘An Inspector Calls’ which many GCSE students now study across England. It is the younger generation who continuously challenge the status quo and question their ‘elders’, who, in an almost cyclical fashion, claim to know what’s ‘best for them’ and dismiss their egalitarian views.
What we as educators, parents and students must do now is refuse to dismiss the changes young people hope to see in their futures. Let us not deride them with talks of a ‘magic money tree’ whilst paying the furlough wages of huge multi-million pound corporations. Let us not promote the benefits of high protein diets whilst ignoring the real life cost to both animals and the planet. Let us seek to be the change they hope to see.
As an educator, I accept this responsibility and challenge myself to go into spaces I do not feel comfortable, to have conversations I do not want to have and to do things I have never done before. One of those things is challenging the gate keepers of education to do better. To refute the factory system approach and instead insist on pulling out the best in each child, with whatever means we have in our own settings. I challenge myself and other educators to consider which theories we are teaching, which histories, which ‘truths’. One of the most exciting things I have done in recent years was to create and deliver an enrichment programme for high ability students, focusing on aspects aligned to colonialism- using their core GCSE subjects as the vehicle. The students found it both engaging and liberating to start connecting the lyrics in Dave’s ‘Black’ to Empire and their own personal histories. Poetry taught this way engaged them far more than the pale/ male/ stale curriculum Gove has decided is the best English GCSE diet for current and future generations.
Instead of Black History Month, should we not consider teaching all histories, all of the time? Personally, I have abandoned the concept of Black History Month in recent months and decided it is best to challenge students all year round with diverse ways of thinking and seeing the world. I am lucky that I work in a progressive English department that has selected some engaging and diverse authors, but this is not always the norm. I am also lucky that I had a diverse upbringing and education, where critical thinking discussions at home were my bread and butter. To this day, my father and I will still go on walks and discuss the Big Questions or FaceTime to discuss the news. My mother will still despair about her intrepid daughter whilst inquiring as to what I am currently reading.
How can we make these discussions the norm? What could the education system do on a macro and micro level to foster a more diverse approach to learning? What could parents be doing? What could students be doing…and most importantly…what could society be doing? In my opinion, we need to start by dealing with unconscious bias and prejudice. In education, this means we need to include unconscious bias training in annual staff training, just like we do with safeguarding, mental health awareness and health and safety. We need to create spaces and opportunities for staff to discuss social prejudices and injustices in order to build and strengthen community cohesion. The consequence of ignoring unconscious bias and prejudice (particularly racial) has a serious impact on countless students and staff. Years after leaving ‘the system’ we read students’ accounts of regular microaggressions and prejudice they faced, some of which changed the course of their educational journey. From being encouraged to opt out of Ebacc subjects to being forced to sit lower tier papers, many students leave the education system scarred and underqualified for the world outside their school walls. The same is true for staff. When it comes to representation in Senior Leadership roles, career progression and even accessing training (CPD), countless studies by the Runnymede Trust and teacher unions have highlighted significant disparities, inequalities and barriers to progression for those from BAME backgrounds (Haque and Ellit, Runnymede Trust, 2017). I myself have had countless training opportunities denied to me, with farfetched and often ridiculous excuses given. Luckily, I have been able to carve my own path and seek out my own training through my connections, hence my constant mantra to new teachers to ‘network and connect’. Addressing these inequalities needs to start from the top. Headteachers are the gatekeepers and it is down to them to ask if their school will be part of the change, or if they will continue to entrench the deep seated inequalities that continue to erode the system.
Next, comes the curriculum. Schools need to start with an unashamed and thorough baseline analysis of where they are as a school and encourage as much student voice in this review as possible. Opportunities/ gaps in the curriculum should be identified and utilised to refresh learning and engage students. The temptation to focus on ‘just’ colonial history should be avoided. All nations and peoples had an identity before, during and after any colonial struggle/ occupation. Positive and enriching aspects of world culture, history and contributions to society should be considered. Imagine how exciting it would be for a student to be able to connect their history, culture and beliefs through the study of English, Maths, Humanities, the Arts etc. This is not a pipe dream, but a real possibility. Consider Shakespeare’s reference to beauty in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where Romeo first sets eyes on Juliet and refers to her dazzling loveliness as akin to a “a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear”. This often skimmed over line could form the basis of historical discovery where a class starts to look at migration, trade, art, religion, precious stones and their values in 16th century Africa, monetary conversion rates and so on. I am sure this take on studying Shakespeare would encourage students to consider the multitude of historically significant ideas buried in the bard’s writing.
Schools should consider working with or creating an advisory group with real power to implement changes identified by the curriculum review. This should not be a makeshift group of ‘can-do’ volunteers, but rather- a strategic and representative mixture of stakeholders (teachers, students, governors, parents, members of the community) who will be able to enact real change in their departments and areas of responsibility.We should equip students with the skills needed to live and flourish in an ever-changing world by ensuring that we include them in our plans when redrafting the curriculum. Working with other schools or across a borough could create real change in the community and ensure that as students move from one key stage to another, they continue to receive a rich and diverse education.
Outside of schools, there are so many wonderful organisations championing and working towards empowering students, parents and staff in the move for an anti-racist and more diverse education system. From YBTN, BAMEed, Aspiring Heads and Mindful Equity, to BLAM UK, Black History Walks, The Black Nursery Manager, Eastside/ Westside/Southside and many more; there really is no excuse! The more diverse voices our students hear, the better. By enriching their education with voices from across the spectrum, they will grow up believing that their voice matters too. They will start to connect the ideas, concepts and histories that mean they understand how we are all connected, beyond colonialism. As the world moves to embrace and reflect diversity, we see stories like that of Kamala Harris, whose family history and background are both a testament to and the essence of our journey through coloniality. These are the concepts we need to teach. We need students who leave the education system understanding more than just Eurocentric ideology. They need to be able to wear the lens of both modernism and critical race theory, regardless of their race. They need to be able to discuss both Judith Butler and bell hooks. They need to have confidence when discussing left or right wing politics and their impact on social change. They need to be able to understand why refugees are making perilous journeys to cross borders, as well as the socio-political background to these stories.
As a 21stcentury learner, students (and their parents) need to take ownership of the wealth of information available to them and use it help foster their sense of well-being, positive self -identity, self-esteem and resilience. Both schools and parents should provide opportunities for students to flourish as well-rounded global citizens, from curriculum change to mindful enrichment. Dealing with everyday racism should be taught, not ignored. Students should be equipped to deal with the biases they will encounter and face in the world, so that they are ready to deal with rejection when applying for jobs and so forth. They need to be taught how to be financially literate and make the most of the opportunities the world affords them. Students that are resilient and confident will go out into the world with purpose and contribute to shaping it for the better, rather than accepting the status quo. When they see their connectedness, they will embrace their purpose and realise that we all have a part to play in creating a more diverse and inclusive approach to improving society.