This post has been uploaded to the T&L Exchange, and can now be found at:
Dr Richard Harris, Institute of Education
The focus of this work is on what I do and how I try to ensure that the curriculum I create reflects the diversity in society; this in turn impacts on the trainee teachers I work with and how confident they are in teaching a more diverse curriculum.
- To identify how far my curriculum actually reflected diversity in society.
- To examine reasons why this might be and therefore what could I do about it.
I have to train history teachers and therefore they need to be able to address issues of diversity within their teaching. However I am from a white, middle class background, so how confident and comfortable was I in supporting my trainee teachers in this goal?
In addition I am aware that some students from BAME backgrounds do not perform as well as their white peers. The reasons for this are complex but one issue appears to be the curriculum and the absence of people from BAME backgrounds from much of the curriculum.
The first step was to analyse my practice and myself. There is a lot of useful literature on ‘whiteness’ and the privilege that comes with ‘whiteness’ in our society that is largely taken for granted and unnoticed by those who part of the white majority.
Critical Race Theory was helpful in examining the curriculum I actually taught and for making me reassess my own beliefs and prejudices.
It is only by understanding ourselves that we can understand the unconscious messages that we send out, which portray our values, attitudes and beliefs.
For me, the following had a profound impact on how I thought about the curriculum: “Knowledge taught in schools is a form of cultural capital and is a social construction that reflects the values, perspectives, and experiences of the dominant ethnic group. It systematically ignores or diminishes the validity and significance of the life experiences and contributions of ethnic and cultural groups that historically have been vanquished, marginalized, and silenced.” Gay, G. (2004) ‘Curriculum Theory and Multicultural Education’ in J. A. Banks and C. A. McGee Banks (eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 30-49.
Having done a Critical Race analysis of my curriculum content I was able to see how ‘white’ it was, and therefore realised that I needed to find other curriculum content that could be included within my teaching. In addition it was important that this was not simply ‘bolted-on’ but was part and parcel of what I would do. Creating a focus on ‘black’ history, for example, simply serves to make it appear different, rather than looking at ‘history’ in all its diverse forms. Instead I have been able to incorporate a range of topics within my workshops, so that diversity is embedded and part of the ‘background noise’, rather than being something that has to be squeezed into the course. There are sessions on teaching diversity but these are much more geared towards raising trainee teachers awareness of what they need to be consider.
Working to develop trainee teachers is a complex business but it is important that they feel confident in what they need to do. Raising awareness of the issues over the curriculum and exploring their perspectives and what has shaped them allows them the opportunity to think differently. In many ways they have to go through the same process that I have been through. In particular it is important that they do not adopt a ‘colour-blind’ approach to curriculum development. We need to see who is in front of us before we make decisions – for example if we had someone with some form of additional need, such as dyslexia, we would take that into account in our work – and as Linda Valli, an American researcher argues, we need to see ‘colour’, so we
can do something about it, and then let the ‘colour fade’. We should then be in a position where we have constructed a more diverse and inclusive curriculum.
This approach is not itself a one-off T&L activity, but rather a process of deep reflection to understand and address a specific issue.
It is also potentially unsettling as the problem often rests with us, and we have to accept that. It is very easy to blame students for failing to engage with a curriculum or some form of support provided, whereas in fact the real issue is much more to do with the unintended messages we often send out about what is and is not considered valuable. If our curricula are not inclusive, why should we expect students from particular backgrounds to engage with what we teach?
Dr Nicola Abram, Literature and Languages
Year of activity: 2015-6
This entry describes the diversification of a core Part One English Literature module, Research & Criticism (EN1RC). As a result of the changes outlined here, every graduate of English Literature at the University of Reading will have encountered Anglophone texts from across the world, and considered critical issues around ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
- To construct a diverse curriculum that is representative of a wide range of identities and experiences.
- To expose students to the rich variety of global literatures in English.
- To promote critical thinking about processes of canon formation.
Over 200 students enter English Literature programmes at the University of Reading each year, from a range of educational backgrounds. To ensure they all have the key skills and theoretical understanding needed to succeed throughout their degrees, we run a compulsory module in the first year called ‘Research & Criticism’. I was tasked with convening this module from 2014/15.
The module’s priorities of delivering skills training and theoretical literacy – rather than focussing on a particular period, author, or literary genre – produce the freedom to draw on diverse texts. I recognised in this an opportunity to redress the Eurocentrist and white supremacist organisation of the established literary canon.
This reform was timely: a student-led campaign called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ began at UCL in November 2014 and spread across various higher education institutions, questioning the narrow and exclusionary nature of a range of degree programmes. At a subject-specific level, the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement was revised to describe the duty attendant on literary studies to represent the subject’s diversity: “The geographical, historical and social varieties of written and spoken English, and the range of world literatures written in or translated into English, enrich the subject and its study”.
The first step was to consider the existing course content and assess it for diversity and inclusivity. I found it useful to ask the question: ‘What kind of student does this module imagine?’. Alternatively, you might look at how many of the works cited are authored by women or non-white people, or published in the Global South. In the sciences and social sciences, you might consider how far your case studies prioritise Eurocentric concerns or population samples – and whether this is intellectually necessary. If not, from where else could you source your material?
My own research in postcolonial and feminist literature meant I was familiar with a pool of texts that could be drawn on. The final reading list included texts that engage with black British, African American, Indo-Canadian, Nigerian, and Palestinian contexts, as well as those raising issues of imperialism, heteronormativity, and gender performativity. Other academics searching for equivalent materials could consult relevant subject associations for colleagues’ suggestions (such as the Postcolonial Studies Association, Feminist and Women’s Studies Association, etc.).
I chose to limit the set texts to short stories and critical essays, continuing the model I inherited with the module. I felt a series of manageable readings would promote students’ sustained engagement, given that the content was likely to be unfamiliar to many of them. I would encourage others to think similarly about the context in which students will encounter this material, and plan accordingly.
I drafted a proposed reading list and lecture schedule, which was circulated to colleagues in the Department of English Literature. The communications that followed helped to refine the plans, producing a module that would be appropriate for new entrants – who are facing significant personal and educational transitions – as well as sufficiently challenging.
At the end of the first year that the module ran, a meeting with the teaching team helped to further polish its content and organisation.
Students’ feedback has affirmed that: “The content of this course made me raise questions about the way I read and how I understand a text”, “Everything I thought I knew was challenged by what was talked about”, and “Although at times it made your head hurt, once you got around the idea it linked brilliantly to everything else and made you question everything else you ever read”.
Colleagues have commented that students’ sophistication has demonstrably improved in other modules, as they apply the skills of critical thinking learned in ‘Research & Criticism’ to enrich coursework that does not explicitly require – but nonetheless benefits from – such theoretical scaffolding.
It has been an unexpected pleasure to signpost forward from this module to options available later in the degree, and to potential dissertation topics. This will be formalised with the development of Pathways on the English Literature degree programmes. A Pathway consists of linked modules on a particular topic, such as Creative Writing; participating students receive acknowledgement of this specialism on their degree transcript. There are several junctures at which students can opt in: they may enrol from the beginning as a Pathway student, or join at the end of Part One or Part Two, which allows for those who come to consciousness of a topic later or feel able to commit to it only after some initial study.
The revisions to the module successfully reflected a wide range of identities and experiences, and exposed students to the rich variety of global literatures in English. It is vital that this material sits at the core of the degree programme, to ensure that all students are exposed to it and to avoid the subject being devalued as peripheral or ‘minor’. However, the effort to integrate and embed this material into the curriculum may unwittingly render its differences invisible, and reduce its oppositional potency. For this reason the module works especially well as the foundation for a Pathway; later in the degree, in more specialist modules, more time can be given to establishing the relevant contexts necessary for mature interpretation.
Perhaps most successfully met was the aim to promote critical thinking about what literatures are valued, and why. By centring non-canonical writers, this module actively encourages norm-critical thinking. It foregrounds the importance of questioning the canon rather than simply adding to or updating it.
The module continues to run as part of our compulsory offering for new entrants to English Literature programmes. It has been presented as a model of good practice at RUSU’s Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic conference (1 June 2015) and at a University of Reading Teaching and Learning Showcase on ‘Diversifying the Curriculum’ (18 January 2016).
To flag up how students might continue their learning on ‘Research & Criticism’ into future optional modules, we have since designed posters which formally indicate connections: ‘Critical Issues’, and ‘Writing, Gender & Identity’ in Part Two, and ‘Class Matters’ and ‘Psychoanalysis and Text’ at Part Three. These posters are displayed to prospective students at Open Days, and within the Department throughout the year.
Universities Scotland Race Equality Toolkit:
‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, UCL, November 2014:
‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, LSE, February 2015 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGbxLPbetvo
About 10 years ago I was intrigued when a colleague described taking exams at an Australian university, where he was given a blank sheet of paper on which he could write anything he wanted to take into the exam. He referred to this as a ‘cheat sheet’. I was familiar with both open and closed book exams, and their pitfalls, and also with providing a formula sheet to students in an exam. But this idea was something completely different, being an individualised exam accompaniment. I was even more intrigued to hear him say that the benefit of this sheet was that he had been forced to properly revise the material in the module so that he could work out what to include – there was no point wasting precious space writing down things he would be able to remember, but it was very important to write down things which he was afraid he would forget.
This memory stayed with me, and I always wanted to try out the idea myself, but couldn’t see how it could be implemented that easily in a centrally-administered exam. But then this year, as a way of creating a faux semester system for our finalists, we replaced the summer term exam with a department-administered class test in January for two modules. One of these was my final year statistics module on Multivariate Data Analysis, and so I seized my chance!
The idea of being able to take into the test an A4 sheet on which they could write anything they wanted to was well received by the students when I first announced it – it automatically relieved some of the pressure they felt about having to memorise formulae, or all steps in a proof. In terms of the effect on how I wrote the exam, this was no different really than writing an open book exam – there needed to be more emphasis on questions which applied the methods, or were open ended in what they were asking for, rather than requiring the statement of a formula or reproduction of a basic proof. However, this didn’t actually require much adjustment to my style of writing questions. Implementing the idea was also fairly straightforward. The module finished in the final week of the Autumn term, and the students handed in their ‘cheat sheet’ on the first day of the Spring term for me to photocopy onto coloured paper (to prevent any additional sheets being smuggled in!), and distribute at the start of the test. The (named) sheets were thrown away at the end of the test, to ensure they were not attached in any way to the anonymised answer booklets.
I’m pleased to say that the ‘cheat sheet’ idea was an unmitigated success. Although it is impossible to quantify its effect because of cohort effects, and the fact that the test was now in January rather than in the summer, feedback from the class about the idea has been positive and the marks were a little higher than in the past. The most gratifying thing for me though is hearing many students say that they didn’t actually need to look at their sheet in the exam, because they had spent so much time writing and rewriting the sheet to make sure it included everything they wanted it to, that they ended up learning and remembering all of the material anyway! So I seem to have educated my students by stealth! But all joking aside, I think that the ‘cheat sheet’ idea has benefits across the board and particularly when viewed from a diversity perspective. Different students will struggle with different things for different reasons. Letting them help themselves by constructing their own formula/information sheet which is tailored to their strengths and weaknesses acknowledges that diversity, and is one way to put students even more in control of their learning and also their attainment. I definitely encourage others to try this idea!
How many times have you heard people say that the Reading student population is becoming more diverse? But what do they mean and what are the implications? Often they mean that they/we are struggling to cope with what feels like the ever increasingly list of different needs for different ‘types of students’. Any quick skim through the diversity and inclusion literature reveals that there is a long list of student ‘types’ that are known to have specific requirements that we do not think of as ‘the “norm’.
- Disabled students – physical, mental, learning
- Widening Participation students – first generation HE students, students from low HE participation areas, low income households
- International students
- Non-white and non-Christian students
- Students living at home
- Mature students
- Part-time students
- Male students in female dominated subjects and female students in male dominated subjects
In comparison to many other universities we might not always think of Reading University as having a tremendously diverse student population, however, I estimate that the above students represent in excess of 65% of our UG students and probably significantly more of our PG population. This means that supporting students with needs outside ‘the norm’ actually needs to become ‘the norm’. Accommodating diversity is no longer about accommodating the few it is catering for the majority!
But, and this is a BIG one,
Q: how can we possibility support so many different needs and still remain sane?
The answer is
A: by adopting an inclusive approach to all our teaching.
There is much literature out there on inclusive pedagogy and what the challenges are for different types of students – it can be a little daunting to say the least. I therefore wanted to identify just THREE relatively straightforward things that will take us a long way towards inclusive teaching.
But first, what does inclusive pedagogy mean?
“Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching that recognises the diversity of students, enabling all students to access course content, fully participate in learning activities and demonstrate their knowledge and strengths at assessment. Inclusive practice values the diversity of the student body as a resource that enhances the learning experience”. (Equality Challenge Unit http://www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/external/e-and-d-for-academics-factsheet-inclusive-practice.pdf)
Three practices that will enhance the inclusivity of your teaching
An important note – the three practices advocated below will actually benefit ALL of your students, and they certainly won’t have an adverse affect on any. To put it bluntly adopting them will not only help your students to ‘cope’ they will actually help them to learn and hopefully to attain higher grades – and, after all, isn’t that the objective?
1. Foster a sense of belonging
This has been found to be a key factor in student retention and success (http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/engage-in-teaching-and-learning/2014/10/16/hot-tip-what-is-the-number-one-factor-behind-student-success-by-dr-patricia-paddy-woodman/). As lecturer/teacher it is our responsibility to develop a ‘sense of belonging’ in our classrooms. This is done is many ways: a) through how we behave towards students – recognising the value that every student brings to the classroom, through valuing contributions equally, even when the quality is variable, through evenly distributing opportunities, b) providing opportunities for students to interact with each other and develop a sense of belonging to the group, c) through our choice of curriculum content – balancing the requirements of the subject with the interests (cultural, religious, generational, national, socio-economic) of students, ensuring our curricula are representative, encouraging opportunities for all students to bring their own perspectives to bear on learning.
2. Providing appropriate (and timely) materials to support your teaching
Providing handouts 3 or 4 days before your class is an easy yet powerful way of enhancing the inclusivity of your teaching. It helps international students, dyslexic students, mature and part-time students, students with disabilities that affect their concentration and many others. Equally providing your reading list in advance of the start of the course is effective for a similar group of students not to mention providing an opportunity for those super keen students (of any “type”) to get stuck in and motivated about your subject. I recognise that things like handouts and reading lists can be very different for different subjects and even for modules within a subject, however the principals can still apply. If you don’t want to ‘give away the answers’ in advance in your handouts, leave that section blank in the pre-class publication but follow up with full set after the class. If it is a discussion based session, you can indicate what your will be discussing and how the discussion will be tackled (sub questions/topics etc, is there any pre-reading?). For interactive classes, e.g. flipped learning, seminars, group discussion etc – it is important to provide students with a summary of key learning that emerges. This is essential in terms of inclusion for any students who may have either missed the class or for one reason or another (language, concentration, etc.) found it difficult to grasp what can sometime be a fast paced discussion. Could you ask for volunteers or create a rota for students to assemble such a summary?
3. Accommodating diversity in assessment
Recognising that different students have different strengths and that different forms of assessment develop different skills, why not consider whether it is appropriate to offer a choice of forms of assessment. For example, although the final-year projects and dissertations are firmly embedded in the tradition of Higher Education there are increasingly examples of variations on this theme. The HEA’s publication ‘Developing and Enhancing Final-year projects and Dissertations’ (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/projects/Developing%20and%20enhancing%20undergraduate%20final-year%20projects%20and%20dissertations_0.pdf) makes the case that all of the academic attributes of these assessments can be preserved in a more diverse range of ‘capstone’ projects. The same principals can be applied to smaller pieces of coursework.
I recognise that the last action is the most challenging and perhaps controversial of the three, but well worth pausing to consider. The other two actions however, are ‘no-brainers’. If you aren’t already doing these things now is the time to adopt them and ensure that the majority of students can fully access your teaching!