Professional Studies: Inclusion and the curriculum: October 2nd 2020

The following session was inspired by some work I’ve been doing with an Erasmus project on dialectical talk – you can read more about this here.

Never was a professional studies session more topical than the one we held last week on inclusion and curriculum. Coming in the week when ‘culture-war’ controversies once again reared their heads, a discussion about the curriculum as a battleground for diversity was well-received by our school direct trainee teachers. We have a very politically aware group of students, so the recent debates about the lack of diversity in school curriculum, along with ‘guidance’ from the government on moderating certain topics were already on their minds.  

The session was inspired by the concept of dialectical discussion which is something I’ve been using on our Professional Studies programme to engage students with some deep issues (as one student said after the session, “that made my brain hurt). Dialectical discussion, in a nutshell, is being able to take some weighty topics and think around them, look at the opposing arguments and arrive at a synthesis. Diagrammatically, it looks like this:

(Although in reality it looks like this!)

Yes, but…

Through a variety of oracy based topics, we examined the issue of diversity in the curriculum from race, gender, and political perspectives. In these sort of discussions (actually, with lots of group activities) I like to begin with provocative statements, in this case I used the following premises: ‘human beings are social animals’, ‘children’s minds are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge’, ‘there is no such thing as equality’, and ‘discovery learning is a thing of the past’. Some of these statements came from topics and issues that arose during recent sessions, whilst others are relevant to this particular class. Remember, these are meant to be provocative, and I pose the ‘yes, but’ prompt to get the debate going.

The prompt ‘yes, but’ encourages us to think about the other side of the argument, and a particularly challenging approach to this is to ask student A to respond to the initial statement beginning with ‘yes, but’ and student B following on from student A with another ‘yes, but’. This takes the debate in some interesting directions! This is a snippet of what this looked like:

And so on…

“Discovery learning is a thing of the past”

Yes, but we cannot completely dismiss discovery learning. As humans we have enquiring minds and there may well be opportunities for children to learn for themselves.”

Yes, but they need guidance from teachers to ensure that the knowledge they acquire is relevant to the topic…”

Silent Conversations

After this, we moved to silent conversations. These are effective in creating space for reflective discussion. I ‘invented’ some scenarios which were designed to provoke varied responses. With social distancing to worry about, a task such as this can be quite challenging, but by giving students their own marker pens and adopting a ‘queue’ system for writing on the poster paper, we were able to arrive at some effective outcomes, as you can see below. Many of the students really enjoyed this activity and we talked about not only how they can use this in PSHE lessons but in their own subject aresas as well.

Responding to texts: synthesis

Although I had sent out some reading material in preparation for the session (see the link below), I also wanted to include some news and video clips of three topics: the Black Curriculum, recent protests outside a Birmingham school, and a news bulletin about the climate change protests.

Rather than just watching these passively, however, we used the template (see below) to collect our thoughts, before using a pyramid model to synthesise our responses (again, see below).  The pyramid idea is particularly helpful, because, as you can see, it provokes students to engage dialectically with the issues in all texts, to find commonalities, and to arrive at a synthesis.

The Fishbowl

For the final session we adopted the ‘fishbowl’ technique to examine a further set of provocative statements. If you’re not familiar with the fishbowl arrangement, we select a group of students to sit in the centre of the room to discuss a topic. The rest of the class observe around the outside. Here it is diagrammatically:

The fishbowl group discuss a series of statements which, by their definition, provoke discussion (I’ll get to these later). I like to have an initiator in the group whose job it is to turn over the statements one at a time, read them out, and get the talk going.

Those of us that have used the fishbowl strategy know that the problem is what to do with those not in the centre. There is a danger that the people around the outside might get switched off or lack focus, so it is important to provide each of them with important roles: they need to listen to the conversation, be ready to provide effective, meaningful feedback, as well as learn something from the experience.

In the table above, you can see that one thing I ask the observing group to do is to monitor the discussion and look at the various talk roles (taken from Voice 21 resources) that each speaker adopts. However, I also want my observers to listen to the content, and so in the last row you can see that I ask observers to identify aspects of the discussion which build on, challenge, and reinforce their existing knowledge base. We only had 20 minutes for the discussion, but given the quality of our interlocuters we could have spoken for longer!

Here are the statements we used to provoke the discussion. It is vital that statements such as these are carefully worded. They need to be open ended and take into account the possibility that all participants might well agree: what you don’t want is ‘agree, move on’! Also, dear reader, these are meant to be provocative and to no extent reflect the views of the writer!

  1. We cannot simply change the curriculum to cater for a rapidly changing society. We have to have some constants.
  2. Exempting the Equality Act 2010 from the curriculum provides government with a mandate to introduce further restrictions on our human rights.
  3. Teaching about Britain’s Imperialist past only exaggerates the negatives of our country’s history.
  4. By teaching about ‘other genders’ we are likely to open up our children to harmful influences.
  5. Academies and independent schools can opt out of the national curriculum. There is no excuse for them not to address inclusion gaps in their curriculum.
  6. As a trainee teacher, I have no say in what I teach. I can only deliver what I’m told.

To conclude the session, I asked the students to use the writing frame prompts below to reflect on their learning journey this session.

  • I began by thinking that…
  • However, throughout this discussion I have learned that …
  • This has me made me consider …
  • Consequently, I now believe that …

And here is one of our student’s responses:

My initial thoughts around the subject of ‘inclusion’ involved in classroom strategies on how we include all learners within our subject areas (i.e. how to use differentiation/ scaffolding in lessons). However, the in-depth discussion during professional studies sessions facilitated deeper thinking around inclusion for ALL, honing in on the curriculum as a whole. 

Looking through a holistic lens, it has made me consider how current issues of discrimination can be addressed within our subject. Although, as a trainee teacher, we aim to deliver the content included within our curriculum i.e ‘Develop competency to excel in a broad range of activities’, it is through our teaching philosophy that we promote an inclusive environment inside and outside of the classroom.

A perfect example used in PE would feature in the lesson: ‘Media in Sport’ – normally taught in KS3/4. In the past, magazine articles have featured a range of male and female sports stars, however, the difference in how male stars and female stars are portrayed are very different, promoting gender inequality and/or discrimination. This would not only teach students about the impact media has on sport, but spark discussions amongst students on how gender inequality may still be involved in the media, and how this issue may be addressed.  

Accordingly, because of this understanding, I now appreciate the integral role teachers play in educating values, and promoting inclusion, regardless of race, age, gender, disability, religious and cultural beliefs, and sexual orientation. Therefore, something I will take from the session would be to incorporate British values (i.e Respect and Tolerance, Individual Liberty, etc) to every lesson I teach. If this is done correctly, I believe I am contributing to making the world a better place.

The session was well-received by the trainees, and I came away really enthused by their responses, too. We are committed to developing teachers with inquiring minds and who can explore issues through a variety of philosophical and pedagogical lenses, and the dialectical method, combined with excellent oracy strategies, facilitates this in our sessions.


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