An ever-more frequent question being put is ’what is ‘an inclusive curriculum’ and how do I make one?
There is no one ‘inclusive curriculum’, and if there was, publishing a prescriptive set of tips here could actually undermine the project of being inclusive. Inclusive education requires a change of attitude that is visible to students, and the adoption of a different kind of openness than is usually found among university teachers. To explore this, we have to think about what the curriculum is in the first place.
What is a curriculum? Is it ‘stuff’?
The instinctive answer most teachers give to this question (particularly early in their careers) is that ‘the curriculum’ refers to a collection of canonical material essential for understanding the discipline in question. ‘There’s a lot to get through’ is a common response to first attempts at planning teaching, invoking mental images of huge piles of books, papers, perhaps diagrams and tables and so on. The logical conclusion to this challenge of teaching this is to fit as much as possible onto each PowerPoint slide.
…the organisation of stuff?
As this approach swiftly starts showing its limitations, a new one usually becomes apparent, where the role of the teacher is to organise this canonical material in such a way as to have students understand enough of it to be able to ‘practise’ the discipline. Now our pile of books can at least be on shelves, and we have created libraries, as it were, which also means we have a space for the students to be in while they learn.
…ways of thinking and practising?
But of course, learning in higher education is more than simply memorising stuff. The material does not make the discipline; students are learning to see in a particular way, value certain things (and devalue others), ask a certain kind of question and give a certain kind of answer. Even an encyclopaedic knowledge of relevant material is only meaningful in the context of understanding and behaving in a particular way. In other words there are affective and social dimensions to consider. It is therefore more useful to talk about ‘joining a disciplinary community’ than ‘learning a subject’. And with communities and people, we have to factor in very different kinds of interactions and relationships.
Interactions and relationships
The teacher’s relationship with the material is generally taken for granted; their role is assumed to be that of an expert who arranges the material in such a way as to make possible the students’ acquiring and understanding of the material. (As an aside, the extent to which the teacher experiences this sense of expertise is extremely variable, ranging from the anxieties of ‘impostor syndrome’ to an overconfidence that things haven’t changed in recent years. ‘What sort of teacher am I?’ is more of an open question than outsiders tend to realise. The answer can also be open to negotiation and reflection.)
The relationship of the teacher to the student is the one which generally gets first attention when thinking about education; what is the teacher doing at any moment? What kind of role is the teacher adopting; expert and didact? facilitator? The UK Professional Standards Framework, for instance, centralises, articulates and reinforces the perspective of the teacher rather than the student. For most people, it is the presence of the teacher as presenter or designer of the material being taken in that makes it ‘education’.
The relationship of the student towards the teacher is more often encountered piecemeal and in a fragmented, often distorted, way. There are lurid websites such as ‘ratemyprofessor’, opportunities for evaluation and student responses (and their very problematic results, reinforcing stereotypes and expectations systematically favouring white men). However, teachers’ apprehension of the experiences of students is inevitably volatile, complex and partial, to the point of being random.
One thing that students do seem to want reliably from their teachers is to be steered away from misunderstandings, to ‘know if they are on the right lines’ and (preferably) confirmation they have got the right answer. Many teachers bemoan this and wish students were more confident and independent but they rarely appreciate how much the educational structures make this an eminently rational strategy. The power invested in teachers is significant and the student’s position in the system is essentially one of having some influence and a lot less power. Even if teachers want their students to be confident and independent, it is usually within implicit limits which the teachers take for granted but will end up enforcing sooner or later. The students will need to take time to work out where those boundaries lie, often through a lot of trial and error. This is a cognitive load the teacher will probably be only dimly aware of, at best.
Ironically (given the ever-increasing focus on ‘the student voice’) the power of institutions and teachers to shape narratives is arguably more powerful here than in almost any other area; students are generally asked (only) about particular aspects of their education, chosen by authority figures such as ‘value for money’ or (behind a paywall) ‘student-centred learning’. If they choose to assert their own values and agency (even if supposedly invited to do so), they may run into serious difficulties. The relationship of students to teachers is often far more unequal than teachers and institutions assume, and can look a lot more like a minefield than teachers appreciate, as we shall see. No wonder they want guidance.
The next relationship for us to consider is that of the student with the discipline they are learning. At any moment, they are dealing with the tip of an iceberg, unsure how big it is below the water. Much of the time they may be working on a small number of apparently unconnected elements of a subject area, depending on time and the curriculum to gradually provide a coherent ‘bigger picture’. In other words, they are heavily dependent on the teachers’ organisation of the subject through the curriculum.
It is tempting to call this dependency ‘trust’ except that the student has little choice in the matter. The obvious assumption is that students’ relationship will largely be shaped by the teacher-student relationship and that the student will use the curriculum as a map in the way the teacher intends, but we teachers forget that they will only rarely have an overview of the whole field – much of what they learn has no or little context. Students may not, for instance, be well-placed to gauge how important something is, even when it is obvious to academics. For our purposes, it is more useful to focus on the students’ relationship towards the curriculum and the teacher than to centre the teacher perspective.
Finally for our purposes, and the most remote from teachers’ awareness, is the student-student relationship. The teacher’s perspective on this is usually eclectic, piecemeal and somewhat shallow; they may invite and orchestrate a wide range of behaviours to shepherd students through particular learning activities. They will see some of what happens as a result. They may also be aware of a few outside factors in some student’s lives, probably a handful at most. Most other behaviour lies beyond the teacher’s ‘horizon of visibility’; interactions within a busy classroom, before the seminar, in the corridor, perhaps online. Beyond that horizon is every possibility of human interaction: committed close relationships; nodding acquaintance; bullying or even abuse; confusion; hope; peer pressure; respect; disrespect, and so on.
Teachers will typically only see these fleetingly and superficially. For something to ‘echo’ back to the teacher’s awareness, it will usually have needed to accumulate a lot of energy to do so; students generally prefer not to complain about classmates and are likely to do so only when things have got quite difficult. For our purposes, it is worth emphasising that by default, this ‘echo’ will often be (re)directed to student support, a personal tutor, or perhaps a chat ‘outside’ the jurisdiction of the curriculum; there is no guarantee it will lead to changes in the curriculum itself. Even when a teacher is willing to consider adjusting expectations or the learning environment, the students don’t know that (unless they see it happening). If it is not actively communicated to them, there is no reason to think that their experience has had any influence.
We must remember that the teacher will see all this from a far more secure vantage point than the systematically more vulnerable student. We are accustomed to the idea that students learn together and from each other but we rarely consider the extent to which students take their cue from us, the teachers, in subtle ways about what is important and what is acceptable.
This raises a fairly unanswerable question: curriculum has a profound impact on the student’s world, but how far should a teacher take responsibility within the curriculum for that impact beyond the ‘horizon’? Should students visibly fail their assignments, the echo will hopefully be detected by the external examiner even if everyone else manages to evade it. But what if a curriculum and its teaching makes students uneasy? What happens to a slightly nervous cohort where anxiety about belonging leads to bullying, cliques or withdrawal of attention?
The Uncertain Student
Seen this way, navigating education is a much more uncertain process for students than is typically foregrounded even before we consider what is recognised as active marginalisation. The teacher is their guide to the city-sized maze that is the ‘subject’, the curriculum a partial map of the local district. The students are intent on getting to know their way around for themselves, on becoming ‘locals’. It should be emphasised that teachers look on this scenario with far greater certainty and clarity than virtually all their students; they got the hang of the place and established their ‘right to be here’ some time ago. The longer ago that was, the lower the stakes were and the worse their memory of the difficulties they encountered when they were students. (If they are over 50 or so in the UK, this included receiving a full grant to study their first degree, and being virtually guaranteed advantages as a graduate rather than just ‘not falling behind’.)
The sheer magnitude of the teacher and curriculum in this picture has been deliberately emphasised to correct any sense that ‘small’ acts or practices of exclusion are trivial, whether that is a lack of well-designed materials that work with screenreaders, being tone-deaf to broader racism in society or using gendered language. To the teacher these things are incidental to the material they wish to teach, a faint sound in the background that they quickly learn to ignore, so they can press on with ‘the important things’. To the student dwelling in nagging uncertainty of ‘do I belong here? How do I belong here?’ these small sounds can be deafening, and they become louder with repetition, not less intrusive.
So far this account has emphasised the uncertainty and relative powerlessness of students. This is because to a teacher inconvenience accessing resources, 1/2-overheard sexist joke between students, a comment about ‘Asian students’, a mistaken assumption about what blind people can and cannot do, feigned confusion about the gender of trans people – all these are single and isolated aberrations from the norm; to a student – even one not affected directly – they are signals that the boat has a leak somewhere. To use a different metaphor climbing a ladder is one thing but seeing one rung give way raises serious questions about the whole enterprise; it would not ascend more carefully and nervously? One act of exclusion is likely to be indicative of deeper ignorance or deliberate exclusion.
To a teacher, a room named after a notorious eugenicist is the room they happened to be assigned by ‘room bookings’; to a student, it is a huge elephant in the room. Can they really be sitting in an environment celebrating someone who would have wanted them sterilised, or dead (certainly not sitting in that room as a student of the university). Is anyone even going to say anything about this? (‘Apparently not’ will be the usual answer).
If we are thinking of students with legally protected characteristics, then we are talking about people who have been subjected routinely to systematic marginalisation most or all of their lives, to the point that governments have set legal protections in place. This is sometimes assumed to mean that such people are protected when it be more accurate to say they are currently in urgent need of protection. They will (perfectly reasonably and rationally) expect to be marginalised because that is the norm for them in our society. The onus on us is to make learning spaces the exception to this and (only) then to communicate that factor them (unfulfilled or broken promises are worse than no promises at all). Put briefly, if we do not actively demonstrate and communicate that they belong, they have every reason to assume they are not welcome. The occasional microaggression, if not tackled, confirms the default expectation that we are not bothering to offset other endemic problems pervasive in society.
‘Small’ acts of exclusion can, then, have serious impact. All this is why it is so commonly reported that students want teachers who care about them; it underlines how high the stakes are for them and how much better it is for them to have a teacher they feel they can trust. A curriculum that undermines, marginalises or trivialises members of the cohort, even ‘only occasionally’, implies the whole structure is unsound.
There is, then, something we could call a ‘non-exclusive’ curriculum which removes obstacles and avoids marginalisation, but this is only half the story.
If someone were to provide a list of ‘things to do’ to create an inclusive curriculum it would undeniably make some genuine improvements to the status quo: dyslexic people might find the materials easier to work with; blind people would find their screenreaders working more efficiently, and conveying the information as original intended; students might find their cultures and countries more fairly represented in a way that they do not currently. The changes in such a list are not unimportant; they exist and should be used. The greatest risk in such lists is that teachers might think they can complete the job by getting to the end of the list.
Social justice and the curriculum
‘Inclusive education’ focusses on the idea that anyone can succeed – anyone can become part of a disciplinary community. It focuses on the journey that a student takes into the heartland of the discipline, and on ensuring that any obstacles they encounter are (only) genuine ones (cognitive or practical) that all students will encounter and have to grapple with. However, the ‘non-exclusive’ curriculum runs out of steam when there are even greater problems with the destination.
Reframing study as an induction into a disciplinary community has profound implications. For students to successfully demonstrate their right to ‘belong’, they must show not only that they ‘understand all the things’ but also that they can and will behave a certain way. In fact ‘understanding’ is usually only made visible by behaviours whether that is solving specific problems in a particular way, or presenting a suitable argument in familiar forms (and so on). The function of assessment is to articulate these behaviours (through criteria) and enforce them (by assigning marks). For teachers with permanent jobs this is usually considered an onerous but low-stakes part of the job, a repeated and familiar task; for students it is a make or break moment over which they have substantial influence but no real control – again, the whole process is shot through with uncertainty for them.
Teachers are seeking to deliberately change their students, to shape them into someone who ‘fits’ in the discipline, and the students’ role is to internalise this kind of personal transformation and effect those changes. Even when it goes smoothly, it can be unnerving.
Education is in many senses ‘them becoming like us’, adopting and mastering disciplinary ways of being and thinking. In many respects this means becoming dependable and not exhibiting any noticeable individual variation – using a fume cupboard or declining Latin nouns is not the best moment for exhibiting distinctive and original thinking. But ‘training’, however vital, is not the whole story in higher education. Most teachers hope that their graduates will not only internalise disciplinary ways of practising and thinking, but also (should they wish) be able to contribute something new and distinctive and to take the discipline where it needs to go next. Students need to see the same possibility – that, notwithstanding a profound transformation, they will still ‘be themselves’.
Creating an inclusive curriculum in the narrow sense of making the journey reasonably fair to all does not solve the problem that many disciplines are themselves deeply exclusive and unfair as they are currently practised, and embody the results of centuries of exclusion. We may be helping graduates to join a community that trivialises or excludes them. From ‘what exactly is the colour of skin?’ to the systematic exclusion of women in science and scientific research, most disciplines are overly represented by ‘dead white (able-bodied European) men’. An exclusive curriculum is both a consequence and a cause of these problems; structures tend to perpetuate themselves. For instance, men tend to appoint men, which makes the next appointment committee likely to be dominated by men, whites appoint whites and so on. Where ‘minorities’ do succeed in obtaining posts as academics, they can face a constant struggle and backlash to even minor suggestions of change, often being sidelined as ‘troublesome’.
A vicious circle
This inexorably creates the sense that ‘proper’ academics or practitioners look and behave a certain way, excluding those who do not fit those expectations. If ‘proper history’ is that of politics and war, then it is so much harder to get a post as a specialist in social or religious history. Perhaps one or two will ‘make it’, paradoxically emphasising that their specialities or identity are not central to the field, and rather optional when it comes down to it.
Business as usual
This is further enforced by the expectation that the discipline’s normal mode of operation reliably identifies appropriate materials and methods (essentially reasoning ‘the status quo must be right, or it wouldn’t be the status quo’). In a group of ten people, nine of whom share the same background and perspective, the tenth will never be able to effect change to a traditional system of agreeing by a majority vote. Expressed this way, it is obvious this kind of approach stifles new possibilities from someone with a radically different perspective, but each field will have their own, usually better-disguised, versions of this. A discipline will default to perpetuating existing structures unless something very deliberate is done to change it.
Quietening the marginalised
All-male panels or committees, particularly those addressing gender equality, are rightfully pilloried. A typical excuse is that there are not many women (or disabled, or black, and so on) sufficiently expert to join the panel. Even where some effort is made, or a candidate available, their presence easily becomes a token, limited only to one aspect, and the effort made is minimal. The situation appears to be complicated by the impression that the sole or rare critical voice makes ‘drastic’ or ‘radical’ demands (radical to their counterparts, at least). A number of factors can be seen at work here.
One strategy for ‘making it’ is to keep your head down, and wait for a position of influence with the intention of changing it from within. The difficulty with this strategy is that it is very difficult to know when to start to speak up; by then, you may feel you have more to lose than when you started; the risks have increased rather than decreased. In addition, resistance may be far more entrenched and immediate than one might have expected; someone considered to ‘represent’ a minority (by their existence) will often be valued precisely because they do not ‘make waves’, and any deviation from this is met with often highly disproportionate reactions from those who have come to rely invisibly on this ‘tacit permission’ for their conduct and priorities. They will have been inferring this is granted on a day-to-day basis and claim that even a mild change of position is a radical departure, and totally unexpected.
Should someone (typically through ability and sheer work rather than much luck) gain a position of influence in a field without being ‘quietened’, they will most likely appear ‘radical’ to their colleagues, or perhaps ‘obsessed’. In the UK, in 2015, there were 85 black professors out of 18,510 in the UK (0.4%) and the figure has not improved for many years; at which point is ‘radical’ change simply the appropriate response?
Who gets to say?
Another way of describing these kinds of dynamics is to ask ‘who decides what is important?’ Disciplines are held together as epistemic and organisational structures that, like all structures, will tend to replicate themselves unless something is deliberately and concertedly done to tackle the drawbacks inherent in that structure. This is where any real sense of students’ potential belonging in a discipline will be put to the test.
Opening up worlds and Liberating the curriculum
A truly inclusive curriculum, then, takes responsibility for the discipline itself in the world. Have Deaf/deaf people contributed to the field but been overlooked? What do we do about the fact that Galton and Pearson established useful methods for statistics in pursuit of eugenicist goals? Are we going to continue to assume that a lack of resources in some countries simply disminishes science, or realise that each context gives unique opportunities to think inventively about related challenges?
What distinguishes a truly inclusive curriculum from a non-exclusive one, then, is not just that it is ‘not unfair to students’; it is a suppleness about having answers and how it puts those answers together. It is open to questioning, not in such a way that it paralyses itself by undercutting its methods and judgements but that it makes room for awkward questions about how it relates to people rather than batting them aside. It acknowledges the context in which modern science was formed, what it drew on, what uses it was put to, who benefited, who suffered.
Belonging to when, and who?
Academic disciplines are necessarily conservative and relatively slow-moving; it takes a lot to change a field that has worked hard to build up expertise, albeit with flaws embedded deep. But loyalty to the past is worth much less to us all than a commitment to the future. We can decry suggested changes to the canon of literature or we can step back and ask ‘how can we make room for newcomers?’ Do we have to practise science with Western European priorities and equipment or can we step sideways and look at it from a different perspective?
Be the change
Students will generally take their cue from their teachers. If they encounter someone who makes room in the subject for a new perspective, who acknowledges the prejudices baked into a field in the past but is determined to resolutely chip away at it to make some room then that is what they will seek to become. A teacher who checks their privilege, finds out more about claims their discipline needs decolonialising and (essentially) believes (in) their students embodies inclusivity far more than someone who worked through a checklist and ticked off the project task list. ‘Inclusive education’ has ‘inclusive teachers’ at its core.