5 ways teachers can challenge inequality in the classroom
Research shows that everyday teaching practices exclude already marginalised groups of students, but teachers can take steps to redress the balance.
Schools produce inequality. Work carried out by educational sociologists such as Kalwant Bhopal, David Gillborn and Deborah Youdell shows that the everyday practices of teaching and learning exclude already marginalised groups of students while guaranteeing success for others.
My own research found that in a climate where teachers are under extreme pressure to produce results, practices such as ability setting, continual student assessments, shaming behaviour management approaches and short-hand descriptors of students – such as “low ability” or “SEN” – are commonplace. Students who are already part of minority groups in society – for instance, due to race, class, gender or a disability – are disproportionately represented in so-called low ability groups; often score below average in tests (because of the system rather than the students); and are frequently misrepresented or underrepresented in curriculum material presented in class.
So how can we address educational inequalities from inside the classroom? I spent a year working as a class teacher to find out – observing and recording what happened when I attempted to intervene in the production of inequalities in my primary school classroom. Here are some different approaches I explored, which teachers could try in their own schools.
Rethink ability grouping
Is ability grouping necessary? Try different ways of organising groups of students in the classroom. Rather than creating separate activities based on a preconceived idea of ability, students could work through tasks with differing levels of challenge. This allows them to think about what they can achieve and does not label anyone incapable.
Try providing more open-ended activities that require the students to problem-solve and draw on a range of skills. For example, see if they can make a tower strong enough to hold a marble with a given set of materials, or invite students to plan a class party that needs invitations, decorations and food.
Allow them to work together – one student may be good at writing while another may be more creative. Students can support each other and surprise themselves and you. Sometimes they will all be given the same task and will produce something different from it (writing stories of different lengths and complexities, for example). The important thing is not to predetermine what students can achieve before they have started.
Check your language
Interrogate the language you use to describe your pupils and the language used by students themselves in the classroom. Nobody is inherently low ability, discourses of “boys will be boys” or “hardworking, helpful girls” limit everyone in the class, as do ideas about “lads” and “bitchy girls” – such double standards need challenging.
Some students still use the term “gay” to describe something negative, which can cause those exploring their own sexuality or who come from queer families to feel unsafe. Using labels such as “naughty” or “silly” to describe pupils, even if not used in front of the students themselves, can quickly stick and alter how students are perceived.
Make the curriculum relevant
Who decides the curriculum? Is it representative of the students in the class, reflecting their experiences, histories and questions? It isn’t possible to make the curriculum relevant to all of the students all the time, but consider asking them what they would like to learn about. When I did this with the class of six- and seven-year-olds, we planned out a whole term of activities around the topic of babies, through film, writing and other activities – linking together subjects across the curriculum, and reflecting some of the students’ own experiences.
Where it’s not possible to alter curriculum material, critical conversations could be started around the points of view represented in lessons from history, science or literature. I’ve changed my questioning to encourage students to think about whose point of view we are hearing. For example, drawing children’s attention to the gender of scientists and suggesting they find out about female scientists; or when we learn about kings and queens, who are we not learning about? – if school resources show only white people in Tudor times, for instance, encourage students to ask questions about why people of colour are not represented.
Avoid quick-fix punishments
Many behaviour management systems in schools are incredibly shaming for students. Having your name written under a sad face, being made to stand up during assembly, or being asked to sit on the floor in another classroom, are publicly humiliating practices that would seem shocking if carried out in an adult place of work.
Such practices are a quick fix in a busy school day but, in the long run, rarely result in behavioural changes from a student. Consider where space could be opened up for conversation rather than punishment. Can the language around bad behaviour be challenged to make room for more compassionate understanding of students who don’t so easily conform?
Ultimately, all of these methods aim to help prioritise teacher-student relationships and the relationships between students in the classroom. It’s these relationships that allow the student to be seen as a person, as opposed to, for instance, a middle-ability child.
When we connect with the students in front of us by respecting them as people, listening to their point of view, acknowledging their difficulties and acting from a place of compassion, we end up being able to critique the assessments the students take, rather than the students themselves. It is from here that we build a classroom, a school and an education system that is more inclusive of everyone.