This element of challenge is such a regular occurrence, many don’t even articulate that they are doing it. But for some teachers and educators, bringing an element of challenge to the reading experience that their subject/topic/year group receive through the curriculum can be, well, challenging.
The importance of “challenge” from teachers
School library staff regularly ask questions such as:
- Why does this resource deserve its place in the collection?
- Is it better as a physical or digital resource?
- How is it most accessible to the main audience?
- How is it more useable?
Yet these are questions that many teachers are not equipped, or encouraged, to ask in their core training.
When it comes to the curriculum, many works are included because they have schemes of work already written, the expenditure has already been laid out, they’re well known by the teachers in the department – all of which are perfectly understandable. But is each chosen text good enough? Are they diverse and inclusive?
Key questions for all educators
The reading experience we provide our young people should be as wide and varied as possible – and so should the questions all teachers ask when offering them. Why does each prescribed text deserve to be highlighted, for instance? To be picked above all other choices? Bringing benefit to the staff or school is one perspective, but what’s it delivering to the child? Is the individual reading it gaining something from the knowledge/experience/story?
What are our own assumptions and baggage that we bring to that decision?
Challenge and questioning the reading experience provided to all children should be a commonplace and accepted part of developing the curricular and learning for each year group – it shouldn’t be seen as unusual or ‘causing trouble’.
However, this can only be done if two fundamental things are in place:
1. Embracing experiences
All teachers (and staff) need training to be aware of, acknowledge and embrace all the different realities that people experience. This means listening to those who have different lived experiences, and believing them even when it doesn’t reflect their own experience – two things can be true at once.
Given the general lack of diversity within the education sector – particularly within leadership roles – this may require some teachers to seek out opinions and thoughts they wouldn’t normally come across through connecting with people outside of their usual connections (through organisations like BAMEed, for example), and/or make clear there is a safe space where pupils can express their opinions on books and resources, such as the school library having a focus group.
2. Building knowledge
All teachers (and staff) also need to have knowledge of new books and resources. It’s hard to identify the gaps when someone is not sure what the alternatives are. This may mean asking school library staff to prepare a list of resources (and this may need to be very specific), or it may mean seeking out those organisations who are able and keen to support. There are Reading Recommendation requests, booklists, and new books being reviewed all the time.
Both of these foundational needs can be addressed in teacher training, so the schools of the future can reflect a much wider experience than many are experiencing at the moment. Teacher training courses should be proactively working with school librarians to ensure knowledge is up to date, and teachers are aware of the support a librarian can offer, and there should be compulsory elements of EDI across the modules taught. The trouble is, this isn’t something that can wait for the future; a more cohesive society requires a more cohesive educational experience now!
Nurturing diversity and plurality
The results of the 2021 census show that diversity is increasing, meaning this is an issue which is going to continue to grow. This is something which sits at the heart of the kind of country we want to be. Lack of diversity is having a negative impact on children in schools; young adults in college, adults in the workplace and continues long throughout their life.
By introducing a plurality of viewpoints and experiences as standard in every school we can skip the awkward bit, when individuals realise how they do something isn’t the way everyone does something; and what they believe isn’t what everyone believes. This can be done without diminishing any single view. Adding authentic and empowering stories will never be to the detriment of the original view – it simply adds to the context and meaning behind it.
Society cannot wait
We, as a society, cannot wait until this conversation is won individual conversation by individual conversation. Lasting change requires leadership at all levels, reaching across all schools, and an engagement in the nuance, not just a broad-brush, box-ticking exercise. It requires urgent action, taking the steps which can easily be taken (such as the ones in this piece) and developing an action plan for those which require longer term solutions.
I cannot express enough how we must move forward, now! While there are schools in this country which are permitting their pupils to have a single view of the world, and not be encouraged, or presented with opportunities through the curriculum to learn about differing experiences, we are failing not just as a country, but the entirety of the next generation - they will be the ones who have less time to solve a bigger problem in a country which is much more fractured. Let’s not let that happen.
Alison Tarrant is the Chief Executive at the School Library Association and a dedicated school librarian passionate about the ever evolving nature of libraries.