Using Wider Reading to Broaden Diversity of Scholars at GCSE and A Level

This article was written for the Education Blog at the Copyright Licensing Agency and published in September 2020, which you can read here.

Designing your A Level or GCSE curriculum is easy, if you are only concerned with teaching what is on the exam specification. But despite each board’s efforts, you might still end up with a relatively impoverished curriculum for your students. Obviously, exam boards can’t include everything on a given topic, covering it from all angles. But when we omit those different avenues of thought, we limit students’ understanding of the topic. Wider reading is therefore essential if we want our students to receive the best quality curriculum that we can offer.

In so many subjects, it is the default setting that subjects are studied from a Western European point of view. This is fine, to a degree. A lot of excellent scholarly work has been conducted by philosophers, historians, scientists and artists over the centuries. They have helped to form the culture(s) of the European continent and are therefore an excellent way to begin our study, or teaching of our subjects.

But theirs isn’t the only point of view. There is a much broader context and when we ignore this, we remove opportunities to understand both ourselves and other people. The lack of diversity in our curricula, over centuries, has led to misunderstanding and even intolerance of “minority” views. We have a duty to current and future generations to build upon the work that has been done in this area, so that our students can avoid narrow-minded views of the world and can see the world through the lenses of people beyond themselves.

This is the beauty of reading fiction, after all. We can lose ourselves in the worlds inhabited by the characters in our favourite novels. We do this by seeing through their eyes and by contemplating their experiences, values and motivations. In non-fiction, i.e. in our teaching of academic subjects, we can emulate this, by including a broader diversity of scholars than the ones we are typically presented with by exam boards.

A cursive glance over the scholars presented by most exam boards would indicate that the majority of scholars worth listening to or reading about are white European men. Is their experience more valid than the experiences of everyone else? What other unconscious messages does this send to our students? Are those messages even more damaging for our students who don’t fit into this narrow cultural bracket? Who are they supposed to relate to? Who should they take as their academic role models? This is difficult, but we should not shy away from dealing with it.

I propose a solution. It isn’t something that everybody will immediately accept, for a myriad of reasons. But it is a solution nevertheless: We should explicitly teach the work of a more diverse range of scholars, beyond those names in the exam specifications. To clarify, I mean teaching extra scholars, in addition to those named on the exam specifications, rather than instead of them. We cannot wait for specifications to be revised, to reflect greater diversity, as this happens too infrequently for our purposes here.

Sceptics will rightly point out, though, that adding a wider range of scholars requires more work to be completed by the teacher and the students and under the pressure of time. Sceptics will also rightly point out that you can get 100% in the exam, simply by mastering the named content and scholars on the specification, rendering this extra study unnecessary. Again, I completely understand, both as a classroom teacher and as an experienced examiner for both GCSE and A Level. I would add that there is also the vital issue of access to relevant and suitable materials, not to mention the gaps in our own subject knowledge as teachers.

But despite these issues, if we just pander to the “minimal effective dose” method of only teaching the specification, we do our students a disservice. They come to our schools and colleges for a deep, broad and rich education. Exam results are one important aspect of this, but they aren’t the entire thing. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that and think deeply about it, even if we already know it on a superficial level.

As far as our own subject knowledge goes, this could be the most significant barrier. Teachers (myself included) can get too used to being the “expert”. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve mastered the teaching of the topics demanded by the exam board. After years of teaching the same specification over and over, you can become very comfortable (and justifiably so). However, we promote lifelong learning in our students. We teach students the value of education, both for practical reasons and for its own sake. It would be hypocritical if we didn’t also apply those principles to our own teaching. It might be time for us teachers to read more widely about our subjects.

After all, we are the champions of our subjects. We are the gate-keepers to the knowledge that our students can access. We shouldn’t limit their access to this knowledge by presenting only one section of it as the entire thing. It’s dishonest. We can do better.

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