I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer…education that connects the will to know with the will to become. ― Bell Hooks
One mistake I’ve made over and over again: teaching traumatic events in history without understanding the need to embed them within a wider, and more empowering, social-historical narrative.
Picower’s work on the six elements of social justice has helped me understand the importance of sequencing, so that
1. students do not internalise the trauma of these events, and /or
2. see these events as the fault or inevitable condition of the victims’ existence
3. nor do these events define a people as powerless, voiceless, or lacking agency
Picower’s work is open source so that teachers can access it. And unlike most EEF research, it is qualitative – looking into case-studies of elementary curriculum sequencing – to examine the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of teaching material that addresses social injustice. The American elementary context is only problematic in the respect that Secondary teachers may need to collaborate across disciplines whereas Primary teachers have more flexibility within their own practice. This limitation aside, Picower’s work is game changing for middle and senior leaders with curriculum development responsibilities.
Her six steps for sequencing material related to social injustice are as follows:
- Self love and knowledge: “provides students with the historical background knowledge to recognize the strengths and resiliency of their communities.”
- Respect for others: “students gain respect for the history and characteristics of people different from themselves. By building on the natural empathy of children, teachers encourage students to care about “unfair” conditions that have affected others.”
- Issues of social injustice: “a critical examination of how identities impact people’s lived and material conditions. Students explore historical and current issues of social injustice, allowing them to identify “isms” and to decide whether they find these “fair.”
- Social movements and social change: “teaches students about how people have fought against oppression through social movements. Students learn that things don’t have to be how they are; unfair conditions can be changed, and students can contribute to that change.”
- Awareness raising: “students engage in activities that increase the awareness of others in their community about the social issues they are studying.”
- Social action: “students have the opportunity to experience what it means to struggle for justice by engaging in social action themselves.”
At Bristol Cathedral, our Decolonising Hub is looking at how we can work cooperatively across all disciplines to ensure these six points are used in an order which empowers students to change their world for the better. We noticed that no 1 & 2 are often combined when we teach any of our subjects as global disciplines. History, English, Geography, Citizenship and PSHE seem best placed to address 3 and 4. Art, Drama and Music seem well placed to contribute meaningfully to no 5 and 6. This year our goal is an exhibit that celebrates student work across the curriculum following Picower’s six steps.
As an example of how to do this in one discipline, our History department addresses this sequence in KS3 by teaching Africa Kingdoms in year 7, the Bristol involvement in the slave trade in year 8, and the Haitian Revolution in year 9. Students first learn about the academic, artistic and economic achievements of African kingdoms before learning about how Black Africans were exploited – so the limited Euro-centric narrative of the white man’s burden is robustly challenged. We also consider the cost of choosing oppression / exploitation over symbiotic trade and collaboration.
With the Haitian Revolution, students understand how an oppressed people were able to overcome tyranny. Black people are not simply represented as unfortunate victims saved by British emancipation, but as having agency and preceding British emancipation with their own by three decades.
To apply a micro-lense to sequencing, I’ve used Picower to think about how I present disturbing context for English texts in single lessons. For example, in the EMC’s excellent collection Diverse Shorts, the story “Brownies” by ZZ Packer addresses white beauty standards and the impact on young Black girls in 1980s USA. I use a video of the doll test to help students understand and empathise with the Black characters in the story.
This video shows several Black children point to a white (as opposed to a Black) doll when asked which is beautiful and good. The moment when Black children each identify themselves as the Black doll afterwards is deeply upsetting, and could serve to normalise these attitudes further if not preceded by content which shows this behaviour to be the likely effect of racist representations in mainstream media – and therefore in error.
So this year I started with the Black Panther’s Black is Beautiful movement in the 60s, and we looked at several examples of Black beauty across film and art (Step 1: Self Love / Knowledge and Step 2: Mutual Respect). Once we had looked at the qualities of these examples and why they were so successful in influencing style, we then discussed their awareness of these movements, and the extent to which Black beauty is mainstreamed in TV, film and advertisements. At this point, I showed the doll test (Step 3: Social Injustice).
Students were just as visibly moved by the doll test as in previous years, if not more so. But in our discussion afterwards, there was less a sense of defeat and pity and more of an understanding that feelings of inadequacy are down to mainstream media, and how race is represented. If Black beauty and excellence were represented more in the mainstream, the doll test might yield different results.
This level of thinking is not only ‘top band’ in terms of contextual analysis, but empowers students to challenge unfair and harmful narratives on the basis that there are better, richer narratives.
Many curriculum designers now recognise the benefits of sequencing knowledge using narratives for long-term memory (i.e. evidenced learning). But Picower’s work is also needed to unlock the agency of students to use that knowledge for meaningful social change.