Identity and Resilience: Thinking Differently about Equality and Diversity

Lou Mycroft

Lou Mycroft, Northern College, @TeachNorthern

Last year something special happened.  The planets metaphorically aligned to bring the right people together in the right place at the right time, to think differently about the concept formerly known as ‘E&D’.  We’d been deconstructing it for some time, teasing out the ‘E’ from the ‘D’ and playing around with definitions.  But we’re practical people in the Yorkshire heartlands and we needed to figure out how to make this new approach catch on.

For sure, the old approach isn’t working, except in an equalities monitoring sense and I’ve no argument with the importance of that – if we don’t know who we’re not reaching, we can’t go out and find them.  The wider, deeper truth is that the world gets less and less equal and as educators we need to do something about that, or else what is education for?  At The Northern College, we have a mission of transformational education (and an outstanding stamp of approval from Ofsted); one cornerstone of our ‘social purpose’ approach is embedding diversity.  But how can we make this meaningful and genuinely transformational for everyone involved?

The Equality Act 2010 provided us with a robust legal framework, enforcing accountability around the nine protected characteristics, and somehow the separate but equal value of ‘diversity’ got caught up in all of that.  Diversity goes way beyond those nine important boxes; it’s a truism that each human being is unique and if that’s the case how can we anticipate what each day will bring in teaching?  Diversity of thought, experience, belief and opinion are as fascinating as heritage, gender, sexuality and all the rest and character is formed by exploring our values, not our genes.  I’m glad that the Equality Act protects me from discrimination as a divorced person, but that feels much less significant to me than the identities I have as a single mum, a Northerner, an adopted person…which are nowhere in law.

Taking as a stimulus The Thinking Environment Diversity Process (Kline, 2009), we began to explore what would happen if teachers keyed into their own identities and began to think about how to ensure each of their students could be present in the ‘classroom’ (or wherever) as themselves.  And that’s the definition of diversity that we came up with as a consequence of the SFA funded EDIF 2014 Diversity Programme we ran last year:

  • being present as yourself (students and tutors – also known as differentiation), plus
  • bringing in the perspectives of absent and invisible identities (through stories, images and suchlike)

The 45 graduates of the TeachDifferent Diversity Programme had the chance to think critically around their own approach to embedding diversity.  Each one of them testified to increased confidence and resilience in both planning for diversity and in capitalising on the ‘equality gifts’ teaching offers up to us on a regular basis.  That’s after one study day.  The seeds of transformation need not cost more than some dedicated time.

This year, we’ve taken that work further through a subsequent round of EDIF (Equality and Diversity Innovation Fund) funding from the SFA.  The TeachDifferent Identities Programme has been stimulated by the NUS Black Students #whitecurriculum movement at University College, London.  Their 20 minute film ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ shocked us into confronting issues of privilege and introduced the concept of ‘white work’ and a broader definition of ‘whiteness’ as being not just about race.  We’ve also stumbled our way to a more tacit understanding of queer theory, not without plenty of welcome challenge along the way and claiming no expertise but a willingness to see the world through different lenses.

Although embedding diversity as part of the culture of an organisation needs buy-in from the very top, culture change happens when the energy is shared by all – leadership of ideas works where there’s room for creativity and autonomous thinking:  spaces to ‘dance’ (Daley, Orr and Petrie, 2015).  What we discovered last year is that a single study day, supported by an online community of praxis, can open those spaces up in any organisation willing to take a chance. Given the chance to think differently, teachers will come up with their own ideas to transform their organisation’s approach to ‘identity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’.  But they need space, energy, creativity and an organisational culture that will allow this to happen.

What’s needed here are concepts currently under scrutiny in educational circles – ideas leadership and entrepreneurial resilience.  Not easy for a sector in thrall to the demands of austerity, but not impossible, given the deal-breaker of a mindset which is about making things happen.  Great strides in embedding diversity are possible once you shift the assumption that everything you do is dependent on the ‘E&D budget’.  There are some fantastic resources out there (including all the materials from our Diversity Programme, so you can run it yourself). The Equalities Toolkit is stuffed full of stories, photos, research findings, films, session materials, music and art – and the experiences of pioneering educators (also known as ‘theory’).  Everything, in fact, that you could need.  Your job if you are reading this is to create space to make thinking happen.

We’re great believers in praxis at The Northern College – action and reflexion to bring about change, as Horton and Freire would say – but there’s something about theory (of any kind) that gets in the way of teaching for many people.  And yet ‘theory’ is one of the most powerful ways to change thinking.  Our approach is an equalizing one, we think of thinkers (‘theorists’) as our friends and our Community of Praxis is accompanied by bell hooks, Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, Stephen Brookfield and Nancy Kline all the way (see ‘More’ at the end of this blog for some inspiring reading).  Take heart from those who have walked the road before you.  Together, we can change what education is:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

Margaret Mead


More to Inspire…

Foundation Equality & Diversity strategy and action plan 

Thank you for the Data – educators not afraid to look silly in pursuit of increased commitment to equalities monitoring

The Equalities Toolkit –  for everything you need to deliver the TeachDifferent Diversity Programme – and much more.

Why is My Curriculum White? The #whitecurriculum movement.  Every educator should watch this.

TeachDifferent:  Identities  and @tdidentities creative work by educators growing self-awareness around identity and privilege.

More Time to Think by Nancy Kline – for practical applications of the Thinking Environment, enabling each student to be present as themselves.

The TeachNorthern Blog 

We Make the Road by Walking by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire – to remind you that education really can change the world.

Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks – to unleash your righteous anger about injustice (and to give you hope)

Creative and Critical Thinking by Stephen Brookfield –  because sometimes a really good lecture is the best inspiration

Love at Work by Nigel Cutts – thinking differently about leadership and organisations

The Element by Ken Robinson – helping you find your passion

Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses edited by Maire Daley, Kevin Orr and Joel Petrie – for educators who have not grown cynical


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