Creating inclusive classrooms: Intersectionality in curriculum and classroom

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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How can teachers ensure that all students from diverse backgrounds are seen and heard in their lessons and the curriculum? Sophia Kapcia considers the research evidence and offers some pointers for the classroom

Education continues to be one of the most crucial determining factors of social inequalities across groups. The most predominant inequity in the British educational system is the inequality that exists with class, race, and gender (Strand, 2015; Barone & Schizzerotto, 2011).

The intersection of class, race, and gender are social factors that impact pupils' educational success. Teachers have tried to address the inequality of attainment by discretely attempting to meet the needs of class, race, ethnicity, gender or SEND by treating them as if they are disconnected, different and separate.

This approach has proven to be a slow process with a low success rate in terms of tackling the problem of inequality. It also has led to further problems because, for example, gender does not independently predict attainment, while for some groups, ethnicity appears to be more important when accessing attainment while for other groups social class seems to be the more important element.

Trying to analyse this intersectionality is futile, therefore, unless we also focus on the impact of all these factors and how they affect a student's ability to successfully access education (Strand, 2014).

Equity within education

I am an English teacher and leader of teaching with 20 years’ experience within the secondary setting. I am deeply concerned with equity in the English classroom. The research reveals that schools need to focus on underachievement and its association with various social factors rather than focusing solely on one factor, such as gender.

Intersectional pedagogy is a methodology of teaching and learning where the inequality and marginalisation caused from intersecting social identities are understood, clarified, and interrogated.

Intersectionality is pertinent for teachers and schools because it is vital that we develop more than a passing awareness of how to use an intersectionality framework to understand how historical and contemporary manifestations of identity, difference, and disadvantage continue to shape life chances and outcomes for pupils.

In the current system, students are often evaluated by only one identity marker. This fails to provide the support students need and only serves to reinforce inequality and inequity within the education system but also wider society.

What can we do?

How can teachers ensure that all students from diverse backgrounds are seen and heard in their lessons and the curriculum?

There is a need to put proper methods and strategies in place to tackle this problem of inequality (the unequal distribution and access to educational opportunities or resources due to genetic or other factors) and inequity (the social unjust differences arising from personal or social circumstances, for example, family background, ethnic origin or gender which act to limit and restrict pupils from achieving their educational potential) that exists in education.

We must develop our understanding of how social class and race alongside gender is crucial in helping to address the issue of educational inequity in UK schools (Strand, 2010).

Teachers and educational systems must be challenged to develop a more distinctive account of educational achievement or underachievement which encapsulates an intersectionality approach. In this context, the theory of intersectionality can be a useful investigative tool for thinking about and developing effective strategies to achieve equity (Hill Collins & Bilge, 2016).

An intersectional classroom and curriculum

The following strategies are interspersed with illustrative quotations that arose from the interviews for my current PhD research –

Intersectional pedagogy: Its place in the secondary English language classroom and aim to provide teachers with practical strategies in creating a more intersectional classroom and curriculum

1, Create an atmosphere of belonging and identity

“It's important to understand the background of the students in terms of where they're from, in terms of their class, in terms of what they're exposed to, in terms of their gender. You tailor your teaching style to meet all these needs.”

This idea of belonging is fundamental to the methodology of intersectionality because it places the individual in a place of autonomy and acceptance.

The quote above emphasises the idea of belonging and identity in the way an inclusive atmosphere can be fostered and engendered within classrooms by teachers. This can be done by use of narratives which are linked to identity and experience.

Davis (2006) sees an individual’s sense of self as “always producing itself through the combined processes of being and becoming, belonging and longing to belong”. Consequently, narratives of identity and belonging can also be used to foster not only belonging but also self-worth within students.

2, Centre and acknowledge all pupils

I make sure to have a variety of different races and abilities like pictures of people in a wheelchair not for any specific disability reference but because people in wheelchairs can be authors or teachers or whatever it is they want to be. I try and look at a variety of texts by authors who aren’t well known by the pupils or has a background that has been marginalised.

This quote concurs with researchers like Jones and Wijeyesinghe (2011) who argue that in order to apply an intersectional framework to teaching, the experiences of people of colour need to be centred and integrated throughout the curriculum, for example through the use of texts and resources.

The idea of this is that centring would focus on adopting different strategies to teaching by placing pupils of colour at the centre of teaching –not just on the periphery as a token gesture placed on one piece of course material. This will allow for essential focus and attention on subject and curriculum content as well as pupils.

Additionally, an intersectional lens in education allows teachers to identify the interaction of multiple factors that lead to discriminatory processes in schools towards different student groups. It also allows access to a wide range of educational and social opportunities for all children.

With this in mind adopting an intersectional framework means that teachers and educational practitioners must be deliberate about embedding intersectional practices in their lessons and the curriculum. It cannot be by chance. The texts, resources, videos and all multimodal resources must be chosen with an intersectional lens.

3, Deliver high-quality education

A high-quality education unlocks opportunity and helps all children irrespective of backgrounds, race, or gender to succeed. Therefore, the task is left to teachers to become agents of change in creating an educational system which is an end in itself, a space that people search for so that they may become something else because they are what they are rather than the means of getting ahead of others and stealing a competitive edge.

Building on this, researchers such as Jones and Wijeyesinghe (2011), and Dill and Zambrana (2009) argue that pedagogic processes are critical in bringing about genuine change and improving educational attainment for all pupils.

Case (2017) further outlines that pedagogic processes are key when analysing educational attainment and the relationship between school policy and everyday practice in the classroom because teachers and educators need a clear and a precise model for them to effectively embed intersectionality across the curriculum.

4, Become culturally aware

Historically, it's been more of a like, oh, you know these students of a Black background, so this might be suitable. These students from this class and this might be suitable, but obviously intersectionality is acknowledging that students have so many different influences, identities and backgrounds that affect their learning, so it's not as easy. We have a situation where we still in schools … put children in a box. But it's not that easy in terms of teaching and learning to discriminate in that way and say this is going to work for all Black students, for girls or for boys.

Teachers need to include all their students’ cultural experiences in the curriculum. Giving your students visibility will empower them and stop them having to fight to be seen or heard. Teachers should never assume to know everything about their pupils’ background and identity.

Dill and Zambrana (2009) state that if teachers believe that they know everything about pupils’ identity and background the drawback of this can be what they call “everyday racism”. This can occur when situations that exist are so entrenched and widespread that they go unnoticed.

These instances of everyday racism must be challenged, and discussions of power and privilege should be integrated into the curriculum. Teachers therefore need to development an intellectual curiosity about their students and their different cultural experiences.

5, Use students’ prior knowledge such as their experiences and background

Along with being culturally aware, teachers also need to use what their students already know – their prior learning and experiences – to support the cognitive load of new learning.

Teachers must support their pupils to make connections in their learning by linking new content to prior learning and plan opportunities in their lessons to check for their pupils’ prior knowledge while teaching foundational content until it is secure, before moving on to new and more complex learning. This will allow the curriculum to be accessible for all pupils.

Furthermore, all students have different starting points, consequently, differentiation by task has the disadvantage of putting a ceiling on pupils’ attainment. However, scaffolding learning can support each pupil whatever their starting point, gender, race or background to achieve academic success.

6, Promote social justice and social change

The fact that I'm from South Africa, I use that a lot in terms of helping, especially that particular topic of racism. I use the fact of my background, where I'm from and how I've addressed it and how our country has addressed it in South Africa to try and get (students) to understand.”

Teachers must plan lessons that focus on social justice issues and generate discussion around it. For example, in English one of our schemes of work focuses on social justice issues and students get to write in different genres and about different topics for which they have a passion or an interest – for example, racism, sexism, gender inequality and others.

Teachers can also use their identities and personal experience to also support their pupils as seen in the quote above. Teachers therefore must be able to engage in these sensitive topics within the classroom.

  • Sophia Kapcia is a secondary school English teacher and a final year PhD researcher in education and social justice.

Further information & references

  • Barone & Schizzerotto: Introduction, European Societies (13,3), 2011.
  • Case (ed): Intersectional pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice. Routledge, 2017.
  • Davis: Characterizing productive reflection among preservice elementary teachers: Seeing what matters, Teaching and Teacher Education (22,3), 2006.
  • Dill & Zambrana: Critical thinking about inequality: An emerging lens. In Emerging Intersections: Race, Class, and Gender in Theory, Policy, and Practice, Dill & Zambrana (eds), 2009
  • Hill Collins & Bilge: Intersectionality; Key concepts, Polity Press, 2016.
  • Jones & Wijeyesinghe: The promises and challenges of teaching from an intersectional perspective: Core components and applied strategies, New Directions for Teaching and Learning (125), 2011.
  • Strand: Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England: Trends over time, DfE, 2015.
  • Strand: School effects and ethnic, gender and socio-economic gaps in educational achievement at age 11, Oxford Review of Education (40,2), 2014.
  • Strand: Do some schools narrow the gap? Differential school effectiveness by ethnicity, gender, poverty, and prior achievement, School Effectiveness and School Improvement (21, 3), 2010.


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