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What we can learn from different countries' education systems

This year, Penguin is partnering with The Runnymede Trust to explore how schools in the UK can be supported to make the teaching and learning of English Literature more inclusive by getting more books by writers of colour into the hands of educators and pupils.

The Lit in Colour campaign is just one of many efforts taking place all around the world to try and make education a more representative of contemporary multicultural society – while providing a growing body of evidence around why it matters and what we all stand to gain as a result.

A 2018 study in Sweden found that “higher exposure [to critical thinking and multiculturalism] is related to lower levels of anti-immigrant attitudes”; more diverse perspectives help to reduce “othering” and “us versus them” mentalities. The same thinking underpinned the Scottish parliament’s decision, in the same year, to introduce mandatory teaching of LGBTQ+ issues, rights, and history in all its state schools – a world first according to Scotland’s education secretary John Swinney.

“Quite simply put, it is no longer acceptable to claim your school celebrates diversity because there are posters of black sportspeople in the PE department corridors, or because there is an effort to put in an assembly on black history in October every year,” the teacher and speaker Bennie Cara wrote in Schools Week last year, shortly after the murder of George Floyd led to global anti-racism demonstrations. “Diversity can’t be a bolt-on to your curriculum.”

Here, we take a look at some interesting examples from around the world of where education has taken significant strides forward in making all levels of education – including the teaching of literature – more inclusive.

Canada

In recent years there have been a couple of moves taken by education bodies in Canada to diversify the literature curriculum. In 2017, there was an Inclusive Education Summit in British Columbia that sought to assess and improve the extent of inclusive education in schools. Later that year, high school students in Ontario swapped long-taught books such as Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies for contemporary texts such as A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese.

Different schools in Canada are trying different approaches to encourage students to better see themselves in the books they study, including being allowed to choose from a selection of books themselves. Lynn Filliter, Head of English at Jean Augustine school, said they “try to be thoughtful about having the characters in the novels be reflective of students in our classrooms. We’re a very diverse board. So our books should also be very diverse.” Titles include How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.

Last year, eight schools in Greater Essex County changed the literature taught to Grade 11 English pupils (aged 16-17) to books written by Indigenous authors. Course material now includes Indian HorseIn this Together and Seven Fallen Feathers, and the course has a new name: Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices.

“It's vitally important that Canadian school children learn these stories, and get a chance to hear these stories," said Sandra Muse Isaacs, an associate professor of Indigenous Literature at the University of Windsor. "For the most part, they've been ignored or overlooked or placed in the past history. Our stories predate Canada. It's as simple as that."

South Africa

In 2017, South Africa’s Department of Basic Education announced they were looking to review the national curriculum in the wake of increased advocacy for a more representative curriculum in universities and schools, sparked by the Fees Must Fall student protests which started the year before. Human rights, inclusivity, environmental and social justice are now all key components of South Africa’s curriculum, which aims to ensure that students are “sensitive to issues of diversity such as poverty, inequality, race, gender, language, age, disability and other factors”. 

Inclusivity is also crucial in how lessons are taught, as well as what is being taught. Since 2009, English and Afrikaans have been the authorised LoLT (languages of learning and teaching), but only 23% of South Africans identify either language as their mother tongue. There are in fact 11 official languages in the country, and a pilot scheme run by the department found that students being taught and examined in their preferred language scored more highly in tests. As a result, in 2020, South Africa’s Department for Basic Education announced plans to allow schools to encourage teaching in local mother tongues.

New Zealand

New Zealand’s attitude to diversity and equality throughout its school curriculum is considerable: cultural diversity is baked into the curriculum as one of its eight key principles. 

This recognises that children bring diverse experience and cultural references to the classroom, and that no one perspective should be preferred over another. If children can see themselves in school – and if the learning they have gleaned from their homes and communities is valued on a level with that of their school teaching – they are more likely to invest in their learning. The study of New Zealand and world literature contributes to this developing sense of self, as well as awareness of the country’s bicultural heritage and wider understanding of the world.

In primary school, the Ā Mātou Kōrero Our Stories series allow younger pupils to celebrate the Kiwi Muslim community. The series emerged as a collaboration between the New Zealand Ministry of Education and the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, in response to the Christchurch mosque shootings of March, 2019.

Through the internet and especially social media, many pupils enjoy significantly greater access to world knowledge, language, and experience than their parents and grandparents had as children. In an influential film commissioned by the New Zealand Curriculum, Rae Si'ilata, lecturer in bi-literacy at Auckland University explained that it was crucial to look at students’ cultural contexts and to reflect and affirm their identifies. “School leaders and teachers need to have a view of adding to, rather than replacing what students are coming in with,” she said. 

To learn more about how Penguin’s Lit in Colour campaign is progressing, including recent news that exam board OCR has joined the campaign and pledged to add more representative set texts to its GCSE and A Level curriculum, click here.

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