Skip to content
Skip to main content

Including diversity in race, ethnicity and culture in your teaching

Updated Monday, 28 September 2020
Are you an educator, someone working with children or with adult students, who hopes to use the Black History Month resources to make your teaching practice more inclusive for pupils and students from a black or minority ethnic background? Here are some quick tips from Anita Naoko Pilgrim on how you might approach that work.


This approach looks to acknowledge and celebrate diverse cultures, often by including pictures and stories of people of diverse ethnicity and from different countries.

You might be doing this by:

  • Ensuring there are pictures and stories of people from diverse backgrounds in your learning materials.
  • Ensuring you include black and minority ethnic writers and artists, and writers and artists from other cultures and countries, in reading lists or the material you are using.
  • Putting books and films with storylines about race politics into the curriculum.

Things to watch out for:

  • Make sure that you are using positive representation, that you have not got pictures of white people smiling and succeeding, while the pictures of black and minority ethnic people are all in situations of poverty from under-developed economies.
  • Pictures of people in ‘traditional’ dress rather than of different people going about their daily work may mean your pupils and students get the message that these communities are for holidays and carnivals, rather than being serious working economies.
  • Ensure the pictures are related to the material they illustrate. Using pictures of kente cloth on a poster about textiles would be inclusive; using a photo of a woman in Ghanaian dress to illustrate a poster on maths, just to raise the number of pictures of black and minority ethnic people on the classroom wall, would be tokenistic.
  • Look to include diverse writers and artists on a range of subjects as normal parts of your curriculum, not just writing or painting about issues of race and ethnicity, and not just in Black History Month or South Asian Heritage Month.

Critics of multiculturalism have called it the 3 Ss: saris, steel drums and samosas. It’s argued that it gives us a false idea of culture as simply about colourful artefacts. It doesn’t engage in a critique of the underlying discriminatory processes that can make education exclusive rather than inclusive.

It’s argued that [multiculturalism] gives us a false idea of culture as simply about colourful artefacts.As an example, putting John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on the curriculum might seem to offer an opportunity to talk about the racism that is depicted in the novel. However we can’t assume pupils will come to that depiction from a liberal perspective. Cases have been reported of white pupils using racist language to black/minority ethnic pupils in the playground and then claiming they were only engaging in a literary exercise. 

A positive example are these free posters from the feminist science group Finding Ada. They show pupils what kinds of science careers exist: representing diverse people to encourage more women and more people from an ethnic minority background to consider a career in science.

Critical Race Theory (CRT)

In contrast to multiculturalism, CRT offers an explicitly political critique to support thinking about race. Gloria Ladson-Billings describes its emergence to counter a positivist liberal approach in Law. The slow pace of legal reform in the United States led thinkers to put forward the idea that racism is normal in American society. (An argument that is becoming more mainstream now.) Critical Race Theory particularly wanted to look at the way education supports young people to develop citizenship values, and give young people the means to critique the racism which it argues is endemic in North America.

CRT offers an explicitly political critique to support thinking about race.One of the principle proponents of Critical Race Theory in the UK is David Gillborn. Gillborn has been critical not just of the way black boys are subjected to racist perceptions of their academic ability. He points to the way that media reports will often focus on issues supposedly faced by white boys in education. By collapsing a number of categories including boys from a traveller community – who also face particular discrimination in education – into a ‘white’ category, policy makers can make a case for putting resources back towards white children as a whole, rather than invest in supporting black African and Caribbean boys.

CRT offers the opportunity to critique education at a macro political level, but what about delivering inclusivity in your classroom?

Critical Pedagogy

A celebrated book exploring how to teach in a way that considers race, class and gender/sexuality issues is bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. 

Education should teach those who are subordinated to become articulate and to liberate themselves.hooks’s writing, and CRT, build on the work of Paolo Freire, and his critical pedagogy approach. Freire’s thinking is aimed at ‘conscientisation’. He was teaching literacy to sugar cane workers and became critical of what he called the ‘banking method’: pouring knowledge into someone’s brain and hoping it would gain interest. He argued that education should teach those who are subordinated to become articulate and to liberate themselves.

bell hooks says: “…the academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” (p. 207)

Possible projects that a critical pedagogy approach might look at could include:

  • Can school councils support articulate pupils who will engage as better citizens? Do they provide ‘pupil voice’, or just act as pseudo-democratic facilitators of school governance?
  • Could going out to meet families in the homes of pupils thought of as ‘deficit’ in educational ability uncover ‘funds of knowledge’: ways of learning that are different to the mainstream school ways of learning. Can these be incorporated in lesson plans to encourage all our pupils in a richer education provision?
  • Do positive representations of black and minority ethnic people lead to better engagement and achievement by black and minority ethnic pupils and students, or is something more fundamental needed to narrow the ‘awarding gap’ – the seemingly entrenched set of low results that black and some other groups of minority ethnic pupils and students gain in our schools, colleges and universities.

Developing a reflexive action research project

If you are thinking of developing a project tackling issues of race at your place of educational practice, you might want to access reading lists and a learning group of fellow professionals, which you could find in a postgraduate programme of study. (The Open University offers several part-time postgraduate education opportunities, including a Masters in Inclusive Practice.)

A study by Bree Picower shows white teachers consistently trying to avoid acknowledging racist views they might have put forward.You may feel confident in your ability to spot discrimination and to provide fair and equitable teaching. However a study by Bree Picower shows white teachers consistently trying to avoid acknowledging racist views they might have put forward. An earlier study of teachers in an online learning programme also shows that the white teacher-students covertly exercised privilege over their colleagues (De Montes et al, 2002). Moderators’ efforts to be even-handed in dealing with problematic posting in the teacher-student forum ended in them becoming complicit with the covert racism. We can all be influenced by the messages society constructs around us, which are negative towards groups other than white, unless we make sure we have critical overview of our actions.

It’s from reading studies like these that I have personally come to favour a critical reflexive approach in my own teaching and learning. However I also think good policy has come out of a multicultural education approach in the four nations of the UK, compared to France, which has a secularist education policy. I’m thinking particularly of policy about religious dress at school. In the ‘headscarf’ debate, Britain took a view that for Muslim girls wearing a headscarf was of such religious and cultural significance in their community that guidance should be given to schools to allow this, while in France girls were banned from wearing a religious headscarf to school, although they were allowed to wear one that was a fashion item! Religion in secularist France is a private matter, and should not be celebrated in public places like schools. Religion in multicultural Britain is a community matter and should be respected by public institutions like schools.

The education policy in each of the four UK nations is different, since education is a devolved political matter. There are many interesting points of comparison between them, as well as with other nation states’ approaches, on equalities policy and practice in education. All four nations still have much work to do in providing a supportive education for all, though, as Kuba Shand-Baptiste argued in The Independent in January 2020.

References for educators

De Montes, L. E. S., Oran, S. M. and Willis, E. M. (2002) ‘Power, language, and identity: Voices from an online course’, Computers and Composition, 19(3), pp. 251–271.

Freire, P. (2006 [1970]) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York and London: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998) ‘Just what is critical race theory and what's it doing in a nice field like education?’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), pp. 7–24. doi:10.1080/095183998236863.

Picower, B. (2013) ‘You can't change what you don't see: Developing New Teachers’ Political Understanding of Education’, Journal of Transformative Education, 11(3) pp.170–189. doi:10.1177/1541344613502395.

Additional resources

Equalities and Human Rights Commission, publications on Equality Law and Education

Joseph Rowntree Foundation research on ethnicity

Runnymede Trust

Steele, C. (2010) Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York: W.W. Norton.

Tomlinson, S. (2019) Education and Race from Empire to Brexit. Bristol: Policy Press.


Become an OU student


Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?