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Cultural diversity in geography education

“As a subject at the forefront of representing a richly diverse world, geography should have a fundamental grounding in diversity. The power of diversity in geography serves to tackle stereotypes, dismantle dominant narratives, improve representation of places and people, and empower students from all backgrounds through developing a multifaceted view of the world and their place within it.”

Milner, Robinson and Garcia, Teaching Geography, 2021

Topics on this page:

The political and policy context | Tackling racism in geographical education | Improving your racial literacy | Teaching about race and diversity in geography | Key readings about race and diversity in geography education | Considering race and representations in your teaching | Cultural diversity in the curriculum | Reading

Introduction

In the academic discipline cultural diversity is an important part of human geography. In schools, geography has plenty of opportunity to explore ideas of race, ethnicity and equality when it examines differences and inequalities causes by a range of factors in today’s world from COVID-19 to climate change.

Puttick and Murrey (2020) write about the detailed anti-racist conversations and internal debates within geography over the past several decades. The study of Black and decolonial geographies highlight the ways in which xenophobia, racial injustice, white supremacy and questions of race are vital for understanding and transforming contemporary societies.

Within cultural geography, anti-racist geographies provide powerful frameworks to address white supremacy and institutionalised racisms. There has also been a clear recognition that the history of the discipline is intertwined with imperialism and colonialism.

The political and policy context

Politicians have used the school curriculum to promote different agendas in recent years, particularly in the context of culture and diversity. The Labour government in 2002 made ‘Citizenship’ a statutory part of the school curriculum and from 2006 schools were required to take responsibility for teaching about and promoting com­munity cohesion.

In 2011 Keith Ajegbo led the writing of a curriculum review entitled Diversity and Citizenship with a focus on the teaching of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity across the curriculum and his views about geography teaching are set out in his article in Teaching Geography.

In 2011, Ofsted wrote:

‘Geography education encourages students to ….. appreciate the diversity of people’s backgrounds. Geography also helps students to understand society better. Appreciating diversity encourages positive relationships and shared values. It promotes tolerance and partnership, within local and wider communities.’ (Ofsted, Geography: Learning to make a world of difference)

The political agenda changed with the 2010 government and the ‘Big Society’ was the catchphrase. Issues around religious and ethnic diversity were put to one side and community cohesion was no longer a focus. In 2014 citizenship changed emphasis to concentrate on democratic government and the government promoted ‘fundamental British values’. Ofsted interpreted this broadly and their comment suggests that the geography curriculum had an important contribution to make:

The cultural development of students is shown by their understanding and appreciation of the range of different cultures within school and further afield as an essential element of their preparation for life in modern Britain.’ (Ofsted 2014)

In 2020 the government set up the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities at a time of concern about police treatment of black people. The report was strongly critiqued for and many felt it did not move forward the national debate. Tim Cresswell, an academic geographer, sets out in this blogpost, how the idea of ‘geography’ was misrepresented in the report.

In 2020 the Runnymede Trust published Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools which urges for greater racial literacy among teachers and recommends  that

Considerations of race and racism, from an antiracist perspective, should be embedded more fully across the school curriculum ….. The production of a racially literate society should be considered a fundamentally important aspect of schooling.’

Tackling racism in geographical education

School geography teaches students about a richly diverse world, but until recently geography education in England has been very quiet about race; this has been described as a ‘deafening silence’ by Puttick and Murrey (2020). Unlike school geography, the academic discipline has confronted racial inequalities and ‘whiteness’ and taken a significant interest in ‘decolonisation’. Kearns (2020 and 2021) discusses our collective ‘obligation to decolonise the space and institutional memory of our discipline‘.

  • Read Morgan and Lambert, which discusses the importance of addressing race and racism within the geography curriculum in schools and underscores the importance of developing a racially literate geography education.
  • Look at Decolonising Geography which is a website written by a collective of geography educators exploring what it means to decolonise the curriculum. Look at ‘explore’ on the menu for a list of readings to follow up on.

Geography teachers need to take race seriously, and you should follow up the reading listed below. In school geography these issues are being pioneered by young teachers such as Sarah Trolley (2000) who has designed activities that enable students to explore the colonial histories of geography. Her work has been recognised by the Geographical Association’s Excellence in Leading Geography Award.

The murder of George Floyd in spring 2020 was a wake-up call for geography teachers and, triggered by the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, it began to stimulate more anti-racist thinking and how this should influence geography teaching. As Kinder and Pike (2021) observe, geography as a subject is disproportionately and disconcertingly white.

The numbers of Black students studying geography at university are low and this can only be remedied in schools. All geography teachers have a responsibility to consider carefully the reasons for this lack of diversity in our subject and ensure that we are committed to promoting a change in geography education. We should all reflect on exactly how our geography teaching can contribute to an understanding of the issues involved.

Improving your racial literacy

We face a growth in intolerance and racism in society and race and racism are not well understood. ‘Race’ has no genetic or biological function. It is a social/political construct, but it is mistakenly and widely used to denote difference. It affects every single person, and yet we very often deny it affects us or our behaviours, at school or in life more generally. As a citizen and a new teacher, have you thought deeply about this?

Geography teachers need a conceptual and theoretical understanding of race and racism and the part it has played over centuries to create white privilege and marginalise black people. You need to understand the history and geography of Britain as a multicultural society. Lambert and Morgan (2023) explain:

When it comes to race and racism in geography, teachers need to understand something of the history of race in the UK; how educational discourse on race has evolved as a result of Black and other minority ethnic struggle; and have a growing awareness of how race and racism “works” in education and in wider society. Geography teachers should also have some grasp of how their own subject discipline has grappled with concepts of race and racisms.

If you study the origins of geography as a school subject you may be surprised, and dismayed, to realise that the subject that was a product of the white supremacy in the colonial era. Geography has had a role in establishing some of the racist attitudes that exist in our society today. Lambert and Morgan (2023) note that geography:

Was in many ways the Empire subject, deeply involved in the development of a racist world view and embedding perceptions of British exceptionalism based partly on convenient theories such as environmental determinism. This historical legacy has cast its shadow to the present day.

Improve your racial literacy in the context of geography education by reading widely about race and racism. Puttick and Murrey (2020) is a good place to start and this article has an extensive list of references. 

Take time to talk with Black people, both in and out of school, and hear about their first-hand experiences of living in the UK today. Then you will be in a better position to consider how to address issues of race and racism in your lessons and teach a fair and informed geography to your students.

Consider how you will represent past UK geographies to your students. For example, do you teach that the industrial revolution was based on our abundant coal resources and industrial inventions? Or do you recognise the role played by the profits that had been made from the slave trade? Black voices have been providing these kinds of perspectives for decades.

  • Refer to slide 12 (Becoming Anti-Racist) in Why is ‘wider [extensive] reading’ important for learners? in Rackley, K.M. and Owen, C. (2023) ‘Rethinking wider reading through the Reteach project’, GA Conference presentation, April.
  • Refer to ‘Reflections on a CPD event to explore decolonisation in the geography curriculum’ by Iain Palot with Hafsa Bobat Garcia and Ellie Barker in Geography Matters, Spring 2023 from the GA’s Post-16 & HE Phase Committee.

Finally, heed this advice from Lambert and Morgan (2023):


Being a racially literate teacher means one has to do the work — not only to understand systems of and structures, the changing subject matters, etc. — but also to see how one might be carrying unexamined assumptions that might benefit from critical reflection. In this task we are never finally “done”.

Teaching about race and diversity in geography

School geography has an important part to play in enabling enhanced racial literacy in our students and the geography curriculum should educate students so that they leave school with a good grounding in diversity. 

We must teach our students how to create, and be part of, a society that offers positive opportunities for all and rejects all forms of injustice in an anti-racist future. This is particularly important in predominantly white classrooms.

Milner, Robinson, and Garcia (2021) make it clear that they see a geography teachers’ role is to help students shape their understanding of the world and their place within it. They remind us that we:

‘hold a crucial responsibility in representing the world accurately, fairly and truthfully, and in a way that does not solely reflect the worldview of predominantly White geography scholars. Concurrently, we must work within the parameters set out by exam specifications, the National Curriculum, and perhaps even our own geographical education, which may be limited by a lack of diversity in higher education.

The word ‘race’ does not appear in the national requirements for geography. However, teachers are the makers of the curriculum in their classrooms and geographers can only hope that government requirements will catch up eventually. A school geography curriculum should acknowledge racism, and help everyone to better understand how it affects society through the lived experience of adults and young people.

It should recognise the relationships between imperialism, colonialism, development and social/environmental injustices in the geography taught and acknowledge that in our country’s imperial and colonial past there has been some imperialist whitewashing of British geography.

There should be no excuses, nowhere to hide. We must educate ourselves about the truths of racism, diversity, inequalities and the establishment of colonial power and ensure that we draw on this knowledge in our teaching.

Key readings about race and diversity in geography education

  • Ajegbo, K. (2011) ‘Diversity, citizenship and cohesion’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Kearns, G. (2020) ‘Topple the racists 1: decolonising the space and institutional memory of the university’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Kearns, G. (2021) ‘Topple the racists 2: decolonising the space and institutional memory of geography’, Geography, Spring.
  • Kinder, A. and Pike, S. (2021) ‘Diversity and inclusion’, The GA Magazine, Summer, p 8.
  • Lambert, D. and Morgan, J. (2023) ‘Geography education and racial literacy’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Milner, C., Robinson, H. and Garcia, H. (2021) ‘How to start a conversation about diversity in education’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Mitra, R. (2022) ‘Race, Identity and Diversity in Geography’, Geography Subject Knowledge, Programme, Royal Geographical Society.
  • Morgan, J. and Lambert, D. (2023) Race, Racism and the Geography Curriculum, London: Bloomsbury 
  • Morgan, J. and Lambert, D. (2024) ‘Race, racism and the geography curriculum’, Geography, Spring.
  • Puttick, S. and Murrey, A. (2020) ‘Confronting the deafening silence on race in geography education in England: learning from anti-racist, decolonial and Black geographies’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Tolley, S. (2020) ‘Prisoners of Geography? How contextualising a book can develop students’ understandings of geography, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • RGS-IBG SK programme, Race, identity and diversity in geography.

Geography has a vital role to play in helping students understand what has happened in the past and unravel the ways this affected the culture–environment relationship of millions of people through history. 

Dipo Faloyin, in his book Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking stereotypes of modern Africa, argues that we need to address colonialism and stop justifying it; and stop the single narrative of pain and suffering that is frequently continued through charities. 

Instead, we should capture a sense of the complex individual identities and diversities that characterise Africa but which have historically been denied and misunderstood. The two geography articles shown below provide geography insights into the importance of this book for teachers.  

  • Faloyin, D. (2022) Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking stereotypes of modern Africa. London: Vintage.
  • Faloyin, D and Finn, M. (2023) ‘Interview with … : Dipo Faloyin, author of Africa Is Not A Country’, Geography, Spring. 
  • Robinson, H. (2023) ‘Africa Is Not A Country by Dipo Faloyin’, Geography, Spring.

Also refer to Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 7.

These two presentations from the GA Conference provide thought-provoking ideas on challenging stereotypes and moving forward with diverse representations. They should help you to introduce diversity, equity and inclusiveness into your curriculum. 

  • O’Connor, A., Haward, K. and  Chandrasingh, R. (2023) Learning from, not about: the pedagogies of inclusive case studies’, GA Conference Presentation, April. They write, ‘We started with what our underpinning values were in the delivery of our curriculum. We soon realised that we couldn’t possibly achieve these without having Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the heart of everything we do. An integral stream of thought through our curriculum. We began our journey rooted in research and some really insightful, influential readings. We made sure we were reflective engaged and open to challenging our own thoughts and making changes’. 

Read Keith Ajegbo’s article in Teaching Geography, Summer 2011. Discuss with your mentor, and/or other teachers in your school, some of the questions raised such as:

  • How might life be different for students in your school who live in a white community or in a multicultural one?
  • Can geography help students understand what living in different situations in different parts of the UK might mean to how life is perceived and experienced and how life-chances are created or denied?
  • Can we help students to understand how the struggles for equal opportunities in the UK are played out across urban and rural environments?
  • How can we help students view people of different races and see beyond the stereotypes in a world in which many geo-cultural and geo-political conflicts are racialised.
  • How can we make diversity education relevant to white students and in largely white communities?
  • How can we help young people, like the Newham boy in the article, challenge perceptions that might limit their view of themselves and their possibilities?
  • Why do you think geography is an important subject for discussing issues of race and diversity?

Considering race and representations in your teaching

You should make every effort to embed anti-racism in your geography teaching. Consider carefully what and how you teach about ‘development’, human populations, migration, globalisation etc. In fact, a good deal of your day to day teaching can provide an appropriate context for promoting racial literacy and ideas of fairness, tolerance and equality.

Choose the geographical sources, contexts, case studies and images that you use very carefully.  A poorly selected, misrepresentative or inappropriate resource can at best offend, or at worst do harm and fuel racist attitudes. Take particular care when you are identifying ‘issues’ to study in geography. These may reflect western values but not be recognised as issues by Black students or those from diverse backgrounds.

Our classrooms are increasingly diverse  and we should reflect this in the curriculum we teach and the resources we use to teach our students how our economy, society and environments are shaped today and have been in the past.

Anderson et al (2022) introduce the concept of racial capitalism to highlight how our global capitalist economy is bound up with, and in turn shaped by, processes of racialisation and produced inequalities. They encourage us to take a different stance on teaching topics such as migration and natural hazards by planning lessons from that perspective and contend that if we do not do so it amounts to telling ‘half a story’.

  • Read Anderson, N., Habib, B., Harris, S., Whittall, and Winter, C. (2022) ‘Racial capitalism and the school geography curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Geography teachers need to always be on their guard to avoid reinforcing inequality and racism. Often they can appear to be apparently ‘minor’ instances and simple errors, but they can be insidious, and repeated instances of misrepresentation and prejudice are problematic.

If lessons repeatedly use materials that make North-South comparisons and emphasise rich-poor comparison it reinforces differences and ‘Othering’.  If you look through textbooks and geography material, people of colour are often represented in less developed regions as ‘poor’, ‘deprived’ and ‘underdeveloped’. Review your lessons for any instances and seek out alternative resources to use.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 59 ‘What is “othering”?’
  • Rachael Robinson’s blog on How can we decolonise geography? is a stimulating read and she asks three very pertinent questions of geography teachers about representation in geography:
    • How are students represented in your lessons?
    • What do ‘geographers’ look like in textbooks you use?
    • What displays do you use to promote geography?

Sammar (2024) discusses ways to challenge racism in the geography curriculum.  She advocates using ‘personal geographies’ and a ‘Who am I?’ activity to enable the teacher and their students to gain an insight into understanding diversity in their classroom. She encourages us to become an anti-racist geography teacher, confront racism and dismantle “the ‘colonial’ legacy of our ‘colonial’ subject”.  

  • Read Sammar, I. (2024) ‘Decolonial and anti-racist pedagogy through personal geographies’, Teaching Geography, Spring. Study carefully Figure 4 and consider how you can be an anti-racist geography teacher. 

Use the DFE Framework criteria to reflect on your own professional development in this area. Evaluate how well you ‘know that’ and ‘know how to’ in relation to this context.

  • Ask yourself: ‘do I teach racist geography?’
  • Analyse your curriculum materials and conduct curriculum audits to identify explicit/implicit racist bias.
  • Access anti-racist education training.
  • Read the work of anti-racist and Black Geographers.
  • ‘Unpack your white privilege knapsack’.
  • Join, learn & be active in the decolonising geography movement.
  • Encourage global majority students to study geography & become geography teachers.
  • Raise white curriculum issues with other teachers and your school.
  • Challenge requests that you teach from resources that you think promote racism.

(Adapted from Winter 2021)

In geography lessons students’ ideas about race must be explored and discussed openly and students should be encouraged to speak out about racist issues that they care about. 

Black students should not be treated as an homogenous group; every student has an identity which is unique to them and should be given the opportunity to express what matters to them. Any expressions of racial inequality and oppressive racial norms and assumptions should be challenged

  • Read Kitchen, R. (2018) ‘Exploring ethnic minority students’ stories through their representations’, Geography, Spring. It explores how students of different ethnicities represent geographical knowledge and capture the richness and diversity of their stories.

It is important to challenge stereotypical views of people and places in your lessons. Use one or more of the activities in Roberts (2023) p 67, Figure 7.9 to develop a discussion in which stereotypes can be exposed as an integral part of an investigation into a place or theme.

  • Refer to ‘Challenging slum stereotypes’ by Hafsa Bobat Garcia in Geography Matters, Spring 2023 from the GA’s Post-16 & HE Phase Committee.

 

Cultural diversity in the curriculum

Good geography teachers plan opportunities to discuss with young people the important social processes and the political, economic and cultural forces that underpin identity and diversity.  They explore identity and cultures sensitively so that they celebrate difference but also recognise what we have in common.

Lambert and Morgan (2023) outline six principles that, they argue, underpin a racially literate geography curriculum, which are as follows:

  • People and places are dynamic and always changing; these do not operate neutrally and in the same way for all people.
  • Geographical facts are selected, prioritized and can frequently be contested; there is nearly always another way of looking at them.
  • Human agency is rarely unfettered and frequently involves disagreement: human processes always involve politics.
  • Race is a real and ‘felt’ social construction that both produces and is a product of economic, environmental, political and social processes that have been racialised.
  • Racism cannot be understood solely as irrational prejudice held by individuals. Racialisation points us to how racism ‘works’.
  • Theories in geography are not ‘given’ and are certainly not facts: theorizing always has relevant political, historical, economic and social context.

Look at this outline of a unit of work on Cultural understanding and diversity (from Planning your Key Stage 3 Curriculum by Eleanor Rawling).

Note in particular the rationale for teaching this unit, the high expectations and the importance given to experiences (not just case studies). It is essential that young people get a real understanding of the concept of cultural diversity and gain more than just learning a ‘definition’ of cultural diversity. .

As is shown in this example it is preferable to encourage students to explore diversity through geographical enquiry, rather than ‘show them’. Enquiries can focus on how people and places are represented in different ways and the reasons for differences. The questions can appear basic but will require students to address complex issues: Who am I? Where do I come from? Who is my family? What is my ‘story’? Who are the people around me? Where do they come from? What is their ‘story’?

Using the ideas illustrated on the example unit, develop some lessons for you to teach that focus on the concept of cultural understanding and diversity. Consider:

  • What would be the topic?
  • What resources will you use?
  • What kinds of student experiences will you focus on?
  • What outcomes will you look for and how will you assess if they have achieved them?

Be prepared to think broadly across the whole geography curriculum when considering topics in which to consider aspects of cultural diversity. Peak (2024) takes the subject of plate tectonics and hazards and gives some examples of how they can be used with students throughout the secondary phase to decolonise the geography curriculum. 

  • Read Peake, J. (2024) ‘Tectonic divergence: attempts at decolonising the secondary curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Summer

Sinclair and de Fonseka (2022) see it as our responsibility as teachers to use anti-racist pedagogies and engage with the bias found in geography resources and curricula to prevent the continuation of racist ideologies. They describe anti-racist pedagogy as one which:

  • Seeks to ‘challenge the negative and one-dimensional representation of non-white communities worldwide’ particularly through the use of dialogue.
  • Engages with learning as ‘something that relates to your knowledge of the context and the position you occupy as a person’. Context is necessary for understanding modern society.
  • Empower  teachers and students to actively create knowledge and change their understanding through reflection to identify and understand racism in order to create change.

For practical techniques and a case study of how the put this into practice in school refer to Sinclair, D. and de Fonseka, A. (2022) ‘Operationalising anti-racist pedagogy in a secondary geography classroom’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

In researching for ideas and resources for your lessons on cultural understanding and diversity, some of the sources you can explore for teaching content and strategies are set out below.

  • Refer to Teaching Geography (Summer 2011) which has several articles about teaching diversity. These raise important matters such as:
    • Developing students’ understanding of the ideas such as race, religion, socio-economic status and community cohesion
    • Teaching about complex issues to younger students without confusing them
    • Teaching the ‘what?’ of diversity; and also the ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’
    • Being wary of stereotypes
    • Making clear both similarities and differences
    • Using academic ideas such as ‘orientialism’ and ‘Thirdspace’.
  • Read the Think Piece on Teaching about Diversity by John Morgan. This includes information about mapping diversity and exploring pattern and process.
  • Read Martin, F. (2012) ‘The geographies of difference’, Geography, Autumn. This is a theme from her GA presidential lecture, arguing that there are several geographies, and exploring how we understand and value difference from the perspective of culture and identity.
  • These presentations both tackle the issues of identity, colonialism and Britishness
  • Refer to these new teacher webpages: