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Creating an inclusive geography classroom

‘The ‘sensitive teacher’ seeks to develop students’ self-esteem, values students for who they are and creates a classroom climate in which all students can succeed.’

Biddulph et al, 2015

Topics on this page:

  • What is inclusion?
  • Students and educational disadvantage
  • An inclusive classroom
  • Inclusive fieldwork
  • Teaching an inclusive geography curriculum
  • Listen to students
  • Reading and references

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is a commitment to educate all children together. Every teacher has a responsibility to ‘include’ all students in the curriculum, regardless of their academic or physical ability, ethnicity, social class, gender or religious belief.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) should be at the heart of everything a geography teacher does in school. It is not only a legal requirement under The Equality Act 2010 but it’s also a moral principle that all should be treated equally, fairly, and with respect.

The Equality Act 2010 legally protects aspects of our identity, known as ‘protected characteristics’, from discrimination. These characteristics include disability, race, religion or belief, gender and sexual orientation. 

Teachers should take steps to meet the needs of students with ‘protected characteristics’ where they are different from the needs of others, e.g. disabilities, and tackle prejudice and promote understanding between students from different groups and communities.

Geography teachers should set high expectations for every student in their lessons. This means stretching more able students and, equally, providing challenge for students who have low levels of prior attainment or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Teachers’ Standards explicitly require you to:

Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge students’ and ‘adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all students’.

Biddulph et al (2021) vividly describe the alternative. They write, ‘exclusion can be insidious and very damaging’ and quote from Hart et al (2004) on their observations of students’ reactions:

‘They [pupils] learn very quickly about their standing in comparison with their peers, particularly in relation to their supposed ‘ability’. The words ‘more able’, ‘average’ and ‘less able’ may not be spoken in their hearing, but young people soon learn the category they belong to, and where their friends fit into this hierarchy of ability’.

Ofsted (2019) expects that a curriculum provides ‘the same academic, technical or vocational ambitions for almost all learners’ and for learners with high levels of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), it expects that the curriculum should be ‘designed to be ambitious and to meet their needs.’

Key reading
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 127-132.

Students and educational disadvantage

In its inspection handbook, Ofsted provides a working definition of ‘disadvantage’ when it describes how:

Inspectors will evaluate evidence of the impact of the curriculum, including on the most disadvantaged pupils. This includes pupils with SEND. It also includes pupils who meet the criteria for the school to receive pupil premium funding: pupils claiming free school meals at any point in the last 6 years, looked after children (children in local authority care) and/or children who left care through adoption or another formal route. In addition, it includes children in need of help and protection, receiving statutory local authority support from a social worker.

Recently, schools have been made more aware how social deprivation inhibits educational success. Ofsted’s report on Unseen Children in 2013 identified white British children from low-income backgrounds as a group at significant risk of underachievement. Birmingham University’s research in 2010 revealed that fewer students from ‘deprived’ households studied GCSE geography. Striving to achieve more inclusive geography classrooms is a way to help to overturn these statistics.

  • Read Weeden and Lambert (2010) about unequal access to geography for some students, particularly in disadvantaged inner city areas.

Since 2011, the ‘pupil premium’ has provided funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged students of all abilities and to ‘close the gaps’ between them and their peers.

  • Discuss with your geography mentor how pupil premium funding is used to support students in your school.

Biddulph et al (2021) discuss ‘ability thinking’ and the deterministic assumptions that can be made about the nature of pupils’ abilities. They warn against labelling students, which can communicate that a teacher expects less of some students than others. This effectively puts limits on their learning and creates educational disadvantage.

An inclusive classroom

You will teach geography to individuals and groups who have a range of special needs and come from different social and cultural contexts. Students do not fit neatly into categories and there may be several elements that contribute to an individual student’s identity. 

Get to know your students as individuals; start by learning their names quickly, so you can address them personally and they will be more comfortable and confident to contribute orally.

  • Read Hare (2018) for some practical advice on creating an inclusive classroom.

An inclusive classroom is a way of thinking that creates a learning environment appropriate for all. Students should be encouraged to cooperate with, and support, each other and geographical learning should be seen as a common enterprise. It is not helpful for a teacher to categorise or label students as ‘groups’.

Show students that everyone’s ideas are valued; one way to do this is by including work from a range of students in wall displays. Organise mixed ability groupings and use learning activities where students support each other.

  • Read Barton (2005), who describes an inclusive way of exploring students’ emotional responses to areas of the school with students with specific learning, behavioural and communication problems.

Sinclair (2022) explores a range of pedagogies for more inclusive geography teaching focussing on three central ideas:

  • Valuing the knowledge and lived experience of all members of the classroom as part of the construction of knowledge.
  • Being precise in the presentation of information to avoid reproducing generalisations.
  • Empowering students to use their own knowledge to support the understanding of others.

They also remind us to take care in our use of the term ‘minority’ when considering ethnic differences. Our classes contain several minorities, as they describe – rich students, ‘smart high-achievers’, even ‘students with glasses may be a minority in a class’. 

They recommend a shift towards greater inclusivity by considering the adoption of empowering language to support diverse classrooms; for example, by ‘using ‘global majority’ rather than ‘minority’; naming specific countries and people rather than generalising as ‘Africa’, ‘poor’, or ‘developing’.

Inclusive fieldwork

Fieldwork’s role in facilitating social inclusion is often championed by geography teachers. Students from socially deprived areas have a lot to gain from the opportunity to experience different environments. Fieldwork is a potentially emancipatory experience for some students and provides them with valuable opportunities to experience an environment first hand. Victoria Cook (2006) reports from her research:

These kids have a very small social space […] the kids also have a very limited idea of places. I think when you take them to somewhere like Flamborough Head, the awe of the environment there, they’re just gobsmacked. They’ve just never seen that before. And the parents don’t necessarily take them to these places.

Teaching an inclusive geography curriculum

As well as striving for inclusive fieldwork and an inclusive geography classroom, also consider the content of your geography curriculum. Is it inclusive? 

You should carefully question yourself about how young people from very diverse contexts see themselves, their family, their culture and their values represented in the curriculum you teach. It is not only the resources and language you use that determines whether you are teaching an inclusive curriculum.

For further information see Cultural diversity in geography education.

Widening participation is important in geography. Yet between 2003 and 2007, Geography GCSE consistently had increased entries from Indian and Chinese ethnic groups but fewer from African, Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups.

What can you do to ensure your geography lessons are relevant and interesting to all students so that they opt to continue their study of the subject? Do you draw on different histories, voices, experiences and cultures? A relevant question to ask is whether you give students the opportunity to study their own personal geographies and experiences in your lessons. Are you making the content you teach inclusive and relevant to these students?

  • Read Doyle (2019), who has investigated the opportunity for EAL students to study their personal geographies in her lessons.
  • Read Kitchen (2018) and Milner (2020) about exploring ethnic minority students’ stories and tackling the whiteness of geography.
  • Read Kitchen (2001) to consider the ways in which people with disabilities are geographically excluded.
  • Watch Making LGBTQ communities, changing LGBTQ spaces that explores how LGBTQ communities shape and are shaped by place.

You should teach inclusive geography because you want to make a difference to learners. As a geography teacher, you can help to break down barriers and reduce ignorance and prejudice. Both in and out of school life, young people live, interact and work in communities that are diverse in terms of cultures, religions or beliefs, ethnicities and social backgrounds.

In geography lessons, this diversity can be used as a platform to provide meaningful interactions between students. Encourage learners to explore their own identity, discuss their ideas and address sensitive and controversial issues.

An inclusive geography classroom should provide a positive teaching and learning environment to promote self-esteem and help students to understand and value diversity and challenge assumptions. Ask yourself:

  • Do I set out to build a learning community in my classroom where students acquire the understanding to function effectively in a plural society and learn from each other?
  • Do my norms and values influence my assumptions about curriculum knowledge and the criteria that I use to assess students?

Biddulph (2017) discusses the many influences that can pose questions about the ‘inclusive’ nature of school geography in schools. She argues that it is the right of all students to have access to powerful knowledge, and in a ‘fake news’ world there is a ‘new imperative for all young people to develop the knowledge, skills and understanding necessary to interrogate what they read, see and hear.

  • Refer to Hopkins et al (2018) to explore further aspects to help you to move towards ‘inclusive geographies’.

Be aware that certain aspects of the geography curriculum require sensitive handling with particular students because, for example, of their background, culture or religious beliefs. See Values and controversial issues.

Listen to students

  • When you are considering how to create an inclusive curriculum, remember the student voice.
  • Refer to Professor Jean Ruddick’s short paper on Student Voice (2003).

Reading

  • Barton, R. (2005) ‘Inclusion and emotional mapping’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Biddulph, M. (2017) ‘Inclusive geographies: the illusion of inclusion’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 127-132.
  • Doyle, L. (2019) ‘Do we give EAL students the opportunity to study their own personal geographies?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hare, R. (2018) ‘Creating an inclusive classroom: How best to ensure that all students progress and thrive’, The profession. Chartered College of Teaching, June.
  • Hopkins, P. Botterill, K and Sanghera, G. (2018) ‘Towards inclusive geographies? Young people, religion, race and migration’, Geography, Summer.
  • Kitchen, R. (2018) ‘Exploring ethnic minority students’ stories through their representations’, Geography, Spring.
  • Kitchin, R. (2001) ‘Investigating disability and inclusive landscapes’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Milner, C. (2020) ‘Classroom strategies for tackling the whiteness of geography’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ruddick, J. (2003) ‘Pupil voice is here to stay!’ London; QCA.
  • Sinclair, D. (2022) ‘Pedagogies for diverse classrooms: why should geography matter to me?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Weeden, P. and Lambert, D. (2010) ‘Unequal access: why some young people don’t do geography’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

 References

  • Ofsted (2013) Unseen Children: Access an Achievement 20 Years On, London: Ofsted.
  • Hart, S., Dixon, A., Drummond, M. and McIntyre, D. (2004) Learning without Limits, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Ofsted (2019) The Education Inspection Framework, p. 9.