Where am I in this narrative?

By Andy Smart

In January, NISSEM co-conveners Jim Williams, Andy Smart and Margaret Sinclair took part in a high-level workshop convened by the Conflict and Education Learning Laboratory, entitled Narrating our Violent Pasts in Curricula and Textbooks. This is the third of three posts, one by each, stimulated by the workshop.

When educators meet to share their experiences about teaching difficult pasts or addressing societal divisions, fundamental questions arise about context. National, regional, classroom and individual contexts all matter. Students within a class may have different cultural identities and classrooms across a country may be even more diverse. Professional cultures are also defined by tradition: teachers’ practices depend on their tradition of teaching as well as on the wider social context. The design of educational interventions must recognize cultural context. To borrow a slogan from another discipline entirely, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." In low and middle income countries (LMICs), embedding a pedagogical approach into textbooks can help teachers give students the space and voice that they need to recognise diversity and promote inclusion.

Among the audience at the CELL workshop "Narrating our Violent Pasts in Curricula and Textbooks" was an ethnically diverse group of students from a secondary school in Belgium, one of whom posed a question to the panel, "Where am I in this narrative?" These students, aged 17–18, are currently engaged in a unique study of textbooks from Palestine and Israel as a way of exploring alternative narratives. Although the Palestine–Israel conflict is not their own, it is a powerful platform for them to explore perspectives. The school, which is given wide curricular freedom, uses the diversity of its student population as a resource in order to develop an inclusive pedagogical approach. In classrooms with diverse ethnic backgrounds, this recognises the importance of inclusive student identity and thereby promotes equity. Perhaps it can also reduce potential sources of conflict among students.

Schools in low and middle income countries (LMICs), however, rarely have such curricular freedoms. Their teachers also work within a different ­­pedagogical tradition, with different ideas about classroom management. An inclusive approach that recognises diversity must be appropriate to the context. It must also address the social norms and educational expectations of the community including, where appropriate, challenging those derived from what Jim Williams described in the previous blog post as the ‘everyday history’ that is generated in the wider society.

In LMICs, curriculum and textbook developers who seek to promote a more inclusive approach that recognises diversity are faced with findings and ideas that have been generated in countries that enjoy far greater resources and autonomy in schools. A recent World Bank paper on conditions for learning in sub-Saharan Africa found that schools in higher income countries see academic benefits from greater autonomy while those in middle income countries see no effect, and this might apply to "non-cognitive" skills too. In fact, in lower income countries, "increased school autonomy—particularly in the decision-making areas related to instructional content but also in the areas of personnel and budgeting—is associated with lower student outcomes."[1] This illustrates a fundamental question of just what educational policies and pedagogies might be universally or cross-culturally applicable, or nearly so?

It has been argued that, despite differences between classrooms around the world, certain principles of learning may be universal. Robin Alexander writes, "There are universals to which in any event we should attend; for example, … the character and degree of cognitive challenge afforded by teacher–student interaction, and the quality of the information conveyed in teacher-student and student-teacher feedback … culture and history are the keys to understanding and comparing national education systems. But I also believe from what we know about human development and education across cultures that there is a level at which pedagogic universals can be defined."[2]

Returning to the challenge of the CELL (and many other) workshops: instead of asking "What works?" we must add the corollary: What works in this context? In the education sectors of LMICs, we need to navigate the stark differences in the conditions of teaching and learning without giving up on the idea that schools will meet at least a minimum of children’s fundamental developmental and educational needs. Even in poorly-resourced classrooms, the pedagogical approach can acknowledge diversity and promote inclusiveness. Even though a single, government-published textbook may define the curriculum, such that the teaching content is fairly inflexible, the textbook can nevertheless be written to create conditions for student interpretation and reflection.

An appropriate pedagogy, embedded in the textbooks of LMICs, should seek a balance between classroom resources, teachers’ culture and students’ needs. Universal principles of learning can be harnessed in this way to promote inclusive identities. It is not only a curriculum that can be universally shared among all students, after contextualization, but also a values-based pedagogy, based on respect for all. Imparting this message through both curricular content and pedagogy is the challenge.

[1] Sajitha Bashir, Marlaine Lockheed, Elizabeth Ninan, and Jee-Peng Tan, ‘Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa’ (World Bank: 2018)
[2] Alexander, R.J., Teaching and learning for all? The quality imperative revisited. Int. J. Educ. Dev. (2015)


About the Author

Andy Smart, Independent education and publishing consultant with particular specialization in Arab World.

This blog post was jointly published by CELL and NISSEM.