Being from a science subject background, I wouldn’t be surprised if anything I’m about to say strikes someone from a humanities background as so strikingly and stupidly obvious that I’d hear the slap of palms on foreheads from hundreds of miles away, but here it is anyway. Last week’s Twitter war over exclusions made me think again about an idea I first came across (via Twitter again…) in a completed unrelated to education way – intersectionality. A caveat; the idea, as far as I understand it, came from feminist explanations (an area where I can claim little expertise) for power and influence. If I may be so bold as to boil down how I interpret it, intersectionality looks at how an individual’s experiences and identity should be considered to be influenced by multiple and interacting factors, for example the experience of an affluent woman of colour in the workplace could be different to a white woman with the same level of affluence in the same workplace. I’m paraphrasing of course and reiterate my inadequate understanding of the all the issues involved, but I’m thinking in terms of the things I do have experience of (school systems) and I think the concept has relevance.
Take the example of poverty. Many teachers will be aware of the subtle, long lasting and pernicious effects that low income can have on students. Many others will also claim that poverty (however we wish to define it) should not necessarily determine outcome. This is certainly easy to anecdotally defend and evidence can be found by looking at the proxy of disadvantaged students (the Ever 6 FSM measure) and pointing to cases where ‘poverty’ has not influenced outcome. Yet this can ignore other factors at play. For example, poverty, though it can be reduced to a measure such as parental income, does not necessarily show up the factors involved in coming to that point. Parental illness, long term cultural factors, immigration, historical low aspirations, mental health, ethnicity, prejudice and so on and on could all influence to varying degrees the experience of poverty. To isolate one factor may be intellectually dishonest, as in the ‘my family were poor and I still managed to do X and Y’, with its hidden assumption of ‘So why can’t everyone else?’ or the more aggressive ‘If you can’t do what I did the problem must be you.’
As an additional confounding factor, some people of course can emulate success from a more challenging starting point if given the right support, whether that is through caring, structured guidance or the proverbial boot up the backside. The problem comes when people start to think that what worked for them should work for everyone else, that their own particular blend of experiences and influences are typical and are experienced by everyone else. From either the positon of the classroom teacher, management or even the DfE a viewpoint can become generalised to ‘it works in this situation, so why not all of them?’ Are the students who do well in our classes more in line with our own experiences and the ones who don’t get it and struggle simply coming backgrounds unfamiliar to us?
There is a limit to how far we can take this pragmatically. I’m not planning a different lesson for 30 Year 10 kids no matter how aware I am of their differences. I think it matters more that I am aware that there are differences than trying to account for them, and as long as I try to support students (kids absolutely pick up very quickly on the teachers who will help them and the ones who don’t/won’t) it should be enough. The classroom short cut is to put kids in to compartments (quiet, hard-working, immature, naughty) and we need to do this to a degree because in that situation we are often dealing with groups and not individuals which requires that approach. Nevertheless, the hard-worker can be anxious, the immature student mean, the naughty child anxious and any other number of permutations. The whole is the sum of many interacting and changing parts. Simplifying may be necessary at times but it is not the real picture.