Diversity is the spice of life
Jack Scholes: We have recently been facing a growing interest in issues related to diversity and inclusion. How and when did your interest in diversity, minorities and inclusion start? What were your first initiatives in this field?
Elaine Hodgson: At a personal level, I think I’ve always been concerned about diversity and inclusion, even though I wasn’t aware of it. Professionally, having been an event organiser myself, it probably was the issue of lack of diversity of speakers in ELT events that struck me first. Then, around 2005, I was a tutor for two training programmes aimed at teachers in the public sector, one sponsored by the British Council and the other by the American Embassy. In these programmes, I became familiar with teachers’ initiatives to produce materials in which students would see themselves represented and to bring up topics that would engage them, something they said they could not always find in the materials they used. A few years later, when I started writing ELT books, I had a hard time finding photos of common situations, for example, kids playing at school. The kids were either all white, or all black, or all Asian, as if kids of different ethnicities didn’t play together. However, it was writing for the Programa Nacional do Livro Didático (PNLD) – the Brazilian government textbook tender – that was a real turning point in my career. I believe many of those who’ve been somehow involved with PNLD books have become increasingly aware of the importance of diversity and how we had been failing in that regard. Being a co-writer of PNLD series led me to learn about other initiatives in the ELT field that have diversity and inclusion as a driving force and also to get acquainted with people and organisations that have the same goal.
JS: Which areas specifically are of most relevance and importance to teachers and educators?
EH: It’s important for any teacher to know their students, the context they live in, their interests, their aspirations, and find the balance between providing them with opportunities for representation and also with opportunities to challenge their views, leading them to perceive groups they might not have paid attention to before or that they might have misconceptions about. For example, we could draw students’ attention to how ethnicities other than white, less traditional family structures or women are represented in the material they use. We could ask them to find examples of images or texts about older people, overweight people, people wearing glasses or people with any sort of mental or physical disability and critically analyse how (and if) these groups are represented. We could ask students to identify how and if the English language is shown as a global language or if it is still shown as belonging to the UK or US. We cannot of course deal with all these subjects at the same time. It is more of a process, of helping students to develop their critical thinking and developing ours at the same time.
JS: What is the difference between equality and equity and why is it important to distinguish between the two?
EH: In short, equality is about treating everybody the same, regardless of their characteristics. Equity, on the other hand, is treating people with fairness, considering their attributes and how these can be an advantage or a disadvantage. Many years ago, I saw a cartoon in an article about assessment. In the cartoon, there was an elephant, a monkey, a fish and a couple of other animals, as well as the examiner who said: ‘For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.’ This clearly and humorously illustrates how equality is not synonymous with fairness or justice. It is extremely important for teachers and students to be aware of that. Equality and equity play a role in the classroom and in life, and very often decisions made on the basis of equality are not the best ones.
JS: To what degree is digital inclusion a part of ELT in your opinion?
EH: Many teachers have continuously heard that all students have access to the internet and it is true that the demand for digital materials has been higher than ever before. The pandemic, however, has really made obvious a situation that anyone who has worked with diverse groups of students before has always known: many, maybe most, students do indeed have access to the internet, but this does not necessarily mean that they can watch videos, have online lessons or do activities online. Several students have access to pre-paid phones with limited data packages and wi-fi is not always accessible. So, yes, digital inclusion is an issue we have to deal with and access (or lack of access) to digital tools widens the gap between students with a more privileged background and students who struggle to be digitally included.
JS: Many educators want to develop students’ sensitivity and awareness towards diversity and equity. However, not every context seems to welcome and embrace these initiatives. Families, and even schools, often criticize and misinterpret such initiatives. What advice do you have to the teachers who want to do more but feel censored?
EH: Start with things your students and your community feel comfortable with. Not all diversity and inclusiveness topics are taboo topics, and though we know many of them are, the most important thing is to develop students’ (and probably our own) sensitivity to certain topics we may have never paid attention to. Let’s take the topic of ageism, for instance. It is likely that students, parents and the whole school community would agree that we need to treat the elderly with respect. We can start with questions that may look simple, but which are actually meant to raise the topic of ageism, such as “What is respect for the elderly? What does it mean to be old? What are the old people you know like? How are old people depicted in the media? Do old people study English?” New Routes has published an article by Heloisa Duarte which tackles the issue of older learners and is very enlightening (*see link). Another important thing to do is to familiarise yourself with the topic you want to approach in class. We all have unconscious bias and challenging our views is as important as challenging those of our learners. We should never play the role of a ‘know-it-all’.
JS: How do you believe we can train teachers to really get involved in working with diversity and inclusion in ELT and not just be superficial, Not-in-My-Backyard educators, so to speak?
EH: I’m not sure ‘train teachers’ is the right term to use. I prefer to think that we can help raise teachers’ awareness of the important role diversity and inclusion play in education and thus in ELT. The days in which English was seen as an end in itself and students were seen as passive recipients are long gone and there is no going back. Providing opportunities for students to act and reflect critically about their own learning and about how and why English is used to communicate our ideas and understand others’ ideas is essential. After all, the main purpose of any language is to facilitate communication, English is a means of facilitating communication among different people from different parts of the world – and the world is diverse. Having said that, as teachers we can never forget our responsibility for dealing with topics related to diversity and inclusion in a respectful and open-minded way. It should never be imposed or a lecture on how the teacher feels about this or that topic.
JS: There are discussions regarding issues that are left out of course books: Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, Pork (PARSNIP) and the kind of impact that it may have in learner’s understanding of diversity. How can publishers administer the challenge of innovating in their content (by exploring these issues) and still produce materials that will be accepted by the general audience?
EH: Publishers respond to the market and many markets are conservative in their teaching approaches. But who is the market? It’s us, teachers, and the whole school community. There will of course always be teachers who, in their working contexts, are willing and better prepared to deal with controversial issues in a way that leads students to critically analyse them and reach their own conclusions. So, in short, I do not foresee extreme changes in how PARSNIPs are approached in published materials, particularly in materials aimed at a global audience. However, there are audiences who do welcome publications that have diversity and inclusion at their core, including PARSNIPs. For these audiences, independent publications such as the Article by Heloisa Duarte Project and also material made available by a number of publishers and organisations on their websites. Teachers should be free to choose and complement their lessons with materials that they feel are appropriate to their students – and they should remember that it’s important to be prepared to deal with the chosen topics. Again, our choices bring responsibilities and we should not shy away from them.
JS: How do you feel about how ELT publishing has responded to the increased demand for greater inclusivity? What are the potential pitfalls for ELT if it doesn’t embrace diversity in its materials?
EH: If we look at materials published in the past, we will see that there have been some changes, for example in how black people are represented, about how English is used more as a Lingua Franca today and especially on how women are represented. When I look at books published only ten or fifteen years ago, you hardly see any black people in photos (and in several books there aren’t any at all), English is shown as a language belonging to the US or UK and there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that these are the ‘correct’ models we should follow. But it is in the way women are depicted that I see more differences, not only in photographs or pictures, but in how they are taking on more prominent roles. I believe writers, publishers and editors – male and female – are more aware of the fact that we need to be consciously careful about representation and of course about misrepresentation. However, we cannot be fooled and believe this shift simply happened. This is the result of an ongoing effort and we have to keep our eyes open. When we are not aware of the importance of representation, we tend to follow the same long-established patterns. As the saying goes, old habits die hard.
JS: What is the Raise Up! project and how did you first find out about it? What motivated you to get involved? What would you like to see the Raise Up! project do in the future?
Educating a younger generation towards the importance of respecting differences and of diversity and inclusion will hopefully lead to a more tolerant and peaceful world.
EH: Raise Up! is a brilliant independent voluntary project developed by teachers Ilá Coimbra and James Taylor. The project aims at producing materials that tackle issues that are not commonly seen in mainstream publications. As well as the PARSNIPs I mentioned before, there are lessons on LGBTQ+ issues, refugees, indigenous people, aspects of faith and other such topics. The project, which started with a multilevel book with lessons written by Ilá and James, has now published a B1 and a B2 books written by different authors, and there are more on the way. As someone who had been interested in diversity, representation and inclusion for some time, I had heard of Raise Up! but got to know the project better at the IATEFL conference in Liverpool in 2019, where both Ilá and James delivered a very successful presentation. It’s a very engaging project, and the fact that different writers produce different lessons and that it is also edited by different people makes sure topics are approached taking into consideration varied points of view. Besides, all the profits made from sale of the books go to social causes. As for the future, I’d like to see books like the ones produced by Raise Up! aimed at teens and children. Educating a younger generation towards the importance of respecting differences and of diversity and inclusion will hopefully lead to a more tolerant and peaceful world.
JS: You are also actively involved in EVE – Equal Voices in ELT, a fantastic initiative that acknowledges conferences that manage to promote a diverse line-up of speakers. Can you tell us more about the work you have been doing with them and some of EVE’s goals and challenges? Please tell us also about the new mentoring project with Africa TESOL.
EH: EVE was conceived by Fiona Mauchline and Sue Leather as a means of raising awareness and recognising affirmative action initiatives . I think it’s important to emphasise the idea of recognising initiatives and focus on what is being done as far as diversity and inclusion is concerned. I am the blog editor for EVE and in the blog we have posts written by a number of people who walked the extra mile to ensure their events took diversity into consideration. At first, the main goal was to recognise parity of male and female line-ups of speakers and of native and other proficient speakers. We are now taking different steps to encompass more aspects related to diversity, such as the recognition of representatives of local teaching communities. As an example, we have recently launched a mentoring project in partnership with TESOL Africa. In this project, experienced conference speakers volunteered to mentor teachers in some African countries who would like to become speakers in local, national and international events. In this edition of the mentoring projects we only accepted female teachers and many people ask us why. I think helping the ELT community actually understand why there is a need to support women in ELT is one of the challenges. Although women are the majority in the field, they are still underrepresented in events. This is not of course done on purpose, I mean no event organiser would actually prefer to have fewer female plenary speakers, but it is more a matter of not giving this issue enough thought. If we do not make a conscious effort to represent and engage minorities, it won’t just happen spontaneously. Again, critical thinking plays a fundamental role in our practice.
JS: If you could give teachers just one piece of advice with regard to diversity and inclusion what would you say?
EH: Treat everybody with respect. It is not always easy or straightforward, but only genuine respect for others can lead to better understanding.
Elaine Hodgson has over 30 years’ experience in ELT in different educational settings, both in the public and private sectors. She holds an MA in Applied Linguistics and a PhD in Linguistics. Elaine is a Development Editor at Macmillan Education in London and a volunteer blog organiser for EVE (Equal Voices in ELT).