The first day I met her, Kalkidan told me she wanted to be an astrophysicist.
“Where I come from, my village,” she said, “there is no light at night. So when it is dark you see the stars very well. When I was very young, even before I knew what a star was, I used to wonder if people lived up in the sky. So when I moved to my school in the city, when I found what an astrophysicist did, I always wanted to do that. Now I know people do not live in the sky but I still want to know what is up there, so I still want to be an astrophysicist.”
Kalkidan was a scholarship student at the British International School in Addis Ababa while I worked there, with her fees paid by the embassy because she scored highly on her end of primary Ethiopian National Examinations.
I taught her geography in Grade 10, in a mixed class of Ethiopian scholarship students and international children whose parents paid full fees. It was an odd mix, with the Ethiopian pupils tending to be brighter but not as confident or forthcoming as the others.
We followed an IGCSE course, made even more fascinating by the blend of nationalities and hugely different contexts from which the children came.
I have a very strong memory of Kalkidan from a lesson in which I was teaching the class about the Demographic Transition Model, specifically about Stage 3, in which the population increases rapidly due to a high birth rate and a falling death rate. This was the stage in which Ethiopia sat, which made discussions around this especially interesting.
The international pupils were quick to jump in and offer their opinions. This was a big problem for Ethiopia, they argued, and that it was very important that the government educated people so they stopped having so many children. Some expressed baffled exasperation at why women would have so many children while in poverty and lacking the means to educate or perhaps even feed them. “They need education” was said, in different ways, again and again.
Until Kalikdan couldn’t take any more.
“You do not understand.” She said to the class. “You don’t understand at all. You don’t understand with your mobile phones and your trips to the cinema and your restaurants to go to, and your universities and your flights for holidays and your new clothes.
I am one of nine. My mother lives in a village with no school, or shop, or café or anything. We are all she has. She doesn’t have anything you have. We are all she has that brings her happiness. And you all say she is stupid for having so many children, me, my sisters and my brothers. And you don’t understand at all.”
There was a long, long silence. And because the class was full of nice children, someone apologised and then so did someone else, and I said what a good point it was. And when it was time for the assessments every child in the class wrote something influenced about what Kalidan had taught them, arguing that as well as education governments needed also provide more opportunity and infrastructure for the people living in the least developed areas.
What Kalkidan taught everyone was an important piece of knowledge, a piece of the jigsaw without which there the picture cannot be complete. And also a piece of knowledge we would never have got had Kalkidon not been in the class, because the people who write examination specifications and textbooks do not have mothers who live in villages with no mains power or running water.
This was my fault. The class was entitled to a teacher who did know all the reasons for high birth rates. I shouldn’t have assumed what was in the textbook was enough. I should have looked harder.
This is why I think that creating and developing a truly knowledge rich curriculum means proactively looking for knowledge from a wide range of places, and never being complacent enough to believe that we already know everything worth knowing about what we teach.
This is, of course, very tricky and there are many ways to get it wrong.
I really think we must avoid reductive ‘identity curriculum’, in which what we choose to teach operates on a sort of quota, with certain percentages allocated to ‘black’, ‘Asian’, or ‘white working class’ groups because this is a recipe for hotchpotch tokenism and incoherence, where content ends up being awkwardly shoe-horned in where it doesn’t really fit.
But equally I think we are right to be uneasy if we look over our curriculum and see that all the knowledge comes from the same places, not because there is anything necessarily wrong or incorrect about the material in itself, but because it is very unlikely that this is really representative of the domain in its fullest sense; our disciplines evolve and change all the time and our teaching needs to reflect this. For example, while it may once have been acceptable to teach the abolition of slavery by covering only the work of Wedgewood and friends, this would not now be satisfactory because more recent scholarship has effectively emphasised the role of the black abolitionists and the influence of slave revolts in the American South and the Caribbean.
Getting this right means actively seeking out perspectives different to our own not because of where they came or who said them, but because unless we do we risk oversimplification and myopia. Every one of us, whatever our background, is a product of our context and we can’t count on regular, serendipitous interventions from people like Kalikdan to nudge us closer to the truth. Indeed, it would be very unfair to even imply it is solely the responsibility of those with missing parts of the jigsaw to convince those putting together the puzzle that their piece deserves inclusion.
This is a shared responsibility in which we all have a duty to play our part.
This debate will function best and be most productive if all participants are proceed in good faith. Insults, accusations, rabble rousing and point scoring are the enemy if what we want to achieve is coherent curriculum that tells meaningful, important and disciplinarily authentic stories. We need to share our versions of truth based on the evidence of their significance and not because we think who makes them is self-evidently important and so above justification. We must explain what is obvious to us patiently to those to whom it makes no sense. We must be in rooms with people we feel we have little in common with and we would do well to remember that, whoever we are, the right to be heard is contingent on a responsibility to listen.